It's the fourth time I've sprinted through this tunnel built into the side of a craggy mountain, and it's the fourth time that, when peeking out from the exit, I've pointed at the big guy with the big gun and pressed the lock on button, only for my camera to snap to the grunt that doesn't see me on the right.
I panic and toss a grenade but it sails far over both of their rough, LED-lit cyborg heads and explodes at the other side of the room. Neither of them pursue me though, so I spend the next minute peeking out behind the corner, emptying a clip into whatever I happen to lock on to, and strafing back into cover to reload. I don't feel my heart beating in my chest, my palms aren't sweaty, I don't even like the basic tactile sensation of shooting the bad guys—there's no excitement to it. Immortal: Unchained might only be in closed alpha, but the fundamentals, combat and level design, are boring and clumsy. It's a shame, because hokey as the sci-fi apocalypse-with-guns premise is, I dig the ideas it's going for.
I'm sorry but
To get it out of the way: yeah, it looks a lot like Dark Souls. And yeah, it's definitely going for the same basic formula. The levels are big and maze-like, winding back onto themselves so you can drop a ladder to make a convenient shortcut back to the bonfi—er, obelisk, where you can save your game (which respawns all the enemies), upgrade your character, and change your gear. (And regarding that last detail, why? Anytime player creativity is limited I get skeptical. The reason might be that each death and new run towards the next obelisk or boss is meant to encourage experimentation with different gear, but players can figure that out in the menus just as well.)
The Souls-like, much as I wish it wasn't, is a genre of its own now, and Immortal: Unchained is bringing guns to the show. Combat still uses the lock-on strafing system with a dedicated dodge button and a stamina meter to babysit, but besides melee combat you can strafe and shoot enemies with pistols, shotguns, SMGs, and assault rifles. If it sounds like it won't work, it doesn't—not yet at least.
If it's just you and an enemy in a big empty room, some of which also use guns, the combat works just fine. Your dodge gives you enough invincibility frames to dive through any arrangement of bullet spray, whether the enemy sweeps across the room firing the whole time or fires a wide cluster on your current position. While locked on you can also target specific parts of the enemy's body by flicking the right stick. Shoot their arm enough and it'll explode—no more gun for them. Pop 'em in the leg and they'll stumble for a few seconds. The head does heavy damage and drains their stamina too, which is represented below the health bar above each enemy, a nice holdover from Nioh. Tiring them out makes for a good opportunity to sprint up and bash them over the head to save ammo and finish them off.
Early into the alpha, it recalled Metroid Prime's thrilling lock-on shooting (my favorite game ever) married to Dark Souls' excellent lock-on melee (my other favorite game ever). You can imagine my initial excitement.
Problem is, the level design, enemy arrangement, and what feel like obligatory rather than necessary Souls-like trappings don't support Immortal: Unchained's combat very well.
The shoe doesn't fit
In the opening area, rooms are flat and enemies are few. There's plenty of cover to strafe behind and little in the way of surprises. But after defeating the first boss, which is a boring test of dodging the same three moves over and over (that charge is some bullshit though), Immortal spits you out into a wintry apocalypse and its first real attempt at complex level design.
I hate this charge attack to hell.
A corridor opens up into several walkways that criss-cross between the sloping sides a chasm. You're meant to walk through the bottom of the chasm to the end of the trail and find a way to loop back around up and onto the walkways, but the entire route is flanked by enemies with guns. Moving forward might open you up to a hidden enemy above and behind you, or a melee grunt might, in typical Souls fashion, leap out from a dark corner and get a cheap hit in.
In spirit, it's all fine, but enemies can fire from quite a distance, and managing threats both in your face and far away from all sides with a finicky lock-on system is a damn nightmare. Gunfire appears from offscreen out of nowhere, and worse, most starting weapons are horribly inaccurate, which means even if you find a decent place to hide you'll have to pop in and out of cover half-a-dozen times to take out a low level enemy at middle distance.
Even then, the distance at which your lock-on works isn't clear. Some enemies were able to fire freely at me from a distance where my lock-on snapped on and off with the tiniest movements (not that any of my weapons would hit anyway). And when I could lock on, the camera would often snap to another enemy entirely. If I can't rely on the basic interactions then I can't be bothered to throw myself at whatever challenge Immortal offers up. Luckily, this is what alphas are for.
And to hell with the random spike traps. Training the player to study the environment at a distance then dropping traps all over the environment without first notifying the player that they're even a thing to be worried about is just mean. It's not the type of gauntlet that is fun to repeat, and doesn't allow creative or optimized routes through the level. Sprinting and praying was about it.
In a strange spin of irony, a Souls-like game all about ranged weapons doesn't make dealing with enemies at range very much fun. Instead, Immortal: Unchained feels stuck between two schools of design: that of its inspiration, an obligatory homage to challenge via Dark Souls' combat, checkpoint, and respawning enemy systems; and that of an interesting lock-on melee-shooter. You don't see the idea on PC often (where the mouse makes aiming a cinch), but as much as I like pointing and clicking, there are other ways to express shooting on the platform. I'd rather Immortal: Unchained take its toe out of the Souls pool and create new systems and ideas for level design and progression that support shooting evil cyborgs in the knees rather than lean on traits from other games just because.