Assassin’s Creed has been going through a journey of reinventing itself. This started in Origins, which brought the RPG element to the game, introducing levels, gear rarity and quests. Odyssey refined that, adding conversation options, optional romances and full control over what you wore, with your playstyle benefiting from the equipment types you chose.
Now Valhalla is here and instead of just getting levels that give you health and damage every time, we have a skill grid that reminds me of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, where you spend points to get stats in a large branching tree, with some special nodes that improve your chances and strategies in-game.
It is in this third one that the RPG elements really shine brightest. But that isn’t the biggest part of the reinvention going on here. The true star, so bright as to dwarf the refinement in the RPG side, is the massive shift in world exploration. It feels like things have come full circle, with Assassin’s Creed, the game that arguably inspired so many open-world titles, taking cues from some of the stand-out games out there to make exploration fun and rewarding again.
You might not believe it, but it feels like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla took a good few lessons from the success of Breath of the Wild. That glut of side-quests that Bayek and Kassandra had to do? Gone. Instead, get ready to explore the world and see all its splendour and many mysteries, all while unearthing treasure by solving wonderful environmental puzzles. Eivor will spend a lot of time looking for keys, ways to get around barred doors, weak walls and floors to break through and the like. Sometimes this means finding the right path through a cavern to be offered a glimpse at the back of a barred door, where you can shoot the pesky bracket out of your way.
It feels like things have come full circle, with Assassin’s Creed, the game that arguably inspired so many open-world titles, taking cues from some of the stand-out games out there to make exploration fun and rewarding again.
Suddenly instead of just running from place to place, magically homing in on treasures, you will need to look around for yourself too. Is there another way into a locked building? Perhaps there is a broken window or a gable wall that doesn’t reach all the way to the roof, leaving a small space to crawl inside or shoot an arrow through. Or maybe the building has no way inside, until you find an ancient Roman structure that runs underneath it.
The joys on the map aren’t just how to get into a building to find treasure. Sometimes you will find someone that needs your help or a cursed area that attacks the senses, making your vision swim as you hunt down the charm that needs to be destroyed. Maybe you find a circle of stones that change in number each time you count them, or an old warrior hoping to die in combat. Between ancient sites like Stonehenge and abandoned Roman bathhouses, there is a lot of mystery and mysticism, with a few completely inexplicable moments that reward you for exploring the world, for taking time away from the main story.
After leaving for England, the focus is to make allies in a new land full of kings, jarls and too many soldiers. Eivor acts as diplomat, emissary and champion of the Raven Clan and must make alliances with the people around her. This often means getting directly involved in their politics, wars and lives and here is where you will meet some of the most interesting NPCs that you will come to call friend. In many cases Eivor will be tasked with weakening an enemy’s position before a massive assault on a castle or keep, involving battering rams and waves of soldiers fighting against turret emplacements, burning oil and massive drawbridges. Eivor’s ferocity in battle is complemented by her poet’s turn of phrase, which quickly makes her many friend in this strange land that has become all too familiar with raiders and war.
Each area you try to ally with, or to stabilise, falls into an arc, which is a quest line related to a specific location or topic. This structure of not having a big “main” quest is a welcome break from the normal systems, even if at one point I could feel myself wishing for it back, like a crutch. This isn’t your typical three-act story structure and sometimes things go horribly wrong and end in tragedy or everything goes sideways.
While making friends with your new neighbours, you also need to pay attention to your settlement. Disputes might break out, people go missing or friends will pop in from time to time, or a letter will hint that you should go visit them. It ends up playing out very naturally, instead of hunting that main quest, which always tend to magically be one region over, in the very next town. Picking where you want to go and focus on feels liberating, and sometimes I would just go off on a vision quest, rather than dealing with politics of the various shires and kingdoms, or hunt for some new equipment. This is a saga, so prepare yourself for a long journey with many friends and twists, but the payoff is certainly worth it.
You are not alone
And what would a game about Vikings be without raids? Your longship and its crew is one of your main ways to travel, using the rivers of England to get around. Fast travel points are no longer limited to those synchronised viewpoints, and several docks can be used to get around quickly. But often I found myself not wanting to quick travel. You can call for your longship at any river and the crew will arrive, ready to travel with you and go raiding. While on the rivers your crew will sing or tell stories, and you can set your ship to follow the river or head to a marker the same way you set your horse to follow a road. Then you can switch to a cinematic camera and just enjoy the views of England while listening to tall tales or various songs. Until you spot a nice monastery, of course.
There are no missions where being detected results in failure, letting you use stealth if you want, or just go charging in.
One of the best places to get resources to improve your settlement is to raid the fat coffers from the various monasteries dotted over the map. With a blast of your horn, the longship rushes to shore and you start to pillage, burning buildings and finding chests so large it takes two people to unseat the lid. If you prefer stealth you can always sneak in, take down the guards and call your crew when things are quieter, or if combat gets too heated. But the thrill of rushing into a fight against a whole garrison of enemies, rather than small melees involving four or so people, makes the stakes feel so much higher. Help your brothers and sisters to take down enemies, hitting from behind. Or go find the ranged threats and deal with them while your raiders keep the pikemen busy. It adds to the feeling that you are a part of something, rather than a lone hero destroying forts and towns alone.
How do you make a horn stealthy?
The social stealth system is finally back, letting you sit on benches, pretend to browse a stall or work to get by enemies. Many cities do not take kindly to having a Dane in them, so covering up with a cloak and moving slowly will stop the guards from running at you the moment they see you. But they are sometimes suspicious and will investigate if you climb things or move too quickly. The best part of all these systems is that the game provides them to you for your enjoyment and never forces you to use them. There are no missions where being detected results in failure, letting you use stealth if you want, or just go charging in. Your allies will comment on your approach, and you might get chastised for barging in noisily, but there is no penalty. If you get detected you just carry on noisily or deal with the immediate threat and hope that nobody nearby heard the noise.
One big part of this, I think, is that you are not an Assassin. Not in the normal sense of it. Eivor’s true loyalty is to friends and clan, and her fight with the Order is more pragmatic: these are the people that are like a rot in the core of a city, the ones that operate from hiding to prevent alliances between her people and this new land, and she is having none of that.
Eivor comes from a brutal land, where fighting is revered and required of almost everyone and it shows. Any weapon is deadly in hand and some of the takedowns are so brutal, so vicious that I wonder why enemy soldiers don’t turn tail and run when seeing them. Get ready to fight dirty, stomping on enemies when they lie on the ground,
Myth and legend
Much of what we know of Norse history comes from their mythology. These people revered their gods, trying to emulate their successes or please them for a good afterlife. With so much focus in their lifestyles being about their gods and paying tribute to them or living as they would, it feels apt that this aspect of the story starts to take place in the main game and not in a DLC. While Origins and Odyssey reserved a DLC each to truly delve into the mythological side, it is much more intrinsically linked in Valhalla (almost as if the game’s name gave that away, right?) Let’s just say some of your journey isn’t in England.
For a long time, I wondered if Eivor would ever dethrone Bayek or Kassandra. Eivor’s voice is husky, almost raspy compared to how lively the other two are, but after many hours, it was like listening to Doug Cockle’s Geralt, finding the subtle shades of variation that the voice actors use to bring characters to life. Eivor might not have the timbre of Bayek or the bubbly energetic range of Kassandra, but there is something passionate, poetic and dark in Eivor, barely contained beneath the surface, similar in many ways to Darth Vader’s restrained rage. As the game ran its course, I found Eivor had taken a special place in my mind, to the point that my internal monologue now has that same husky quality and cadence.
Picking where you want to go and focus on feels liberating, and sometimes I would just go off on a vision quest, rather than dealing with politics of the various shires and kingdoms.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla takes the strengths of many Assassin’s Creed games, some lessons from other big open-world games and RPGs and has produced a wonderful, exhilarating and fun experience that is sometimes a bit messy. The core loop cycles like a well-oiled machine, having you just do one more thing, explore one more spot again and again until early in the morning, marvelling at how much detail, artistry and dedication have been poured into the various locations. There were so many times I just had to stop and marvel at the countryside or a vista, and the game even offers you places to do just that, with little flags marking places you can switch to a panoramic view.
I don’t want to spoil it, but there is a thread, woven between timelines and characters in this game that makes me really happy I played all the various DLC of this current trilogy. Long-time fans of the series are about to be rewarded. Oh and you can pet the dogs. And the cats. I should have just led with that information and saved you a long read.