A familiar franchise that still delivers something new and surprising.
In the continuation of the Assassin's Creed lore, Assasin's Creed: Valhalla have us delve into AD 873, where politics in Norway prompts Eivor to set sail for the untamed land of Anglo-Saxon England. Upon building their settlement, Eivor and Sigurd, your clan's jarl, need to create alliances with neighbouring kingdoms around them. In a bid to gain allies, Eivor gets embroiled in the Hidden Ones' cause in defeating the Order of the Ancients and also dealing with a troubling prophecy.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
Unlike Odyssey, the battle mechanics for Valhalla requires little more finesse. Now you have timed counters and dodges and depending on your gear and ability loadouts, can break or make your battle with higher-level enemies. The fights are inventive and, depending on your weapons and enemies you're faced with, I can say that the finishes you inflict won't be boring.
Some players hated Valhalla's skill tree but I don't have strong feelings against it though. The mechanics for levelling up were different from previous AC games. For this outing, you only uncover bits of the skill tree when you assign Skill Points to specific nodes. There are three classes to the skill tree—Bear (melee attack focused); Wolf (ranged attack focused); Raven (assassination focused)—you're free to bolster any classes to fit your playstyle. If you like to get in close-and-personal but also would like to attack from afar, you'll focus more on the Bear and Wolf classes. If you prefer stealth, you'll work on expanding your Raven class.
What you're really after, other than the incremental stats increase, are the major skills; these are added actions that give you an edge in combat. The best part of this is that you're able to reset your skill tree and redistribute your skill points to fit your combat situation.
There are a set number of weapons and armour to be found. They are not as plentiful as previous instalments but the gears you find are enough. You'll spend the bulk of your time upgrading your gears, which keeps you invested in what you own.
Exploration is encouraged and the way they handled the open world of Valhalla is rather freeing. You have a beautiful open world with gorgeous vistas and serene waters (a close second with Ghost of Tsushima). It's a slap in the face if you choose to rush from point A to point B and not notice how the blades of grass sway in the wind or the shadowed cragginess of a cliff face at dusk.
You have the main mission of building up your settlement and creating alliances but you can also divagate to other parts of England and engage in the shorter side quests and such; you don't feel fatigued when you're switching between the two.
The side quests are challenging and I dig that. There was one encounter, where a monk by the road explained that as he was delivering a crate of apples to a nearby destination, his cart overturned. He adds that he would have finished his delivery but he threw out his back. Even though he didn't ask, it took a few seconds to register that I needed to carry the crate to his intended location.
If you're stuck on a side quest, you can always return to it at a later date, or hell, you don't even have to attempt it. You'll be occupied by the shitload of stuff to do in Valhalla—dice games; chasing after tattoo flashes; drinking… one of the things I love is flyting, where you trade witty insults with a challenger. Some will liken it to a medieval rap battle but I equate this with Insult Sword Fighting from the Monkey Island series. Granted that the comebacks in Valhalla aren't as biting as the ones from Monkey Island but when I was playing it, I was bathed in the backwash of nostalgia.
You'll meet with interesting characters that add nuances to this open world. You'll meet warrior nuns or I can engage in combat with the Order of the Ancients' zealots. I even met with Viking with a 'headache' like none other. My meeting with him was brief but it will be an encounter that stays with you.
What we didn't like
Wish there were more options for hairstyles for Eivor. And customising tattoos on your character's body sounds great on paper but that sick dragon tat with the runes all over it is covered up by that chunky armour.
Enemy and NPC AIs still need some work. I can enter a town, kill the enemies with abandon and yet still be able to continue unabated without the townsfolk freaking out over the WANTON MURDER that I've wrought? It's odd.
Other than your initial bugginess—janky assassinations; clipping; events not triggering—not all of the mini-games work. Building a cairn is frustrating given the limitations of the controller (I use a PS4 for this review) and I don't know if I particularly care for the modern-day playthrough. I mean, it's deeply embedded into the whole AC mythos (in a nutshell, you're a modern-day Assassin, who uses the Animus to relive the memories of your ancestors through their DNA) but every time I switch back to Layla Hassan in 2020, I just want to return to Eivor's storyline. I have no solution to this given that this is a literary "painting-yourself-into-the-corner" approach so I guess we'll just have to see where the chips may fall.
Then there are the Viking raids.
In the game, you're raiding monasteries for resources so that you can build your settlement. It's romanticised; raids are a necessary evil but, hey, at least, you're not killing civilians only the armed guards. Right? Historically-speaking, Viking raids were brutal affairs. They are usually hit-and-runs, where Vikings would decimate a village; engage in the slave trade; kidnap women (as domestic slaves and child-bearers; torture the prisoners (Blood Eagle, anyone?)… the list goes on.
It's a video game and, for the sake of artistic licensing, certain leeway is usually given for that. But the broad strokes that are painted over the reality of Viking culture can be a little tough to swallow.
What to look out for
There are easter eggs to look out for like the homage to One Punch Man and a list that details Voldermort's horcruxes. There's the legendary sword, Excalibur, that you can get by finding all the Treasure of Britain tablets. And there's a secret ending, one that's only achieved if you finished all of the Animus Anomaly puzzles.
Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is out now on Xbox Series X/S; Xbox One; PlayStation 5; PlayStation 4; PC and Stadia.