Alex Birlo on December 17, 2020
I give you this review as a fan of the series. As someone who played every single entry, every single DLC and devoured every little droplet of lore there is in the universe of Assassin’s Creed.
I, as someone who – despite being a fan of the “old ways” of Assassin’s Creed – has 100+ hours in both Origins and Odyssey. And I accepted them for what new and great things they did bring with them to the franchise.
And as of now, I am well on my way for another 100 hours in Valhalla. Though this time, these 100 hour were different. So let me tell you how exactly.
74 hours it took me to reach the end of the main story. But keep in mind that this time also includes my absolutely shameless sidetracking. As I would go on extended tangents, exploring the world.
So, you can easily shave off some ten or more hours.
I also heard of people “B-lining” the game in 45 to 50 hours, so take this as your “story length” range.
Let us begin with the story as per usual.
The story unfolds mainly in 9-th century England, more towards the end of the century to be specific. It is after the first Vikings have already began carving themselves a place in the politics and wars of the rivaling kingdoms of the Dark Age’s England.
Though, you will begin Norway. Together with your brother (not blood related) and the Raven Clan you will set out to seek new fortune in new lands.
Eivor, the protagonist this time, sets him or herself up as a great and inventive warrior, using everything at their disposal. In the face of Eivor you first see the more grounded and brutal approach the developers took this time around
The structure of the story is simple.
It is broken into 13 locations, each of which has a potential ally. From your alliance map you choose where you will focus next.
When you are done there, you return back to base and place a raven pawn on the map, marking a new ally for the future.
Such a structure in the game’s story, gives you time and ample opportunities to get acquainted with all the ruling powers in the world of the game and the characters at your side. Learn their motivations and carve a better place for them in your memory – that is a nice way to put it.
Each of the stories, while not necessarily crucial to the main plot line, was genuinely interesting. Each time I would meet a host of new characters, each of them would get their time with you, each of them would be different from the rest in their environment.
And every story would have its sudden plot twist, a traitor or a surprisingly competent opponent to spice things up or place you in a position where your choice would matter.
Each of the locations you will visit are their own little world, and not just copy-pasted.
Each has its own theme going on, its own conflict, with well-defined characters, cinematics and choices. Each location looks like an organic part of the same England, yet each has its own architecture, nature (biome), people and secrets to uncover, alongside little side stories to experience.
Not all stories are about striking alliances with generals and kings. From time to time a story might turn into a good old Hidden Ones versus the Order of Ancients kind of stuff. With spies and shadowy confrontations over the fates of people. Which act as a nice change of pace.
And, you can always retreat to your settlement and drink some of your shaman’s hallucinogenic substances to visit Asgard! It is like the simulations of the afterlife realms in the DLCs for Origins and Odyssey.
Can I also point out, that after the success of Odyssey’s story, Ubisoft seems to have finally realized that not every AC game has to be a revenge story? Although one might say that it was kind of a revenge story in Odyssey too, but still not quite so.
Regardless of one’s preferences, it is so good to just have a tale of two Viking brothers, in place of another god-damn, sorry repetition of another revenge story.
One thing I must point out, is that if you are expecting your choices to influence the story any more drastically than in Odyssey – don’t.
Any story you will encounter during the cinematic moments, is more down to earth than in Odyssey, so do not expect grand mysteries about Atlantis and defeating Minotaurs etc. But something along the lines of a TV series about Vikings. I’ll tell you what, I dig it
Now let us talk about the main culprit that is to blame for my massive sidetracking – the World of the game.
Exploration in the new ACs was made amazing. It became so much more interesting and engaging. Because there is nothing like walking through an ancient dark tomb, with your torch held up and your mind listing for the creepy sounds around you, if you know what I mean.
And in Valhalla, I think they made another step further. They made the world a bit more focused, and the locations, the environmental storytelling and loot much more unique.
The map is absolutely massive. But what is interesting, I never really felt as though traversing it was tedious. You see, in Origins and Odyssey, while I adore the fresh wind of open-world exploration the new formula brought, I also mourned the sense of condensed content from previous games.
When we talk about exploration, almost every piece of gear in Valhalla would be accompanied by some mystery or environmental puzzle. And on average, I would spend double the time on each of them, than I would ever in Odyssey – in a good way. No markers, no side quest descriptions. Just you and environmental clues to engage your brain for these 3 extra seconds.
In Valhalla, despite the size of this world not being any smaller than Origins for example, they managed to create this sense of meaningful and concentrate exploration.
You do not need to have bazillions of, nearly identical, Spartan and Athenian camps, with loot that keeps dropping you gazillions of identical items.
Be it a roman ruin with bandits, worshiping a long dead leader or an abandoned Saxon village, ravaged by an unknown legendary beast. They approach the loot game in a more enjoyable way – substance over volume.
There is a fixed amount of original items with no duplicates. And you can stick with the ones you like for the entirety of the game and keep on upgrading them to the highest quality and best stats that suit your build. Thus, the developers could focus more on making each piece of gear surrounded by a cool little puzzle or location to explore.
From your standard bandit camps to roman ruins; from a quest with a dodgy alchemist, to stumbling on a fog-veiled village full of corpses and a pack of giant wolves prowling about! There is definitely cool stuff to discover!
That is an unusual topic for me to dedicate time for in my reviews, but I just want to quickly cover the music in this game, because it was so long since I was so deeply touched by the soundtrack in an AC game.
As soon as you find yourself in the main menu, you feel like you are about to enter Dark Ages England. The score and the design are top-notch through and through.
Personally, it is a lost feeling for me. I have not been so excited for an AC game for a very long time now.
The score is so great, I will never get tired of butting up the game and sitting a bit in the main menu listening to the “Raven’s Saga” theme.
It was a while since, that legendary AC theme we all fell in love with, that I sat like this and listened to the starting screen.
Just check out two of my favorite compositions. One is the main theme “The Ravens Saga”, and the other is one that kicks in during open world exploration “The First Departure”.
Ubisoft brought on board two of their most amazing composers to write almost the entirety of the soundtrack for Valhalla:
Jesper Kyd – who composed some of the most legendary tracks for the original Assassin’s Creed games: the very first AC, then AC 2 (i.e. Ezio’s family), Brotherhood and Revelations.
And Sarah Schachner – who composed for the newer Assassin’s Creed games: AC Black Flag, Unity and Origins.
And I was wondering “Why the hell am I so hooked on this soundtrack?! Oh, I don’t know… maybe it’s just because they got both of their best composers writing all of it”.
And now, with a clear consciousness, I can move on to gameplay.
Starting with combat, it is still not quite there. I already hear many people complaining about it, and I perfectly understand it.
But looking deeper into the mechanical alterations they did to it, I ultimately see something that excites me for the future.
“Animation-based” combat is – when you press the attack button, your sword connects with an enemy, and an animation of an attack would play out.
When they moved to “Hit-box based” combat, they gave away the finesse and spectacle of the Assassin’s combat prowess. But invited more skill and the possibility for several opponents to attack you simultaneously, and the potential to fight “animal opponents”.
In Valhalla, I see how they try to marry things that made the series what it was, and what made it what it is.
I talk about aspects that players miss from old games, but still keep the new Open World RPG feeling they created. And this is great, because I see they are on the right track.
Combat in Valhalla combines both types of combat systems to a degree.
Most of the combat happens in the flexible and chaotic “hit-box based” system, where you can attack and chip away at the enemies’ HP or parry and lower their stamina meter.
When their HP reaches zero, you see a small, quick finisher animation play out, without hampering the rhythm of the ongoing fight.
And if you deplete the opponent’s stamina, you stun them and can perform a lengthier animation, to instantly take them out with a spectacularly brutal finisher.
When this “hybrid” combat system works perfectly, I actually see how it’s more grounded, physical and brutal than it was so far in the new ACs.
Now let us talk a bit more on the side of stealth.
The fact that you are quite obviously a Viking, and even villagers in England will distrust you, is a great excuse to create stealth scenarios when you enter small towns and cities.
In addition to the usual “restricted” areas, where you absolutely are not allowed to be, there are now “distrust” areas. In these, a mighty Viking such as yourself stands out too much, and thus you have to engage in social stealth and avoid detection from policing guards.
You have to put on your hood, slow down to a walk and stay away from guards to keep a low profile. There are also opportunities to blend in with crowds, on the bench in inns and near shops – just like in the older games.
The stealth and hiding systems from old games were improved with nice little additions, like catching a drunk person in the street and convincing him you are drinking buddies so that he keeps you company and prevents the guards from being suspicious of you.
Lethal assassinations are also back, but with a twist. Yes, now you do not always have to match your “stealth damage” to the level of your enemy.
When assassinating a target that is above your level, time will slow down, and you will have to press the attack button at the correct moment to successfully assassinate them. Otherwise, the boss or commander will evade the killing blow, creating a sense that not all enemies are as dumb as to fall for your blade, flawlessly, every time.
And this addition I like, because it adds a new layer of skill, risk and reward, to the usage of the iconic hidden blade.
Now, two words about the settlement mechanic they marketed so much as “the heart of your journey”.
When you raid, you pillage resources. These resources can in turn be used to expand and customize your new Viking settlement.
When expanding the settlement, you manage which buildings will be built first, prioritizing things you will need based on your personal desires.
With new buildings you get new services, settlers and quests available at the settlement.
That is a nice little thing that accompanies you throughout your game and is neither tedious nor worthless. It is just the right amount of effort for the right amount of payoff.
So let me summarize my feelings about this particular AC game.
There is a deeply rooted reason why we love the Assassin’s Creed series. Why we are still playing it, why it still exists and continues to sell, even though for years now it was far from perfect, plagued by copy pasted content and resource mismanagement.
Each AC game, is a game in of itself. Regardless where it is placed chronologically in regard to the rest of the series.
For example – amongst all the games about pirates, “AC Black Flag” is still the best pirate simulators. If not the best in terms of story, definitely in gameplay.
There is no action game at all, that explores the French or American revolution the way “AC 3” and “AC Unity” do.
“AC Odyssey” is one of the best, specifically open world RPGs about Ancient Greece and its gods, out there!
We can all have our favorites, but there is no denying that the Assassin’s Creed franchise has something for everyone, and every time a new one is released, they are sure to be among the best recommendations you can give when it comes to each specific game-setting.
And this year, we got yet another game from the series, that takes its niche as one of the better games you can play if you want “something about Vikings”.
AC Valhalla, while far from being one of the only Viking games, takes its place among the better of them.
At least thanks to it being a massive, open world, Viking RPG; with leveling, base management, gear progression and dozens of hours of content, albeit following somewhat repetitive patterns from mission to mission.
And the team that made it should at the very least be commended for this!
You know… by now, I feel like a fan of a really old TV show, that had “jumped the shark” long ago, but still keeps on going. It keeps on trying to reinvent itself.
It tries to make it all fresh again, despite the fact that everyone keeps on throwing rotten tomatoes at it.
People do that, but they still keep on watching. Maybe because, I for one, can’t imagine myself without another AC game every now and then. Without “hopping into the Animus” again, and seeing what new stuff they have to show.
Despite all of us being able to make our own lists of complaints about the franchise, it became something like a “Star Wars” of sorts, if you know what I mean.
Assassin’s Creed is a concept, it’s a universe, with a vast lore, cleverly built on top of some simple, and universal concepts that can be stretched as far as our imagination can take us, and span several generations of fans.
Valhalla does similar things to the previous games. But yet again, it improves on the previous one, AND also manages, to some degree, to marry things fans of the older games loved, with what has probably brought so many more fans to the series since Origins.
I will not tell you that it somehow broke new ground, but I will celebrate Valhalla as the AC that somehow managed to get me back on board with this franchise.
I love it again, the way I used to, and am eager to see what comes in the next season of this old, and never-ending TV show.