“Puzzle designing is a very challenging thing to do as a designer,” says Bret Robbins, Ascendant Studios founder, and boss of the whole Immortals of Aveum operation. The game – as well as being a ‘Doctor Strange-like magic first-person shooter’ – contains puzzles; tricky brainteasers you’re going to need to apply skills and abilities to in order to progress. It’s something we’ve seen in the likes of Doom and Doom Eternal, as well as in the combat sandboxes of the Halo games: smart ways of extrapolating FPS tools to make you think about the world in a deeper way than you would in a CoD or a Battlefield.
“My hats off to games that do puzzle design in a very good way,” continues Robbins. “We spent a lot of time on the puzzles in Aveum. It really has a huge impact on how you do the level design – they tend to be very dependent on how you build out the area, so it’s not an easy thing to just put into a level. You have to design the level with it in mind.”
Robbins goes on to explain that the game has some “pretty unique mechanics that come out of your spellcasting abilities”, and gives us a little teaser about the sort of trickery we can expect to solve once the game is in our hands. The most intriguing example comes in the form of a ‘beam-spliiting’ puzzle, where you will need to refract light in order to hit certain targets and open up new passageways as you flow through the level.
But Robbins is aware that – especially in a game that is, first and foremost, an FPS – puzzles can be a hard sell for some players. “[Mechanics like the light refraction] are really fun to design, but I think puzzles are difficult in that they can be a hard stop for some players,” he states. “You hit a wall, you’re scratching your head and get frustrated, and it can be a bad experience.”
Ascendant Studios’ solution? Leave the hard stuff in the margins, in optional areas which players can choose to tackle if they want. “They’re off the beaten path,” Robbins tells us. “If you want to explore, if you want some harder challenges, they’re certainly out there for you. If you just want to enjoy the story, enjoy the combat, and push forward… you’ll hit some puzzles, but they’re a little more lightweight. And that was how we kind of walked that line.”
It seems like a good compromise, and one that’s not going to hobble the flow of the game too much for players that just want to jump in and enact all their wildest wizard-based, spell-slinging fantasies. If you are the sort of player that cares deeply about getting your daily brain exercises in an age devoid of any sort of Dr. Kawashima, however, don’t fret: Robbins let his team fully off leash in the darker, murkier reaches of Aveum’s fantasy world.
“Certainly, some of our designers went a little crazy with some hard puzzles in the far corners of the game. So they’re sitting there waiting for people, if they enjoy that kind of thing.”
Given that Robbin’s describes Avuem’s setup as having a ‘hub and spoke architecture’, in which a couple of large non-linear areas are all attached to a more central home area, this optional level of challenge sounds easily accessible and tempting even for players that think multi-step, bastard-hard puzzles aren’t for them. “[The areas] kind-of grow as the game progresses, and you can explore those at your own pace,” Robbins explains. “And then you hit the more linear cinematic story missions which are generally more fast-paced and have more action sequences, and things like that. It’s not an open world game. I wasn’t interested in making an open world game. It’s a much more curated and cinematic experience than that.”
Immortals of Aveum launches for PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S on July 20, 2023.