Assassins Creed Valhalla Review: A violent, sprawling trip to Viking times
We need to talk about that skill tree though...
After a year off, Assassins Creed is back in business and this time, we have a Viking story to play. Taking us to 873 AD, we follow the adventures of Eivor as she (or he) navigates their way across the sea from Norway to England to stake their claim at a new location and conquer new lands - all while having a complicated relationship with their brother that looks to set to fall apart as the game goes on.
As for Eivor, you can choose their gender at the start of the game (and switch during) but for the purpose of my playthrough, I kept her as female. But how good is Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, and how does it stack up against all the other entries in the long-running historical franchise?
If you want to try the game for yourself, you can buy Assassins' Creed Valhalla for PS5 or get Valhalla on Xbox Series X.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla quick verdict
An at times brutally violent game that takes the Viking-centric story that many of us have wanted and runs with it, offering a compelling story and some nice additions to the gameplay. Not all of it works and there are some issues that need not be there, but for fans of this franchise, this is another hit.
For: A beautiful looking game and one that embraces the violence and ferocity of the Viking army. Stealth returns in a way that has long been missed and it is great that choices you make impact the characters around you. Eivor is a strong central character and the complex relationships she forms as the story progresses keep you engaged throughout.
Against: The skill tree and the way it is used in the story is quite frustrating and feels more like a constant roadblock than a fun way to build powers and skills. Some combat feels clunky and frustrating and the traditional Assassin's Creed glitches do make a return - just thankfully nowhere near as much as they have in the past.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla Story
As for the story in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla? Well once again, much like the last game in the series, it puts its focus on a pair of siblings but unlike Odyssey where Kassandra and Alexios were estranged from the outset, here the brother and sister (or brother and brother) relationship starts strong - just with a prophecy given that things will soon turn sour. So, while it is an odd choice to put siblings at the heart of this for the second game in a row, the setup is different enough for it not to be distracting.
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And it is an interesting story too. You gain allies, make enemies, and navigate a violent and bloody world, all with the air of something greater that the Creed series always includes. You get to make several choices along the way to indicate the type of character you want Eivor to be - whether you kill your main enemies or spare them is up to you a lot of the time and some of those choices can come back to haunt you. The overall story seems to remain the same regardless, but it is nice that what you do does have an impact on the world, and people can be harmed as a result of the choices you make.
Assassin's Creed Vahalla main missions
The main missions have a degree of variation about them, even if the game is following a typical path to get you to the conclusion. England is divided up and you pledge your allegiance to each region, head over to help them out and then get them onside for when you need their help to fight for victory. A lot of these start the same way with you storming a settlement but normally, what you do after differs. There are some lowlights - too many cases of following someone at snails’ pace while they talk to you and still no auto-follow button, which has always irked me - but there are some stellar highlights too. One sequence involves launching an attack on a castle from the sea, complete with a battering ram while you’re dodging a rainstorm of fire arrows and it is every bit as amazing as it sounds.
Modern-day once again makes a return, even if there is an argument that the trips to the current world are becoming more unnecessary as the games go on. There is a mystery that is affecting the whole planet at the heart of this one though, giving it some real stakes. Characters from previous entries make a return, including a character that has appeared on and off since the series began and your time spent with them is limited - I went through several chapters of the game's story without ever returning to check in on them.
The skill tree is, quite frankly, hilarious and resembles more a skill forest. It comes with a warning about not being too overwhelmed by it, but it is bizarrely large with more branches springing off and hundreds of different slots to fill. This works for game progression in the sense that the more skill points you have, the more areas you will be able to explore without fear of getting killed outright. So, if you did not care for the levelling system of taking down enemies until you were at a certain XP level in Origins and Odyssey, well it is still here just under a different guise. It does appear that all enemies can be assassinated while in stealth with the hidden blade though which is an improvement. But trust me, if you venture into an area that the game doesn’t want you to explore yet, you will need to slip under the radar - we’re talking almost one strike kills against you.
Side missions are there in abundance once again, although the cosmetics have been tweaked. They are now called world events and how you come across them has changed. Whereas previously they would be clearly marked on the map, now they are marked by a blue dot and you won’t know what they are before you get to them. This translates to the map as a whole where a colour coding system will be used to guide you. Even certain parts of main missions are not marked anymore with you instead getting to a rough area and using Synin, your bird friend for the game, to narrow down the exact place for you - it is clear that the focus of Valhalla is on exploration and stumbling upon things for yourself without being shown where everything is.
And there is a nice mixture of side activities to get lost in. Mini-games exist in various locations, cursed lands need you to find and destroy a symbol to restore the natural order of things and there are some amusing ones to be found too. For example, look for the man with the almighty wallop to give you both a chuckle and a sense of frustration at the same time. It's the sort of tongue in cheek humour that Assassin's Creed does so well and it's nice that it still exists here in a story that is often quite dark.
Raiding England in Assassin's Creed Valhalla
And then there are raids - a must for building up your settlement level. The settlement you build has numerous things on it in need of some work and to do so requires you to raid camps and steal resources. A lot of raids you won’t be able to do until you have spent the required the number of skill points but when you can do them, they are great fun and sounding the horn to charge into battle is always a joy. And the raids are carnage with you taking out enemies and, quite literally, burning the settlements to the ground - violent action in the series has never been so enjoyable.
As for England, well, it lacks the wow factor of the last two settings of Egypt and Greece and, on the whole, it feels largely same-y without the sense of wonder that the last two games had visually. Don’t get me wrong, this is a gorgeous looking game (even before it gets the next-gen upgrade) with old England fully realise d- it’s more the choice of having it set there that limits the scope the game has to offer. It is not like what is there is not nice to look at, it's just that it all, largely, blends into one and I didn’t have many moments of awe while moving from one region to another.
It is fun though exploring some familiar locations in historic times. Canterbury is just up the road from me and playing there in a game and climbing the cathedral was quite surreal - as is the two-minute swim from the mainland to the then Isle of Wight; not a realistic distance but then the Creed games have always had to play fast and loose with scale so that is not a criticism.
By comparison, Norway is largely empty, as expected, with some settlements here and there to raid and a few things to do. But being a snowy desolate landscape, there was never going to be a huge amount - it is a nice contrast to the main setting for the game though.
Combat in Assassin's Creed Valhalla
Combat has gone through a bit of an overhaul and there are things about it that work and things that don’t. It is great that everyone can be taken down with the hidden blade and it is nice that there is a good mix of enemies to deal with. The violence has been amped up (although you can, mostly, turn it off), and there is great fun to be had in slicing enemies apart and doing some glorious takedowns - stomp, in particular, is a welcome addition. But then some enemies are, frankly, a pain to try and fight. Armed with a long spear, these guys caused me more than a few headaches as they dodge a lot of your attacks and were more frustrating than a fun challenge. They tend to pop up at the worst possible moments too - same too for the big guys with the impenetrable shields.
As for weapons, a big deal was made about dual-wielding and how you use them and yes, there is fun to be hand in trying out different combinations to take enemies down in a variety of ways. For the most part though, I was happy with my axe and rarely experimented too much here as I never felt the need to. The shield does come in handy and if you want to explore every possible way of fighting then you have many options at your disposal - it just felt a tad superficial rather than tactical.
Stealth makes a welcome return to the forefront too and while you do not have to use it and can instead choose to charge in with your axe swinging, there are many ways to take a more tactful approach. There is even a return to the blending stealth tactic with a walking group that has not been seen since the very early days of the series.
The members of the cult return for Valhalla too but this time they are called The Order. In principle though, they work exactly the same. You find clues along the way and then take out the target with the aim of taking them all out of the picture. This, like Odyssey, is largely a side quest part of the game although, once again, some are locked off until you get to a certain part of the story and there is a hell of a lot to try and assassinate with tougher members called Zealots putting up a hell of a fight.
So, glitches. This is Assassin’s Creed and random bugs have been part of the franchise for some time now – thankfully, though, I didn't notice too many. There were some irritating ones though. For example, it takes two to open some chests during a raid and on more than one occasion my fellow raiders just stood there, staring at me, and didn’t help. I had to leave the area and retrigger another raid just to get them to be helpful - a lot of times spent waiting for help to barge down a door led to me giving up too. These issues did not happen too often but when they did, it was incredibly annoying.
But overall, this is a solid entry in the Assassin’s Creed series that, for me, does not quite hit the heights of Odyssey but brings enough to the table to offer a game that does feel fresh a lot of the time - despite some repetitive elements. Fans of the franchise have been calling for Ubisoft to make a Viking game for some time and happily, it was, mostly, worth the wait.
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