Watching the reveal videos for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey made it truly clear that the series is not going to return to its action adventure game roots any time soon. And why would it, Origins was a massive success critically and financially with everyone, including this reviewer, praising the RPG-lite mechanics as well as the more visceral combat focusing more on direct confrontation than stealth and sneak attacks. Odyssey continued in that vein, but this time forcing the player to be more aggressive as Kassandra did not carry a shield. Valhalla doubles (triples?) down on this design philosophy.
Valhalla follows Eivor Wolf Kissed a Norse viking following her foster brother and others of their Raven Clan to England as they seek to build an empire of their own after what they see as a betrayal in their homeland. As newly arrived Vikings Eivor looks to build a stable settlement via trade and theft, raiding monasteries, as well as building alliances with nearby settlements. Making things a bit more complicated is the arrival assassins from Constantinople looking to rebuild their order in England and root out their ancient enemies who have built a power base there. Allying with them, Eivor sets out on a path down the road to the Creed whether she knows it or not.
The story is interesting enough, giving you a view of English history that we rarely see, one with a fractured England of four kingdoms under constant threat of invasion and destruction at the hand of the violence wrought by viking raiding parties. What makes it a little too familiar is the opening, Eivor, like Kassandra, is orphaned as a child due to a betrayal. Luckily unlike Bayak’s story vengeance is only the central motivation for the first 5 hours of the opening which leads Eivor to that fateful meeting with the Assassins. What motivates Eivor after that is to support Sigurd, her foster brother, and to carve out a piece of the world for themselves where they answer to no one. This change in the “standard” AC story is welcome as it allows you to fall into in the AC storyline as circumstances develop. However, the 5-hour prologue does lead to what I consider the major issue with the game – its bloated length.
After Odyssey was criticised for being overlong, it took me something like 100 hours to complete the main game and do not get me started on the DLC, the producer said they had taken that criticism into account and removed the bloat. Well, that statement was not exactly accurate. The game will take about 60-odd hours to complete and that is if you do not try and do all the side quests and other open-world collectable stuff. That will easily add on another 20 hours at least. The bloat is quite simply a function of the map size and the number of regions you will conquer. In and of itself this is not a bad thing, what makes it worse is the sheer repetitiveness of the gameplay loop. You start by visiting your adviser and her tactical map. This map is similar to the map and diplomacy mechanic that Bioware introduced in Dragon Age Inquisition, but simpler as you don’t have a meta-game of sending spies or diplomats out to the regions.
Choose the region you wish to Pledge (i.e. ally with via the blade of your axe) and travel there. Once there you will find that you have what is essentially a set of loyalty missions to complete to win over whatever faction is either trying to maintain power or grab power. These missions will have you run around the territory for the next few hours, infiltrating towns and assassinating various functionaries, saving hostages or something else as an example of your loyalty. Once you are done with those missions you will be tasked with one final raid, the raid we saw in the various videos. Which leads to a boss fight. Doing this the first three times is interesting, do it 12 times over and you will get bored.
At least you have the raids and action to tide you over. Well yes and no. The main missions tend to ally you with whatever army you are allying with at that stage. Calling in your longboat to raid is mainly confined to raids on monasteries and other settlements instead of the main raids bar a couple. In battle, the game’s Origins roots are most evident. The left bumper is your offhand and right your dominant one. Wielding a shield in your offhand means that you can block or parry with a well-timed tap of the left bumper. However, you can choose to dual wield weapons for a more aggressive style of play. But that does not work that well as tapping LB is a parry command. To use it as a weapon you have to long-press on LB. This is counterintuitive and should have been swapped. Combat itself is not that challenging and I am no Dark Souls aficionado. Gone are the level markers over enemy heads instead each enemy has a health bar and a defence bar. Similar to Sekiro’s design, successful attacks and parrying reduce that defence bar and once depleted allow you to do massive damage. Also, like Sekiro certain enemies have two attacks, one that you can parry signified by a gold flash of light and one that cannot be parried or blocked signified by a rune and a red flash. Patience, dodging and blocking will make any raid a simple matter of time before you are successful as long as you are properly levelled up. To be fair this has not really changed from the older games as combat in AC games has always been less than challenging.
Levelling up is where the game truly let me down. Ubisoft simplified the skill tree and power levels from the initial reveal where instead of each power level being dependent on three different branches it’s all simplified as you move up two power levels every time you level up and allocate 2 kill points on the tree. The tree itself looks very much like Final Fantasy X’s Grid Sphere system. Sadly, Ubisoft decided that much of the tree is obscured until you unlock a specific node so you cannot plan a build. In FFX you could plan your path to make Yuna a White Mage with some Black Magic abilities. In Valhalla you just move around the tree planning about 3 to 5 moves ahead and hope that the next grid you unlock will have something you want or need. Coupled with that the skill nodes are somewhat pointless. What does Attack Ability +2.3 even mean in the grand scheme of things?
At least there is the loot to keep you interested right? Well sort of. Unlike the previous two games, you are not going to get a ton of loot drops from bosses and enemies. You must search the map for armour and weapon sets and then upgrade those sets at your settlement’s blacksmith. I like that the game is no longer an inventory management sim, but the armour sets are not exactly interesting. In Origins, I collected a poison set that I used for most of the game, but here there was not one set that I really enjoyed and by the time I became aware of the Thor set I was too close to the end of the game to care.
Upgrading the armour will allow you to place runes of power into the equipment, I tended to place ability runes such as poison runes into the equipment over defensive ones like increasing health, but none of these equipment sets felt interesting or unique.
The search for armour leads to the biggest change to the design of the game. Instead of dotting the map with hundreds of map markers, you now have three categories of open-world nonsense to track. I say nonsense because it still is the same style of design just catagorised and colour coded to allow you to focus on a particular category. Wealth is self-explanatory and includes the armour sets. Artefacts are those collectables you normally get, in this case, Roman artefacts that a collector at your settlement buys off you. The final category is the true innovation here. Mysteries are these side stories and missions that show some real creativity on the part of Ubisoft’s writers and developers. Some are weird and some are funny, and most are simple diversions that break up the monotony of battle and chasing the main questline. A favourite of mine is relieving an old warrior of his reputation as an undefeatable champion.
The other newish mechanic is building and managing your settlement. This was something introduced with Assassin’s Creed 2 and expanded on in Assassin’s Creed 3. Of the two the mechanic is most like AC3 where you had missions to open various stores in your settlement and to find people with the skills to run those stores. In order to open the stores and upgrade them, you have to gather supplies and other resources. These are mainly found when you raid monasteries. Like prior AC games, most noticeably the forts of Black Flag, each has a difficulty level. However, once raided they do not become friendly strongholds so do not expect to be able to visit them without repercussions later. I tended to ignore the settlement metagame and I found it is not as important as was made out in various interviews and presentations.
Playing the game on PC seems to have been a more stable experience than on console, even the newly released next-gen ones. Initially, I had one “would not launch” issue which seemed to be linked to the capture software I use. Other than that, playing at high settings on my desktop sporting a GTX 1080 I had no tearing as reported on the console. Framerates were a rock-solid 60FPS however I did experience freezes of about 5 to 10 seconds during gameplay – especially frustrating in combat. The other issue experienced was constant audio drops.
Other than that, the Anvil engine while clearly not “next-gen” is still one capable of some beautiful vistas and scenes. So much so that I spent a lot of time in the Photo Mode, thankfully a fully-featured one. I cannot express how important photo modes have become and if Ubisoft isn’t going to make Ansel implementation standard on its games, providing a proper photo mode is welcome.
Valhalla is a good addition to the AC series, but the RPG-lite and emphasis on combat instead of stealth are wearing thin. For the characters and time periods, these games focused on this focus makes some sense, but a return to more stealth and assassination focused game would be welcome.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was reviewed on PC which you can purchase here for £49.99
Not got a PC no worries the game is also available on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Google Stadia.
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