Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review: A Legacy's Burden
A fantastic historical setting is once again weighed down by all the cruft we've come to associate with Assassin's Creed.
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Partway through Assassin's Creed Valhalla, the game's Norwegian protagonist, Eivor, stands over a wounded English opponent. The man has been betrayed by his king, a leader with slippery morals who was willing to sell out his most loyal follower in the hopes of grasping for the power he's in the process of losing to the Vikings occupying his kingdom. Eivor is given a choice: tell her enemy that he's been betrayed by his lord and allow him to live with that awful knowledge, or strike him dead so his last thoughts are that he met his end in service to a leader who valued him as much as he valued his patronage.
While a familiar enough kind of binary, Eivor's decision is inflected with the cultural struggles of the era Valhalla hopes to capture: kill the man and he dies a warrior's death, soon to be fighting and feasting in Valhalla until Ragnarök comes; spare him, and he's given a different kind of mercy, born again to live a life that will no doubt be filled with struggles. Glory or mercy; pagan or Christian salvation—whatever choice Eivor thinks is right reflects a cultural and spiritual outlook that will always be at odds with its alternative.
In scenes like this, Valhalla is at its best. It portrays a nuanced understanding of what we can imagine might have occupied the minds of a character like Eivor during the tumultuous end of the ninth century, at the height of the Scandinavian Viking Age. After leaving her home in Norway due to the drastic changes in life brought about by King Harald Finehair's unification of the burgeoning nation, Eivor and her foster brother Sigurd arrive in an England wracked with the disorder of the Viking Great Heathen Army's invasion less than a decade earlier. With the Scandinavian colonists having firmly established themselves by the time Valhalla opens, Eivor arrives in an England whose competing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are largely conquered and in general disarray.
She and Sigurd lead their followers to an abandoned camp, begin making contact with other Vikings as well as pliable Anglo-Saxon leaders, and the shape of how Valhalla plays out starts to become clear. From her camp's great hall, Eivor can survey a map of England and find regions (marked by a suggested "power level" analogous to her own experience level) where locals need her support to solve a problem. Selecting one of these locations kicks off a chain of missions, called, in proper Viking fashion, "Sagas" that basically function as a short story contained within the overarching narrative. Eivor heads to the region and, like the two most recent, RPG-flavored Assassin's Creeds, Odyssey and Origins, ends up fighting enemies, investigating areas filled with books and bloodstains that glow green with a click of the right thumb stick, and running back and forth a whole bunch to talk to various characters.
Between essential tasks, she can climb fortress turrets, mountains, or church steeples to make treasure locations and side-stories pop up on the map, which quickly cover the formerly blank space like a rash. From here, as in the past, Eivor can find places to hunt wildlife for equipment-upgrading materials, search for new weapons or armor, and complete brief tasks provided by ancillary characters. All of this will be immediately familiar to anyone who played Odyssey or Origins. Despite minor tweaks to the series' equipment system, which is thankfully scaled down from the loot deluge of its predecessors, as well as the combat and exploration—Eivor can now blend in with crowds, as in older Assassin's Creed games, though enemies detect her quickly enough that it's only occasionally useful—everything is very much the same as it was in the last two entries to the series.
In keeping with bringing back some of the older mechanics, Valhalla's role-playing focus is lessened, too. A saga set in Wessex may show a skill level number far above the player's own, but this doesn't mean that the area is off limits until Eivor has leveled up enough. While Valhalla doesn't do a great job of explicitly explaining this, even the "highest level" parts of the map can be accessed when Eivor's own level is far lower. The enemies are simply tougher in these cases, as if a built-in difficulty slider has been increased a notch temporarily. But though these kinds of changes may seem like substantial ones, they ultimately do little to make Valhalla feel like a real departure from Assassin's Creed Odyssey or Assasin's Creed Origins. Instead, they mostly cut out a bit of the time-wasting level grind and equipment swapping that existed before, streamlining the old style of design by snipping away some of its fluff.
It's not all a retread, though. New to Assasin's Creed Valhalla are flyting competitions—poetic exchanges of insults that, in practice, only require the player to recognize basic rhymes and meters in a list of options. Eivor can also play a (pretty good) dice game, competitively drink horns of mead, and funnel resources gathered by pillaging locations throughout England into the building of a settlement, wherein she can change her hair and tattoos, upgrade equipment, host stat-boosting feasts, and get up to other kinds of busywork, essential or not. Most importantly, Eivor can also raid monasteries and abbeys by guiding a crew of warriors along a network of English rivers in her longship.
Raiding in Valhalla is as thrilling (and vaguely horrifying) as it sounds. It involves Eivor and maybe a half dozen warriors storming a location defended by varying numbers of Anglo-Saxon soldiers as bells ring, guttural basso profundo singing plays on the soundtrack, and hapless priests, nuns, and peasants try to flee their homes. Ornate chests containing church relics or other valuables can be pushed open by Eivor and another Viking. They knock through barred doors and carelessly shove the lids off reliquaries, leaving corpses twisted under stained glass windows and flames roaring atop the wattle and daub roofs of sacred and secular buildings.
These raids eventually become predictable and rote with repetition, but for a time they accentuate the horrific brutality and cultural ruthlessness that characterized so much of the Middle Ages. In them, the mystery and mutual suspicion of people of drastically different understandings of the world erupts into bloody violence. Elsewhere, Valhalla achieves a more subdued, but eerie sense of alienation in Eivor's travels across a gorgeously rendered vision of ninth-century England. The rolling sunlit hills, lush green valleys, and wide fields bursting with harvest-ready crops capture the natural beauty of the British Isles, while ancient, pre-Saxon monuments, northern mountain ranges thick with snow, and gloomy primeval forests are appropriately haunted and foreboding.
The characters Eivor meets on her travels, for their part, alternate between welcoming and threatening. Eivor is a flat character—at least when played as a woman; Valhalla allows players to choose between a female or male Eivor during its introduction. She's a raspy-voiced blank slate, interested only in doggedly pursuing whatever task's laid out for her. Her personality isn't defined by much other than that bland kind of video game morality that's divorced of any discernible ideology other than a righteous anger at the evils of her enemies. In comparison with Origin's Bayek or Odyssey's Kassandra—the latter of whom is so well-written that she single-handedly makes up for an otherwise meandering plot—Eivor is a remarkably bland lead.
Luckily, she's surrounded by an exceptional cast. Valhalla's England is populated by important historic figures, like Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and eventual King of Anglo-Saxon England, and Guthrum, the Viking leader who signed an agreement with Alfred that established the Danelaw region while introducing (largely) peaceful relations between Viking and Anglo-Saxon. It also presents a distinctly human version of characters whose stories are often shrouded in the myth-making of the Scandinavian saga-writers. Ivar the Boneless and his brothers, Ubba and Halfdan, children of the half-legendary Ragnar Lodbrok, are brought down to earth in Valhalla's story as realistically mortal military commanders and politicians. Aside from them, the memorable personalities of the bit players who feature in the game's many "sagas," enliven stories of perilous diplomacy, cultural uncertainty, and war. Christian and pagan traditions—whether Norse, Celtic, or otherwise—butt up against one another again and again, animated by characters whose hopes for the future of the Isles is influenced as much by their spiritual beliefs as material desires.
As with most everything in Valhalla, though, the game's self-imposed Assassin's Creed trappings hamper these successes. The saga structure is a smart way to define the sprawling narrative through discrete chapters, but even with it lending shape to the story, Valhalla is simply far too long, overstuffed, and burdened by the series' legacy. More than a few of the sagas feel like side missions that have been extended a bit too far, their inciting incidents and narrative arcs repeating plot points about cultural suspicion, power struggles, and struggles between old and new religions that have already been made elsewhere.
The game hardly benefits from their inclusion, either. A non-thorough playthrough took a bit less than 60 hours—a length felt most when extraneous segments gave the impression that the game was about to conclude two or three times before it decided to wrap up (or, more rudely, fizzle out) for real. I should note here, too, that Valhalla crashed to the home screen on an Xbox One S twice during review and several times corrupted save files, leading to one or two hours of lost progress. These problems haven't recurred since a pre-release patch, but it's hard to say whether that means they've been fixed completely. Thankfully, aside from the occasional sludgy camera movement in bigger cities and during larger battles, the game looks remarkably good on an older console and runs well enough for those not in a hurry to buy a new system.
Beyond all that, Valhalla sags for the same reason as so many other Assassin's Creed games: it's too long and there's too much cruft in it. The sense of place established by the beautiful landscapes and soundtrack are interrupted by the appearance of glowing mini-map icons on the top of the screen indicating a nearby treasure or side-mission characters yelling their same request for Eivor's help on loop. They render the world utilitarian and, if completed in the midst of a story segment, temper the urgency and mess with the pace of the plot at hand.
This has been a consistent problem in Assassin's Creed since its second entry. Each stunningly detailed historical diorama entices players with the promise of exploring the past before cluttering these depictions with far too many distractions. The series gives audiences explorable recreations of 18th-century Paris, 16th-century Constantinople, and vast swathes of Ptolemaic Egypt, but, as if worried that coupling these locations with an engaging story isn't enough, cover each location with the open world game equivalent of really persistent carnival barkers. Rather than rethink this style of design, Odyssey, the most recent Assassin's Creed, indulged it even further. Its ancient Greece was lousy with side activities, and its story was told at a loose, lazy pace that, despite its strengths, suffered too often just from going on far longer than it needed to. Valhalla, with its generally strong saga stories and exceptionally realized landscape, suffers from this issue more than most simply because what's being tampered with would obviously be so much stronger without distractions.
Worse, the larger fiction of the Assassin's Creed series, with its Templars and Assassins, Isu civilization, and unremarkable 21st century cast, pops up time and time again to interrupt the far more interesting historical plot. These elements all feel like barnacles on the game's plot and design; vestigial concepts whose removal from the series are long overdue, and nowhere is it clearer how much they drag the series' historical fiction down than in entries like Valhalla, which otherwise succeed so well.
So many of the game's characters struggle with how to live (and think) in an era of vast political and cultural upheaval. They see the future as a frightening void that could end up pagan or Christian, Viking or Anglo-Saxon, filled with opportunity or made miserable by scarcity and persecution. These ninth-century characters mainly end up doing best when they embrace the uncertainty of their moment in time, focus on the basic human values that matter most to them, and hold onto those decisions as they head forward into the chaos of a world in flux. If Valhalla took the lessons it so often teaches through its story and was similarly flexible in design, it would be a much better game for it, whether it needed the Assassin's Creed surtitle slapped in front of its name or not.
ConclusionAssassin's Creed Valhalla's vision of ninth-century England is a beautiful place to explore, populated with a great cast of characters who make up for the bland new protagonist, Eivor. Nevertheless, the tired overarching story of Templars and Assassins, and a design ethos that overstuffs the setting with side activities, add unnecessary bloat and distractions to the experience. Valhalla's a solid action-adventure game that does well to capture the turmoil of its historical era, but it's weighed down by the increasingly ponderous legacy of the series it represents.