Ever since 2017’s Assassin’s Creed: Origins, and even more so since 2018’s Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, fans, and detractors of the long-running franchise alike have chided its departure from its classic elements. Many have wondered if a new Assassin’s Creed game should even call itself that, or if it should rebrand as a new franchise or independent new project. They cite everything from the shift in genre away from action-adventure-platformer to action-RPG, to the changes made to the hidden blade, to simply not caring about the modern-day plot anymore (if ever) and confusion over the distinct lack of Assassins or Templars in the recent games.
These arguments all have their validity and their rebukes, but to me, whether they ring true or not is less important than what I believe to be the true core of what makes an Assassin’s Creed game. What defines Assassin’s Creed isn’t its mechanics or genre, but rather their deep thematic exploration of who should get to hold knowledge and power in a society and how they should act when they obtain it.
At the heart of every single Assassin’s Creed game is an unending war between not good and evil, but essentially, adherents to free will and determinist philosophies. From the dawn of existence in the Isu era to the Hidden Ones versus the Order of Ancients to the Assassins versus Templars, there have always been those who believe humans should control their own fates and those who believe their fates should be controlled for them.
Throughout history, some have wielded free will recklessly while others have attempted to determine only subjugation for their followers. The war between either side has seen splintered factions, power abused, and pure evil snuffed out over the millennia. This core aspect of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is simply never played out the same way twice, either.
Part of what makes a long-running series successfully after so many iterations is the ability to consistently and creatively create new variations on the same theme. In early games, things were simple. The Assassins were clearly the good guys trying to stop the Templars from taking over the world. By Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, though, it started to get more complicated. Your protagonist would sometimes work in tandem with Templars to achieve shared goals before diverging on their paths again. The Assassins were shown to be sometimes misguided, using unsavory methods to achieve their vision of liberation.
Assassin’s Creed: Rogue and to an extent, Assassin’s Creed: Unity showed the potential hypocrisy of the Assassin Order in full-force before Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey stripped away the clean divisions between factions and further complicated the way the series portrays the fight over who should have access to knowledge and who should determine how that knowledge is used.
Don’t get me wrong, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey’s means of storytelling is problematic, in part. Much of the modern-day plot and the exploration of the Isu meta-story is locked behind DLC or hard-to-find side missions. Granted, these parts of the game were some of the best of my nearly 200-hour playthrough. I believe that these barriers are a big piece of why many folks have a hard time seeing Odyssey as a true Assassin’s Creed game.
Nonetheless, these elements were there, and even sans-somewhat confusing modern and Isu elements, the Misthios’s main quest bore all the markings of a uniquely Assassin’s Creed story. The Misthios, as the plot unfolds, discovers the Cult of Kosmos, a predecessor to the Templar Order with the same values. They orchestrated the Pelopenessian War and played both sides in an attempt to rebuild Greek society in the image of their “only we have the wisdom to decide the fate of humanity” logos.
Odyssey’s unique and satisfying variation on the free will versus determinism theme was allowing players to take either Sparta’s or Athens’ side in the war. This was because neither was more just than the other and the true villain at the games’ heart, the power-hungry Cult of Kosmos, proved that monopolies on neither wisdom nor might make your group more righteous than the next.
No spoilers here, but Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla succeeds in iterating another variation on the series’ theme far greater than Odyssey did. While Eivor is not a member of the Hidden Ones, her fight against the Order of Ancients and her deepest forays into the Isu and godly are either part of the main plot or very accessible side-mission. Again, no spoilers, but if you know anything about Odin, he’s a perpetual seeker of knowledge and Eivor is not always in agreement with how the All-Father, or the Hidden Ones and their allies seek to obtain and wild that knowledge.
The gameplay and mechanics of Assassin’s Creed may have evolved and changed, in many ways for the better and some for the worse, over the years. But at each entry in the franchise’s core is a deep tale of the history of defining and obtaining knowledge and freedom, who gets to hold it, and how it is used in their hands. Long live the Assassin’s Creed franchise and may its future variations on the theme continue to intrigue, entertain, and inspire debate alike.