Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla – Review

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the 12th main game in the series. Considering the first entry came out in 2007, almost 13 games in as many years is absurdly prolific. There has certainly been a lot of valleys among the peaks and yet since Origins in 2017, Assassin’s Creed seems to have landed on a new formula that garners both critical acclaim and commercial success.

Assassin’s Creed has always been open-world, but that descriptor means something very different in 2020 than it did in 2007. Having borrowed more than a little bit from The Witcher 3, Origins, Odyssey and now Valhalla mixes series staples with vast, historically-inspired yet undoubtedly fantastical open worlds. Having thoroughly explored Ptolemaic Egypt and Classical Greece Ubisoft’s next destination is 9th Century Norway and England to play with the Danes, Norse, Saxons and Britons.

You play as Eivor, wolf-kissed, a fearsome warrior whose village was betrayed by a rival clan when they were a child, resulting in the death of their parents. Taken in by the raven clan, Eivor is raised alongside their adoptive brother Sigurd. As they come of age, Sigurd learns his heirdom is less secure than he thought and so decides to seek his fortune across the seas, with Eivor in tow.

Near the beginning of the game, you can pick to play as a male or female Eivor or let the animus choose their gender based on which memory strand is stronger at any given time. This is a weird mechanic that is explained away in-game as an animus glitch but I assume was put in to allow Ubisoft to pick and choose which voice actor’s take worked better in any given cutscene. I chose to play as lady Eivor and so will be using female pronouns from this point on.

Something I wanted to say up top is that I believe this is the first Ubisoft game to release with their revamped editorial team. This decision was made after a number of their games underperformed and were criticised for being too similar to each other. The leap in quality between their two flagship 2020 releases, Watch Dogs Legion and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, is enormous and I feel truly reflects this transitioning design philosophy.

Fundamentally Valhalla builds off the groundwork of Origins and Odyssey: a vast open-world with historical intrigue, real-world landmarks to explore and real-world people to murder and yet it manages to feel strikingly different to the previous two entries. Many different factors contribute to this whether it’s the soundtrack, the way each town, encampment, castle and NPC feels unique and grounded, the way your crew sing songs as you sail your longship down the rivers of England or the small and often bizarre events you can stumble across out in the world.

There is a deliberate effort this time around to immerse you further in the world. Quests will often (if you select this option upon starting a new game) give you directions like “west of this lake” or “where these two rivers meet” as opposed to just dropping a waypoint. Using your raven to scout is more useful than ever as it is required to see distant points of interest obscured by buildings, forests or mountains. To collect ore you must physically strike the node and you will sometimes need to break locks with a swing of your weapon or an arrow, or even throw an explosive oil jar to clear a path. These things may seem inconsequential but they go a long way to make exploration and problem-solving engaging.

There are new ‘world events’ that are small little stories you can usually start and finish within a few minutes (some within seconds) and aren’t even added to your quest log. They remind me somewhat of more fleshed-out Korok seeks from Breath of the Wild or the random encounters in Red Dead Redemption 2. Early on I came across a guard asleep on the job, Eivor tried and failed to wake him as the guard began sleep-walking towards a cliff. The guard eventually woke up midway down a zip-line, much to Eivor’s amusement. And that’s it, world event completed a bit of XP and on you go.

These little distractions are perfectly low-commitment yet still rewarding. Adding depth to the world, further incentive to explore and often a hearty dose of humour among all the murder and mayhem. Because they don’t go into your quest log you don’t get explicit instructions or waypoints. You simply have to work out what to do based on the circumstances before you, once again requiring active participation from the player.

There was one moment that left me grinning from ear to ear in a way this series hasn’t done since Brotherhood. I saw a marker on my compass for a piece of unique armour, the only problem was that it was clearly underground. I scoured the nearby church looking for some kind of stairway to a crypt, no luck. Then I remembered someone mentioning that Ledecestrescire was built on the ruins of Roman baths.

The ruins were located towards the back of town so off I went. I found a suspicious-looking hatch and dropped some cargo hanging above by shooting it with my bow. With a smash, a new passage opened before me. I leapt down into the gloom, bats fluttering out to greet me. I pull out my torch and walk into the darkness, burning away cobwebs and lighting braziers as I pass. I proceed into the next room and there in front of me is a banner displaying the emblem of the assassin’s order, I’d found a long lost bureau of the hidden ones. This is just one of several moments in the game where it conveys a real sense of being the first person in some time to venture there.

The issue with the likes of Watch Dogs Legion and even with Odyssey and Origins is that while there is plenty to do, none of it really feels worth the effort. You’re never incentivised to go off the beaten track because you know exactly what you’ll find there and it’s not that useful or exciting. In Valhalla, everything feels worthwhile and meaningful and, most importantly, as if it actually exists in this world, rather than it merely being a list of encounter and mission types. Once you’d seen one fort in Odyssey you’d seen them all, but here every raid, every encampment, every hovel and every crypt feels like an actual place, rich with history and secrets.

It certainly helps that England itself is so visually stunning. From verdant forests, fields bursting with brightly coloured flowers, to Saxon castles towering over Roman ruins, everything looks incredible. The most significant improvement from Odyssey would appear to be the lighting. Sailing down a misty river only to see the steeple of a church appear from the gloom as it’s struck by the morning sun is certainly a sight to behold.

Despite this, the game is still far too big to sustain this feeling of excitement across the 100+ hours it will likely take you to get through it. Even though I was still finding new kinds of activities out in the world after 20 hours of playing, there always comes a point with these big bloated games where my brain goes from “oh I wonder what’s over there” to “I just don’t care what might be over there”. I don’t know how Ubisoft determine how much content to put in or how long their stories will take to tell, but they could definitely afford to trim the fat.

Combat is largely the same as the two preceding games with a handful of key differences. There’s a lot more variety pretty much across the board: weapon and enemy types, abilities and perks. You have a light and heavy attack (right shoulder button and trigger respectively), but parrying with the left shoulder button is more important than ever. Enemies have an armour bar above their health that can be chipped away by parrying them and the less armour they have, the more their health will drop when hit.

The skills and abilities you can unlock are as fun as they are silly: target multiple enemies at once with your bow to shoot a billion arrows at once, summon a wolf companion to fight alongside you, dual wield heavy weapons (like spears and two-handed axes) or plant an explosive on a corpse that will detonate if an enemy tries to investigate, just to name a few.

The enemy types go beyond lightweight rogues, middleweight all-rounders and heavyweight brutes. Skirmishers will dodge your attacks, countering with a quick jab of their daggers, and will need to be parried if you hope to damage them.  Standard bearers hunker down behind enormous shields but are vulnerable if you can get at them from behind. Some will sling missiles at you and duck behind cover between shots and some soldiers will pick up a random discarded weapon just to catch you off guard.

Boss fights also feel far more polished than earlier entries. They largely have unique movesets, and some even have environmental elements to consider. As long as you aren’t under levelled and your gear is reasonably upgraded they won’t pose too much of a challenge, but they do at least feel significant as opposed to just a slightly difficult regular encounter.

The story is structured around self-contained arcs that take place in each region of England. You pledge yourself to a particular region and set off to form an alliance with whoever rules that land, whether it be an ealdorman or a king. This means Eivor meets a new set of characters with a new set of problems every couple of hours, which does wonders for pacing out the main narrative threads. It also stops your quest log getting overwhelmed with a billion things to do from every corner of the map as soon as you arrive in England.

For the most part, these episodes feature intriguing and engaging plotlines with enough variance to the gameplay to keep you on the hook. I really think that, for the most part, this structure works quite well for these seemingly endless games. That said, there are a handful of these arcs that take a noticeable dip in quality, whether it’s insufferable supporting characters or Eivor suddenly acting like an idiot, they absolutely do not hold up to the rest of the relatively well-written stories to uncover.

Within these mediocre arcs, there are a number of what were clearly meant to be pivotal moments that completely failed to connect with me emotionally. Eivor is endearing enough but her companions are inoffensive at best, outright unlikable at worst and so when these companions are under threat, or Eivor has to make a decision that may result in them coming to harm, I just didn’t care.

The writing just doesn’t put in the groundwork. There were particular moments where I could tell the game wanted me to be wringing my hands over some of these decisions, yet the correct path was always immediately clear to me. This underling who’s been talking shit about Eivor ever since arriving in England and saying Sigurd would’ve done this and Sigurd would’ve done that and accusing her of trying to usurp the clan from Sigurd? You’re damn right I’m gonna accept this duel to the death. Happily. My conscience is clear.

Eivor and the Raven clan settle a new village in England that can be upgraded and decorated. You can build the expected services like a blacksmith, barracks or shipyard, but also homes for the various townfolk, a museum for Roman artifacts and a cartographer among others. It’s a pleasant distraction and it feels great to return to your village between the larger story arcs.

Having a hub you can upgrade is something that was first introduced in Assassin’s Creed 2 and has always been something I’ve loved no matter what game it might feature in. Valhalla does a good job in general but it’s not perfect, it would be great if you could upgrade your settlement to have walls and a moat for example, and while it’s fun to see what a new building might look like, they all look quite similar in the end.

To upgrade your settlement you need to get supplies which can be found by raiding monasteries in your longboat. If you’re sailing along and spy one of these locations you can raid it, essentially sending your crew through, fighting soldiers, setting buildings alight and stealing supplies and riches. Much like the sieges that pop up every now and then in the story these events are largely superficial. They feel like a spectacle at first but do them once or twice and you notice how ‘video-gamey’ they are. Push the battering ram, open the gate, steal the treasure etc and try not to think about how these enormous sieges involve around 40 soldiers tops.

Aside from their shallow nature, the raids feel… odd, tonally speaking. Of course, Vikings would have done this sort of thing in reality yet that doesn’t automatically make it feel good to do in a game. Watching monks and farmers run and scream in terror at the sight of your longship reaching the shore doesn’t really make me feel like a superhero or a badass assassin. The animus threatens to ‘desynchronise’ you if you kill too many civilians and yet several missions in the main story of the game involve literally burning farming villages to the ground.

There’s obviously room in this medium for exploring the dissonance between the player and a character (The Last of Us: Part Two did this masterfully earlier in the year) however this is Assassin’s Creed and I doubt anyone, including Ubisoft themselves, would claim their aim here was to say anything deep and meaningful about modern morality versus that of a 9th Century Norsewoman. So where does that leave us?

It would be far easier to just switch my brain off and ignore this if it didn’t impact the main narrative too. Ivarr the Boneless (son of Ragnar Lothbrok) is a mainstay in a number of the regions storylines and is an absolutely insufferable psychopath. You, as Eivor, are never really given the choice of how to deal with him until it’s far too late, leading again to this weird grey area of Ubisoft clearly wanting a somewhat blank template (ala Geralt of Rivia) that the player can gradually mould a moral compass for, and yet also have them be a Viking who will happily torch villages and join Ivarr in suddenly attacking soldiers at a peace talk.

There’s a number of other, small flaws like a general jankiness which often accompanies open-world games of this size. Combat animations don’t always line up, a horse may come rampaging through the foreground of a cutscene, that sort of thing. The push/pull puzzles from Origins and Odyssey return and they are perhaps buggier than ever before. I gave up on multiple world events because of these damn movable shelf puzzles that just straight up didn’t work.

For whatever reason, the children characters have American accents which is extremely jarring amongst all the English, Scandinavian and French accents. Finally, the parkour is weirdly clunky with both the handling and accuracy just feeling off. This isn’t a game-breaking issue but after all this time you’d think they’d at least have this aspect down pat.

Looking at the three Assassin’s Creed games that have come out since the formula changed in 2017, Origins, Odyssey and now Valhalla each feels like a different take built off of the same foundation. Rather than taking two steps forward, each game has taken a step to the side followed by a single step forward. Valhalla definitely feels significantly different to the previous two, but this largely comes down to vibes and personality rather than any significant upheaval of the building blocks. It’s a silly, occasionally janky, often beautiful, undeniably bloated, consistently entertaining, tonally messy game that, at the end of the day, I had a lot of fun getting lost in.

Rating: 8/10

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla was reviewed on PC with a code provided by Ubisoft.