|System: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, XSX, PC|
|Dev: Ubisoft Montreal|
|Release: November 12, 2020|
|Players: 1 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 1080p-4K||Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol|
by Benjamin Maltbie
The Assassin’s Creed franchise has been around since 2007 and has always managed to feel modern despite a relatively consistent, iterative approach to its core gameplay. The reason for this is in the game’s use of settings. Each game’s setting is a wild departure from its predecessors, with rare exception, and the games lean on these settings to give it their flavor. While fans can appreciate the narrative thread and central conflict that links all the games together, even as its focus fades into the background in more modern entries, the isolated stories present in each game can appeal to a new audience each time without alienating the existing one. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag portrays assassins on the high seas in an open world game that has a strong emphasis on sailing and naval combat. It is also enlivened by sea shanties. Assassin’s Creed Unity is set during the French Revolution, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is in Victorian era London, and the setting in Origins pre-dates the rest of the games, occurring in Ancient Egypt. The newest game, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla features a Viking protagonist, Norse gods, and tons of brutal violence.
That is what is, perhaps, most alarming about the new game. Vikings aren’t famously known for their subtly, whereas there’s a certain surgical element associated with assassinations. While that contrast between setting and gameplay has existed in the past, the gap here is a far larger. The gameplay has adapted to better bridge the expanse but it does, at times, feel at odds with itself.
There’s a way in which this all works, and that is on a narrative level. Players take control of the protagonist, Eivor, who can be depicted as male, female, or both in alternation. Eivor is a trope in many ways, single-mindedly adhering to ill-defined notions like cowardice, bravery, and honor. They’re also driven by revenge, and, like Kratos from God of War, is determined to execute violence against those who have harmed their family and their clan. Meanwhile, many of the other characters serve as foils, trying to get Eivor to see the nuance of the world. The assassins, in particular, make it clear that the world is larger than just Eivor’s personal conflicts and that there are actually larger clans in conflict with the fate of the world at hand. Or, in the parlance of the Norse myths, Ragnarok may come. Assassins wield techniques that are deceptive, or underhanded, and Eivor accepts them with the reasoning that deception can be justified if it is used for honor. Then they’ll do something like wear the iconic hidden blade of the assassins in plain sight atop her wrist. It could be said that many of the themes in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are spoon fed in this way, but they never reach the point of being obnoxious. Instead, there’s something to appreciate about the clarity of the message. The annoying part lies in how persistent Eivor can be in her ways. They are beholden to tradition, which plays a role in the game, but the way this sometimes manifests is as a personality that is very one note.
The Viking traditions themselves, however, are to be reveled in. While sailing on a longboat, players can request that crewmates sing or tell stories. Tattoos are a fun way to customize Eivor. The use of ravens to scout areas is both useful and thematically appropriate. Engaging in raids, settling disputes through holmgang, drinking heavily, seeking Valhalla, and a fondness for gambling are all present. While much of this could simply serve as backdrop, in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, it’s largely experienced through gameplay. There are drinking games that require the player to correctly time button inputs while maneuvering the analog stick to balance their character. Another worthwhile minigame challenges players to partake in flyting, which was, in essence, a Viking rap battle. To succeed, players choose the best option from a selection of lyrics while paying consideration to rhyme, meter, and theme.
Where the Viking aesthetic feels less appropriate is in the gameplay itself. While it isn’t impossible to blend the brutality of Viking stories with the stealth-based gameplay of the Assassin’s Creed series, Valhalla does trip up in a few places. At the heart of the problem is the game’s skill tree which has a few issues with it. For starters, only a portion of the skill tree is revealed, and players have to choose which of three branches they want to embark on. Skill points that have been allocated to different branches can be redeemed, so it’s really just a slight inconvenience, but when someone is adopting a new playstyle, there’s some comfort in knowing what they are building to. The larger issue is in how the branches of the tree are linked to gear. The game has three clans (Bear, Wolf, and Raven) and each is associated with different pieces of gear or a different skill tree. Skill trees offer bonuses to types of gear. What this means, in practice, is that the gear a player has acquired might partially dictate what skill tree they use.
The other issue in the skill tree is that the bear skills, which are more brutal, and the raven ones, which are more stealth based, aren’t exactly balanced. While many things in the game can be handled with a stealth-based approach, the brutal and loud approach always has value. A quick, single-hit kill from stealth is nice, but quick succession of heavy blows works just as well.
Boss fights are one of the places where the game can really shine and they feel significantly different from the rest of the encounters. In many ways, it feels like Dark Souls style games. Enemy swings can hurt a lot, so there’s a tension while you wait for the attack. While you wait for an opening, you strafe, shield, dodge, and parry. I even tried to lunge attack at one point which is not an option in this game – I just really got into the Dark Souls zone.
It is undeniable that the series is growing, and it’s admirable that the developers are willing to try new things. Overall, the experience works in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. It’s not a perfect fit, yet, but there’s promise in the series future if they continue to head in a direction that has more RPG elements, and options for a direct approach. It also feels like a proof of concept that they can continue to attempt virtually any setting with a decent chance of success.