Review: Assassin's Creed: Valhalla

9 Nov 2020

The Assassin’s Creed series is, in some ways, kind of odd to review. You don’t need me to tell you that. The series has been going with a frankly astonishing regularity since 2007, and in some ways the games have wound up being a cross-section of the general gaming culture through the years.

They’re also odd-ish in the sense that unlike a lot of properties which wind up with a lot of sequels (looking in your direction, Activision), they have pretty staunchly remained single-player titles and seem resolutely determined to be more long-term single-player experiences over time.

Still, on some level it’s easy to want the games to start being… worse, don’t you? I admit that my impulse to fight the power isn’t what it used to be, but Ubisoft is a big company with a lot of Big Gross Company problems, and with the steady rollout of games like Assassin’s Creed you kind of want these to stop being as good and start whiffing every once in a while.

Which brings me, in a very roundabout way, to Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Yet another game set in a nonsensical melange of historical periods with more of its convoluted and kind of forgettable stories about two orders dueling through history, now seeming less assassin-y than ever by tossing you into the muddy, fur-lined, stompy boots of a marauding Viking. And at the risk of spoilers… yeah, the darn silly thing still works.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla releases on the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on November 10th. The PlayStation 4 version was played for this review

I Am The Man Who Grabs The Sun

The first thing that struck me about Valhalla was simply the slow roll of the thing. Generally, when I start playing an Assassin’s Creed game, I expect that one of the first things I’ll be doing is assassination. But no, instead the story starts off with you playing young Eivor on the day of your father swearing allegiance to the king, followed by a surprise attack by Kjotve the Cruel. Without giving too much away, a decision is made that sets Eivor down the long road to revenge…

Oh, wait, it’s actually a pretty short road to revenge. In fact, your revenge is done and finished by the time the title screen comes up. And this should be something of a problem, but it actually works out well, giving Eivor friction with the king right from the start while also giving you a reason to be invested in the story overall. The real plot involves a good portion of your clan (including Eivor) sailing with Sigurd, the erstwhile prince, down into England to set up a new home.

Naturally, along the way you’ll run into an order of cloaked fellows with arm blades who finally induct Eivor into the ways of stabbing people quietly, but it takes a comparatively long time to get there. Like, it’s kind of surprising how long this game entitled Assassin’s Creed takes to get to the point wherein you can assassinate someone.

And you probably won’t care.

As someone who genuinely enjoys the flavor of old Viking epics, this is not told deliberately to resemble one… but it does seem to do its best to inherit the moral framework of one, and that makes it oddly engaging. Eivor is almost immediately dealing with moral complexities, but all of them are filtered through the moral framework of a Viking warrior. Indeed, the game is remarkably good about presenting choices not as good or bad (and there is no morality tracker, obviously), but as a question of which virtues you will exemplify within your clan.

More importantly, the characters feel textured. It’s easy to get a sense of Eivor as a person, a viking warrior who has something to prove after the death of their father but also still regarded as an authority figure among the clan. There’s a certain flavor to the people and towns you encounter, one that makes you really eager to wade into battle in the hopes that they will sing songs about your glory in the longhouse when the day is done.

And sure, the story does seem to slightly struggle with the fact that many parts of it can be done in different orders from what was intended, or that you can spend hours just traipsing about and collecting map points instead of following the main story. But that’s a problem these games have always had. It’s not fair to ding this game for being an open-world game, after all.

Put it another way: I was always eager to see what the next step in Eivor’s journey might be, even if sometimes I would stop and raid a monastery while heading to the next objective point. And for that, I suppose I should move on to gameplay.

Witness Me

As mentioned, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is a game in which you spend a lot of time not actually assassinating people for a while. This is notable, because it means that the game gets to show off its combat… and there’s no way to not compare this to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, because that’s obviously the influence.

The short version is that if you liked that game’s feel, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t… well, this one still might tickle your fancy.

Combat feels similar to the prior game, but improved in many ways. For one thing, every weapon or armor piece you pick up is unique, so you actually have a reason to invest in specific upgrades and stick with certain pieces over the long term. You can dual-wield pretty much any one-handed weapon, including putting a shield in both hands if you’d like; there’s also a stamina system to gate some of your attacks. Combine that with the ration system and health not recovering naturally, and the fights take on a more tactical feel.

No, I’m not making a comparison to the combat system of a series made by From Software. Even though it’s right there. Yes, it’d probably be a fair one. Let’s just accept that the non-stealthy combat feels good.

This is a good thing, as large-scale combat is pretty darn common when you go a-viking. Raiding monasteries is one of the main ways to grow your settlement, and that starts a major fight with your army of AI soldiers facing off against an army of enemies while you smash, burn, and loot the coffers of the unlucky church. You’re specifically penalized if you attack non-combatants, though; it may be a hair unrealistic, but there’s no reward for being a murdering sociopath.

As you level, you have your advancement tracked in a large constellation map of different skills and powers, with other active skills unlocked by finding training manuals hidden in the world. This kind of rubs me the wrong way, although not because it doesn’t work. It’s more just generally disliking the whole “enormous sphere grid” approach everywhere it crops up from Final Fantasy X on down the line.

Fortunately, you can respec your abilities freely at any point you want, which could theoretically let you respec to stealth if you want whilst in the middle of combat. I also don’t totally like the lack of connection with the various texts that give you more abilities, but that’s a minor quibble; a lot of the stuff you get from normal abilities is a lot of fun, like the ability to chain assassinations to nearby targets.

However, that’s just the start of the fun stuff the game has. If you’re bored of quests, you can start going off to wander. Unlocking vistas is still a thing, and there are dice games to play, drinking contests to win, special duels in verse that let you make Eivor more charming, and your main settlement to build up. As you improve buildings, your settlement grows stronger, and as it grows stronger you have better access to valuable goods, upgrades, and so forth.

Ultimately, I suppose the easiest way to describe it is right in the title. It’s an Assassin’s Creed game, and those have been replete with things to do for ages. This one doesn’t disappoint in the slightest, and in fact gives you lots of things to do other than just sidling up to random Saxons before knifing them in the throat. But that part is still fun, too.

What a Lovely Day

I have to admit, part of me kind of wishes this game weren’t so gorgeous. As with many games of this generation, it’s clear that we’ve pushed graphics about as far as this iteration of hardware can go. People look convincing, yes, you rendered a pretty landscape, it’s just a bunch of rolling hills, that’s not so special. But darn it, the whole thing really does look amazing. Characters move with a real sense of weight and purpose.

I particularly like the cinematic camera angles you get when Eivor downs several more dangerous foes; they feel quick and brutal in a way bringing to mind Doom’s varied finishing moves against demons, but far more grounded in reality. There’s more mass and kinetic reality on display than you see in several movies with below-par CGI, for that matter.

The music is frequently used for mood as much as anything, and it’s worth noting that as you’re out on the water the music is usually diagetic – these are songs being played on your longboat and sung by your crew. Again, there’s that sense of weight, a certain amount of solid substance that you can ground yourself in that lends the game a strong air of verisimilitude.

It doesn’t hurt that the voice acting is on point, as well. Since you’re dealing with a story that tends to be low on subtext, you wind up with a lot of very direct-written lines that could easily wind up sounding wooden. Instead, they manage to resonate, giving everything the air of the Norse saga that it wants to be.

The one flaw in all of this? Well… the game does have some bugs. During one raid, the game got hung up with an NPC not opening a chest I was trying to push open but the space for assistance being filled, requiring me to leave the monastery and return seconds later to get it right. Another time Eivor got stuck on terrain and I had to fast-travel to get her unstuck. They’re of the minor sort in my experience, but they can throw you out of the otherwise satisfying gameplay loop.

I Live, I Die, I Live Again

Like I said at the beginning, you kind of want these games at some point to stop working, but… Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla really works. It works in all the ways it wants to work. It takes the bones of its predecessor and improves the overall gameplay significantly, giving players plenty to do, characters to invest in, and a satisfying core gameplay loop that’s been refined down to a careful formula at this point.

If the game can be accused of anything, it might be that it plays things a little too safe… but even that feels a little disingenuous. Yes, it’s more of an evolution than a revolution, but it’s easy to forget that the series slowly embraced “action RPG” in its path from being a pure stealth-based series. This is definitely the most hack-and-slash-y of the titles yet, but it feels natural, and it does still feel like it deserves to be called Assassin’s Creed.

So… yeah, this game is darn good, and if you’ve liked prior installments you’ll almost certainly like this one. Darn it, I really like it. Oh no, I get to really enjoy this viking game. Quelle horreur.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Game provided by Ubisoft for purposes of review. All screenshots courtesy of Ubisoft.