I crawled from the womb with a troubling fascination for demons, monsters, and dragons. Unsurprisingly, I fell into Greek mythology with the gusto of Dionysus bellyflopping into a vat of wine and cocaine. In grade 6, I picked up a library book about the Pantheon. It was obviously written for schoolkids my age, but it still described the gods, their rages, and their petty squabbles in admirable detail.
I read countless accounts of Greek mythology after I was done with it, but that slim blue book I read in grade 6 still ranks as the most entertaining and informative of the lot. It was funny, colorful, and succinct. I recall it again and again whenever I play Supergiant’s Hades, a brilliantly written roguelite that’s rightfully up for several 2020 Game Awards nominations. Hades’ presentation of the Greek Pantheon is similarly witty. It touches on everything that’s fun and fascinating with Greek mythology, and it does so in quick snippets and snatched character moments in lieu of exposition.
I believe Hades has raised the standard for every depiction of the Greek gods in the media—books, movies, television, and games included. Immortals Fenyx Rising, an open-world exploration game from Ubisoft that’s also steeped in Greek mythology, has a tough narrative act to follow. Unfortunately, it stumbles. Consuming Immortals’ story after pouring hours into Hades is like chewing on an unripe apple after feasting on Persephone’s own pomegranates.
Outside of its dialogue, Immortals is a good game. I’m lukewarm on most of Ubisoft’s (in)famous open world titles, but Immortals somehow feels more fun, more substantial to me than other Ubisoft tower-climbers. Yes, its world design blatantly rips off The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but I guess you may as well steal from the best.
But Immortals’ insistence on hewing close to its inspiration also makes its flaws more apparent. The caverns that serve as Immortals’ answer to Breath of the Wild’s Shrine puzzles and dungeons aren’t quite as interesting-looking, nor are their simple puzzles as cleverly put-together as Link’s trials. Icons litter the main map, which makes for a much less soothing and organic world than Breath of the Wild’s clean, wide-open grasslands and dense forests. If you want a vision of Immortals, just picture Breath of the Wild’s title screen clogged with links encouraging you to sign up for a My Nintendo account so you can receive bonus in-game currency.
Despite Immortals’ garish, pointy bits, I still find pleasure in soaring across its huge map on Icarus’ second-hand wings. Like Breath of the Wild, the game’s at its best when you’re riding the currents high above the surface with only the whistling of the wind to keep you company.
It’d just be nice if Immortals trusted you to enjoy the hushed sounds of nature. Whenever you find an interesting new locale, or you stumble across an object that’s part of the game’s main story, the tortured titan Prometheus pipes up and narrates your find. See, the titan Typhon has detained all the gods save Zeus, and Zeus pleads for Prometheus’ help. (Even though the big guy is still chained to a freezing mountain for the sin of introducing fire to mortals.) Prometheus reassures Zeus that you—Fenyx—are the hero who’s destined to save the gods. Consequently, Prometheus gives voice to your movements, and every time he pipes up, my head aches.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the narration was supplied exclusively by Prometheus. The solemn giant has some descriptive observations that give a little color to your activities, especially when he talks about the mythology behind Immortals’ doomed gods and heroes. Unfortunately, Zeus pops off with some “witty” retort every single time (he’s written as an oblivious jock), and Prometheus is forced to dredge up a comeback. These exchanges just blow Immortals’ atmosphere apart, and they’re rarely funny. The predictable delivery—observation from Prometheus, oblivious sting from Zeus, instant retort from Prommy—causes me to instantly cringe whenever Prometheus says something, even if I’m genuinely interested in what he has to say.
Outside of Immortals’ narration, the writing is fine. Fenyx is a dope, but a loveable one, and I like how he dotes on Phosphor, his phoenix friend. I also like how the (diminished, distressed) gods are depicted, especially Ares. After Typhon turns the hot-headed deity into a frightened chicken, Ares acts through a bear who just bumbles around and does the war god’s bidding without comment. It’s honestly cute.
But even at its best, the writing for Immortals can’t match up to the most inconsequential conversations in Hades. I’ll say it up front: Hades spoiled me on the Greek Pantheon. I can’t interact with Immortals’ version of Hermes (who serves as Fenyx’s right-hand god-man) without thinking of the smirking, fast-talking messenger who occasionally grants Zagreus boons as he struggles to claw his way out of the Underworld. I’ve technically spent far less time with Hades’ iteration of Hermes than Immortals’ iteration, since I can only talk to the former through single-screen declarations. Despite that limitation—or maybe because of it—the Hermes that belongs to Hades has made a bigger impression on me than the generic-looking Hermes of Immortals.
And Hermes isn’t even close to being my favorite god in Hades. I said I like Immortals’ take on Ares, but I really like Hades’ Ares, whose bloody sword, direct way of talking, and ember-like eyes hint at an insatiable bloodlust that’s always looking for an excuse to unravel. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is depicted in Immortals similarly to how she’s presented in most media (an armored woman carrying a spear), but Hades takes Athena’s design to new heights by making her a stony-faced owl-bearing warrior who delivers friggin’ awesome Deflect boons.
Better still, Hades’ Pantheon is rich with racial representation. The gods are black, white, East Asian, and South Asian. As Kotaku’s Ash Parrish points out, Greece’s location by the Mediterranean Sea has made it a popular hub for merchants and travellers since time immemorial. Anyone who studied Othello in high school knows that Greece and the surrounding area wasn’t exclusively white by a long shot. But even though some of Immortals’ gods sport slighly darker skin tones, they lack Hades’ racial diversity and the interesting design flourishes that accompany them. It’s a bit of a shame.
Admittedly, most of us—myself included—automatically imagine an all-white Greek Pantheon because that’s how it was usually depicted in the media before Hades broke down some of those borders. It’s a habit that needs to be unlearned. I don’t blame Ubisoft for failing to give us something different with Immortals, but I hope Hades has set a new standard that future mythologies will reach for.
There’s the rub: Hades set a new standard for Greek myths and tales, and Immortals had the misfortune of launching in its shadow. I don’t know if I’d be more impressed with Immortals’ Pantheon if Hades hadn’t already introduced me to its gods, but I do know my mind starts wandering when Immortals’ gods expose line after line of dialogue, taking minutes to say what Hades says in seconds. (And without any strangled attempts to try and make me laugh.) The text in Immortals is good enough for a mortal’s shelf, but Hades’ discourse belongs in Apollo’s own library. It’s short, snappy, and to the point—but still humorous enough to deliver a scene where Zagreus and Hades have a snippy “couples fight” by making passive-aggressive remarks at one another through Cerberus.
I never forgot the to-the-point writing in my first book of Greek myths, and I’ll never forget Hades’ best lines. Comparatively, I don’t know if I’ll remember much from Immortals Fenyx Rising beyond its attempt to torture me with Zeus and Prometheus’ endless stand-up routine.