There’s a Norwegian proverb that goes “Only those who wander find new paths”. For the life of me, I can’t find a better way to describe the direction that Ubisoft has gone to reinvigorate the Assassin’s Creed franchise these past few years. Since its straying from the beaten path with Origins almost 3 years ago, all that wandering has led them down the path to what is arguably the best game in the entire franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. The game builds upon the victories and trials of all the previous games before it and as such presents one of the best offers to be an Assassin’s Creed fan to date.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is an absolute visual feast. The environments are impressively detailed and the lighting is flawlessly done to the point of near photorealism. Traversing the map you just run into countless areas wherein the geography, the foliage, as well as the immaculate lighting, work together to create breathtakingly gorgeous vistas and views to stare at for minutes on end. However, this quality does not completely transfer to the character models as things like hair and skin textures are still very rudimentary especially for most of the side characters you meet in the game.
There’s something strangely captivating about the music in Valhalla. The themes run the range of eerie and solemn chanting to bold sweeping adventure to unique horns, strings, and percussion—all of which are deeply enchanting and nail the tone of the game serving as a unique backdrop to its exploration and combat. There are also multiple songs in the game that are sung by your raiding party as you voyage to your next conquest ala the shanties in Black Flag. However, its a shame that these aren’t more prevalent in the game since you often get interrupted when sailing through the rivers of England causing the songs to stop often.
The loading times also are pretty significant in the game, I was playing on a Playstation 4 Pro and I was still experiencing load times of up to 30 to 45 seconds when initially loading the game or fast travelling. That being said, running around from area to area in each of the games gargantuan maps don’t require loading in at all so a big one-time load isn’t too annoying provided you don’t die or fast travel too often.
Playing as vicious, bloodthirsty Vikings, it feels apt that the combat is the most brutal and fun that it’s ever been in the entirety of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. It’s a definite improvement over the revamped combat of Origins and Odyssey. Hitting enemies feel meaty and weighty thanks to the added micro finishers when dealing a killing blow. There’s also a lot more to do here than just mashing attack over and over thanks to the new Adrenaline abilities that you can use mid-combat by expending one of four replenishable adrenaline nodes. These are nifty little abilities that spice up combat like a grappling hook, a pouncing strike, or my personal favorite a ground and pound tackle.
Valhalla puts a much larger emphasis on the lethality of the combat as well. Limbs getting dismembered and heads lopped off are a common sight when raiding and pillaging. The niche fans of non-lethal runs in previous games (myself included) will be hard-pressed to pull it off here but it is possible.
The enemies themselves put up quite a fight and there’s a much wider variety of enemy types to encounter and tussle within the game.Valhalla has also made boss fights a lot more fun. Each boss encounter has its own unique flavor and atmosphere which dresses up the usual intricacies of combat. Sometimes these add different gameplay elements to the fight such as chasing the Witch through her lair or fighting a deranged prophet while she hides in the shadows. Other times, it’s just a gorgeous, cinematic backdrop to accentuate the fight like the mountain top duel with a treacherous Norse or a face-off with a king in the middle of a fiery siege. The game has done well to make these bosses feel challenging and fun to fight.
Leveling up and upgrading Eivor is quite satisfying because there’s an element of exploration baked in the game’s Constellation grid. Since you can rollback and undo any skill point usage at any point in the game with the press of the button, you can use this to play around builds, explore paths of upgrades and scope them out before you decide to roll with them. If it doesn’t play out how you like then you can just as easily respec the points all over again and try a new path. It’s a brilliantly flexible system and one that gets additional points for keeping within theme since Vikings and old seafarers used the stars to guide their way, doubling back and exploring new paths when they get lost.
The equipment and item system this time around is a bit more streamlined as compared to the previous games and as such is way better for it. Valhalla doesn’t drown you in a sea for armor and weapons but instead gives you a selection of equipment that you can upgrade and take with you until the very late parts of the game. This change helps declutter the normally overflowing inventory you have as well as make finding armor pieces and weapons out in the world more exciting and special. Additionally, this also raises the stock of the equipment upgrade material that you find in the world since each one might help unlock a new rune slot for your favorite armor/weapon and even a new look and style for it.
First and foremost, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is an open-world game, as such, I am happy to report that its open world is hands down the best thing in the entire game. It’s an absolute joy to go around and get lost in the sheer beauty of the world as well as spend countless hours tracking down different collectibles and world events in each of the game’s 4 gigantic maps.
Valhalla does such a good job of filling the world with little, bite-sized bits of fun and story-telling that it’s such a rewarding experience to track them down. When you do you’re almost always rewarded for your efforts with either a cool new item, a collectible, a new ability or fun, little bit of world-building. Most of these require mere minutes of your time to talk to someone to get them to jump into a freezing river for their christening or steal a bunch of clothes from some nudists or defeat an old man gifted/cursed with a nigh unbeatable Wallop.
Seeing a marker for a World Event, a mini-game, a Mystery or a collectible is always exciting and I often found myself chasing them down even in the middle of a crucial story quest. I know that there’s always something cool or entertaining waiting for me at each of the markers and that it’ll only take a short amount of time before I’m on my merry way.
In a way, Valhalla’s open world respects your time so much more than the main story does. Its narrative is a long play, to say the least, requiring about 80 hours to fully run through. This is partly due to the structure of the game divided into 18 story arcs called territories which represent all the major areas of the game. Each territory is its own unique story which will take around 4-5 hours to complete. Not all territories are important to the main plot but you are required to play through all of them to advance the plot along. The result is that a lot of the arcs tend to function as filler extending and padding the central narrative to the maximum length.
It’s a shame because I found the mainline narrative to actually be quite compelling. The tale of a once proud and honorable Jarl corrupted and maddened by delusions of grandeur as you, his best friend bear horrified witness is certainly a saga worth telling. There is also a fantastic intersection between the events of Valhalla and previous events in the franchise that is definitely a treat for longtime fans that I found quite chill-inducing.
Valhalla‘s Eivor is arguably one of the best main protagonists in an Assassin’s Creed game since ACII’s Ezio Auditore. Eivor has the bravado and ferocity of a fiery warrior tempered with the profound insight and compassion of a poet’s heart. There’s a uniqueness to Eivor’s thoughts and personality, one that feels like an ornately adorned battle hammer, blunt and simple yet beautiful and well-tempered. That said, I find that Female Eivor is leagues better than Male Eivor in this regard. It just feels like an eloquent male badass with a heart of gold is rote and familiar while a female incarnation is just simply refreshing and unique.
Additionally, the writing all throughout the game is some of the franchise’s best. The dialogue especially stands out as being evocative without being whimsical and poetic without being flowery. Its filled with simple thoughts put beautifully. It hits the perfect notes in telling the story of a noble and honor-bound band of conquering warriors which may not fully be historically accurate but makes for some great, entertaining, and profoundly insightful moments.
While the main story is quite enjoyable, the filler arcs are a bit hit or miss. There are times where story beats get very repetitive. The number of times I’ve had to train a boy king to be a worthy ruler, track down the bad guy who retreats to his castle, then eventually lay siege on said castle felt very desensitizing to the point where I can barely remember which time was for which arc. It’s not all bad though as some arcs are actually quite good and feature fun set pieces like a Viking version of the Battle of Normandy or a celebration/send-up of the origins of Halloween. There were also a handful of moments that payoff having to go through the territories in the form of your allies who you’ve met along the way coming to your aid so trudging through the filler isn’t completely without reward.
It took me 103 hours to wrap up the main plotline both in and outside of the Animus (give or take a few extra hours spent exploring the world and messing around) as well as get to the extra ending by completing all targets in The Order menu. By the end of it all, I can definitely say that I enjoyed the journey more than the destination. The climax, in true Assassin’s Creed tradition, leaves you with more questions rather than answers and as such isn’t very satisfying. The endgame has a crucial flaw in that it hinges on a big plot twist as the finale of the main arc. However, the circumstances of this plot twist are never fully explained and pays off plot details that have yet to be revealed–events that we have yet to witness and have no context to whatsoever. Impossibly, the game places this moment at what I perceive is the big ending of the story and yet it has nothing to do with it at all.
The climax also focuses more on the story outside of the Animus where we’ve spent mere minutes in this game instead of the story within the Animus where we’ve spent 80-100 hours in. The result is a shocker of an ending and one that makes big moves and changes moving forward but one that doesn’t really reward you for all the time you spent with it.
Valhalla comes with a literal longship full of bugs and technical glitches. While rarely ever game-breaking the frequency and variety of bugs I’ve encountered have definitely been as troubling as they were deeply annoying. I’ve clipped through the floor, got stuck in a rut on the ground while violently shaking, had my arrows blocked by an invisible wall, had my weapons rendered invisible, seen floating corpses spawn on top of a lake before descending into it, encountered AI warriors that just stand around in raids ignoring you or sometimes blocking a crucial doorway, struck enemies than vanished to thin air and boats jumping clear into the air.
Perhaps the worst one I’ve encountered has been a glitch that took away an “interact” prompt that I need to activate to start a boss fight, locking me out and preventing me from trying it all together. It’s a shame since it was the only Mystery left in the area keeping me from getting 100% in the territory. I’ve reloaded and checked every play session and through a few patches but at the time of this writing it was still glitched.
While not entirely perfect, I enjoyed my time with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla immensely. The open world, in which I’ve spent so much time exploring, is such a joy to run around in. I lost track of so much time just bouncing from one collectible or World Event to another because of just how quick, fun and rewarding they were. Valhalla’s brutal and satisfyingly weighty combat is a definite high note in the entire series and fittingly makes you feel powerful with every hit and killing blow.
It may have stuck a sketchy landing on a long, drawn-out story but it did have a lot of genuinely entertaining and profoundly evocative moments. I’ve come to appreciate that it was more about the journey rather than the destination when the narrative is concerned.
All in all, despite its flaws, Valhalla has succeeded in making me fall in love with Assassin’s Creed all over again. The wandering has paid off and I have high hopes that the franchise is on to better waters on the journey forward.
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