Assassin's Creed Valhalla Review
A cross-gen game of divided ambitions
At the height of its popularity, Ubisoft was delivering an Assassin's Creed game every year. What began as a breakthrough new IP evolved into a huge franchise, but even with the introduction of new characters and mechanics, annualized releases began to grow stale. As such, the publisher decided to reboot the franchise in 2017, when Origins pivoted the series towards a huge, open world RPG design. A sequel quickly followed in 2018 with Odyssey, but then the franchise took another year off. As the new console generation is arriving, Ubisoft has once again set out to deliver a title to launch alongside the hardware. And while Assassin's Creed: Valhalla features an intriguing setting and performs well, it doesn’t really distinguish itself from its predecessors, and concludes the current console generation without having a bonafide hit.
Valhalla, as the subtitle may suggest, takes players to 9th century AD, where they assume the role of a Viking named Eivor. As with the most recent entry in the franchise, players can choose to be either a man or a woman, or a new strange option where the game decides the gender based on the situation and the choices made. In his youth, Eivor witnesses the death of his father after a raid by Kjotve the Cruel catches them off guard during a feast. Eivor manages to escape with the help of Sigurd, but they are eventually separated and Eivor has an encounter with a wild wolf that he somehow survives. This earns him a nickname Wolf-Kissed, and Sigurd and his family adopt him to raise as their own.
Many years pass, and one day Eivor finds himself chasing Kjotve to a village, where he is captured but is eventually able to escape and enact his revenge. He and his Viking clan return to their home in Fornburg, where Sigurd has also recently arrived after two years exploring Europe, and he brought with him Basim Ibn Ishaq, a member of the Assassin Order. The brothers are in shock when it is announced that their father King Styrbjorn has agreed to bend the knee for King of Norway Harald Fairhair in order to finally bring peace and unify the region. Rather than accept this fate, they decide they want a fresh start, so they gather some volunteers and sail out to England. Following in the footsteps of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, the brothers hope to find their clan's own piece of land and prosper, as they establish the outpost of Ravensthorpe.
Not long after arriving, Eivor and Sigurd begin to put their plans into action by venturing out into the nearby kingdoms and establishing control over them – whether that's via force, negotiation, installing a ruler that is favorable towards the Vikings, and so on. They meet characters such as Ubba Ragnarsson, Ivarr the Boneless, King Oswald, King Ceolwulf II, and others. Eventually however, Sigurd's ambitions begin to grow and shift, as he starts to chase ancient artifacts of the gods, and this causes a rift between the brothers.
The setting and narrative threads of Valhalla are initially interesting, especially for the fans of TV shows such as History Channel's Vikings. Seeing the grand political ambitions of the Raven Clan play out over time is intriguing, and dispositions of kings and playing political chess is not something that the franchise has tackled before. However, as a Viking game, Valhalla leaves a lot to be desired because almost everyone comes across as extremely weak and there is a huge disconnect between dialogue and the actions you can take as a player. On the one hand, you get to raid monasteries for their goods, kill thousands of men, and get called a savage by almost all those hostile to you. Eivor gets the occasional choice to kill an unimportant character, like a spy that was recently caught.
On the other hand, Eivor is also probably the nicest Viking you've ever heard of – you cannot kill civilians, even during the raids, and anytime someone is being difficult, your only option is to mildly threaten them. The character simply lacks any intensity, and half of the time Valhalla plays like a dull political adventure, while the other half you go around killing anyone opposed to you. There's no consistency – if you always try to be nice, it completely stops feeling like a Viking game at all, and it's jarring when you go on killing sprees. But if you try to play mean-spirited, the game is far, far too soft in what choices you get to make (both in action and in dialogue) and it makes it feel like the Raven clan are a bunch of pushovers. The historical setting might be interesting, but the Vikings and heroes that occupy it are just never engaging. There are hints of Eivor being an interesting hero – like the fact that he chooses to wear the hidden blade on the outside of his wrist – but such moments are far too rare.
And when it comes to the larger franchise storyline of exactly how Eivor becomes an assassin, things get even more sketchy. He gets the blade from Basim, who clearly knows that it is Eivor who has the special gift, and not his brother Sigurd. There's no explanation how or why Eivor can perform incredible feats of parkour from the get-go. And the story really starts to feel sterile and disconnected when you gain the ability to drink a potion that transfers Eivor to a vision of Asgard, where the Norse gods casually discuss their problems with you and Eivor seems completely unfazed as to where he is. Things get worse as you have a present day storyline to deal with as well, which remains as pointless and as confusing as it's ever been, led by the uncharismatic and unlikable Layla Hassan.
As touched on earlier, the campaign is structured around expanding the influence of your clan around a part of England. Each region features a different main quest chain, and a character Power Level requirement, so you gradually expand out from your home village. The quest chains in each region are standalone and so they can often feel disconnected from each other. There are certain towns where guards will be suspicious, so you need to walk around with care and not approach too closely. Some of this changes over the course of the story, but that's about the only meaningful gameplay impact from all the political intrigue that seems to happen in cutscenes.
Valhalla follows on many of the same designs as the two most recent entries in the Assassin's Creed series, however as an RPG, it is now much more streamlined. This is strange, as it was only recently that the series was rebooted into the grand, open-world RPG that it is today. Instead of moving into more genre complexities, such as long reaching choices, deeper character customization, and more unique gameplay mechanics, Valhalla decides to strip much of it back in favor of being a more typical action game. Many of the choices you make feel completely inconsequential, affecting little beyond the immediate scene or dialogue. Some choices can come back to haunt you late in the same quest line. But overall, it doesn't feel like you're impacting the outcome very much – often, it’s as silly as other characters invalidating your decisions by their own actions, sending you down the same path no matter what.
As a third person action game, the combat remains about the same as before, though you are now able to dual wield. This means you can equip spears, axes, flails, and hatchets, alongside a shield. Or, you could even wield two shields. You've also got a bow for your ranged option, and there is the adrenaline meter which lets you perform special powerful attacks, much as in the last games. The combat style remains enjoyable, with an option to lock on to targets and a dodge move. There is also a stun system, which causes some enemies to stagger after good hits or a perfect parry with your shield. This lets you perform an instant finishing attack, with a brutal takedown animation.
The combat in Valhalla is enjoyable enough, though it can be fairly easy due to the game's changes to the skill system. You may still get into a tough spot though because the health bar is now only replenished by berries and rations, and if there aren't any around in the area, you're kind of screwed. There are a few different enemy types, quick or slow, with many having an unblockable attack that has a clear indicator so you can dodge. In another move to streamline the RPG elements, your gear has very little impact – you can finish the game with your starting armor and weapons. You can upgrade your gear a few times for actual stat boosts, and also increase its rarity at the blacksmith – but that only changes its appearance and gets you more Rune slots. Runes are just items with a passive buff that you can insert in and out of your weapons and armor. There's very little gear in the game, and the majority of it has to be found by exploration, rather than picked up from quests or on the battlefield. This is no longer a loot-collecting RPG, as after plenty of exploration and 20+ hours of play, you could have just a handful of weapons and 3 armor sets. The armor pieces offer a bonus if you equip a few of them from the same set, and they also belong to one of three alignments – Raven, Wolf, and Bear.
Those alignments coincide with the new skill tree that is like a star constellation, which is what actually controls Eivor's Power Level. As you earn experience, you will earn skill points, which are spent in this very expansive skill tree with multiple different pathways to choose from. Each larger branch of the tree is aligned with one of the Raven, Wolf, and Bear symbols, and in those branches you are more likely to find corresponding skills. The Raven will have more stealth-focused perks, the Wolf tree is range-focused, and Bear is more about combat. Regardless of the tree you spend points in, there are plenty of generalized stat attribute increases with each new star you unlock. The tree reveals more branches as you go, and this is also where you can find new passive and active abilities to unlock. The new skill and power system really streamlines how you level up, as it gives you the freedom to go in any direction and still grow generally more powerful. Just by doing the main quests and some exploration, you will always be within the recommended Power Level to make combat somewhat trivial; that's on Normal difficulty though, which you can increase.
Battle is where the game seemingly wants to push players - because in stealth, there is often trouble with AI that is very inconsistent in their detection. Trying to split apart patrols by whistling in tall grass is a chore and doesn’t always result in a successfully silent takedown. You get a raven to give you a bird's eye view, but its function has been largely reduced - it is only used to see the nearby points of interest. When it comes to enemies, you now have to use a pulse scan called Odin Sight to reveal and mark only foes in the immediate area. This change makes it more challenging to keep stealth as you might get spotted by an enemy that's slightly out of your scan range. You can easily cheese the game by sniping enemies with bow headshots - just to see the AI freak out and be unsure of what to do. In all, the enemy AI and the stealth mechanics are just very polished this time around.
Exploration is a pretty big part of Valhalla, and this is one area where streamlining the game really helps with the pacing. The extremely vast areas in Odyssey and Origins really became a chore to explore, and by comparison the map of England is more focused and diverse. There are still Synchronization towers to climb, various artifacts to find, and exotic animals to hunt, but it no longer feels like you have to travel forever to get anywhere. In addition to armor and weapons, even many of the special attack skills must now be found as books of knowledge. Eivor can be customized with new tattoos, hairstyles, and so on which again need to be found. The game is still pretty large in scope though – because you have not just England, but also the small map of your home in Norway to explore, as well as the mystical land of Asgard. Splitting the game world over three separate maps helps them all feel less daunting to explore.
The quest system has been cut down to only focus on game-long objectives, such as once again discovering and eliminating members of the Order of the Ancients. You only really have the main quest to track, and all other minor narrative events now occur as so-called World events, which are short, simple, and often strange encounters with the locals. You could be asked to break into a burning house to recover an item, help a crazed Viking finish building his boat on dry land, or destroy strange symbols that curse the land. There is a good variety of activities and the next point of interest is never too far away. You can use the horse to travel around, or set sail on many of the rivers that cross the lands. There's no ship combat this time around.
There are a couple of new gameplay events to partake in, those being Raids and Fortress assaults. The attacks on a fortress only happen within the story, and this multi-stage battle has you assaulting some castle or fortress with your allies. You can often take control of a ram and help break down the doors, or you can sometimes climb and fight your way around the walls and open the gates from the other side instead. As you fight through a couple of court yards, you eventually reach your target, who is usually the local leader or king – though for story reasons, they almost always somehow manage to escape.
The other new activity is Raiding, where you can simply begin an assault on an enemy outpost or monastery from the river, as you pass by on your clan boat. Your crew will join the assault, as you simply have to fight your way to the church or other main building and grab the loot inside. It's something exciting that you can do whenever you come across a specific settlement, though it's not exactly a complex mechanic.
Raiding is needed to acquire raw materials, which is something you need to upgrade your outpost of Ravensthorpe. You can choose what buildings to construct first, from the fisherman hut to the blacksmith, and with each new building your outpost grows and more folks seem to arrive. Aside from a few unique vendors though, there's rarely a reason to return here, other than to progress the main storyline.
Like Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Valhalla is a cross-generational game. Playing on Xbox Series X, the title certainly has moments of excellent visuals that take advantage of the hardware. Excellent high resolution textures help every wall and surface look detailed, and the good draw distance from the high points of the world let you see for miles. Loading times are fast and so is fast travel. The game uses some realistic lighting techniques as the clouds disperse the sunlight and cast a wide variety of shadows – though this can look a bit strange at times. The framerate tries to stay at 60fps, though it doesn't always get there, and the game suffers from screen tearing issues on occasion.
Still, it's a game that’s quite clearly made with goals of running on the Xbox One. Character animations, cutscene quality, and facial details/lip sync are quite obviously made for the current console generation. Some of the flags and flocks of birds above sync towers are strangely clearly running at a low framerate and resolution. As with most open world games, there is a variety of glitches and issues, like AI getting stuck, events not triggering properly, and so on. The textures may look sharp and the game runs at a higher framerate and with 4K output, but there is no mistaking it for a true next-gen experience.
The environments and the art style are well presented, with the English countryside featuring lots of greenery, a variety of natural terrain and bold colors. A combination of hills, rivers, cliffs, and grasslands helps create a diverse setting without spreading it out too thin, as the previous games have done. The two other maps, in Norway and Asgard, help inject even further variety with their snowy mountains and wondrous structures, respectively. The audio design is less impressive – partly because the dialog is so bland for a clan of supposedly warrior Vikings, and partly because most of the cast just sounds bored and are doing the same accents regardless of region or if they are of Viking origin. Battle effects are very subdued and it's mostly a bunch of men screaming at each other – the standalone Conquest battles in Odyssey were better presented.
While most franchises continue to build on their predecessors, Assassin's Creed Valhalla feels like it's taking steps back to streamline the RPG focus that was only recently introduced into the series. Sometimes that's a good thing – like reducing the size of the world and making activities more unique, as well as making it easier to gain Power Levels. But on the other hand, not having to manage your gear or weapons, and making less choices during the story makes the game seem linear and one-note. While the Viking setting is promising, the dull and unthreatening characters make it hard to get invested into the world. It's a nice looking game on Xbox Series X, mostly thanks to sharp textures and a high framerate, though there's no mistaking it being a cross-gen title. As we wrap up this console generation, with decidedly fewer AC games than last gen, Ubisoft have not been able to reach the heights of AC II and Black Flag. Perhaps we'll have to wait until the next entry, as we did with Assassin's Creed Unity, to see what the series is capable of on the new consoles.