I love a good challenge. There is nothing wrong with a more relaxing experience, but I enjoy to see that my interactions have a purpose and that I learn about a game’s mechanics as it grows in difficulty. However, I do also have a sick fascination for something stupidly hard, as it might have been made by a sadistic creature, gotten mechanics that are severely unusual or just not been playtested. Personally, I find it more interesting to talk about titles that are difficult for all the wrong reasons, rather than a mundane game that feels like a waste of time in general. This is why I played The Immortal and nothing else. Little did I know that there is more to this title than its lack of mercy.
Before we get to the review, I have a big disclaimer. There are mainly three versions I had to choose between and here is a quick rundown of why I went with my choice. The PC version has frame rate issues and could be tedious with controls that forced you to hold a direction in order to select an option, making it simply tiresome to play. Although, the NES version could be considered to be even worse. It misses level 6 (which might be welcoming for some) and has plenty of different traps and fiends to deal with, to the point where the added unlimited fireballs feel useless. It does have more effects and music that are all presented in 8-bit glory, but I wanted to keep my sanity. The Genesis/Mega Drive version became my choice, due to its extra gore and being a faithful adaptation of the PC version without the frame rate issue. The lesser of three evils, if you will.
An underwhelming exploration
The Wizard of the Crimson Keep, Mordamir, has left to explore a dragon’s lair for unknown reasons and has been gone for a long time. As an old Wizard and a student of him, you are worried about his disappearance and set out to find him. This is the basic premise of the game’s story, although this dungeon crawler tries to add in a subplot and characters to make this adventure engaging. We have goblins at war with the trolls, and simple folk that you will meet on this journey, such as a travelling human merchant and an aggressive dwarf.
While this and the strange dreams you have whenever taking a rest helps at making this story more intriguing, it never becomes interesting. It always seems like we are getting somewhere decent with the setups, only for their stories and involvements to be rushed and unpolished. This is a shame, as there is clearly some love put into their concepts and a decent attempt at making this more than just a “save the damsel in distress” scenario, with even a neat twist towards the end. Sadly, since nothing truly evolves or gain any foothold, the setups become rather a reminder of what could have been. Similar to when a DM just tries to make up something on the spot with no preparations beforehand.
Story Score: 4/10
I know killer DM’s can be a problem, but this!!!
I do know what The Immortal is known for, but I would rather go in depth with all of its mechanics to see what we are actually dealing with first. This title is an isometric dungeon crawler, where you play as a wizard traversing through eight levels in order to find your master. Despite being a wizard, combat will mainly revolve around you utilising a sword in a one-on-one confrontation. A questionable approach, but I suppose magic alone would only get you so far.
Whenever you come into contact with an enemy that will not kill you in one hit, you are taken to a battlescreen that is not turn-based. Instead, you are able to parry attacks left and right, slice both ways horizontally, and perform a stab that cannot be dodged, but takes longer time to perform. This setup is actually entertaining, as you will have to pay attention to the fiend’s swings in order to avoid attacks and act accordingly. Furthermore, you have the stamina bars for both you and the enemy to take into consideration, as they will rise with any form of attacks. The higher it goes, the more tired and time consuming swings of the weapon will be. Since parrying will not increase it, this adds more strategy to make the player consider when to attack and when to be defensive.
While the combat is simple, it is engaging and challenging. The same I could actually say for the puzzles as well! There are tons of scrolls and items to find, each with a clear description to help you get an insight on what to do with them, and for what is to come. For example, there will be warnings of invincible creatures and how to know their presence, spells from scrolls and magical items that are needed for progression, and clever designs of traps that will require more than just the brute force of a barbarian to avoid. This makes the concept of playing as a wizard brilliant, as his intelligence and wisdom should be his most important assets.
However, The Immortal comes with a manual that has a guide for the first floor, and a clue book for the entire game. This is not a good sign, and even if they can give you more info about items and enemies you will come across, that is not the reason for why either exist. The reason is the plentiful of one-hit kill scenarios. Slimes on the ground, crumbling floors, giant worms, hidden traps, and simply going down a ladder from the wrong side can end your life quickly, just to name a few examples. Even options the game gives you can lead to your doom, as they are there to simply trick you. Death is literary around every corner, which makes me baffled that there is no option for manually saving the game. Instead, you get a password after entering the next floor. With at most three lives, you will be entering a thirteen character password on more than a couple of occasions.
Tragically, the problems do not stop there. While there are some variety in traps and ideas, the combat does not change much and can become repetitive. There is also only one other equipment you will get and I barely felt any difference in using it. Why not have more tools to work with to make this dungeon crawl interesting? I am at least happy that you can walk in eight directions, but everything can still take you easily off guard, especially with the foreground wall covering the edges and lead to unfair traps. For some strange reason, the last floor only gives you one life instead of the normal three, which I am not sure on why that is.
This is frustrating. If there had been some leniency to remove the unfair difficulty and traps, I would have been more okay with what The Immortal had to offer. However, the fact it is covered with creatures and traps that instantly kills you, makes this still a terrible dungeon crawler that can only be recommended for the most insane of masochists. There are so many interesting and valid attempts here that could make this into a decent game at the very least, but it is all destroyed by how unforgiving and unfair everything is. This is like warning someone that a meteor is going to come and destroy your home within one minute: how do you even prepare for that? For a game that is barely under an hour long, it can take seven because of all the deaths.
Gameplay Score: 2.5/10
I love how the realm of fantasy can lead to mystical settings, where even caves are treated as the most magnificent and terrifying places ever. This title does nothing to embrace this idea. Each floor contains too similar designs to be memorable, and only subtle changes are presented to create some differences. Because of this, the areas have no interesting ecosystem, with the exception of the floors covered with spiders or water. Even my D&D map drawn in five minutes looks more appealing than this deep cave.
The fiends you encounter are also lacking, due to having only a couple of basic enemies presented. Trolls and goblins can only do so much, and even if the spiders and slimes are unsettling, they are far from interesting due to their short lasting appeal. To be more positive, the sense of loneliness is well done due to the empty areas and crumbled textures, but more to showcase that this is a lost realm that contains history in its walls, could have gone a long way. The portraits for the characters are not much to speak of other than being solid.
At least the death animations are smooth and impressive with terrible faiths lurking around every corner, so despite the annoyance of restarting after every step, they do lead to memorable moments of your avatar’s final breaths. The version for the Mega Drive also adds inn more gore and fatalities for victories in combat, and these are varied and disturbing. Striking lightning bolts upon the fiends, cutting parts of their head to reveal their brain, and even slicing their entire torso, are just a few of the impressive sights to behold.
Then we have the music, which is a nice setup that contains songs that are repetitive, but echoes and are long enough to give a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. The soundtrack really does work well with the Genesis twang and is never intrusive, despite being underwhelming with little variety to it. I am just perplexed why there is an eerie silence in the battlescreen, as you will only hear the grunts of the enemies and the weapons swinging. This is especially strange when the version for the NES has more tracks to it.
Presentation Score: 4.5/10
You might have already guessed it, but this game is like a killer DM trying to come up with a campaign on the spot. There is a good game here buried in tons of downright mean or unfinished designs. If they just made the journey more forgiving and focused on upgrading the puzzles, add more tools to use, and polish the combat with more variety to it, this could have been an entertaining title. As it is now, especially with its underwhelming story and lacklustre presentation (with the exception of the gore), it is hard to recommend The Immortal to anyone. Even those into dungeon crawlers should have plenty of better choices on the Mega Drive.