Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review – Once Sent From the Golden Hall
Assassin's Creed ValhallaNovember 10th, 2020
For better or worse, the Assassin's Creed series has changed open-world games forever, with its unique mix of historical settings, parkour elements, and stealth gameplay. It didn't take long for the series, however, to become somewhat stale, mostly due to Ubisoft releasing one new entry in the series, or even multiple ones, each year, and not taking the time to look at the formula and improve it where needed. This much-needed hiatus only came in 2015 following the release of Assassin's Creed Syndicate, a hiatus that resulted in the development of the real, turning point for the series: Assassin's Creed Origins. After Bayek graced our screens for the first time, the series stopped being just an open-world game, but it became an open-world role-playing game, in the vein of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey built upon the foundation laid out by Origins, making the RPG elements more prominent, but it also showed the limitation of the by-the-books open-world design that the Ubisoft development studios often employ, resulting in a game bloated with content that's not even remotely meaningful to the story or the world itself. It was so overwhelming that it ended up being offputting.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla, like its immediate predecessor, does take inspiration mostly from Assassin's Creed Origins, but it succeeds where Odyssey failed. While not moving too far from the boundaries of the series, it does feel like a stronger package that does not meander too much, providing a much more focused experience that's ultimately more enjoyable.
Moving forward Layla Hassan's story from where it left off in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, Assassin's Creed Valhalla chronicles the rise to glory of the Norwegian warrior and Viking Eivor and his Raven Clan and the establishing of a flourishing Viking settlement in 9th Century England. Following the rise to power of the first king of Norway Harald Fairhair, Eivor and his (or her) childhood friend Sigurd are forced to leave Norway and make a name for themselves on the British Islands, establish allegiances with Saxons and other Danes who already settled in Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia and get involved in the century-long war between the Hidden Ones and the Order of the Ancients, the two orders that will later become known as the Assassin Brotherhood and the Templars.
The story doesn't really start on a good note. As a child, Eivor witnessed the death of his parents by the hand of Kjotve the Cruel and was particularly hit by his father's death, who was killed by Kjotve himself while giving up his weapon. A most dishonorable death for a Norse warrior, as it meant not being able to enter Valhalla and join Odin and the Aesir. Getting adopted by King Styrbjorn after the massacre, Eivor grew up with only one goal in mind: avenge his parents' death and restore honor.
The story's beginning feels very much like The Last Kingdom's, the popular TV Show based upon the novels written by Bernard Cornwell. The similarities are uncanny: in both Valhalla and the TV Show, the object of the main characters' vengeance are traitors nicknamed the Cruel. Eivor is also at risk of being sold as a slave, so there is no doubt that the writers have indeed been inspired by Uthred of Bebbanburg's story.
The Last Kingdom isn't the only piece of Viking-related media that has influenced the Assassin's Creed Valhalla story and characters. After the opening act, Valhalla becomes more like the hit TV show Vikings, with many historical figures that appeared in the show also making their appearance in the game, like the already mentioned Harald Fairhair, Ivarr, and Ubba Ragnarsson, Alfred the Great, and many others. The legendary Ragnar Lothbrok is also mentioned quite often, showing how his raids in England and Frankia have left a lasting impression on Norse society.
It's after Eivor and Sigurd's arrival in England, and the establishment of the settlement, that the story starts to come into its own. It's still a rather predictable Viking story, to be honest, but it is enjoyable nonetheless, thanks to a narrative approach that makes you care about all the people that live in the settlement. These characters are not throwaway characters that you only see once, but people that rely on Eivor as much as he relies on them to survive in a foreign land that has not much love for Danes and Norsemen. Cutscene direction also contributes to making the story more enjoyable, a definite step up from Odyssey's.
Cutscene direction isn't the only thing that Assassin's Creed Valhalla does differently than its predecessors. Once again, players are able to choose between male and female Eivor, or even let the Animus alternate between the two as needed. To be honest, I preferred Odyssey's approach, as sticking with the character picked at the beginning of the game resulted in very definite roles for both Kassandra and Alexios. In Valhalla, the two Eivor are pretty much interchangeable, making the ability to choose between them feel tacked on only because the feature had to somewhat make it into the game.
Another big change over the previous entry in the series is how some of the choices that players can make do impact how it develops. The very first one is taken right before Eivor and Sigurd leave Norway for England, and from then on, you will have to make a few other ones that not only will change how the game ends, but also affect the politics of different territories and of the budding settlement. This gives the game some real replay value that goes beyond just experiencing the same story through the eyes of a different character.
While Eivor's saga is the main focus of the Assassin's Creed Valhalla story, the modern day story also sees a surprisingly good amount of development, with a few unexpected twists that decisively move it forward. If you are a fan of the series' overarching modern story, you will definitely not be disappointed.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla's plot and storytelling are a definite step up compared to Assassin's Creed Odyssey's and so is the open-world gameplay. While the general flow of the game hasn't changed a whole lot over the previous entry in the series, the execution is a lot different, fixing most of the biggest issues seen in the previous adventure set in Ancient Greece.
Like most open-world games, Assassin's Creed Valhalla offers a big world to explore, and two different maps: Norway and England. The Norwegian map, where the game's first Chapter is set, is the smaller of the two, but right from the get-go, it makes it clear that the absurd bloating seen in Assassin's Creed Odyssey is no more. Gone are the days of countless question marks on the map, and gone are the days of pointless sidequests that added nothing to the game nor to the story.
The optional content found on the map is divided into three different categories - Wealth, Mysteries, and Artifacts. Wealth indicates areas where it is possible to obtain silver to purchase items, resources to improve the settlement and upgrade equipment, and obtain Books of Knowledge, new items that allow Eivor to learn and improve Abilities that can be assigned to the face buttons. Mysteries and Artifacts are a little more complex: Mysteries indicate, among other events like the platforming-puzzle challenges Animus Distortions, World Events, short side-quests that provide some information on the world and characters as well as some nice rewards upon completion. Artifacts are pure collectibles, and they involve a range of different items, from Roman Artifacts to new tattoo designs and more. Raid events are also marked on the map, alongside the classic buildings and mountains upon which it is possible to synchronize and reveal the surrounding areas. Exploration is made smoother by the ability to summon the raven Sirin to scout from the sky, like in Origins and Odyssey, and by Odin Sight, a new ability that scans Eivor's surroundings, highlighting enemies, treasure chests, animals, and the like.
The development of the Settlement kinds sits in the middle between story and side-content. While developing up to a certain point is a requirement to move the story forward, and unlock a variety of facilities and features, like the Hidden Ones' Bureau and the Barracks, which let you create your own Jomviking raider and share him or her with other players, it's not required to develop it to its maximum level. It's still highly recommended to engage in the development of the Settlement, as it is the biggest change in the series' formula featured in Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
While the map side-content is mostly optional, it's a very good idea to complete most of it, as it is not as superfluous as it was in Assassin's Creed Odyssey. Clearing wealth events and completing Raids, which are very fun, is pretty much a requirement to build and improve the settlement, which in turn is needed to unlock more story content. World Events are pretty varied, and are a great way to learn more about Norse and British society in the 9th Century: one of the very first World Events available in the game is a fight against one of the warriors who accompanied Ragnar Lothbrok in England years before the events of the game, an intense fight that also provides some new information on the most legendary Viking of all times.
Wealth, Mysteries, and Artifacts, which are available in good quantities in all regions of England and Norway, are just a small part of the side-activities available in Assassin's Creed Valhalla. In any town, players can take part in drinking contests, which involve timed button presses and left stick flicks to keep balance, Flyting, a sort of contest which involves throwing insults at the opponent, and Orlog, a very interesting strategy game that is played with unique dices. Flyting, in particular, is one another activity players will want to complete at all times since winning duels will increase Eivor's charisma and unlock additional dialogue options.
To be honest, there's still some form of side-content that doesn't impact the story or the world at all, like the Thousand Eyes guild contracts, simple quests that reward players with Opal, which can be exchanged for a variety of items whose availability changes daily and weekly. These side-missions are pretty generic and tend to become quite boring after a while, but they are thankfully only a very small portion of what Assassin's Creed Valhalla has to offer.
Reducing the amount of side-content and making it more meaningful is just the first step in reducing the bloat seen in Assassin's Creed Valhalla. The loot system has been completely reworked, and players are no longer overwhelmed by a huge amount of weapon and armor pieces, which were often replaced as soon as the character leveled up. The total amount of equipment in Assassin's Creed Valhalla has been reduced greatly, and all weapons and armors feel unique and can be used until the end of the game, as it is possible to upgrade them and even enhance their quality with the help of the blacksmith Gunnar. Enhancing any equipment piece's quality also changes its appearance, giving a nice sense of progression beyond just increased stats.
The changes to the loot system were pretty much a given, considering the RPG mechanics have also been overhauled, feeling a lot less restrictive than before. While the XP points system is still in, the way that leveling up is handled has been changed completely. Gone are automatic stats increase: in Valhalla, you are granted 2 Skill Points upon level up which can be used to unlock node in a big skill tree. Nodes are color-coded to highlight which of Eivor's abilities between stealth, range, and melee combat will be benefited the most by its unlocking. Bigger nodes on the skill tree unlock actual skills ranging from a stomping attack when the enemy is knocked down, improved backstab damage, the ability to assassinate high-level enemies, and so on. This new leveling system is a huge step forward compared to Origins and Odyssey, as it allows better customization and provides some new tools to play with quite often.
At the end of the day, these changes do not radically alter the way Assassin's Creed Valhalla plays over the rest of the series, but they do make the experience more enjoyable. Parkour is extremely smooth, stealth options include, once again, the social stealth options seen in older entries in the series, and the return of the Hidden Blade signals a renewed focus on the assassination mechanics, which are more effective than in Odyssey. Unfortunately, stealth still takes a backseat most of the time, as a direct confrontation with the enemy will still be the way most encounters will resolve.
The combat system has also been improved considerably over the past few entries, but it still feels a little stiff. The introduction of stamina mechanics prevents players from mashing their way to victory, as alternating between light and heavy attacks is needed to not deplete it and be left defenseless. Using these attacks and the parry properly is also required to deplete the enemy's stun gauge: once it is, it's possible to perform a killing Stun Attack. The game, unfortunately, is not particularly challenging even at the highest setting, so there aren't a whole lot of incentives to learn all of the combat's intricacies. Those that do learn them, however, will find the wealth of combat options quite fun.
Despite the low challenge level, there's tons of good in Assassin's Creed Valhalla combat. Enemy variety is more than good, with enemies coming with different weapons that dictate parry timing, and bosses, including the members of the Order of the Ancients and Zealots that Eivor will have to hunt down, can be a threat at any difficulty, considering they can interrupt your basic combo strings and unleash high-damage unblockable attacks. Weapon variety is also extremely good, and the ability to dual-wield opens up some interesting possibilities that can result in some very simple combos that look quite cool. Additionally, there's better integration of bow attacks into melee combat, as it is now possible to hit specific points to reduce the enemy's stun gauge and open them up without engaging them directly. Some of the skills also provide incentives for alternating bow and melee weapon attacks, so the amount of effective combat options is rather high. And finally, enemies are no longer Health Point-sponges, so the pace is much faster, resulting in a much more enjoyable experience.
The many tweaks and changes to the formula definitely do make Assassin's Creed Valhalla more enjoyable than previous entries in the series, but they wouldn't have been as effective without the amazing atmosphere the game features. While the series has always been quite good at representing different eras, especially in the games starring Ezio Auditore, Assassin's Creed Valhalla sees an amount of care that is almost unprecedented. The great attention to detail in the recreation of 9th Century Norway and England, paired with already mentioned excellent cutscene direction, makes the game extremely memorable, although visuals and animations are not a huge step up from the previous entries. The latter look stiff, especially in combat, so do not expect to see a true next-gen experience: for that, we will have to wait for the next entry in the series. The atmosphere is made even better by the excellent voice acting for the main characters, including a very good performance by Magnus Bruun, who also portrayed Cnut in The Last Kingdom, and the soundtrack, which includes pieces composed by Norwegian band Wardruna, known for having contributed to the Vikings soundtrack: raiding a monastery with one of their songs in the background will make you feel like you are experiencing an episode of the popular TV show.
Strictly speaking about the PC version of the game, Assassin's Creed Valhalla does run a little better than Assassin's Creed Odyssey did. At the time of writing, without new drivers, the game manages to run in the realm of 60 FPS at 1440p resolution, high settings. on a system powered by an i7-3770 CPU, GTX 980 Ti GPU, and 16 GB RAM. The game also comes with a very useful benchmark tool that makes it easy to tweak the many available settings to make it look good and run smoothly.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is an Assassin's Creed game through and through, but the many improvements made to the RPG formula introduced in Origins, the improved storytelling, and the amazing atmosphere make it a much better game than its predecessors. The conditions under which the game has been developed are deplorable and very hard to forget, and it is a shame, as the behavior of a few individuals will inevitably impact the perception most will have of the game. Supporting or not the game is up to the player, but it is undeniable that this is a quality open-world title, developed with a level of care that is on par with that placed into the best entries in the long-running franchise.
PC version tested. Review code provided by the publisher.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is a definite step up for the series, thanks to the many tweaks made to the RPG mechanics that powered the previous two entries in the series, better storytelling, great atmosphere, and meaningful side-content. Even with the tweaks, however, Assassin's Creed Valhalla is still an Assassin's Creed game at heart, so those who are not into the Ubisoft open-world game design will hardly change their opinion with the game. Everyone else will probably love every second of Eivor's adventure, especially if they are into Vikings and ancient Norse culture.
- Engaging story and characters
- Great cutscene direction
- Amazing atmosphere and excellent soundtrack
- Meaningful side-content
- Improved RPG mechanics, with a choices system that influences the story
- Low challenge level
- Even with the tweaks, the gameplay formula is not that different from previous entries in the series