Developed By: Ubisoft
Published By: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 4 & 5 / Xbox One X, Series S & X / Stadia / PC
Reviewed On: PS4PRO
The Assassins Creed franchise has been around since the first game debuted back in 2007. Assassins Creed Valhalla is the TWELFTH major instalment in this series and for me has been one of the most milked out franchises next to Call of Duty. I think I share most players feelings when although I thought the first game was quite alright it wasn’t until Assassins Creed 2 that the game just really felt like the start of this amazing new dynasty especially with such a memorable protagonist in Ezio. Unfortunately for me, I thought Assassins Creed 3 was a step-down and I did not even finish Black Flag. I dropped off the franchise after that because it just felt like the series went from interesting to a factory focused on churning out as many as possible.
It was not until Assassins Creed Origins that I hopped back on and thought it was a solid effort but still lacked that something special. I got Assassins Creed Odyssey when it was on sale with all the DLC’s and I know this might be an unpopular opinion, but I really did not like that game. I spent over 70 hours and it burnt me out with how repetitive it was. Although I enjoyed Kassandra, everything else was just a slog and it felt like it was just too big and too overwhelming with repetitive content.
Now considering all that my excitement for Valhalla was middling at best. It is just another AC game like Origins and Odyssey in whereby Ubisoft have a gift with creating beautiful worlds that feel somewhat lacking when it comes to the “soul” of it. Thanks to Ubisoft who provided a review copy for us, I am glad to share that Assassins Creed Valhalla is probably my favourite title in the series since Assassins Creed 2 due to the surprising level of restraint by Ubisoft and feels more in line with a proper RPG storytelling wise at least in my books.
Assassins Creed Valhalla tells the story of Eivor Wolf-Kissed who lost her parents at a young age and almost her life on the same night. (Note that I’m using her due to how I let the Animus choose the gender of Eivor and female Eivor is my main character throughout the game). Eivor then grows up managing to exact her revenge and promptly leaves Norway for England with her adoptive brother Sigurd shortly after to start a new chapter in the Raven clan’s history. Shortly after arriving, they realize that those that came before them have not had an easy time holding down roots in England as they are seen as invaders. Eivor and Sigurd then quickly established a new settlement and set out to forge new alliances that will hopefully provide long-lasting stability and prosperity.
At the same time, Layla’s journey continues after the events of Odyssey this time with Shaun and Rebecca back to help figure out how to stop the end of the world again. The story also introduces a third plot thread set in Asgard where Havi (basically the other Eivor) the leader is concerned about protecting his people against the coming Ragnarok and prophecy of his impending doom.
Now it might feel like there is too much going on but I have really got to give it to Ubisoft for really doing a great job in balancing each plot thread with the obvious heavy focus on Eivor’s journey. To be honest the whole “end of the world, Isu, Layla, Animus” thing has in my opinion long outstayed it’s welcome due to how it feels quite unnecessary and at times even proves to be a disservice to the magnificent worlds players spend the bulk of their time in. This point for me is just absolutely validated by the quality of Eivor’s, journey and to some extent Havi. Granted I have only reached what is probably the midpoint of the game but in the 30+ odd hours I have spent just going through the main campaign it has been nothing short of immensely satisfying.
Aside from random Jomsviking that you can recruit to your crew, most of the main and side characters are rich and memorable. Story arcs and side quests are not vomited upon the player and I am glad that the developers have decided to really emphasize restraint in this regard. Each alliance story arc must be completed one at a time and that allows the player to really be invested in them. I was worried that each arc would play out the same but thankfully it’s always been a different type of story for each and I found them to be very enjoyable and I was fully invested.
One of the things that really surprised me was the random story quests you can find out in the world. Even though initially I was put off by one or two early quests were quite juvenile and just unfunny the rest of it has been quite wonderful. I realized that part of what makes the storytelling in these quests just so much more effective is how the game never holds your hands so much. For example, a world event I came upon where two brothers were arguing about burning down their house. The game never explicitly tells me to do it, I did it because I heard what they were talking about and put it together myself. It is these small touches that really adds so much more value to the method of storytelling in Valhalla and I’m really glad that finally the developers at Ubisoft has unlocked how great organic storytelling can be.
I think that Valhalla is probably the best-looking Assassins Creed game to date. It may not have the rich cultural pallete and architecture of Odyssey but the landscapes and vistas from the icy mountains of Norway to the lush greenery of England, are truly picturesque and beautiful. Even Ubisoft’s version of Asgard feels truly fantastical and magical. Character models are rendered beautifully and with details and emotions that feels authentic to the period as well as the performances of the motion capture work. Just a side note though, why does Randvi look like Kassandra?
As impressive as the graphics are however there are issues that unfortunately plague the game. The first and biggest one for me must be how there just seems to be something wrong with the lighting in this game especially indoors. It feels like any light source indoors is not independent or at least feels overexposed as with HDR on no matter how much I tinker with the settings there is always this slight filter that I just couldn’t stop noticing. I mean outdoors it looks brilliant and colours pop so I don’t know if I just am bad with the settings or it’s the game, but it really feels like something is just not tuned quite right. There is also the standard flickering and etc that happens but those happened not as often.
I also feel the need to highlight that the game obviously uses CGI or rather very closely curated cutscenes as there were some moments where the cutscenes just look noticeably better than the rest of the game. I mean it is not really an issue, but it felt a little jarring to me once I noticed them because it felt like next-gen in-engine cutscenes that were included for the current-gen platform. If that is true, then wow that is quite a difference.
The sound design in this game can be hit and miss unfortunately but it may be just a minor gripe of mine. I loved the commitment to authenticity that the Assassins Creed games are known for with beautiful culturally appropriate songs and the soundtrack. The voice acting as well for both male and female Eivor is well done and the supporting cast performs just as effectively most times with standout performances.
However, there were just numerous issues I had in my playthrough so far that just put a damper on the experience. Firstly, the game lacks a bit of punch where it needs it the most. During moments where battles are happening the music and clashing of weapons just does not feel as intense as it should. One would want to feel more intense in the heat of a battle with the perfect music or sounds. Then there is also the matter of how the audio just generally feels very inconsistent. There are multiple moments where the audio just drops out during cutscenes and not to mention the lack of correct sound depth in real-time conversations. Maybe I’m just extra nit-picky but the sound mixing is one thing that should be nailed in a AAA title. I thought my soundbar was starting to fail but switching to headphones still gave me that same effect.
The development team has also decided to tweak and change gameplay in Valhalla and although it can also be a mixed bag, I do believe it is starting to move in the right direction. However, it can also be quite rough especially in the early going as it was for me and the reason for that is the obvious comparison that has to be made to Ghost of Tsushima but only in certain parts of gameplay.
In the beginning, it takes quite a bit to get used to Eivor as she can feel quite sluggish when it comes to traversing or combat. I mean sure one can argue that it feels similar to how the previous titles have been performing by holding down the X button for parkour moves eventually there will be those janky moments where the game just decides to do its own thing and instead of brushing past the pole you are climbing it and jumping off in another direction. Even simple climbing where I expected to keep moving upwards by holding down the stick almost always results in awkward stops. In combat situations, Eivor also feels slow and cumbersome especially since enemies attack right through your attacks but responds with incredible speed to block yours. Even using the bow feels off. I know it’s just the little things, but they add up especially coming of Ghost of Tsushima where it’s very responsive and feels more skill-based rather than testing your patience.
Speaking to exploration and the open world, it feels like Valhalla is taking a page out of the less is more approach echoed in Ghost of Tsushima. When you open your world map instead of seeing hundreds of littered icons the players will be looking at different coloured dots in their place. These dots are separated into three types: Wealth, Mysteries and Artifacts. Wealth is related to resources that will be used for upgrading your equipment, abilities, or settlement. Mysteries are world events (short quests), Cairns, Orlog, Flyting and etc,. Lastly, Artifacts are roman artifacts, flying paper, zealots, or cursed symbols to collect or destroy. Now in the beginning I admit I got irritated because I hated not knowing what was behind those dots. It took me a long while to realize that those dots are stars in which when you mark one to go to in the open world it is as if you are following the stars. It is quite a subtle but interesting detail that I ended up really liking.
I would also like to highlight how much I enjoyed the mysteries with probably the exception of the Animus Anomalies only because they just take the player out of the immersion. I absolutely love Flyting and playing Orlog. Flyting is fighting with words and is very entertaining. The player must successfully counter your counterparts’ insult with wit and winning results on the players Charisma being raised. A higher Charisma will open advantageous dialogue options for the player although so far it has been only a handful of instances. Orlog is a dice minigame with the objective of eliminating your opponent before he does the same to you. Even though it can start out easy but there is a level of challenge and intensity there that keeps players on their toes. Other mysteries like stumbling upon legendary animals, Daughters of Lerion, and also the Lost Drengr can be intense battles especially if the player is underleveled but it’s good to know where these challenges are so you can go back to them when you are strong enough as there are a few activities that are Power Level gated.
In the end exploration feels more like an adventure rather than a chore to tackle on your own pace and it is one that resonates well with my OCD tendencies to clear everything on the map better.
I also quite like the new settlement mechanic in Valhalla. It might feel simple but it’s effective enough in making the player feel like they are planting their roots together with the Raven Clan. Slowly building up utilities that provide benefits to your adventure is also a satisfying one. Build the Stables to upgrade your horse’s stamina and even so they can swim across rivers. Build the fishing hut so you can start fishing and exchange caught fishes for some items. Players are even able to have their own Jomsviking (like lieutenant) that can be hired by other real players who play Valhalla and earn you some coin after you build the barracks. Over time as well the settlement itself will have quests and moments for players to discover that really add to the sense of community for the Raven clan. To improve the settlements players will have to go out on raid for resources. These raids are littered sparsely usually linked to the power level gated for each alliance area that the game sends you on. Most of the raids are very quick and don’t really provide much challenge when appropriately levelled.
Loot in Valhalla has also been overhauled somewhat. Gone are the Diablo styled loot where players will pick up tons of equipment colour coded following their rarity. Players can open chests for weapons or armours sets that are quite limited and are separated by type (Wolf set, Bear Set, Raven set). After collecting certain resources like leather and iron players can upgrade these sets to have better stats. The equipments themselves can also be upgraded to a higher tier using rare ingots and so on. For those hoping to grind it out early you might be able to do your best to farm but maxing out sets or weapons early will increase survivability but thankfully does not make the game instantly easy the way Odyssey did.
The reason for that is the new Skill unlock board which is quite like FFX’s Sphere grid. Every time players level up they will get skill points to activate nodes on the board which will give benefits like +2% damage to light attack or +7% resistance which in turn will also increase Eivor’s power level. There are also special nodes that unlock passive abilities like auto looting and one of my favourites being able to throw weapons to enemies off the ground. There are also nodes that unlock extra adrenaline bars for players to build up and execute special abilities like poisoned blades or slowing down time while shooting your bow. Those abilities can be found from special books in exploration. I would say that the power level gating here feels more appropriate and challenging compared to Odyssey where it felt like a joke most of the time.
Right now, the only thing left to talk about is the combat and man do I have such a love-hate relationship with it. On one hand, I feel that Valhalla’s combat is probably the closest they have come to yet to a Dark Souls feel. It can be punishing even on normal difficulty due to how dodging and blocking is very dependant on the stamina bar. Early on I really hated it due to how Eivor feeling slow and cumbersome and then having to deal with enemies that can feel cheap and annoying. Eventually though the more Eivor levels up and the more stats and skills is improved combat gets to a much more manageable and satisfying level.
However, there is one thing that I feel really prevents the combat system from really shining and it is a combination of the game’s parrying system as well as the obvious console generation limitation. A big part of combat is whittling down the enemy’s stamina bar to stagger them so you can perform a high damage attack. One way of doing it is by shooting their weak points with the bow and the other is by a perfect parry. Unfortunately, the parry window in Valhalla is quite a pain in the ass. I could be terrible at this but If I can go toe to toe with Iyo (from Ghost of Tsushima Legends) and feel like a damn samurai this game should be a cakewalk in comparison but its not. I am either too early or too late and it just feels that way all the time. It also does not help how a lot of the enemies have varying attack animations that feel entirely too fast to parry or false ones. I know I can just bulldoze them or slowly just chip away but if it is there, I should be able to use it. I honestly feel that with next-generation hardware (PS5 & Series X) running at 60fps, combat in Valhalla should be a much different experience. Unfortunately, at this moment we do not have both hardware’s so I cannot confirm that just yet.
Also, if you are thinking you can “cheese” higher levelled enemies using your bow, you sort of can if you are well equipped enough and the challenge is truly intense. I also want to say that the stealth feels pointless most of the time due to how fast enemies detect you. I know you can set the stealth and combat difficulty but why is the default stealth so unforgiving?
What I Loved
- Storytelling – Feels like a much-needed step up from before as I was able to really get absorbed with it.
- Characters – Are much more memorable compared to previous entries. Characters like Ivaar, Soma, Ceolbert & Oswald bring lasting impressions that just stay with the player long after their story arcs are completed.
- Exploration – I also love the different approach to exploration with the stars and sense of adventure instead of fuelling my inner OCD to the point of self-loathing.
- Graphics – Character models and environments are beautiful and just culturally pleasing. Stepping into the Viking/ Nordic culture is just a wonderful experience.
- Quests – I really do feel that the main and side quests have really stepped up and are a marked improvement from Odyssey in an incredibly significant way.
- Orlog – Orlog is the best. Period
What I Wished Was Better
- Combat – The combat is on the right track, but it just can feel too frustrating at times. Stealth also feels pointless due to how fast enemies detect you.
- Bugs – I can understand that due to the COVID situation development is probably incredibly tough, but bugs are bugs and there were so many of them. Not just graphically or sound wise but even multiple save files were getting corrupted for some reason. That is really bad for a game that can be an incredible time sink.
I have always felt that the time has come and gone for Ubisoft to finally drop the modern-day stuff from Assassins Creed games. The last time I genuinely cared (although not enough) was when Desmond was still around. I know there has been significant work to keep that section of the game relevant but do people still care about it? At this point it just feels like retreads and overcomplicated techno-babble about the end of the world and lost races. The series needs transformation.
Assassins Creed Valhalla was a very surprising experience for me. I was not expected to be as engrossed as I am and it is just well deserved. I am only halfway through my journey, but it already feels like a journey worth taking but feels like it is probably better suited for taking advantage of the power of next-generation systems. Without doing all the side quests I think completing the main story alone is going to take about at least 60-70 hours. There are also several bugs that can affect the playing experience which hopefully will be ironed out in time. After all, we are in the new norm whether we like it or not. I for one cannot wait to get back and continue Eivor’s journey and who knows you might even see my Jomsviking in your playthrough. Skål!!!