Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

To put my review of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla in context, I’m going back to the distant days of 2007, when we were all so young and innocent (or at least unindicted).

I played the first two games in the Assassin’s Creed series. The overall framework of the game hasn’t changed in the past 14 years: You play a character who’s drawn into a power struggle between the Assassins (the Good Guys) versus the Templars (the Bad Guys); I understand that in the games set in time periods before the historic Templars, the two sides are called the Hidden Ones and the Order of the Ancients, respectively.

This is fine. Most stories have a protagonist and an antagonist.

You have access to a variety of weapons for melee combat, but you also have stealth as an option. You learn tricks for hiding in crowds (for example, the early games let you be surrounded by a crowd of distracting prostitutes) and for quietly dispatching your targets. You can climb up almost any surface to avoid capture, observe your targets from afar, or just get the lay of the land.

So far, so good.

The distracting element of the games was that they were “actually” set in modern times. Your character was experiencing the events in the life of one of their distant ancestors, as rendered by a sophisticated interactive computer simulation. This provided a wrapper for why your historical persona could take advantage of the standard interface tropes of video games (minimaps, quest markers, heads-up display, etc.); it was all part of the simulation. Meanwhile, your modern-day persona had to deal with the updated struggle against the corporation that the Templars had evolved into.

This was less engaging.

Then it turned out that the struggle between Assassins and Templars had its roots in the rivalry between factions of an ancient highly-advanced pre-human technological civilization that…

That’s the point where the backstory ceased to interest me. From a writing standpoint, this seemed unnecessary. As a player, I simply did not care to deal with an over-used science-fiction trope to make excuses for “magic.”

I didn’t pursue the Assassin’s Creed series after those first two games because too much of the game involved my own ancient nemesis: the timed platformer challenge. Also, while I enjoyed the stealth combat, I struggled with the melee combat. This became frustrating because both platforming and melee were parts of the main story and could not be avoided.

So I bid Assassin’s Creed “farewell” and moved on to other things.

Fast-forward to 2021. I’ve got a new PS5 and I’m looking for games to play. The game I truly wish to play (Horizon: Forbidden West, the sequel to my favorite video game Horizon: Zero Dawn) won’t be released for several months. I’ve seen good reviews of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, the 12th game in the series. It’s available at a good discount on the Playstation Store. I decided to give it a try.

Your historic persona is Eivor, a vikingr (not a misspelling!) from Norway. (A running joke in the game is that people keep calling you a Dane, and you explain that you are Norse.) After some introductory quests in Norway, you and your clan go to England, to found a settlement and unify England under your clan’s control.

If you’ve seen the Netflix TV series The Last Kingdom, this game is set in the same time period. It even has some of the same historical characters. As you might guess, I wouldn’t use either story as the basis for a research paper on the history of England!

The game is open-world. The only limitation is that different regions have different difficulty levels. It’s generally not wise for Eivor to venture in territories above their own level until you’ve improved Eivor’s skill to at least that level. With that said, I occasionally directed Eivor to a high-level region; I made sure to run away from any potential combat.

I’ll give Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla good marks for representation: The character of Eivor can be either female or male, as you choose; you can even change gender mid-game. None of the romance options are affected by which gender you choose to present. The game’s story pushes the limits of racial representation as far as it can, given the historical context; there are a couple of visitors from the Far East, including Arabia and China.

Setting aside the historic dubiousness of a Norse occupation of England, I found that enjoyed the general story of Eivor gradually forming alliances among the different regions. As Eivor’s influence grows, the central Norse settlement of Ravensthorpe improves as well. As the game progresses you’re able to build more buildings in your settlement, gaining additional options such as decorating your longship, conducting river raids, or learning how to fish.

What about “Valhalla”? Yes, you get to go there and have adventures among the Norse gods. Eivor does this through vision quests given to her via the village seer. I found them to be an entertaining diversion from the main story. Except for one thing, which I’ll deal with below.

There are occasional scattered references to what I assume are events that occurred in Assassin’s Creed games set in prior time periods (such as Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey). The main story does not require you to have played those games to make progress. I found it easy enough to let any such references slide by (with an exception I’ll note below).

The combat and skill system in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is greatly improved from those older games I played. For one thing, there’s now an easy difficulty setting in the gameplay options (a requirement for almost any game I play). Melee combat mainly relies on simply button presses, as opposed to complex combos (though some advanced skills make use of multiple buttons).

In general, you have a choice between three trees into which you can spend skill points that you earn by leveling: Raven, which is based on stealth and assassination; Wolf, focusing on the use of your bows; Bear, for those who want to smash opponents in melee and watch gory finishing cutscenes. I worked with stealth in the early phases of the game, but gradually I picked up so many skills points that before I reached the end of the main story I’d acquired every available skill in all three styles.

You can still parkour over almost any obstacle, as in other Assassin’s Creed games. One of the most valuable skills is to be able to fall from a higher distance without killing yourself. Once you pick up this skill, you can ascend and descend any mountain range.

There are side plots and side quests a-plenty. I explored all I could find as I advanced the main story, which explains how I “out-leveled” the game. But that did not affect my enjoyment; even after I became strong enough to bash in the head of every soldier in a fortress all by myself, I still chose to use stealth instead. It took longer, but I was in no rush; I preferred taking a half hour to defeat the enemies’ troops silently than a single short rush.

While there are timed platform challenges, they are all completely optional and have nothing to do with the main focus of the game, nor any of the side quests. I tried a few of them, succeeded at none of them, shrugged and moved on.

The one super-frustrating challenge (and I’m not alone in this) are the cairns: balancing stones one atop the other to reach a certain height. According to the web sites, even experienced gamers have a problem with these, even with hint guides! Again, these are not critical to any part of the game.

There are some caveats:

Part of what Eivor has to do to advance the settlement is to raid Christian monasteries. You have to decide how comfortable you are with that. The game is quite clear that you can only kill the soldiers defending the monasteries; monks and civilians are “off-limits.” (If you kill too many non-combatants, you “de-synchronize” from the simulation, which is equivalent to dying; more on that below). I had no problem with this (it’s just a game!), especially since the overall story does not fall into the simplistic “Pagan=good, Christian=bad” (or vice-versa) trope that historical dramas often use.

Among the treasures that Eivor can purchase or search for are purely cosmetic: I mentioned longship decorations; there are other decorations for your settlement. The most “annoying” cosmetic improvements are tattoos. The problem is that, while wearing armor, most of these tattoos can’t be seen. You can optionally make any armor invisible, which gives you a choice: Look at the cool armor you worked hard to achieve, or look at the rad tattoo. The tattoo option is a bit less interesting for a female Eivor, because the chest and back tattoos are mostly obscured by her breast band; why not design tattoos that can be fully visible on your female model?

There are treasure maps scattered throughout the game. I used the maps to search for their treasures a couple of times, then gave up: The only treasures I found were cosmetic (a back tattoo, a sail design). They just didn’t seem worth the effort of following a cryptic map.

The game is buggy. Some bugs are mild, some are severe, some block any further progress in the game. If you encounter any bugs, I strongly advise you to look up the problem on the web before doing anything else. There was at least one problem (it may have been patched by now) that never goes away on its own, even if you put another 100 hours playing the game; the only solution was to restore from an earlier save. I got “lucky” and only had to replay the game for three hours to recover. The game’s publisher (Ubisoft) has sometimes not been helpful in patching/resolving bugs.

Now we get to my chief criticism of the game, and I’ll be fair and say SPOILER WARNING.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla still embraces the notion that it is set in modern times, with your actual character engaged in a virtual-reality simulation based on Eivor’s DNA. It goes so far as for Eivor to perceive anomalies in the simulation that you have to fix; these are platform challenges, but they’re not punishing and I actually enjoyed them.

Even so, the modern-era storyline is no less distracting and unwelcome. There are more references in five minutes to previous Assassin’s Creed games in the modern section than there are in all of the historical simulation.

The ancient super-race is also there, and is significant to the story at several points. It turns out that Eivor’s visions of Valhalla are actually a wrapper for events that led to the downfall of those ancients, a plot point that I felt detracted from Eivor’s experiences in Norse mythology.

There’s an extended sequence that takes place in a site of ancient super-tech that was a blend of interesting and confusing. At one point a character accuses Eivor of doing something that I never saw her do. I had to look up a story summary on a web site to disentangle what that meant.

This leads to a point in the framing story where I said “Ewww!” I won’t go into details, but it made me reluctant to explore the rest of Eivor’s story. I actually gave up the game for a week to recover from the oily sensation it gave me.

But I returned to the game and finished the main story lines. I’m glad I did. I liked how they wrapped up. After that, there were still challenges that I found interesting, such as locating Excalibur.

A couple of DLCs have been released for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. One is an adaptation of Beowulf; it’s quite short, but offers a different perspective on the tale. The other is set in Ireland; it’s massive and at least a third the length of the main game (to my fellow pagans: yes, there are Druids, both “good” and “bad”). I recommend them both.

The next DLC for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla involves the conquest of Paris. It hasn’t been released as I write this. I look forward to it!

I just hope it doesn’t involve any more ancient high-tech super races. I prefer my ahistorical Norse sagas to be unsullied by such things.

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