I’ve been a fan of Assassin’s Creed ever since I received the first game as a gift from a friend back in 2007. The amazingly detailed open worlds, the layers of lore and mystery hidden underneath the surface, and the gameplay that has had me slicing throats and stabbing targets from the shadows. Over the years it’s become one of my favorite series of all time, and despite a few games which dipped in quality, it’s a series that I look forward to playing with each new release.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the latest entry in the long-running series. The game represents both the culmination of their current storytelling trilogy as well as the completion of the series metamorphosis from a stealth action game to a full-fledged action RPG. In fact if the game feels immediately comparable to another title, it would by The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. It is simultaneously the best that the series has been in years while also drifting the furthest from the things that made the series great to begin with. And while I love what this series is and has become, playing through Valhalla also left me slightly conflicted and with a longing for the series to make a return to its roots.
Valhalla tells the story of Eivor, a Viking warrior who (along with his adopted brother Sigurd) departs his homeland of Norway to start a new life and adventure in England. As you arrive on the shores of your new home, you establish a settlement called Ravensthorpe on the abandoned grounds of a group of settlers who came before. Ravensthorpe is where you will spend much of your time in between story missions. You begin each main quest there, you return there after they’re over, and by using the resources and materials found around the world you’ll expand upon your settlement with new buildings and structures. Having a permanent home to return to every couple of hours helps to drive home a sense of community and creates an attachment to the many characters who inhabit it. The game even recently held a limited time Yule festival which transformed Ravensthorpe into a winter wonderland full of activities and games to play.
The centerpiece of this village is your Viking longhouse, a grand hall containing your living quarters and a dining hall which is used for celebratory feasts. You can also decorate the longhouse with trophies found over the course of your journey. The most important feature of this building though is the war table, this is where you will speak with Randvi, your chief strategist and wife to Sigurd. Here you’ll choose which region of the country to visit next in your effort to forge alliances and partnerships.
Embarking on these main quests were definitely the highlight of the game for me and the way in which they’re structured felt fantastic. Once you mark a region on your map, you travel to that location and experience what is a (for the most part) self-contained storyline featuring interesting characters and compelling plot points. Each quest lasts a few hours and feels like a great episode of a fantasy TV series like Game of Thrones. Assassin’s Creed titles have featured great lead characters and villains in the past, but this is the first time in which I’ve found the supporting cast to be so interesting. I was invested in all of their stories and as you progress further in the game it’s rewarding when they begin to come together before the finale.
When I say finale though, you need to keep in mind that finishing recent Assassin’s Creed titles isn’t as cut and dry as in most other games. In addition to the core storyline which features a different ending depending on the choices you make throughout the game, there is also another ending after you make your way through the Order of the Ancients. Like previous games, you have a hit list containing members of these Templar predecessors which you must identify by finding clues scattered throughout the world and assassinating them all to uncover the secrets behind their order. I found this ending in particular to be quite satisfying.
There are also a series of story missions that take place in a drug-fueled, dreamworld version of Asgard featuring characters such as Odin, Thor, Loki, and the like. These diversions were probably my least favorite moments in the game as they felt disconnected from the rest of the story, at least until you complete another series of tasks in the main game which unlock a secret cinematic which helps you to (somewhat) understand the meaning of the Asgard tale.
This is all to say that there is a lot to digest in Valhalla. I put 80 hours into the game and still left dozens of quests and collectables on the map. There are layers upon layers of story and lore, which can be incredibly satisfying at times and rewarding if you’re a long time fan invested in the minute details of the series, but even if you’ve played nearly every game in the series like I have you still might be left scratching your head wondering what the hell is going on. The complexity of it all left me longing for the simpler days of Ezio and Desmond Miles.
The gameplay is another aspect of the game in which I’m of two minds on. Early games in the series relied primarily on stealth. Sneaking around on the rooftops and in the shadows to silently kill your enemies without attracting any attention. In Valhalla you ram your boat onto shore, blow your horn to announce your arrival, and chop your enemies to bits with your raiding party. Definitely a different vibe. But for as much as it seems to go against the feel of the series past, the combat is fun and interesting. You can go into battle with a variety of weapon combinations from axes and spears to swords and shields. And while the early game is filling with a lot straight forward hacking and slashing, the further you get the more interesting it becomes by unlocking items in the skill tree.
The skill tree is large, but it’s pretty straight forward, letting you choose paths that focus more on melee combat, ranged attacks, or assassination techniques. The game does a great job of rewarding you for putting in the time with new abilities to unlock that really make you feel like an unstoppable warrior later in the game. Two of my favorite skills include one which allows you to quickly pick up any weapon dropped by an enemy and throw it into another opponent in one swift motion, and one that gives you the ability to catch arrows in midair and fire them back at the shooter for an instant kill. It truly feels fantastic when you pull off one of these moves. The skill tree also lets you unlock some more stealthy moves for those of you who miss the playstyle of earlier games with skills like poison arrows and the ability to assassinate more than one target at a time.
When you’re not raiding villages for materials or taking down members of The Order there are plenty of other activities and secrets to keep you busy. There a drinking games, secret enemies, the Viking equivalent of a rap-battle, and an entertaining dice game which I found to be a fun diversion between missions. While there is so much to do at any given time, the game also does a good job of minimizing the clutter which can seem overwhelming on the world map of other games. Most activities appear as tiny colored blips on your map or don’t appear until you zoom closer in. It may seem minor but with a game loaded with so much to do it was incredibly welcome. This is a game after all that will keep you entertained for dozens (if not hundreds) of hours when all is said is done.
It may appear as if I’m sometimes conflicted about my feelings on the game, and that’s true, but it has nothing to do with the quality of the game and more to do with the game I originally fell in love with. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a massively entertaining Viking role playing game. It is both a self contained epic with great characters and stories, and it also contains an incredible amount of lore and call backs to games and characters from the series history for those who dig deeper.
I also feel like I’m not sure where the series goes from here. This game wraps up the pre-history of the battle between the Assassins and Templars, and I can’t imagine a follow-up going bigger than what they’ve accomplished with these last three games. As much as I love this game a part of me would love to see them dial things back for the next installment. Focus on a smaller world and story, go back to being the sneaky killer who strikes from the shadows, and get back to the roots of what made this series so good in the first place. No matter which direction they ultimately go, the possibilities after this are truly endless.