Magic shooter Immortals of Aveum was inspired by Call of Duty, but aims for much more
In Immortals of Aveum, players will plunge into a colorful, action-packed 25-hour-plus single-player campaign designed to make them feel like gunslinging battlemages in a quest to save a world teetering on the brink of magical annihilation.
Inspired by those frantic, chaotic moments in the best of the Call of Duty games and injected with the story scope of a classic Telltale Games title, the first-person magic shooter hits Windows PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox X/S on July 20.
In a two-hour-or-so-long briefing with some of the Ascendant Studio team, the virtually gathered press were presented with the history of the studio, some of the backstory of the game, along with a bit of pre-recorded gameplay and a chance to pepper the developers with questions.
Ascendant Studio founder Bret Robbins calls Immortals of Aveum, which was developed with Unreal Engine 5.1, the sort of game that hasn't been seen for many, many years.
In it, players take on the role of Jack, a Magnus (this game's take on a battlemage), who was born an “unforeseen” – or someone who was born with no magical ability but gained it in a moment of trauma. He's unique because he has the ability to make use of all three colors of magic: blue, red, and green.
Because of this, he's recruited to join an elite force of magical warriors known as the Immortals to help save the world from a rampaging warlord who has conquered all but one of the kingdoms.
The lore that helps to power both the story and its use of magic holds that there are different colored ley lines spread across the realm like an invisible net. The Magnus tap into these to use their magic. Finally, there is a massive bottomless crater at the center of it all called the wound, which is home to a mile-high statue. Both seem to have some sort of mysterious connection to everything that is going on.
"When we were developing the Immortals of Aveum we had three core pillars that were the most important things we wanted to achieve above anything else," said Robbins. "The first was 'the battlemage.' Everything about the game had to be a fantasy of being this powerful, awesome gunslinger of a wizard. The second pillar was 'master your magic.' We wanted to create fast, fluid, awesome first-person combat where you use spells instead of guns. And we wanted to create a deep spell comboing system and a deep progression system. The third pillar was 'save a world on the edge of an abyss.' We wanted to tell a big, epic, cinematic story with really compelling characters that we hope everyone will fall in love with, and a story with amazing moments and that the people will be talking about for a very long time."
To help deliver on those three pillars, the team built up a cast of characters central to the story and game. Central to the game are the Immortals, who are almost a team of superheroes in the story. Each has a unique ability and strong personality and includes the leader of the team, two of her lieutenants, and Jack – a recruit when the game starts off. The game also has the leader of the opposing force and his "hand."
"The story weaves in and out of all these characters, and we follow them on the adventure as Jack tries to stop the everwar," Robbins said.
The story of Immortals of Aveum is one that couldn't be told with a contemporary backdrop, said Kevin Boyle, the studio's executive producer.
"The world-building, the way the conflict evolves over the course of the game is very specific to Aveum and the nature of the conflict in this world," he said. "Really, that's one of the huge points of appeal for me.
"The development of these characters and their relationships and your investment as a player in this story, we're telling … the mechanics feel great and are hitting the nail on the head in a lot of ways, but it's the context for the use of those mechanics that I find particularly interesting, what you're trying to do as Jack. The crisis of this place and the conflict you've been caught up in.
"For me, that's a combination of amazing writing and just incredible casting, and really well-executed character models and animation, and cinematics and audio. All that comes together to effectively tell a story that I still enjoy as someone who was really deep in it on a daily basis."
Old-world fantasy meets sci-fi inspiration
The overall art direction for Immortals of Aveum was born out of an early 60-page design document created by Robbins, as well as a bunch of different conceptual visuals that he's drawn to, said Dave Bogan, senior art director at Ascendant Studios. He said he paired that with his own inspirations, including some of the cartoons, comics, and movies he watched and read growing up.
"This project has been just a godsend in terms of being able to inject all this visual inspiration from my childhood, like the old Grendizer cartoons or the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, or growing up playing Dungeons & Dragons," he said. "It's all kind of like merging and creating this unique visual binding sense of all my childhood inspirations."
Bogan said that from the beginning, Robbins had a very solid vision in mind for what he wanted, and that hinged on the need to stay away from the typical fantasy tropes and to start with a fresh palette.
"Always try to reach out for the unexpected for the audience and the player," Bogan said. "Through that, we landed in this great place where we have a unique world that's not Earth; it's a different planet called Aveum. And it's a great mixture between old-world styled fantasy, binded with a lot of simplified sci-fi shaped language that's inspiring a lot of our, not just architecture, but vehicles and even the weaponry in the game.”
The game's settings and aesthetics are also deeply inspired by what associate art director Julia Lichtblau calls the natural world.
"I really wanted to sort of ground this world a bit and make the player feel like, 'OK, this isn't an Earth-like space’," she said. "We had opportunities to do a lot of exploration with magic and magical types of foliage."
She said while researching the look of the plants and settings for the game, she discovered that there are quite a few endangered species near the studio in Northern California.
"So that sort of got me on a quest to represent a lot of endangered species in North America. Most of the trees, and the bushes and anything that's not very magic related, actually are a real endangered species of plants. It was interesting incorporating this environmentalism and exposing players to these various sorts of underrepresented species that are quite beautiful and unique in their own way, just as all of the magical plant life that we've created is unique as well."
Lichtblau said the blending of magical foliage and real-world endangered plants helped to achieve a very specific goal she had of dropping players into a brand-new universe, but still making sure if felt grounded.
"A lot of the plant life is reminiscent of Earth, but then we throw in a lot of unique architecture," she said. "Some of which are these big solid stone military walls. But then you're also seeing vestiges of older civilizations that suggest that this world has been around through many cataclysms and many everwars. And there's just a lot more to uncover about it. And you get to see all these different civilizations and start to kind of unlock those mysteries as you move through our game."
Gameplay, gameplay, gameplay
In action, the game seems tightly paced, with memorable characters, and a compelling storyline. Our first look at Immortals of Aveum in action showed us a part of the game early on when the Immortals' leader is trying to enlist Jack and delivers the backstory of this never-ending war. Early on, we were mostly treated to cut scenes and a few moments of Jack walking through darkened corridors of a castle filled with soldiers preparing for war. Jack's right arm has a sigil armament, which features clusters of glowing blue crystals on his arm and then three trident-like spikes pointing out from above and next to his hand. It is designed to enhance his magical abilities.
Outside of the castle, we're shown a massive war fully engulfing the surrounding lands. Blue, red, and green lines of magic stream through the sky, sometimes igniting massive blasts or spraying the ground. Flying warships blast the walls as nearby battlemages cast glowing rune-infused shields to deflect and absorb attacks.
Free of the opening scene, Jack is ordered to the forward bastion, and the game seamlessly shifts into our first look at gameplay.
"As a Triarch, Jack can control three colors of magic: blue, red, and green," Robbins said. "Blue is a straight, accurate long-range shot. Red is almost like a shotgun, close range, and high damage, and green is automatic fire with magical projectiles which can hone in on targets."
As he speaks, we see Jack lift his hand – thumb and two fingers stretched out – and shoot blasts of blue light. Before each blast, a circle of blue sigils light up in front of his hand, and then a ray of blue light lances into the distance. After firing off a half-dozen or so, he turns his hand palm up, and a transparent cube appears; flowing blue light absorbs into the cube from the air and then into his hand, seemingly reloading his ability.
Jack twists his hand, and the device on his arm rotates, spinning around to show a different red set of crystals. He spreads all five fingers out, and a blast of red light traces out from his hand.
With a second twist of his hand the device rotates to show green globes. He fires out a rapid succession of lights, his fingers up, the middle bent down. The sigil is now a glowing green set of intertwined boxes.
"Jack's magical power is focused through his sigil, the armament attached to his hand," Robbins explains. "Throughout the course of the game, he can find or purchase new sigils. He can upgrade them, and he can customize them to suit his playstyle. In addition to this, Jack can also find magical rings and bracers and totems that can increase his power."
His main defense ability is a shield. When cast, the screen fills with a massive blue circle of floating sigils, boxed in by lighter blue lines.
"This is something he can cast at any time to protect himself," Robbins said. "He can shoot through it. The only penalty is that it slows his movement down a little bit."
On the screen, Jack is blasting his way through enemies wearing massive helmets seemingly lit from inside with a glowing red light. He collects gold, and something called red essence, as he repels the attacks.
Jack also has the ability to cast control spells, like the Lash.
"The Lash can pull enemies in so that he can damage them at close range," Robbins said. "You can also use it to drop them off edges and into pits."
Jack has access to larger, more powerful spells called Furies. In one example, Jack casts the Shatter spell, which launches a huge explosion of magical spikes, sending enemies flying.
"Furies drain your mana bar, and you need to find mana crystals to recover your mana," he said. "As Jack encounters new enemies, you will need to learn how to use the proper spells in the proper situation."
For instance, an enemy might have a blue shield, which would require Jack to use blue magic to take it down. There are also red and green defenses.
Jack also has access to a blink spell using green magic, which allows him to quickly teleport away from enemy attacks.
The game is designed around a very deep progression system that combines the ability to purchase talents and find gear.
A quick look at the screen in the game's demo shows that Jack was wearing a "shatter" ring that added 20 percent damage to his Shatter Fury damage. The talent screen is broken down by color, with multiple paths for upgrading and tweaking abilities. The screen we saw showed more than 30 upgrades for the blue magic alone.
"Between customizing your gear and purchasing talents, there's a huge variety of ways you can customize your playstyle or increase your power," Robbins said.
The first gameplay demo ends with a massive, muscled red dragon swooping down to land next to Jack and then grabs him, soaring up into the sky. Jack clings on as the dragon wreaks havoc on the castle and then flies straight up. It drops Jack after a few timed shots of some blue magic. It then jumps to another scene with Jack checking in with the head of the Immortals via a handheld device, which seems to show her as she's speaking.
The engagement that unfolds shows how players will have to quickly switch between the colors of magic and make use of their shield and lash, all while staying aware of the battlefield. It's fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping, and clearly requires a mastery of your growing skills.
Robbins pointed out that the game isn't simply about storytelling and combat; there's also quite a bit of puzzle-solving.
"Jack gains new abilities throughout the course of the game, which allows him to unlock new areas," he said. "There are lots of optional paths and hidden content for him to find. As you gain new abilities, you can return to previous areas and use those abilities to unlock new areas as well. And there are several different types of puzzles throughout the game."
He'll also find new spells as he progresses, many of which can help him solve puzzles. For instance, in the demo, we watch as Jack discovers the Limpets spell, which can slow down time both for helping with puzzles and enemies. In action, the Limpets look like glowing green blobs that attach to enemies to slow their movement.
The end of the first demo gives us a chance to see Jack battling that massive red dragon from earlier in the level. In the battle, he has to time jumps to avoid fire, use all of his spells carefully and track the beast as it flies around the area swooping in with attacks.
Robbins said that the first demo was all part of one level in the game, but that Immortals features a broad range of settings. A quick montage showed us a cavern loaded with massive red crystals, the deck of a flying ship, glowing blue ley lines tremoring between floating islands, a canopy setting alongside what appeared to be a fortress in some wooded mountains, a forest with a stream, massive underground caverns, snow-capped hills, lava-spewing lakes, mines of purple crystal, and a floating maze of obelisk and portals.
Our second look at gameplay gave us a look at some late-game combat featuring a later mission in the game. You can check it out in the trailer below.
The magic of red, green, and blue
While the pre-recorded demos gave us a broad look at what to expect from the game, Robbins noted that there is much more depth to the magic of Immortals of Aveum.
"You actually have quite a bit of variety within the red, green, and blue spells," he said. "So what you saw in the video was the sigils that you focus your magical power through. They actually come in a few different varieties. So even though you're using a blue sigil that has a very distinct type of attack, you can find different sigils that will alter that attack and make it behave quite a bit differently."
For example, he said, there's a javelin sigil for blue magic which allows you to power up a big shot that does a lot more damage but at a slower rate of fire. The most obvious analogy is that the different sigils give players different sorts of guns, but because it's magic, you can do a lot of different sorts of things with them.
"Within the sigils, there's variety, and a big part of the game is the gear system, the talent system, the fact that you're able to really customize your play style," Robbins said. "If you want to play a faster character, that's going to do a lot of close-range damage. You want to rush enemies, or you want to bring them in with your lash. You can build a character through your talents and your gear that really emphasizes that and increases your power in those areas. Or if you find a spell you really like, you can double down on that and find gear and talents that make that even more powerful.
"So there's a lot of variety. There are a lot of reasons to experiment with different builds. Ultimately, there'll be a lot of reasons to replay the game and try different tactics."
Robbins also said that the spells in the game aren't just about different sorts of attacks.
"There are a lot of interesting abilities," he said. "What I would say overall about the magic system is that I wanted to create synergy between all the different powers. So we kind of loosely refer to it as a comboing system."
What that means, he said, is that he wants players to use the right spell at the right time and then combine it with other spells. So, for instance, if an enemy is far away, a player might use a lash to bring them in closer, so they can hit him at close range for more damage.
"I can use a different spell to create a sort of gravitational vortex that pulls a lot of enemies in so I can hit them with an (area of effect)," he said. "There's a lot of different abilities and ideas mixed up in that in the combat system."
Each of the core colors has a certain personality to them, granting them the ability to be more effective against certain types of enemies.
"There's a lot to learn," he said. "And there's a lot of ways to master the game, which I'm really excited about."
"We're not fantasy Call of Duty."
It's a clear distinction that Robbins wants potential players to know about Immortals of Aveum. Ascendant Studio's first game is a slick-looking title with clear care given to narrative, combat, and puzzle-solving. But it's also a game that one might make the mistake of reducing to Call of Duty but with magic. If for no other reason than its inception.
Studio founder Bret Robbins has a long and storied career in the game industry, starting at Crystal Dynamics in 1996, where he worked on the Gex and Legacy of Kain franchises. In 2002, he shifted over to Electronic Arts, first working on games set in the Lord of the Rings and James Bond IP, and eventually served as creative director on the original Dead Space in 2008.
But it wasn't until he made the leap over to the Call of Duty franchise that he started thinking about an idea that would eventually lead him to Immortal.
As creative director on both Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, as well as senior creative director on Call of Duty: WWII, he spent a lot of time reviewing the sorts of battle-ruined locations that make up the backdrop of those shooters.
"I think the moment where I really had the first idea of what Immortals of Aveum would become, I was reviewing some work," he said. "It was a very typical Call of Duty level. A big battle scene was happening down a city street. There were helicopters flying overhead. There were RPG shells blowing up around you. Gunfire everywhere. You're running down the street with your squad mates. The typical chaos out of a Call of Duty level.
"I started thinking, what if instead of a helicopter, that was a dragon? And instead of RPG shells hitting a wall, one of those were fireballs cast by a battlemage? What if I was a battlemage, and I was using some kind of awesome magic weapon or spells or something? This whole image sort of formed in a flash to me, and I just remember stopping and thinking, 'You know, man; I want to play that game.'"
Ascendant Studio quietly launched in 2018 – a year after the release of Call of Duty: WWII – with the help of an investor and a team of developers whose varying experience includes work on BioShock, Call of Duty, Borderlands, and Halo. Shortly after the studio launched, Telltale Games closed, and Robbins said he saw an opportunity to bring on some of that studio's incredible talent.
Among them Bogan, Lichtblau, and Boyle. Within a year, the studio had grown to more than 100 developers.
Now, after four years of development, and on the cusp of releasing the title, Robbins and his team are ready to not just show it off but talk about it, including answering how the game has moved past what Robbins said was that initial concept: Call of Duty but with magic.
"I started with a loose idea around a magic shooter, of course, while I was working on Call of Duty but very quickly the game evolved into something pretty different," he said. "We are not fantasy Call of Duty. We are our own game. We have a lot of world exploration, a lot of puzzles, puzzle mechanics, and a lot of additional content. It's a huge game. If you were just trying to play it straight through, it's well over 20 to 25 hours, and if you want to really explore and do a lot, it gets quite a bit longer than that.
"The idea of making a magic shooter was the initial sort of vision and inspiration. And then, as I brought on more people, as we really started to develop the ideas and develop what the game would be, things evolved and changed."
That doesn't mean none of his experience working on Call of Duty came with him. He said, for instance, that the Call of Duty team always focused on making sure that combat was fluid, and fast, and running at high frame rates, something they're also doing with Immortals.
"The challenge, of course, is that we don't have traditional guns, we have magic and spells, and we spent a lot of time working on making that feel really good, visceral, impactful. And not feel soft or feel strange to what a shooter fan might expect," he said. "The great advantage we had was that we are a magic game. You can do anything you want. You can create all sorts of cool abilities and spells. You have a very large canvas to play on."
There were also things the team did that might have felt antithetical to a typical shooter. The team didn't want to make a traditional cover shooter.
"I didn't think the fantasy that I was trying to create involved hiding behind a bush and firing your wand over it," he said. "I wanted the player to feel like a gunslinger, someone who could walk into an area and be a badass."
To accomplish that, the team developed the shield early on to give you cover wherever you go and allowed players to fire through it. While the shield can be shattered, it adds an interesting mechanic to the game.
Unlike its early inspiration, Immortals of Aveum won't feature any form of multiplayer. At least not initially.
"We have spent some time thinking about (multiplayer), for sure," Robbins said. "We may have spent some time working on that as well. But we're not ready to really talk about anything like that. We're focused fully on the single-player story experience right now."
The good news is that as a single-player game, there won't be any requirement to be online to play it, nor will there be any sort of monetization.
Single-player adventures in a deeply realized world
There was a lot to take in from the recorded previews of the game, the slides, the presentations, and the questions the team answered as we wrapped up the nearly two-hour session. Chief among them was the sense that we just caught a glimpse of an impressive and massively scoped new game. And with just months before it launches, it seems like players and press alike will be dropping into this vast, rich new world with a chance to make a lot of fun discoveries.
That's one of the main things Robbins said he's looking forward to when the game drops on July 20.
"I'm hoping people just really enjoy the world-building," he said. "To me, that's kind of a combination of all of the above, you know. We spent a lot of time and effort to make sure the world felt consistent in terms of combat, the storytelling, and marrying those things together."
Robbins pointed out that much of his career was spent working on single-player campaigns and trying to walk the line of merging game design with narrative in fluid and interesting ways. In Immortals of Aveum, he said, the studio had the opportunity to create a new world, a new cast of characters, a new story, and a new combat system.
"Trying to keep that all part of a consistent world that makes sense, that feels lived in, that feels both believable, but also fantastical, those are really our goals. And I feel like we did a really good job of that."
Immortals of Aveum is available for pre-purchase and wishlisting on the Epic Games Store.