A curious behavioral pattern would begin expressing in 2017 wherein the official announcement of each main series Assassin’s Creed game would find me rebuking the experience ahead of time, eventually taking part in the 80-120 hour task of completing said game, and then rating it fairly average overall. Having completed Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla roughly one week ago we can safely say, this cyclic madness yet perpetuates. This is vaguely symptomatic of a distant nostalgic history, having enjoyed the brutally flawed and increasingly exploitative series from its first entry before eventually dropping off when the fifth main entry, Assassin’s Creed III, released in 2012. I’d moved on and played better games yet 50 BCE Egypt, 431 BCE Greece, and 873 CE England/Norway would prove far too enticing as periods of human history worth exploring. With decades of slightly horny historical fiction reading under my belt and some study of the philosophy and art arisen from those ancient cultures it made good sense to participate; Yet this, “Eh, I shouldn’t but I will” choice always comes at the cost of mild frustration with controls, boredom with tasks, and the hapless engagement with a concurrent science fiction narrative; Battling what is essentially an alien quasi-Christian corporate illuminati who persist with evil and greed for the sake of glowing alien orbs and computer Gods isn’t as cool as it sounds. The origin story of Scientology and Assassin’s Creed line up incredibly well, save a couple of Star Wars references from ol’ L. Ron. A glowing alien moralizing in defiance of evil greed and unchecked power has long proven a meaningful distraction from the fairly rote storylines and typically tragic endings that plague each game. In this sense Assassin’s Creed becomes the Bad Religion of open-world video game lineage, yes they were one of the first to get certain things right (be it harmonized melodic choruses or map reveals via outpost conquer) but if you’ve collected the entire catalog it becomes obvious when the gig was inspired and when it was just… another gig, another album, another world to set a vapid and half-finished cable TV show narrative within. There are a few hits in there but to sort out a flawless masterpiece might boil down to how much weight you give nostalgia, or recency.
To be fair, Ubisoft Montreal had largely gotten it right with Origins (2017) and its moderately sized world, reasonable goals, action RPG elements, satisfying combat and a decent story that follows your progress through the world, which was gated by the power level of various regions. Odyssey (2018) was just as endearing, even more beautiful, and somehow three times the size of its predecessor. The follies of past games in the series began to repeat: They had to go bigger because, well, video games are (generally speaking) a media created by and for young men with unsophisticated taste in narrative experiences. The right way to keep hold of that demographic is to make a grunting, “bro, I killed you!” shouting, blood-spraying action movie where a quest for identity ends in the arms of a happy family or… a heap of arrow-ridden honor. They’ve worn out the “estranged sibling” as a major point of motivation in the plot in the past yet, this trope has never been approached and characterized as poorly as it is in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. It would take me roughly two pages (or two paragraphs, eh?) to begin to detail the comparatively simple key plot points of Assassin’s Creed II but to be fair it took less than twenty hours to beat that game. In the case of Valhalla it certainly feels like absolutely none of its hundred hours goes anywhere until the last minute. There is no reasonable argument to be made as to why Valhalla couldn’t have been a great 15-20 hour action game with a couple of castle sieges and a final boss that forces you to learn how to time a parry.
Eivor Varinsdottir, a Norse vikingr circa ~860 CE witnesses his parents murder during a raid of their settlement in the midst of a celebration. He survives under the protection of an allied clan who took him in as a son. Fast forward to adulthood where you and your step brother Sigurd (whom saved your life) have been apart for a couple of years while he raided the “east” which is suggested as Turkey. For the entire game Sigurd serves as a sort of “touched” damsel in distress, a proud fool who has been convinced he has seen beyond the pale and discovered that he is a God, and of course he is accompanied by members of the Assassin’s Brotherhood. The two brothers reunite to avenge Eivor‘s fathers death and soon find themselves refusing to bend the knee for a fellow named Ragnar Lothbrok, who is seeking peace and unification of Norway under his rule. The duo instead decide to take a clan’s worth of folks to expand territory into England. This is where the plot essentially dies for 40-80+ hours depending on how thorough you are in gaining enough allies to proceed with the main story. You conquer England, oust the Order of the Ancients and ultimately leave the land open to conversion to Christianity. In the process Sigurd is captured, tortured, and has his arm cut off. Once freed and taken back to his settlement he once again proclaims he is a God, this time with a more bug-eyed look, eventually demanding to return to Norway where he leads Eivor into a cave… with a giant sci-fi apparatus that presents a computer simulation of endless partying and battling in Valhalla. At that point the plot merges the present day with the past by having one of the Hidden Ones (pre-Assassin’s Brotherhood) turn evil since he is the… reincarnation of Loki, seeking revenge for the death of his son Fenrir. You hook him up to the machine circa the 9th century, trapping him, and as we switch to the 21st century he is freed from the machine and his body is revived by the staff of Hermes which is alien-God tech; The protagonist in the present day sci-fi storyline decides to become absorbed into the ancient’s computer world (?) to help, I don’t know, save the world from a magnetic shield it produced to compensate for solar flares destroying the Earth… Without question, the whole thing is absolutely painful to sit through and parse while controlling a one-dimensional character (Eivor, who is canonically female?) whom is consistently shackled by loyalty to an insane man of no consequence.
Yeah, yeah, man I’ve tried following the future/present storyline of Assassin’s Creed for over a decade and I’m convinced even the folks who write it aren’t sure where it is going or what any of it really means. Though the official lore is self-assured, there isn’t a guiding moral voice or really any reason for the modern aspect of the story to exist. Anyhow, the point I’m making is that the events of the game and your interactions with Sigurd (which total at about five occasions) determine whether or not he stays in Norway or comes back to England with you, this is inconsequential because you only have the chance to speak with him in any detail twice and when this does happen persistent interruptions or entirely vague comments on Sigurd’s part block any story from developing. So, who cares? The story simply -refused- to tell itself at every turn. Whereas there might be five cursory quests, ten minutes worth of dialogue and several cut-scenes leading up to each of several multi-stage castle sieges in the game (think of the larger events in Shadow of War) somehow each quest featuring Sigurd amounts to some yelling, a profession of brotherly love and a decision to drop it because other things are more important. I felt closer to the gal who ran the tattoo shop in my settlement than I did to Sigurd. After I’d conquered every territory in the game, assassinated no less than 41 menaces from the Order of the Ancients, collected massive wealth, fought off entire armies of beasts and men, traveled to three continents (Norway, England, Vinland), personally burnt down at least twenty churches and sacked them of God’s loot to help build and upgrade an entire settlement… Was the caste of the settlement somehow more important than the merit involved in conquering fucking England while Sigurd claimed himself jarl (and a God) then sat in a corner looking perplexed? Is this meant to be comedic? Tragedian? Absurdity in every sense. Throughout the game Eivor remains loyal for the sake of brotherhood and family and yet Sigurd throws a barking fit at the slightest hint of disagreement, suggests betrayal if you lose your temper and talk out of turn, or if you happen to sleep with his wife. Well, that last part makes sense, but you… you get the idea. The slow-moving, uneventful plot wouldn’t be such an issue if it wasn’t gated behind a hundred hours of the usual repetitive tasks Assassin’s Creed is known for. A few of these tasks are great, some are frustratingly rote, and others just aren’t worth bothering with.
If you’ve not kept up with Assassin’s Creed since the somewhat underrated Syndicate in 2015 the entries beyond that point have essentially been open world action RPGs with a focus on armor sets, move sets, weapon types, and skill trees that enforce balanced decisions between stealth, melee combat, and a focus on archery techniques that work with either approach. Whereas Origins gave you a modest set of Order of the Ancients members to assassinate and a too-small skill tree its world provided a great variety of tasks and situations, making you work for your assassination investigations etc. It all worked remarkably well. With Odyssey the skill tree ballooned to ensure you’d have to scour all of the Greek isles to fill it out, it took too long. The list of Order of the Ancient assassinations you’d have to enact exploded by at least five times the previous game and the difficulty curve of the game became less pronounced due to much easier parries. It was fun to be sure, but extended by about 40 hours too long. Odyssey‘s simplified combat and its endless number of tasks are echoed in Valhalla but they’ve balanced the early game difficulty by setting the basic combat skills you’d otherwise get upfront behind a skill tree that hides in a fog until revealed by spending points. Need a “perfect dodge” move that allows you to get behind heavy shield bearers or quick swordsmen? You won’t know where that skill is until you’re fist deep into the agility section of the skill tree. Need to get an advantage over groups of enemies? You’ll have to explore the world and sack several camps/settlements before you find vital skill books which provide weapon skills for your loadout, such as a leaping hit or a fire branded weapon. This isn’t necessary a complaint, necessitating exploration does a fine job of ensuring the player sticks to the storyline early on and gains enough points to figure their approach to combat, in this case a mixture of parrying and dodging is essential for taking on the challenging mini-bosses, hunts, and large scale encounters that comprise the best moments of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. None of this is particularly complicated, there are no wrong choices on the skill tree and the game lets you auto-distribute points one by one for good reason, you’ll eventually get all of the important stuff as your power level should ideally be between 250-300 by the time the end game encounters kick in.
Odyssey introduced legendary animal hunts, difficult encounters which yielded trophies and provided some of the most redeeming challenges of that game’s combat system. This system returns somewhat pared down in Valhalla, instead of following clues around a location you can see where they are before you complete the map as they’ve been drawn in and growl when your cursor drags over their location. After stumbling upon three of them on my own (Stag, drunken bear, wolf pack) I decided to take a detour and fight the rest (Ice bear, moose, lynx pair, other wolf, boars, etc.) in a row and this meant some major difficulty bumps along the way. Valhalla won’t be fun if you decide to only stick with the areas that are within your power level! The best time I had with the game was challenging myself with combat that might kill me in just a few hits. Armor and weaponry might help but it all boils down to gaining certain skills (perfect dodge, leaping attack, multi-arrow headshots, etc.) and finding a loadout that can take on a whole settlement 40-50 levels higher than your own, much less a mythical beast. Why are the armor and weapon choices so barren? While Ubisoft continues to stock their cash-only paid cosmetic armor/DLC purchases at well over twice the amount of what exists in game, there are roughly nine six-piece sets of armor in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and it would take roughly 30 hours of in game time to find them without either a guide or paying your resident cartographer for their locations once you’ve explored those areas. Yes, strong gear is pay-gated and since it is quite obvious, the only real benefit to gear is the bonuses you get from wearing all five pieces (cowl, helmet, torso, pants, arms) of that set. If you stick with the Raven clan set of armor you’re given in the early hours of the game you can have it upgraded and viable for endgame within about 20-30 hours of main storyline progress. Equipment has various levels of quality and all can be upgraded to mythical quality provided you find enough tungsten and titanium during your ransacking. I chose an armor set you can acquire via Valhalla’s equivalent of Valkyrie fights in God of War (2018) the Daughters of Lerion who’ve each been spurned by Christian marauders of the Mercian empire for their pagan ways. Each one you fight drops a piece of Thor’s Armor set and a key to access a great treasure hoard which contains the helmet of the set. This armor set improves stun and dodge capabilities, which worked very well with the two-handed spear weapon type I’d used for the entire game. The only issue being that the final piece of the set won’t be yours until you’ve assassinated all 41 Order of the Ancients members, which isn’t possible until after Sigurd’s storyline is over. This lines up with finding the best spear in the game, the Gungnir. Fighting the Daughters of Lerion provided the strongest difficulty on the way to reaching ~350 power level from leveling up + upgrading gear and weapons.
In an effort to address the major complaints of Odyssey, too much everything, the designers of the gear and loot systems had to incentivize wealth and crafting materials instead of acquiring endless amounts of useless gear and spending 15 minutes recycling/selling that gear for every hour played. This sounds like a positive but it means that you will find roughly 15-20 unique weapons throughout the game and they are not to be sold, though you can buy some from vendors or… from the paid DLC store in the game. All paths lead to the paid DLC shop in this game and the only way to avoid this is to spend 120 hours discovering every inch of England. The actual choice of weapon becomes a matter of DPS and a decision whether to use a shield or not. I realized early on that two-handed weapons were generally quick enough for most situations and very capable of parrying, whereas blocking was cumbersome and a shield does not expand your parry window unlike Origins and Odyssey. There are tons of shields you can get throughout the game and I didn’t equip a single one, a defensive strategy simply makes no sense in a world where you are the viking aggressor, burning down villages, looting churches, and murdering lords. I chose spears for their moveset which allows for cheap and fast pokes that encourage a “stun” state where the enemy falls and is able to be stomped. In almost every case stomping an enemy either outright kills them or takes ~40% of their hit points. Although I tried the two-handed swords much of their power is negated by slow swings which are difficult to cancel when the need for a quick dodge might be the difference between life or… a two minute load time after death. Spears have been the strongest weapon of choice in these last three Assassin’s Creed games as the combination of power, reach, and quickness ultimately makes up for slightly less defense. This remains unchanged. The parry window is forgiving and most enemies that are any threat at all have unblockable skills you’ll have to dodge in order to have any advantage at all. What about hammers, clubs, maces, daggers and swords? These weapons cost more button presses per encounter, wield lower DPS, and less powerful finishers with longer animations. The one place I wouldn’t skimp is in choosing a bow type and upgrading it, make sure you’ve kept these up while balancing your upgrade resources for rations (number of heals) and quiver (number of arrows) because each become absolutely vital before you’ve crossed the 200 power level threshold of difficulty.
All things accounted for I spent a total of ~114 hours playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and that includes roughly 28 hours in the opening section of Norway underpowered and completing all objectives possible as I put off the trip to settle in England. This lead to the discovery of my first legendary animal hunt, several secret areas with challenging drengr (warrior) fights, plenty of unique quests that seemed unusually detailed for an Assassin’s Creed game, and a truly beautiful area to approach with wonder. One moment I was trying to find a witch’s hut to prevent a lord from murdering her, the next I was beset by a pack of imposing and intelligent wolves who’d been hunting a deer. I was completely impressed by the setting, the flyting challenges to gain charisma, the mead drinking contests, the longboat with its viking songs and stories, and I’d even happened upon a higher difficulty area where fighting groups of soldiers (who represented five general classes of enemy warriors) presented a real test for stealth, combat skills, and such. You will never stop leveling up in Valhalla, in fact for every 2-3 minor encounters or village you sack there is generally at least one level in the outcome and this includes every side-quest or minor task, these are divided into acquisition of artifacts, mysteries to investigate, or acquisition of wealth. Each of these involves some manner of simple deduction that almost passes for light puzzle solving, by the end of the game you will look at each city not for their beauty or their population but for the openings in each building that allow you to shoot a lock out through a window, break through the floor, or sneak through a secret cave to acquire goods or side-quests. This is the worst part of Valhalla, realizing that up to sixty hours of the experience is travel time + stealing silver goods and gear from every corner of every town. Some of this goes into upgrades for the settlement but these only enable better feast boons, the ability to reach higher gear upgrade levels, and the ability to buy maps that pinpoint wealth/skill books without the need for endless searching. You can also pay wandering strangers with question marks over their heads to acquire the locations of gear, weapon skill books, and whatnot. If you hunt every animal and acquire their unique drops, the hunting lodge will give you tattoo designs, crafting materials and money for turning them in. If you fish in every body of water in the game and spend hours acquiring all fish types, you’ll get similar rewards of cosmetics and such nonsense. I’m going into such a list of tasks to illustrate that first there is so much to do and all of it seems fun enough but when the scope of England’s tasks overwhelm it becomes obvious that the developers don’t expect the average player to complete even half of their cut-and-paste content. An abundance of currency and upgrade materials becomes non-functional since you cannot use any of it to buy equipment sets or weapons, likewise your settlement is upgraded via the spoils of raids, which typically aim for Christian churches in conquest of loot. It is impossible to play Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla for an excess of 40 hours and -not- become overpowered.
Upgrading your settlement ultimately serves a similar purpose to that of Assassin’s Creed II, a hub to check in on your collectibles, upgrade shops, and provide a quest giving area to launch from. This is a nice change of pace from the nomadic exploration of the previous two games and it allows some of the better traits of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag to shine here, minus the ship battles. Filling a longboat with warriors and raiding offers a minor challenge wherein the game suggests you approach settlements (usually abbeys) by boat through the plentiful channels England has to offer and ransack them. Want to shoot out church windows? Want to kill priests? Want to bankrupt the greedy Christians of auld England? No matter how you answered, this part of the game is mandatory to some degree. This was good fun to start but alas, in an effort to ensure you cannot upgrade your settlement too quickly Valhalla limits the number of possible raids to about 15-20 locations on the map and this task is soon worn out; Wealth does not replenish in these areas. To address this, the development team have introduced an endgame level gated challenge mode entitled uh, Raids where you leave the main game area to explore ‘hidden’ parts of England and raid along rivers with a Jomsviking crew you’ve hired along the way. This introduces permadeath for your hired vikingr troops and allows you to gain unique currency to build and upgrade a new hall of warriors and gain cosmetics for the boat. While this may extend the life of the game considerably since it offers a roguelike sort of challenge to an under-emphasized part of the main game, it quickly becomes obvious why the repetitive nature of raids aren’t such an important part of the main game. Yes, Ubisoft have monetized this as well. You’ve gotten the gist of it then, there are an impossible number of tasks to complete and there isn’t such a glowing reward for doing even a third of all of it. You’ll have to manage your time accordingly and pick which diversions are fun and/or worth their reward. Which parts are fun beyond legendary animal hunts, castle sieges, boss fights/assassinations, and general exploration? Well, the hallucinatory trips to Asgard, Jotunheim, and the side-quests in the similarly small area of Vinland present bite-sized areas with contained narratives that allow for some of the best storytelling and exploration in the game. You won’t access these areas of the game without several hours devoted to raiding. They’re worth it, though. A simple change in setting does wonders in providing a break from the increasingly bland expanse of England’s countryside even if the tasks are ultimately no different. The planned DLC for the game seems to suggest there will be several more detours of this kind into France, Ireland, and a smaller questline focusing on the legend of Beowulf. Yet after 114 hours I’ve gotten my fill of these scenarios, dry voice acting, and uninspired storyline. The same way I wasn’t into Vikings (the TV show) after the second season I’ve no interest in seeing a decent idea dragged on endlessly through various predictable territories.
The story is a dud and expectations were admittedly low to begin with yet the church-burning viking raider cosplay is infinitely fun. The gameplay is gear towards the lowest common denominator in most respects yet you’ll have to earn an overpowered build and hey, combat is generally a good time. It does not reach as satisfying a peak as the previous two entries did but the number of combat encounters in Valhalla ensure that it feels different in a reasonable way. Scenery is generic in settlements and beautiful in nature, and a densely populated map engorged with tasks ensure you’ll never run out of things to do… even if it breaking and entering does eventually become mind-numbing beyond belief. What good there is within the whole of the experience is balanced out by equal bad and in the realm of low-bar/high budget video games that typically equals a “good” game. In the case of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla the “good and the bad” considered leaves us with the series’ signature pleasant mediocrity shared among the majority of its 22 entries. You could play it for the light challenge or honestly just for the scenery and it’d definitely be worth $19.99 when it inevitably goes on sale later this year.
|TITLE:||ASSASSIN’S CREED: VALHALLA|
|PLATFORM REVIEWED:||Playstation 4 Pro|
|RELEASE DATE:||November 10th, 2020|
|BUY:||AC: Valhalla Website|
Action Role-Playing Game
<strong>Help Support Grizzly Butts’ goals with a donation:</strong>
Please consider donating directly to site costs and project funding using PayPal.