Assassin’s Creed Valhalla marks the third open world RPG entry in the franchise after Origins and Odyssey. It thrusts us into the Middle Ages in England using the Viking invasions as the overall setting. How well does being a sneaky assassin gel with raiding and pillaging?
Assassin’s Creed as a franchise has been in a weird place since it played around with the formula and moved more towards the open world action RPG style of gameplay seen in Origins and Odyssey. Both of those had issues with their design and narrative (especially Odyssey) that Valhalla immediately makes strides to try and resolve. In fact, Valhalla is trying its hardest to course correct and get Assassin’s Creed back to a more sensible baseline for both fans and newcomers alike.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla sees you revisiting the memories of Eivor, a Norse Viking of the Raven Clan as events transpire that force them to settle in England and form alliances. Once in England you’ll become aware of the Order of Ancients (the precursors to the series’ primary antagonists, the Knights Templar) as you are enlisted to help take them out.
One issue the game solves coming from the prior open world games is there are no more side quests. Instead, you now have world events and collectibles that are simply shown as coloured dots on the world map. This eliminates map clutter as well as encourages exploration as until you get close you won’t know exactly what is at each spot.
It could be a character with a quick request that would’ve been a side quest in earlier games or a side activity like a cairn stone puzzle or an Animus anomaly to solve. This helps tremendously in making the world more interesting to explore without it feeling so much like you are ticking off a checklist.
Traditional character levels also no longer exist. Whilst you still level up, you simply earn skill points that increase a power level as you spend them on the now much larger skill tree. Functionally this power level still functions as an artificial barrier to prevent you from going into higher level areas early although there is much more leeway in where you can go at any one time and I never had a problem with power level pacing, I was always at a suitable level to do what I needed for the story.
Speaking of the skill tree, it is now more reminiscent of something like that seen in Path of Exile. Instead of picking discrete skills as in Origins/Odyssey it is now a web of major and minor nodes split into three paths boiling down to Melee, Assassin and Ranged, with major nodes providing skills (a lot returning from Odyssey) and minor nodes providing stat increases.
This does allow for some freedom in choosing how you’d like to play by planning your route accordingly but in a really odd and arbitrary move, there is a fog in place that blocks off your view of the web until you approach an edge. This actively hurts your ability to see enough of the web at the start to figure out how you want to spend points but thankfully you can return all your points at any time (for free) once you’ve got a better plan in mind.
A big point was made about the return of social stealth in Valhalla, that being the ability to blend in and avoid conflict in built up areas. This basically manifests itself in a new area type, the distrust zone. Basically when in a town or city, you can wear your cloak’s hood to reduce your detection range enabling you to use tricks from earlier titles to aid in navigating these spaces without being spotted. Blending in with crowds or using benches, that kind of thing.
This does work quite well when it’s been designed into a mission’s structure but it’s rare to naturally work it to your advantage and it can feel quite limited. It’s great to see them attempt to bring it back but it’s clear it needs some work.
Combat is somewhat improved over Odyssey though, bringing back the abilities from that game mixed with a parry/dodge system that feels responsive in action. Sadly the animations can be a little clunky causing you to miss visual cues leading to you getting hit unfairly but overall it’s an improvement. It helps that enemies are no longer damage sponges too.
As well as side quests essentially evolving into things you come across whilst exploring, the main questline is also handled differently. As Eivor and the Raven Clan become accustomed to England you’re tasked with forming alliances around the country whilst you build up your settlement. This is done via separate story arcs for each county to gain friends and via raiding for supplies to build new structures at your settlement.
You decide which story arc you’d like to do from an alliance map in your settlement, and whilst there are a few points where you can do them in a different order, it is a mostly linear affair due to the power level of each county (although the power level as mentioned is fairly forgiving if you wanted to try your luck, I’d often go into a neighbouring county to grab viewpoints or a nearby treasure without much issue).
This makes the settlement a real home base and the heart of your adventures as you go off to complete an arc, you are away from your settlement exploring each area and solving a particular problem before returning. The game does a great job of making it feel like everything you do is feeding back into your settlement.
Whilst each story arc is interesting in itself, not all of them tie back into the core Assassin’s Creed narrative as much as you’d think leading to the middle of the game feeling a bit like it’s treading water. This isn’t helped by the game being quite long. My playthrough is currently around the 75 hour mark and I still have a decent chunk of side stuff to complete.
The one thing the game does wonderfully though is tie together the at times clunky and disparate elements of the series’ overarching story. It brings the current era of modern-day story (which bookends the bulk of gameplay) from Origins to a satisfying place to build from moving forward whilst also linking into elements from the original Assassin’s Creed trilogy.
Whilst you won’t please every fan of the series, the quality of the writing and how it brings everything together whilst tidying up elements that needed answers all whilst leaving questions of its own is hard to complain about. After the divisive Odyssey this is exactly what the series needed to get back on track.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla (Reviewed on Xbox One)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Assassin’s Creed brings beautiful English countryside to the masses whilst fixing a lot of the series’ recent missteps. Some genuinely fun and surprising moments with some great writing make for a fun time.