Assassin's Creed Valhalla Review

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review

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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla fully embraces the series’ heritage. The 12th major Assassin’s Creed game shows a keen awareness of the history and gameplay innovations of the saga, and it feels like a love letter to the franchise as a whole. This makes the game a far more rewarding experience for longtime fans, though newcomers can still enjoy Valhalla’s combat, emphasis on exploration, and mystery-driven narrative without years of time spent in the Animus.

In Valhalla, you once again play as present-day protagonist Layla Hassan, who’s still a bit shaken up after the unfortunate events at the end of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s second DLC, The Fate of Atlantis. Understandably ostracized from her old team, she’s now partnered with fellow Assassins Shaun Hastings and Rebecca Crane. The trio find themselves facing the daunting task of needing to save the world, and their only clue as to how is a mysterious message of unknown origin that contains coordinates to a grave. With no other leads, Layla hops into the Animus machine with a DNA sample taken from the skeletal remains, allowing her to relive their life in the distant past. This time she’ll be Eivor, a Viking who lived during the ninth century.

The Assassin’s Creed games have traditionally struggled with the modern-day storyline that runs alongside the stories that take place in the past, and Valhalla is no different. However, its modern-day plot is the most focused it has been in years. There’s a clear and present danger, and a nice setup for the throughline of the game’s campaign: the concept of fate.

However, the same care is not extended to Valhalla’s secondary main character Layla, whose arc in this game concludes in a way that doesn’t feel earned. For a game all about fate and the consequences of trying to break free of it, Layla ends up feeling like a passenger more than the driver of the story. Given the lack of evolution in her character over her multiple appearances, her defining quality has become the bull-headed nature she exhibited in Origins and Odyssey. Thus, her characterization in this game seems all the more contradictory, leaving the modern-day storyline with a bit of an unsatisfying feeling. Thankfully, Layla isn’t Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s primary main character, and Eivor more than picks up the slack when it comes to story.

Vinland Saga

Eivor is portrayed as female in the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Song of Glory comic, which feels like a more natural choice for the character, so that’s how I played them. However, you can choose to play as a male version instead, or have the Animus choose for you, which changes Eivor’s gender at certain points throughout the campaign (and you can switch among all three options whenever you want). A Viking raider, Eivor is a leader of the Raven Clan alongside her adopted brother, Sigurd. At the start of Valhalla, Eivor has a vision that foretells she will meet a terrible fate. Before she can make proper sense of the more minute details of the vision, however, Sigurd decides to leave Norway for England, prompting her to follow. The two reestablish themselves but find their new home is now located at the centerpiece of several wars. Sigurd sets out to ally with each of England’s four kingdoms (Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia) in order to carve out a safe plot of land for the clan, leaving Eivor behind to oversee their growing settlement and only calling on her when he’s in need of her strength or cunning intellect to put the final touches into securing a new alliance.

Thus, Valhalla’s story plays out over a series of self-contained narrative arcs–a first for Assassin’s Creed. By talking to Sigurd’s wife, Randvi, you can choose which of Sigurd’s leads to pursue next, which kicks off a two-to-three-hour story. Upon completion, you return to Randvi to report on what transpired, invest any collected resources into the settlement, and then pick the next narrative thread.

This structure works both for and against Valhalla’s story. Once an arc is done, it’s done–certain characters can come back in later arcs, but that very rarely happens. This opens up Valhalla to several different types of storytelling styles as well as different stories. It’s not one large campaign of subsequent events but many events that loosely tie together–it’s like Valhalla is divided into dozens of large-scale side quests. To the game’s benefit, this means that if a specific narrative arc has characters or gameplay you don’t necessarily enjoy–like, oh, I don’t know, searching for some annoyingly hard-to-find environmental clues in order to figure out who amongst your group is a traitor–you know that once the arc is over, you’re likely never going to have to engage with that pocket of England ever again. The story will soon move past that arc and then largely act like it never existed, giving you new characters to meet and mission structures to engage with. However, this works against the game too, as anything you like won’t last either.

The biggest detriment of the self-contained arcs is the somewhat shallow supporting cast. Because characters typically only stick around for a few hours, there isn’t much time for development. And where there is any, it’s rushed. I’ve seen a stalwart man who stubbornly maintains that the pagan Danes should be forced to believe in God change his tune after a night of drinking with Eivor and being kidnapped. Now, don’t get me wrong, I can buy into someone changing who they are, but to see your entire set of morals do a 180 in a matter of hours defies belief. Rapid shifts in perspective and principles like this occur in other places throughout the campaign too, and they’re usually just as unbelievable. Romances, especially, suffer for this. Unlike Odyssey’s Kassandra/the other guy, Eivor can enter into long-term relationships with certain characters, regularly visiting them for dates and smooches. It’s all very shallow, though, and, save for one (which I cannot talk about but holy crap the audacity of it makes it wonderful), they don’t have any meaningful impact on Eivor’s story.

Eivor's longship is the fastest way to travel to new locations.
Eivor’s longship is the fastest way to travel to new locations.

Eivor is the one who bucks the trend for Valhalla’s paper-thin characters. We spend nearly 70 hours with her, so she does have a well-written character arc that’s allowed to evolve at a believable pace. Eivor’s primary motivation is to avoid her fate. Though her actual character is already established–she is a brash warrior and quick to anger, but also loyal to her clan, cunning, and a poet at heart–you get to push and prod at her thoughts and actions. Eivor wants to avoid being remembered as a shameful traitor, and you get to influence how far she’s willing to go to ensure that outcome.

The decisions you make determine how others–especially Sigurd–view Eivor, which can result in slight alterations to how certain arcs (and the campaign as a whole) end. They’re small changes that avoid outright redefining the timeline of real human history, instead focusing on giving you the room to somewhat shape Eivor into your desired protagonist. For example, incorrectly deducing the identity of a traitor in one of the later arcs caused one of my allies to ultimately be shot, seemingly gravely so as I never heard from them again. Your decisions can impact gameplay too; for instance, after sparing one of the early game bosses, the man rewarded me for my kindness by telling me how to prevent Eivor’s name from being added to the list of targets that the wandering Zealots hunt. Had I killed him, I would have never learned this information, and the group of some of Valhalla’s most dangerous and powerful enemies would have hunted me throughout the rest campaign.

Though Eivor is the only character that really benefits from it, this storytelling structure works out for Valhalla. With a main campaign that clocks in at 65 hours, dividing Valhalla into more digestible two-to-three-hour stories helps you get through the whole thing. There are clear stopping points in the campaign, which help pace the story so that it’s not immediately jumping between too many high-key set pieces in short succession or going long stretches with nothing happening. Its pacing still isn’t without its issues–Valhalla takes way too long to get to the more exciting and intriguing, nuanced arcs. I remember thinking, “Oh, wow, this game is actually starting to get really freakin’ good,” and then seeing I was already 15 hours in. Once it hits its stride with memorable arcs and more things to do in the settlement, Valhalla starts to exhibit the kind of confidence you’d expect in the third go at the new open-world RPG style of Assassin’s Creed, but it just takes a long time to get to that point.

To bring peace to England, Eivor will travel as far as the snow-covered kingdom of Northumbria.
To bring peace to England, Eivor will travel as far as the snow-covered kingdom of Northumbria.

Initially limited to a choice of only a couple of alliances to pursue, your options of possible missions quickly balloons after the first 15 hours, with Randvi giving you several points of interest on your map. The game does encourage you down a pretty specific path–you may have four possible alliances to go after but maybe only two are within areas that match your current power level, for example. And the game doesn’t give you every possible alliance at once. You’re usually given them in batches of two to four, and get a new batch when the current one is complete. There are exceptions–you get some alliances early on that are located in very high power level areas, showcasing missions you should be working towards, not jumping at immediately. But this is more a suggestion than direction. You can go after alliances well above your power level if you want. As far as I can tell, you can go anywhere on the map as soon as you establish your settlement in England, even if the story isn’t pointing you in that direction yet. Your attack damage and health will just be lower than what is advised. But even that can be fun. I’ve gone after a few alliances where Eivor would die in one or two hits from the high level enemies, pushing me to really learn the exact timing needed to dodge and deflect attacks. Regardless of what order you choose, you’ll eventually make some sort of alliance with or conquer every part of England before the campaign is done. None of the missions that Randvi brings you are optional–you’ll do all of them eventually.

Eivor’s lasting impact, or the potential for it, is an effective driving force to carry you through to this end. Figuring out how a random Viking from the 800s will save the world in 2020 is an intriguing proposition, especially since Valhalla does such a good job laying breadcrumbs of knowledge and small revelations throughout its runtime to keep you chasing the answer to that question. The game quickly lays out that it’s who Eivor is and what she ultimately does that is important, but then deftly sets up several possibilities. Eivor begins to become a respected leader and partner to Randvi in overseeing the settlement, an almost legendary warrior when acting in Sigurd’s name and securing alliances, and an Assassin as she hunts for the Order of Ancients (precursors to the Templar Order) alongside the Hidden Ones (precursors to the Assassin Brotherhood). All the while, she tries to piece together the true meaning of her visions alongside Valka, the Raven Clan’s seer, who talks Eivor through her emotional and mental turmoil. All of these plotlines mix together to form Valhalla’s main campaign, informing Layla (and by extension, us) as to who Eivor is, while providing the clues needed to put together how everything in the franchise adds up. I love that, even once it’s shown its entire hand, Valhalla doesn’t actually explain everything. It just gives you pieces that are there to put an answer together.

Eye Of The Beholder

There’s actually quite a bit of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla that isn’t explained, and the game is better for it since there’s just so much to discover. For example, several characters and notes comment on the Hidden Ones existing in England years prior; you’re told the group had six bureaus but that’s about it. There are no waypoints and no direction for where to find one. And until you actually stumble upon one, it’s not even really clear that you can find them. You know how I’ve found a few? Deductive reasoning. I opened my map, looked at the places I had visited, and thought like a Hidden One based on my understanding of them from previous games. The group likes to operate near cities of prominence, and since I knew they had last been in England when Rome ruled the country, I looked at cities built in the shadows of Roman ruins–specifically ones that seemed to have small buildings near the outskirts of the city. Within an hour, I found three bureaus. Inside, I discovered pieces of Hidden One armor–my favorite piece that I’ve found thus far is a cloak that gives Eivor the cool-looking beaked hood that’s traditionally worn by the protagonists of the Assassin’s Creed games.

Valhalla trusted me to think like an explorer, to put myself in Eivor’s shoes as she navigates and attempts to understand this new, unfamiliar world. The game’s take on ninth-century England feels like an actual world to explore, which is a manageable task since you’ll largely be sticking to contained areas for a narrative arc, then moving to a new location for the next one. Valhalla is the first Assassin’s Creed game in a while where the main campaign saw me explore nearly the entire space. There are still plenty of pockets I’ve only sailed by and haven’t actually walked through yet, but I finished the campaign feeling I had a solid grasp on the world I had explored. This is still a Ubisoft game that’s packed with waypoints to follow for the main campaign and side missions, but in Valhalla, they’re also designed to encourage you toward discovery–and the game has such wonderful, heartbreaking, hilarious, and intriguing things to look for. Sometimes, it’s merely gameplay items like the aforementioned Hidden One’s hood, but it can just as often be something that’s technically useless but goes a long way towards filling in the gaps of what’s happened in England prior to Eivor’s arrival. If I weren’t playing through the game for review on a deadline, my final playtime for Valhalla would have been much higher. I wanted to go off the beaten path more often than I had time for.

Eivor will temporarily align with the Hidden Ones, if only to eradicate the Order of Ancients and make England safe for her clan.
Eivor will temporarily align with the Hidden Ones, if only to eradicate the Order of Ancients and make England safe for her clan.

Though Eivor is characterized as a bit of a lone wolf, her journey across England won’t always see her travel alone. The easiest way to reach the furthest corners of England is sailing along the country’s vast system of rivers and swamps via longship. Valhalla doesn’t really do naval combat (you can shoot your bow from the ship to snipe soldiers on the shore); instead, your ship is primarily a means of transportation. It also livens up an otherwise lonely adventure–you can ask your crew to sing or tell stories. There’s something so relaxing and peaceful about sailing through the grassy countryside of Mercia or past the ice-covered mountains of Northumbria as your clan of fellow Vikings bellow out a song.

As much as I enjoyed discovering what England had to offer, there is one aspect of exploration that is a little grating: puzzles. Valhalla has several types of puzzles, the most common being obstacles that block your path. Sometimes it’s a lock that needs a key or a barred door where you need to shoot the plank keeping it shut. And sometimes it’s racing around an entire castle for several minutes screaming, “Where’s the f*****g pot?” in what seems like a tedious search for the one flammable oil jar that you need to pick up and slowly walk to the crumbling wall or floor you have to blow up. This kind of puzzle is a momentum killer–the most deadly assassin of them all.

Hammer Of The Gods

It’s in combat that you find the most agency in how you shape Eivor. Earning skill points allows you to invest in the constellation-like skill tree, further buffing Eivor in the Way of the Raven (stealth combat skills), Way of the Bear (melee combat skills), and Way of the Wolf (ranged combat skills). The constellation of lines twist and turn on one another, allowing you to easily double-back and invest in more than one tree, while also having different branches of each tree cross over for more interesting build opportunities. You can respec Eivor’s skills at any time for free, allowing you to easily reshape her if one combat style isn’t to your liking.

Regardless of where you put your skill points, Eivor is a badass raider who dual-wields weapons with a frenzied intensity. Valhalla encourages you to fight aggressively. Eivor doesn’t regenerate health, and your healing rations are limited, so it’s in your best interest to end fights as quickly as possible by assassinating an opponent or disrupting the tempo of their attacks with powerful strikes, counters, or blocks. Button mashing will deliver you to an early grave; strategically playing to your strengths is the only way to succeed against tougher foes.

This is Halloween, this is Halloween!
This is Halloween, this is Halloween!

You can also fight enemies with social stealth, a former core mechanic of the Assassin’s Creed franchise that hasn’t been seen since 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. When entering cities where Eivor isn’t a trusted face, she dons a hood and wraps a cloak around herself. Choosing to drop the hood, sprint, bring out your weapons, climb structures, or do pretty much anything that an average person wouldn’t do will draw attention, especially from those who want to kill you. This is used to great effect in some of the more tense story arcs, where Eivor is hunting members of the Order of Ancients in cities that the group or an enemy king controls, forcing her to stick to crowds, parkour across rooftops, utilize drunks to cause a distraction, and blend into the scenery until she can close in on her target and shank them with a hidden blade.

However, Eivor’s parkour mechanics aren’t as good as those seen in some of the previous games (Assassin’s Creed Unity still reigns supreme in this regard), so Eivor can feel a bit clunky when trying to stealth. It’s frustrating when you accidently jump to your death because Eivor didn’t quite snap to the next rooftop, or you are noticed in a crowd because–without a way to force Eivor to walk slowly–you push the thumbstick just a centimeter too much and send Eivor into a suspicious jog. I’m overjoyed to see social stealth return to Assassin’s Creed, but since Valhalla’s controls sometimes work against you, it occasionally feels like it would be easier to announce yourself and kill everyone in the vicinity instead. And if you want to do that, that’s fine–Valhalla does not immediately fail you for being detected.

An End, But Also A Beginning

Although the Assassin’s Creed franchise will no doubt continue, there is a real sense of finality to Valhalla’s main campaign. Valhalla brings together dozens of narrative threads–enough context is provided for newcomers to understand the general gist of what’s going on, but even longtime fans may want to refresh themselves on the lore of the previous games to get everything out of Valhalla. It references nearly every mainline game in the franchise to tell you how they all connect, unifying a series that has largely felt separated into two distinct halves: the Desmond-Miles-saves-the-world era and the newer, more directionless one of 2013-2018.

There have been so many lingering threads since Desmond’s death, and only more have been created with the introduction of the Sages, new Pieces of Eden, the origins of the Assassin Brotherhood and Templar Order, and the now fairly convoluted modern-day storyline. Valhalla resolves all of this in an incredibly satisfying way. It does for the series what Assassin’s Creed III did back in 2012: It clears the board while also paving the way for something brand new.

Despite its strong connection to past games, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is more than capable of standing on its own. It takes a little while to build momentum, but when it hits its stride, Valhalla is a confident Assassin’s Creed title that takes a few narrative risks which, as a whole, pay off. Eivor is a good hero with an identity that drives the mystery behind the main narrative, and she shines in the self-contained arc structure of Valhalla’s story. The supporting cast may not shine as brightly, but it’s easy to forgive that when exploring England and discovering new nuggets of worldbuilding is so rewarding.

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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review

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