Assassin’s Creed Valhalla continues Ubisoft‘s popular franchise taking players to England during the tail-end of the Viking invasions. While the last two games showed us a time way before the conventional Assassin versus Templar conflict, Valhalla takes us closer than ever to familiar territory by a few hundred years, while still maintaining the proto-Assassin theme. That said, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has its work cut out for it most especially in the narrative department. Can they succeed? Let’s find out.
Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla takes you to various locations with very different landscapes. Starting in snowy Norway, all through the mud of Anglo-Saxon England, you get to see a variety of infrastructure. You’ll see Dane and Saxon long-houses, peasant huts, medieval churches and abbeys, Roman ruins, Saxon forts, sacred sites and rivers. This mix of architecture culminates in Lunden (old London), which sees Saxon infrastructure built on top of Roman ruins, making the whole city look beautifully messy.
It’s not just the architecture, the graphics in Valhalla really does look better than at least it’s last two entries. It is, by far, the best-looking game, with arguably the best-looking cut-scenes in the series. It’s not perfect, especially playing in the PS4, but it holds its own. The main characters’ models are standard Ubisoft design BUT with a lot more details. Gaudy, other-worldly outfits are kept to a minimum, which adds to the grounded feel of the game.
That said, the NPCs still look fairly standard, with lots of faces and hair-styles being replicated across various characters. I swear I saw the character model for the Templar “The Leech” being recycled for an NPC in another part of the map. It’s very missable though, and I never saw it again when I returned to that town. Also, facial expression during in-game dialogue is wooden at best, emotionless at worst. It’s actually a mercy how much conversations in the game are made during cut-scenes.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has a lot of technical issues it needs to fix. There is a fair amount of audio clipping usually when a cut-scene loads while a character is speaking. The clipping sort of continues even through it which can be jarring. Another technical issue I encountered are frame-rate drops, which isn’t as bad as the audio clipping, but could have been better. I expect this problem to not appear on next gen.
Another problem that is fairly common now that game devs are working with next generation console versions is that amount of pop-ups in the game. It’s not game-breaking, but the odd tree or two will suddenly pop out of nowhere. I have also experienced a huge amount of crashes since update 1.0.2. I stopped counting at four, and I really hope Ubisoft fixes this immediately. It hasn’t affected progression, but it does hurt the experience.
One of the supposed improvements for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the combat, where they redesigned it so that the hits can have “weight” in them. To a degree, they accomplished that, but there is a downside to it as well. Hits do have weight, and finishers are especially satisfying, but it is now trickier to defend. The L1 trigger has two purposes: defending, and using the left arm. Unfortunately, this dual purpose sometimes gets in the way during combat. For example, holding L1 with another bearded axe equipped will make Eivor do successive smashes with both hammers which is a move designed to destroy shields. But often, what Eivor does instead is to bring her arm up to “block”. Given that some attacks are unblockable, that means I’m open to these strikes even though I’m not supposed to be.
Also, general melee can be unweildy and chaotic. Valhalla took a page out of The Witcher 3 by having enemy types with different strengths, weaknesses and tactics, which is good, but in a general melee, it can be annoying. I think it’s about time Ubisoft tries to develop a system that accommodates battle formations. Battles during this period do employ shield walls, spear walls, skirmishes and the like. I feel that not doing that in this game was a missed opportunity.
On the plus side, raiding is fun, and doing so will net you much-needed resources to further develop your settlement called Ravensthorpe. It’s not a mechanic that was just tossed in because it’s a game with Vikings, these raids are there for a purpose. In fact, each mechanic in the game has its purpose that helps you in various ways. Improving Ravensthorpe means that you’ll get access to services like a tatoo and barber shop, a blacksmith, a store, farms and other houses that increase the buffs during feasts. Resources also improve your equipment: no longer are items locked behind levels, you can choose to improve your gear, and them have the blacksmith upgrade its class, allowing you to improve it further.
Side activities add to the fun in Valhalla. While you don’t really have to master them all, doing so every now and then helps as a “break” from the raiding and king-making you will be doing. Some of these mini-games even reward you with a clue to your next target, but most of the times, I like doing them because they’re flesh out my character. Eivor feels as much alive when she’s drinking or feasting or playing games just as she does raiding and lopping off heads.
Stealth matters in Assassin’s Creed once again. The return of the hidden blade means that you can clear outposts and forts stealthily, softening it for a main mission or when you’re up to the challenge. There are areas with “Distrust Levels” where you will need to use your cloak to minimise suspicion or emply social stealth when and if it is available. Enemies are not outright hostile, but they will be watching you. I personally prefer the stealth approach myself, running over the roof-tops, but either way, stealth kills are so satisfying. And speaking of stealth kills, you can choose whether you’ll have the mini-game for assassinating higher level targets, or you’ll prefer the classic instant-kill approach. I chose the latter, because it doesn’t make much sense for human beings to survive a stab at the neck.
Character and skill progression returns, but are reworked to minimize the grind. Each “level-up” gives you two skill points which you can use to purchase skills which increase your power level. Abilities are unlocked by looking for books of knowledge, which encourages you to look around and explore. But I like how the skill-tree was designed, and how it really buffs your character up. It feels so much better than having to reach for a level number without the faintest idea how each level-up actually improves you. Also, this allows you to control your progress by choosing to buff up melee attacks or skills in a particular weapon, or unlocking a new adrenaline slot.
Exploration has been revamped and is one of my favorite parts in Valhalla. Instead of selecting an icon on the map, a lot of the treasure, hidden locations, gear and weapons, and targets, have to be tracked via clues. It might be frustrating to a completionist, but it only means that I have to take it slow and prioritize some missions first before I try looking for the most powerful axe. While Eivor has an avian friend like Senu and Ikaros to help her in exploring and scouting, your raven does not mark targets or treasure for you. Targets are for the returning “Eagle Vision” called “Odin’s Sight” in this game. You still are going to use your raven to scout and look for resources, but at least it makes the player work hard instead of just going from point A to point B.
On the negative side, some animations do not feel dynamic. Targeting during general melee is an issue, and sometimes context buttons don’t work like they’re supposed to. For the latter, I really dislike how they still retained being able to slide over and under obstacles with the circle button, but sometimes, it doesn’t do that because tapping the O button also makes you go low profile. Bad for when I’m running away from someone, and instead of going over an obstacle, Eivor just suddenly stopped to crouch.
The final and largest part of this review is dedicated to the story. Most Assassin’s Creed fans have always loved the games more for the stories and its protagonist than anything else. It’s also something that Ubisoft has been struggling with in this console generation. It’s not that the games from Unity to Odyssey had been bad games, but they certainly felt all-over the place. My issues with Unity, for example, is that its side stories don’t follow any chronological structure, which ended up with me moving Mirabeau’s ashes before he died in the main story. In Syndicate, you don’t get the sense of why the Frye twins are doing what they’re doing, and while the final few missions did provide a structure (hint: a Piece of Eden), I don’t even know why they wanted Crawford Starrick except because he’s a Templar?
In Origins, I absolutely loved Bayek and Aya’s story, which is one of loss, and finding a sense of purpose. But in Odyssey, there’s Kassandra being a Misthios and fighting both sides of the Peloponnesian War, which became a hunt for members of the Cult of Kosmos, which became a hunt for the Order of Ancients, which became a simulation of the downfall of the Isu (yes, that’s all in that one game). They were all fun when I played them, sure, but you get the sense that the series is starting to not feel like Assassin’s Creed, even as the games do provide crucial, important expositions to the lore.
I feel that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the bridge that will connect these three relatively “pre-historic” games, with where the Assassin-Templar conflice was during the first game. Playing as Eivor, a drengr (warrior) of the Raven Clan, you accompany your brother Sigurd as he makes a new settlement in England before going off to his own journey with Basim, a member of the Hidden Ones. Tasked with improving Ravensthorpe into a bustling community, Eivor must raid for resources, build alliances with neighbors, all the while trying to understand why she’s been having visons of Odin and the other gods in the Norse pantheon. Through her interaction with allies and the Hidden One, Hytham, she cosses paths with, and kills off members of the Order of Ancients.
I like Eivor as a character. She reminds me a lot of Connor Kenway in that she has a clear sense of right and wrong while still being basically a hot-head. The Animus allows you to determine which gender you will play Eivor as though it provides a third canonical option to allow the Animus to choose for itself based on the stronger “data stream”. I cannot reveal why Eivor switches genders, but it is tied to an important part of the story in the game. Eivor is both builder and destroyer, a warrior, and peacemaker, but like many of the old heroes of Assassin’s Creed, she’s doing what she does all for Ravensthorpe and her clan.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has a really good story structure, intertwining Eivor’s twin aims of securing the future of Ravensthorpe and finding out and assassinating members of the Order of the Ancients. Members of the Order are major antagonists in the story, and their back stories and motives exposed via the old “Memory Corridor” after being killed, add a new dimension to either the current mission, the world, or sometimes both. The story structure and side missions remind me of The Witcher 3, in that they are all interconnected, even if they seem like the usual Assassin’s Creed side-quest. Frankly, I was stunned when I realized that one particular location and mission has ties to Assassin’s Creed III.
I was totally not expecting it, and made me want to search the world for more connections to previous titles.
It was as if Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is going out of its way to connect back to the old Assassin-Templar conflict by sprinkling the game with these connections even as it is trying to tell its own story. Lunden, for example, reminded me of Rome in Brotherhood, and Constantinople in Revelations. Both feature the ruins of Imperial Rome mixed with the structures of their new owners, and Eivor tries to do Lunden’s inabitants’ good just like Ezio did with Rome and Constantinople. But their imagery also represents the series itself, which is that civilizations are built on top of old ones, for better or for worse. And that those bygone empires themselves were built atop of even older ones all the way to the Isu, the game’s precursor civilization.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a reflection on the road the franchise has taken since the first game was released way back in 2007. It ponders on the cyclical nature of civilization, from its birth to its inevitable destruction in the same way as the franchise has dealt with how at the end of each game the Templars are defeated, only to rise up back again, while the Assassins are always on the verge of being wiped out, but end up winning in the end. Even Ravensthorpe was built upon an earlier Danish settlement, and most of the other petty kingdoms you encounter were built near or over old Roman structures. Even that theme is present in the modern day, where Layla, Shaun, and Rebecca are now facing a problem they thought they had overcome.
The game doesn’t exactly tie all these loose threads, it only ties up that which it can and then leaves the rest for us to ponder on. It is there, in the world, and like the revamped exploration, it is up to us to try and connect the dots. Even the missions that has us deal with the Norse precursor civilization, merely answer Eivor’s questions about her visions, and not really fix her problems. Just like in the old games where Altair, Ezio and Connor’s problems don’t necessarily affect Desmond Miles’ outside of specific goals (like looking for the Apple of Eden, or a precursor site), Layla Hassan is not looking for answers from Eivor herself, but rather at the knowledge that is to be gained through her to face a problem the modern day Assassins thought they’d conquered. Yes, modern day is back with a vengeance.
In the end, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was able to return the series to its old narrative glory by carefully creating a compelling story of growth and identity. It still retains the ability to choose your answers but without sacrificing the over-all story arc of Eivor. For someone who was skeptical about Valhalla only a few months before, I am totally won over by this game.
In closing, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the best game in the “proto-Assassin” trilogy, and possibly the best Assassin’s Creed game in the eigth generation of consoles. It still has technical hiccups, possibly due to the game being run on obsolete hardware, but its story and revamped mechanics (even with having room for improvement) more than make up for it. It is so easy to sink in more than forty hours into this game without having even scratched the surface, especially with the amount of things to do, and the way the new exploration has been structured.
Once again it tells about how old truths are not the whole truth, and how old noble aims can be lost in the fabric of time, leaving behind structures and rules without the context as to why they were built in the first place. Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted.
*This game was reviewed on a base PS4 unit using a review code provided by the publisher. All screenshots were taken from the reviewer’s playthrough.