Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review: Quantity Over Quality
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is — like other recent entries in Ubisoft’s long-running action-adventure stealth franchise, AC: Origin and Odyssey — just too much. Every settlement you step into has half a dozen side quests and activities. Every time you complete an objective, five more of the same kind show up on the map. There are not one but two worlds to explore: Norway and England, and you will also step foot in Asgard and Jotunheim for a little while. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla universe was full of life and variety, but it’s usually all too repetitive. Climb to the top of a tall structure. Unlock a door. Find a hidden passage. Listen to a boring tale. Shoot something down. Rinse and repeat.
You don’t have to do every side quest in Assassin’s Creed games, but Assassin’s Creed Valhalla does its best to push you towards them. Most conversations end with NPCs (non-player characters) informing you they will be waiting for you nearby while you spend time in the town. The game is literally speaking to you through its characters and telling you to explore. In other cases, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will task you to meet someone at a new location some distance off. While there is a fast travel option, it is severely limited (at least in early-game) as the map is huge, which means you have to manually journey for the most part. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla does this so that you may encounter even more side quests and activities en route to your destination.
But as you travel across Norway and England, you will discover that many regions around you are out of your reach. Not physically, but in terms of your capabilities. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla comes with a new global power level. As you gain XP and level up, you will earn skill points that can be assigned to a sprawling skill tree that lets you pick from three directions: “raven”, “wolf”, and “bear”. All of them offer stat buffs and new abilities, some even superhuman. They are slightly different — favouring melee, stealth, or range — but the stat buffs tend to overlap more often than not, many of which are essentially meaningless at times (for example: “+1.7 damage”, “+2.4 resistance”) and feel like padding the game length.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has regions that have a “suggested power” value of 340. It took me around 10 hours to cross level 25. I admit I’m a slow player so even if you take half the time, you’re looking at another 70-hours in-game just to step into the most powerful region.
Raids, assaults, and settlement
For what it’s worth, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla introduces some new elements into the familiar mix. The most talked about one, given the presence of Vikings in the game, has naturally been raids. But let’s talk about assaults first. The centrepiece of Valhalla, assaults are the biggest battles you will witness in the game, which require you to make your way through multiple gates, with the help of a battering ram and your Viking crew. You will deal with waves of enemies and encounter some special ones that require unique, smarter approaches. While the enemy is prepared for assaults, in raids, you and your Viking crew will happen upon an unsuspecting settlement, ransack and pillage the place, and take what you like, which in turn helps you grow your settlement.
After you arrive in England, you will establish the settlement of Ravensthrope — named so because you’re known as Raven’s Clan — that brings base building back to Assassin’s Creed after a while. You can construct a barracks or a trade market, upgrade homes (to throw a better Viking feast) or the blacksmith (to make you better weapons), or even spend your resources towards a tattoo parlour. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla goes beyond armour and gear customisation to allow players to ink their skin too, in addition to changing hairstyles and facial hair. You even have your own room at the Ravensthrope settlement, where you receive letters, advice on what to build next, and can even go to bed for a good night’s rest.
At your settlement or other friendly settlements, you can take part in mini-games. There are the drinking contests which require timing, precision, and balance. You can play a game of dice called Orlog that needs some strategy and luck (naturally, since it involves dice). And most importantly, you can take part in Viking rap battles, known as Flyting. You’ve to choose from options provided to you, to match cadence, suit the rhyme, and remain on topic, all to cleverly insult your opponent with your words. You might be wondering why I called this the most important of the three activities. That’s because winning Flyting match-ups increases your charisma, which unlocks dialogue options during story missions that help you in myriad ways, from avoiding a fight altogether to paying a lot less for a favour.
Currying favour is crucial to your survival in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. The Raven’s Clan is new to England, home to four different kingdoms and a multitude of Saxon bandits, and they will need friends to help the clan exist and expand. You can’t possibly fight everyone by yourself. To that end, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla lets you forge alliances, which involve helping them in their quests.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla combat
There are some new (and returning) aspects in the combat department as well. Unlike most action-adventure games, your character’s health doesn’t automatically regenerate outside of combat in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. You must find food or berries to regain health and heal yourself (which you can do during combat too.) Equally important, you can’t endlessly dodge attacks as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla brings a new stamina bar to the series. During combat, stamina is spent dodging and performing heavy attacks, and only gained when you perform light attacks. Outside of combat, stamina regenerates itself. Hence, you must be careful not to run out of stamina while attacking, as you’ll leave yourself vulnerable in defence. You’ve to arguably take more care of stamina than health.
Additionally, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla gives players the option to dual wield most weapons available in the game — unless the weapon you pick is heavy enough that it requires both hands. Speaking of weapons, the Assassin’s Creed series staple “Hidden Blade” is back, allowing you to do what the title of the franchise promises: assassinations. Alongside this, we also have the return of walking stealthily among crowds by donning a cloak and a hood. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla also offers a range of new combat abilities — up to eight abilities, four melee and four ranged, can be assigned at a time — such as a hail of arrows or axes. These are learnt by discovering “books of knowledge” hidden around the game world. Finding the same book of knowledge of one type greatly enhances that ability.
But for all the changes, combat is annoyingly clunky in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. There’s a certain stiffness and a lack of fluidity to the way your character moves and swings their arms. Attacks often feel laborious and lack speed, even when you’re using (comparatively) lightweight axes. Strangely, that’s not the case when you hit the dodge button, as your character jumps back and shifts around like they suddenly have no weight. I never quite got the sense that I had a handle, and always found myself on the back foot in combat. By comparison, Ghost of Tsushima — another game set in the medieval period — handles its equally complex combat system much better, in introducing how it works and teaching you how to best navigate it with the tools at your disposal.
Battles, more so assaults, can also get fairly chaotic on Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and it’s not always easy to identify who the enemy is. This is historically appropriate though, and thankfully, friendly fire isn’t a thing at least. And if you throw yourself in the deep end, you can expect the game’s NPCs to try and catch up with you to support you.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla story
The central tale of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla follows Eivor — whom you select as a man or woman — who had a traumatic childhood thanks to Kjotve the Cruel and which led them to earn the nickname Wolf-Kissed. Eivor has grown up with their brother Sigurd, the prince under King Styrbjorn. After Sigurd returns from roaming the world, Eivor and Sigurd take on Kjotve with the backing of a young King Harald. Harald subsequently unites Norway under one rule, but Eivor and Sigurd decide they would rather be their own masters and take off for England, with two of Sigurd’s friends from the Brotherhood (who call themselves the Hidden Ones). They have been missing from the English Isles for four centuries, and the Templars (Order of the Ancients) have grown in power in their absence.
The story, at least for the first several hours, is disjointed, unimpressive, and boring. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla builds up characters only to suddenly discard them, for it has willingly trapped itself in a narrative that must shift to England as early as possible. The bits in Norway are like a prologue; the title screen shows up when you set off for England. Even though you’ve control over Eivor’s actions, you’ve no choice in deciding whether you wish to move to England to begin with. You will also spend some time outside the Animus — the in-game magic thingy that allows people to relive the lives of beings from centuries ago — as a Muslim-American trying to solve a planetary crisis. Since it’s set in 2020, Ubisoft Montreal has included throwaway mentions to COVID-19.
The Assassin’s Creed Valhalla narrative also suffers due to technical and continuity troubles. For a summit of kings, Harald decrees a truce between all warring Viking kingdoms. But Eivor has a bone to pick with someone and marches into their camp. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla wants you to do this stealthily and avoid the guards — but you don’t have to. After I was detected, I chopped five guards to death before confronting the person I was there for. Harald’s guards walked in to prevent me from killing them and remind me that anyone who broke the peace would be thrown out. Okay, I already did that. Did no one see that? Does that not count? It’s like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has no memory outside of cutscenes and completely ignores whatever you may do.
Speaking of what happens outside cutscenes, it’s surprising to see that the engine is still unable to realistically portray body language, even after so many Assassin’s Creed games. All the hard work by the voice performers, in modulating the intonation of their voice, is spoiled by the sheer lack of variety in the body language of the people who are talking. It completely takes you out of the experience.
Quantity over quality
As with Ubisoft’s recent Watch Dogs: Legion, there are bugs in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla at launch too. On one occasion, I had to dive through a trap door into a pool of freezing water beneath a floating house to get at some treasure. But the game wouldn’t let me jump back out, with the jump button refusing to work in the upward direction it ought to, even though the entrance to the trap door was a foot away. It was a dead end and I had been consigned to die of hypothermia. After some button mashing, I somehow emerged from the ground but then got stuck because the game believed I was still in water. I was standing on land but I couldn’t move more than a foot or two in either direction. Eventually, I just had to fast travel out to a different spot to rescue myself.
The new Assassin’s Creed game has a microtransactions-driven in-game store as well, just like the new Watch Dogs game. It allows you to buy new weapons, resources, silver (the primary in-game currency), and maps (that reveal locations of all hidden treasures). You can also pick up cosmetic upgrades for your character, ship, and settlement. Or get yourself a new animal companion. The in-game store runs on “Helix Credits” that can be bought with real money.
Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is so expansive that it feels rather aimless. The story gets lost in the hours you spend wandering around chasing side quests — which offer endless variations on a finite number of templates — all in the hopes of levelling up the infinite global power tree or finding gear that you will then need more resources for to upgrade it. And for all the explanations on the new mechanisms offered in the menus, it lacks in clear instructions at times, be in with resources, exploration, or the importance of side quests. If you make them important, you can’t call them “side” missions anymore Ubisoft.
Does Assassin’s Creed Valhalla need to have so much to do? Some series fans do love it, which is why Ubisoft is sticking with this approach here. But I suspect most people won’t see more than a fraction of what Valhalla has to offer. And you can’t blame them either. While video game developers have begun justifying the exorbitant price of games — Rs. 3,999 / $60 to begin with — by infusing them with hundreds of gameplay hours, there are still only 24 hours in a day. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is too much of the same thing, and it’s not nearly engaging enough.
- Assaults are lively, strategic
- Mini-games are enjoyable and/or have purpose
- Added realism in combat
- Can dual wield weapons
- Hidden Blade returns
- Good NPC support in combat
- Too much bloat
- Cookie cutter side quests
- Combat is clunky
- Stiff character movement
- Laborious attacks
- Convoluted, uninteresting story
- Narrative lacks continuity logic
- Body language missing in conversations
Rating (out of 10): 6