Brutality begets brutality.
The Immortal is a classic demonstration of this ethos; it’s a brutal, unforgiving game which spares no punches in its efforts to confound and punish the player for their mistakes, but rewards them for doing things right with some of the bleakest tones and gruesome deaths this side of the 16-bit divide. Fundamentally, it’s a short and unflinching RPG with a delicate flavour of traditional Dungeons and Dragons values. But to call it that would be doing it a disservice, because beneath the cold exterior beats the heart of a fiercely rich experience.
The game begins simply enough; you are Mordamir’s apprentice, lured to the labyrinth in question because your master has been missing for some time. Thing is, he’s clearly expecting someone else to come to his rescue; and that someone is in the next room, quite dead. From here you are thrust into the combat system the game has prepared for you, and it is a surprisingly simple one; left and right to swing your sword left and right. Hold down the C-button and a direction and you dodge in that direction. The fatigue bar increases as swings are landed or missed, so the nature of the fighting itself is to tire a foe out before delivering your own attacks. Once your foe is down to his last grain of health, your eponymous wizard dispatches of whatever foe is in front of you with gruesome style; the first is the exploding head technique. Then a relatively modest petrification into dust spell. Then slicing them in half lengthways. Each time, the bodies remain in the dungeon as a reminder that it will hold no punches, and will not forgive easily.
And this is very true as the dungeon is ferociously eager to bewilder, perplex and punish the uninitiated. This isn’t really the precursor to the likes of Mortal Kombat, it is a game that has more in common with Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls in its deliriously excitable attitude to spank the player for their own ineptitude. Read scrolls; get a feel of them, and you gain clues. Step on a trap button – even in the first room – and the game punishes you for your insolence. It rewards and punishes curiosity with equal measure, and with just the right amount of foes to keep things interesting. Lower down, there is a war on between the Goblins and the Trolls. There are slimes who are quite partial to adventurers who haven’t taken the proper precautions and oiled their boots up protectively. There are monsters in the water. Knowing when to quit is one thing; but the game doesn’t want you to be cowardly. But like any wild beast, try to pick it up and all hell breaks loose. You are not asked, nor invited, to completely understand it. Merely abide by its sometimes punishing rulebook.
Of course, it does help that the game stages – and the game itself – is mercifully brief. With such a brutal temperament, it would be too easy for the game to simply dump the weight of the world onto a player. You wander around this mysterious isometric landscape, constantly watching and constantly aware, but also continually impressed at how such a small place could feel so alive. There are survivors and people down here for you to rescue and talk to. There are truces to be drawn, and some truly spectacular little sets to enjoy.
But it’s an old RPG, and like old adventure games, the onus is often on the player to get it done the way the game expects you to. This is where we have definitely moved on since this little show in 1992; the Souls games are very much happy for the player to approach its challenges with an open mind and whatever tools they so choose. The Immortal will only accept a round peg into a round hole. And you have to then ask whether or not the game wants you to go on, or stop. Open a trapdoor, and you best make sure you approach it from the side with the ladder. There is no second chance here.
Get to the end and there’s an equally spectacular final boss fight, but again, only if you prepared for it correctly. The stages may be small, but the password system that allows you to jump to stages also robs you of anything you may have saved along the way, meaning you start with the bare minimum. It’s a cruel mistress. You are given convenience in exchange for material reward.
Growing up, I kind of never got The Immortal. I never appreciated it in quite the way I have done now as an adult; the gloom, the black tone, the biting wit, the brutality of it all. With more and more games going back to a time of punishing challenge in the wake of the success of the Souls titles, it’s perhaps also worth reminding ourselves that this is also not a new thing; and perhaps in a way, the reason the Souls games work is because they give the player choice. The Immortal does too – in a sense, it’s convenience over material possession. It’s remembering each step, each moment, getting to know its quirks and how far you can push the game before it bites your head off. Thrusting in brutality just because it’s “cool” doesn’t really work; it was the noose around the Mortal Kombat series for a long time (and, arguably, remains around its neck to this very day!). Ultraviolence for the sake of it doesn’t quite work. It needs to have style and soul like Bayonetta. Or depth and mystique like Dark Souls. Or be swift and sharp like The Immortal. Games want to punish players cheaply, but cheap deaths are an artform. Abusing A.I. and pathing structures to hurt the player don’t always work. If a player isn’t in control, then you’d best make damned sure they can catch up to that same point again without much effort.
These days, I do appreciate The Immortal. And it’s rightly a divisive game. Some see it as the linear, punishing and insufferable RPG that it is. Others appreciate its more rich base notes and witty storytelling. Others still will just find the myriad of brutal death scenes to be fun to experience. But it did happen, and I’m glad it happened. It wasn’t a game to set the world on fire; but it’s the sort of game that would revel in the burning embers. A title that lulls you in before you realise, too late, that this lady has a wardrobe full of exotic ‘toys’ with which to ‘play’ with you.
It entirely depends on what you take from it. Some games are just like that and there is no right answer. I personally have grown to adore The Immortal. I didn’t always like it. I didn’t always get it. But it has, over the years, grown on me. It’s taken it long enough. Two decades, in fact.
The aftertaste though can be mixed; this was a game published at the time by… Electronic Arts. EA. Yes, this is the sort of thing EA used to be happy to push to the market without expectation. Whether that’s a sweet note of what may be inside EA now, or the bitter tang that they don’t really do this any more, is down to you.
The Immortal is forgotten. But perhaps we should be happy that such titles took a chance. Perhaps this is the sort of thing we should be proud of in our past. It’s not the prettiest, easiest or best game. But you know, sometimes we need to be reminded quality isn’t always measured in units. Some things just need time to mature. Perhaps more time than the market is willing to give them, or more time than the game realistically has before it vanishes into the ether of retro gaming, only to be found by fans of retro gaming or downloaded cheekily by the Internet.
It’s never quite good enough. Never quite pleasant enough. Never quite smart enough. But it’s got enough to just about get away with it. What we take away, however, is beyond its control.
We all see different things in the darkness…