Review: Assassin's Creed Valhalla - Discovery Tour: Viking Age

19 Oct 2021

Before I begin this review in any sort of proper context, let me just say how I am deeply and personally wounded by the fact that this title is not Educator’s Creed. I thought of that joke when I was first told that this was a thing to be reviewed and I am, in hindsight, endlessly sad that we are denied this play on words which is quite possibly only funny to me. Even so.

Now, let us cast our gaze back to the early days of video games when the Super Nintendo was new. (Yes, that counts as “early” at this point. Sorry, folks.) With 16-bit machines on the rise there was the greater knowledge that we could, in fact, have video games do something other than simply being digitized murder simulators in which we witnessed the grotesque savagery of Italian plumbers stomping turtles. No, you could instead use those same characters to learn geography, or history, or why you shouldn’t allow companies not named “Nintendo” to develop games with those characters.

The point is that there has been a long and tenuous relationship between educational content and the prospect of actual gameplay. With that in mind, we look at Discovery Tour: Viking Age, a new DLC for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, which in parts feels like “we had all of the assets to make an educational thing about this period of history, so why don’t we do that?” And let me tell you, this is a… complex piece to evaluate for those reasons alone.

Discovery Tour: Viking Age is launching as a standalone product on PCs as of October 19th, with a standalone launch for consoles planned for 2022. It also launches as a free update for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla on the same day.

The Story of Some Guys

DTVA is, first and foremost, a story-driven game. No, really. Far from the fictionalized and violent stories of the game it’s based off of, DTVA tries to be a grounded and down-to-Earth story that follows two main characters (the merchant viking Thorsteinn and the pious monk Ealric) with brief interludes featuring the two deuteragonists (Thorsteinn’s wife Gunnhilda and the historical King Aelfred). We follow these characters through a few exceptional events in their lives and get a shape of both of their journeys from younger days until they both reach their conclusions.

The stories are, by necessity, oddly bloodless. Thorsteinn in particular is the focus for most of the game, and he’s known for having a quick tongue and being a likable fellow, but it’s also pretty clear right from the outset that he is a bit too forgiving and too genial for his own good. You can probably see the conclusion of his tale a mile away, especially in a game wherein all conflicts are resolved without any actual combat, but it does manage to make all of the major players likable and entertaining enough.

However, given the short run time of the game (you can wrap the whole thing up in a couple of hours) and the disconnected nature of the stories, none of the characters ever get to have a whole lot of development. Development is alluded to, but the story winds up trying to hit the highlights of sweeping historical narratives without ever having the time to really chew on that. We’re shown episodes from Ealric’s life, for example, going from a novice monk and growing into a more full understanding of his faith and how he sees his calling, but we don’t get to see him change or even appreciate that the man who ends his journey is substantially different from the one who starts it. His relationship with Aelfred is important, but it’s only ever alluded to.

This is, however, partly a nature of the focus. The goal here is less to tell a story about characters and more about people. Ealric and Thorsteinn are not meant to be specific people you care about so much as they’re meant to show typical aspirational figures. In that regard, it works, although it’s hard to find yourself terribly moved for either of them as a result.

Game Off

So, you might be wondering how you translate the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed to a purely educational game. And the answer is… you don’t! This is not a game in the strictest sense, having only slightly more interactivity than the Walk Around And Look At Stuff genre that I tend to actually be super fond of. Go to a place indicated by a quest. Talk with someone. Very occasionally you will have a puzzle to solve by choosing the right options from a list. As a game experience, it is not remotely challenging.

Aside from just clearing through the story, you can also search the open world for little glowing clickable things that share more information about the life of these people across history, explaining Norse and English rituals, beliefs, and customs in some detail. It’s pitched at “interesting trivia” level; it won’t make up for reading a good book about these subjects, but it does help give an impression of how these various peoples experienced their lives and it shows that the people behind the games actually did the research even if a lot of it wound up replaced with fiction for the actual game plot.

It also amuses me far more than it should that all of the characters still control like Eivor from the main game, so you have your wiry monk jumping and flipping through the air like a trained assassin no matter how little sense it makes.

The thing that I keep coming back to is that it’s not entirely a problem that the gameplay is, well… let’s say light. That’s the point of this particular title, and complaining about it seems altogether wrong. What keeps me flipping around on this point is that if the gameplay is light, you need something else to hook players in, and the story here is… not strong enough to hook people in by itself. It comes down to interest in the historical facts. And while you might argue that this is fundamentally an add-on to an existing game, it also does exist as a standalone product, and that makes things a little more complex.

Visually Identical

Of course, the game looks gorgeous. It’s all running on the same engine as Valhalla, so it looks great. And, you know, you can enjoy all these environments now without having to worry about random groups of bandits or wolves or whatever coming to stab you. So that’s a nice change.

What is notably different is the voice talent used in this particular installment. Some of the line readings are so bad that they immediately pulled me out of game, because wow was that delivery a mess. For that matter, the game sadly inherits the original’s sin of not being terribly good about having a unified pronunciation guide for all of the names and terms being used. The Isle of Ely, for example, alternately rhymes with “belly,” “freely,” and “Eli” depending on the actor and the scene. This is… kind of a problem for a game that’s supposed to be historical!

However, I should note that none of the worse deliveries are from the main cast, all of whom acquit themselves admirably. Indeed, the core voice talent remains solid, and Thorsteinn in particular has a warmly gruff wit to his delivery that makes him far more likable than he ought to be. (Which is good, since you wind up playing as him a lot.) It’s hardly all bad, but when these things are central features, they stand out significantly.

A Confusing Audience

The biggest thing that I keep coming back to for this game is who the game is supposed to be for. Yes, I know, it’s an add-on for Valhalla, but as a stand-alone product who is the target audience? Educators don’t have access to high-end gaming PCs to run the title, and is there really that much demand for viking historical fiction with an educational bent?

Well… maybe. There’s definitely a strong sense of the Norse in the cultural zeitgeist in the moment, and I can see someone being curious enough to take what amounts to a walking tour of these locations and places to understand a little bit more. And what the game actually wants to deliver it does. While I have some minor quibbles here and there, by and large this is very good at being an educational tour of a historical period with a few fanciful elements to support beliefs.

Ultimately, it’s not for me to decide who the target audience is supposed to be, but to tell you if this is worth the purchase price. And at $20 for the educational content it provides? Yes, it delivers enough information to be worth it. Just be aware of what you’re getting, because this is much more a pop culture tour of Norse history than it is an actual game with compelling gameplay.

We’re still working on that promise of making education as entertaining as killing stuff, I guess.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Ubisoft for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Ubisoft.