REVIEW: ‘Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’ (Xbox One)

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Assassins Creed: Valhalla - But Why Tho?

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the latest installment in Ubisoft’s long-running, open-world franchise. Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, the newest entry takes players to a brand new era and locale yet again: 9th Century Northern Europe, chiefly Eastern England. As Eivor, a leader of Raven Clan, players must make their way from their ancestral home of Norway to the untamed lands of Eastern England to begin a new life for your people.

Foremost, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a remarkable feat of world-building. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has always been at the forefront of designing and inhabiting incredible worlds based intricately on historical accuracy. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is absolutely no exception, delivering perhaps the most gorgeous and enthralling environment of any Assassin’s Creed game, or perhaps any video game period. Even on my old hardware, the landscapes of Norway, England, and beyond are absolutely breathtaking. From the rich textures of the autumn and frozen landscapes to the bafflingly realistic sky, clouds, and lighting effects to the myriad shades that the water takes on, from muddy to pristine. Thank goodness the game consistently recommends you enter panoramic or cinematic views while traveling by horse or boat so you can truly soak in the world’s splendor as you travel across its vast lands.

Not only are the colors and architecture beautiful, but the world itself feels truly lived-in. Much like how Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag made the player really feel like a pirate, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla truly makes the player feel like a Viking. Sure, the small adornments like drinking games, tattoos, flyting (poetic battles of words), and epic music you row a longboat to help. But it’s more than that—it’s the whole atmosphere.

Never before, until Assassin’s Creed Valhalla have you played as the colonizing force. As Eivor and the Raven Clan set forth forging alliances and making enemies throughout their new land, amazingly intricate character moments and interactions transpire that build both deep attachments and resentments. The game is broken into a number of story arcs, each corresponding to different English kingdoms and shires and the work you must do to forge alliances with their leaders. You truly get a feeling of being a stranger in a strange land as you discover more of England and beyond.

I generally appreciate the new arc system, as it helps make for a clean user experience on the quests menu. However, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla decided to forgo making trackable sidequests in this game in exchange for World Events that appear on your map as blue dots and cannot be tracked in the quest menu. I don’t like this change at all. It makes it harder to remember where I have already been and where I should return. Granted, the blue dots become more detailed symbols denoting the type of World Event they are when you get close, but not being able to keep a log, read flavor text, and see how much experience I would gain completing the missions discourages me from even approaching them.

The map overall is a bit mediocre for a similar reason. Wealth and artifacts are the two other main points of interest to collect throughout the game’s many regions. Wealth is represented by golden dots, the size varying depending on whether they contain gear, new skills, or supplies for expanding your village, or if they are just coins or other items for trading or upgrading gear. It’s hard to tell what size each is and what the point of the artifacts are. I also don’t appreciate that everything that could potentially ever appear on the map, even things that may be considered spoilers, appear in the map key from the onset.

You can adjust your exploration difficulty (and combat difficulty) to make different things appear more obvious. But honestly, playing on the highest exploration difficulty, despite the bumps, always feels the most worthwhile. I especially love this difficulty for how it makes many of the quests in the game more interesting. While much of the game is just about hopping from town to town slaying enemies, there are always moments in each arc where you must solve mysteries, explore the area, and figure things out on your own. While not as robust in this department as Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was, where you would be given vague clues as to where you were meant to go and have to find it for yourself, there are still elements of that exploration present. Even if not as well-executed as the last game, having these types of quests, or even the less-serious ones that require you to drink and party amongst the people, helps break up the otherwise monotonous combat sections.

Combat in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels like a step backward. I loved the upgraded combat system in the previous installment, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, for how much it felt like my combinations of light and heavy attacks, parries, dodges, and abilities actually made a difference. There was almost this dance to the combat, much like the older Assassin’s Creed games had with their parry-based system, but with more complexity and difficulty. All of the same elements remain this time around, but it all just feels flaccid. The abilities are now split between essentially active and passive ones, the active requiring you to find Skill Books throughout the game to unlock and adrenaline to use.

The passives are unlocked through the Skill Tree which you can use to employ buffs to your stealth, health, attacks, etc. as well as the passive abilities as you level up and gain skill points. The active skills feel very rote. They’re useful at chipping away damage, but they don’t often feel distinct from one another tactically. Usually, an animation just plays and you either hit or you miss. Some make you charge or hook an enemy, but it still doesn’t feel worth mixing up your tactics. The passive skills are much more useful, ranging from upgrades to your assassination abilities to my favorite, a skill where you can run around picking up and chucking the weapons of felled enemies at the next-nearest foe.

Assassins Creed: Valhalla Combat

The enemy types, too, while there is a great array of them, feel basically all the same. Some are bigger and smaller, some have a breakable shield and others unbreakable. But their attacks and defenses essentially fall into the same narrow categories while your approach to killing them will lie mostly in your preference instead of tactics. In some ways, I appreciate this. Being able to decide for myself if I want to be stealthy and assassinate half a village before blowing my war horn and calling my allies to help raid with me is fun and rewarding. I can also choose to hang back and snipe enemies with my bow from afar. Arrow refills are never too far away for that. But when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, it gets stale quickly.

The difficulty doesn’t feel as well scaled as the previous installment either. In the last game, whether attacking a settlement and scoping out its highest-level foes first or taking on the game’s many mercenaries who are higher-leveled than you, there always felt like a chance that you could succeed against tougher enemies with enough skill and patience. Here, there is just no such thing. Enemies are either all the same difficulty in a given area, or they are “hard” enemies who are above your power level and pretty much not worth taking on. Usually, when facing these types of enemies, I just die nearly instantly once I run out of stamina to dodge and can’t lay enough hits on them quickly enough to rebuild it. I did manage to slay one powerful enemy by getting chased across the shire, happening upon a giant pully system that I could shoot to have giant stones come toppling on top of him. It felt immensely satisfying, but not like something I could, or should, pull off regularly.

The diversity of weapons is fun though. From single-handed to double-handed axes, to flails and spears, they all play different and are each fun for different reasons. I do miss the constant gear drops of the previous two installments, allowing me, if not forcing me, to change up my gear with frequency as the items and my foes become more powerful. But at least each weapon type is unique. I am never one to wield a heavy weapon in most games, preferring quick, light attacks over slow, heavy ones. But I found myself totally enamored by being a big brute in this game, which felt novel.

On the subject of stealth, Assassin’s Creed: Unity upped the stealth game when it introduced the greatest ability to enter buildings yet: climbing through windows. Assassination missions became so much more diverse in the approaches you could take, building over the series’ entries to include all sorts of ways to poison drinks, steal keys, and cause distractions. Nearly all of that is gone in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. If you want to sneak now, your only choices are often to find the one entrance to an area, one key to a locked door, one back window to shoot an arrow through and break a barrier, while probably getting caught in the process. There are difficulty changes you can tune to make sneaking easier or harder, but the lack of options on stealth is glaring compared to the past several iterations of the franchise.

I also encountered a least one major game-breaking glitch that forced me to reload previous autosaves, getting lucky that the very last one was far back enough to resolve my issue. The enemies in a sequence essentially all disappeared and I couldn’t progress. I do at least appreciate the strong autosave system and the ability to make as many manual saves as I need. With how in-depth the game’s system of decision-making is and how serious the consequences of decisions may be, it is strongly advisable to make frequent saves so you can double back if you don’t like the outcome of a choice you made. However, be warned, many of the consequences of your choices will not play out for many, many hours. I love how severely the choices you make feel and how they affect the world around you, your relationships, some gameplay elements, and ultimately, the plot. This was introduced in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and is used here just as well if not better.

However, while many decisions do have severe consequences, many gameplay actions simply do not. Wanton murder does not set enemies after you like it always has through a reputation system. Additionally, running headlong into battle without planning and having many of your fellow clansfolk killed does not deplete your forces or their morale in any way. This feels not only antithetical to every Assassin’s Creed muscle I’ve built over the past decade, but also makes all of the heavy decisions I make in the plot feel less consequential when my actions out in the world bare no consequences.

Assassins Creed: Valhalla Customization - But Why Tho?

While I loved many of the characters I met along the way in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, many of the most important fell very flat for me, including Eivor. Eivor has a distinct personality hidden underneath their gruff exterior, but many of their motivations feel muddled and the way they view certain characters is confusing. In part, this is because of the choice system and the desire to allow players to manage their own relationships. Truthfully, it may simply be the voice acting that had me disappointed.

I mostly played as a female Eivor. Her voice acting just feels devoid of emotion in too many of the most emotional moments, and it often took me out of the experience. This is true of several of the other main characters and the ways you interact with them. The side characters though are nearly all excellent and are brilliantly fleshed out, whole individuals with feelings and motives. The dialogue is mostly all right overall. It’s nothing special but not overly cringy.

The male Eivor’s voice acting felt more fulfilling. There is a lot to unpack about the gendered nature of the game and how the plot plays out, or how your perception of the plot plays out, depending on which gender you primarily play as.

You can choose at the beginning of the game whether to play as male or female or let the Animus (the machine that is simulating your experience in-game) choose based on the circumstance. It is not entirely clear to me what triggers the changes, though it seems to default to female Eivor to start. You can also switch options any time you like.

Fortunately, the changes do not seem to be couched in anything overtly sexist like I anticipated. I had feared certain romantic entanglements or leadership choices would force me to switch genders, but this was never the case. In fact, many moments where I feared some sort of sexist or homophobic rebuke of my character or their choices would sully my experience never precipitated.

Other things you can choose throughout the game include hairstyles, tattoos, decorations for your growing village, romance options, skins for your horse and raven, and which pieces of your armor to make visible or not. You can unlock more of these options by chasing flying papers in classic Assassin’s Creed fashion or purchasing them at stores for various types of currency.

Of course, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without a concurrent modern-day plot framing the whole narrative. While I will not go into detail here, my favorite modern-day character, Layla Hassan, is back, this time with old favorites Sean and Rebecca at her side as she officially begins a seemingly tenuous relationship with the Assassins. There is plenty of intricate proto-Assassin plot and development in 9th Century England too that begins very early in the game and carries on throughout as you come face to face with Norse gods and shadowy enemies.

There are many other small textural and animation glitches that, while by no means are game-breaking, are awkward and obvious. Whether it is hair clipping through clothing or assassinations that happen a foot away from the body, these problems may be resolved in the next-gen version of the game but still remain inexcusable. The models and environment are absolutely gorgeous, but the file size for this game is not exactly huge. This leads me to worry that corners were cut in smoothing out some of these wrinkles.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is, in many ways, a triumph. But perhaps not the apex of what Assassin’s Creed is capable of. Many elements, including the combat and exploration, feel like steps backward from the previous installment. And the main character Eivor, at least female Eivor, falls a bit flat in personality and with some of their immediate relationships. However, the setting is easily the most beautiful and captivating yet, and the depth of the side characters and the plights you navigate through with them is so rich it almost makes up for my discontent with the main character and the small graphical bugs littered everywhere.

Already on track to be the Assassin’s Creed game I sink the most hours into yet, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is excellent in many ways, but flawed in just as many others.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is available on PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5 on November 10th.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla
  • 7.5/10
    Rating - 7.5/10
7.5/10

TL;DR

Already on track to be the Assassin’s Creed game I sink the most hours into yet, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is excellent in many ways, but flawed in just as many others.