Over the past 13 years, the Assassin’s Creed series has drifted further and further away from its original concept. The first few titles were simple stealth adventure games; satisfying world traversal made exploring their lush historical settings a joy. Early on, this produced some incredible experiences (Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag), but when the installments grew unnecessarily bloated, developer Ubisoft started churning out some spectacular disasters (Rogue, Unity).
Ubisoft’s latest entry in the series, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, thankfully falls closer to the former end of this spectrum than the latter. The 12th main Assassin’s Creed game, Valhalla doubles down on the previous two games’ transition into full-blown open-world action role-playing game territory. While most franchises that make this jump struggle to find the content to justify it, Valhalla succeeds because its world truly captivates and invites exploration.
Set in 873 A.D., Valhalla follows Viking raider Eivor, who sets out to conquer Dark Ages era England after being driven out of Norway. The game’s historical versions of England and Norway are both awe-inspiring — though Valhalla doesn’t have any particularly distinct art direction, its stunning representations of beautiful natural locations lend plenty of spectacle value.
While the previous installment, Odyssey, set a milestone by allowing players to choose between a male or female protagonist, Valhalla further experiments with its playable character. This time around, players can freely swap between the male and female Eivors at any point in the game. The best experience can only be achieved, however, if players choose to leave this decision up to the computer. Doing so enriches later developments, adding a layer of narrative complexity and increasing the synchrony between gameplay and story.
For the first time in an Assassin’s Creed game, players can also customize the protagonist’s appearance. Valhalla nicely ties cosmetics to game progress by allowing players to unlock new tattoos, hairstyles and war paint through exploration. This makes Eivor less static than previous Assassin’s Creed characters — when players can give Eivor a tattoo after surviving a brutal ambush or paint their face in preparation for an all-out assault on an enemy camp, the character becomes more alive.
Another departure from previous Assassin’s Creed protagonists comes in Eivor’s sense of humor and personality. Where the series’s typical male protagonists have historically been bland and boring, Eivor’s witty dialogue and charisma make them far more appealing. This is aided by stellar voice acting — particularly from Cecilie Stenspil, who makes the segments with female Eivor feel most authentic.
Unlike Ubisoft’s recent Watch Dogs: Legion, Valhalla takes great care to make its open-world design less tedious and repetitive. While Legion haphazardly strews random objectives all across its map, Valhalla’s side missions are more compelling because they are tied to interesting characters or feel like natural parts of the universe. Valhalla even manages to make minigames fun by rooting them in Saxon and Nordic cultures and connecting them to player statistics — winning a contest in flyting, a traditional duel of poetic insults, for example, rewards players with a charisma boost, which unlocks new dialogue options in story missions.
The majority of Valhalla has been done before — not only in previous Assassin’s Creed games, but also in landmarks of the open-world action role-playing game genre, such as the Witcher series. Still, Valhalla puts enough of a new spin on most elements to create an engaging experience. The sole exception is Valhalla’s approach to combat. Here, the developers simply created a dumbed-down version of Dark Souls, ripping some gameplay elements directly out of FromSoftware’s games.
While the dodge, parry and attack systems are basically the same as Souls, Ubisoft fails to understand the key design features that have made combat in the Souls series so innovative and compelling. Primarily, Valhalla’s enemy artificial intelligence is rarely capable of surprising players — FromSoftware’s system hinges on enemies that can pull off complex, jaw-dropping move sets, requiring the player to employ every last resource in their arsenal in order to succeed. No matter how flashy and gratuitous the kill animations, Valhalla’s clumsy combat never makes up for this shortfall.
Though it doesn’t quite exceed the franchise peaks, Valhalla is one of the best entries in the Assassin’s Creed series. Nothing about the game is particularly revolutionary, but it switches up the established formula enough to keep players engrossed and deeply invested in its world, characters and story.
This review is based on the PC version of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
Neil Haeems covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].