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Review: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Brings the Fun, but It May Leave You Uneasy

The game is fairly dedicated to correcting many of the worst creative decisions made across the lifespan of the Assassin’s Creed series.

3.5
Justin Clark

Published

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Assassin's Creed Valhalla
Photo: Ubisoft

Fun comes through more effortlessly in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla than it has in years for Assassin’s Creed. Where Origins and Odyssey took more than a few cues from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Valhalla embraces the things that, once upon a time, made Assassin’s Creed unique. Here, there’s renewed emphasis on actual assassination, but also more focus on showing how each of your targets connect, how they affect the world at large, and the direct result of their elimination. You get to see the ways your actions make the world a better place, at least in the short term. That, in turn, provides plenty of motivation to do all the extra non-essential stuff that Origins and Odyssey kept trying to foist upon the player.

It does, though, take a few hours—after an introductory sandbox in Norway provides a bleak and uninspiring bit of setup—for the game to get to that point. You play as Eivor, a Viking who finds themselves tagging along on the first exodus out of Norway with their hot-blooded brother, Sigurd, when their father bends the knee to a new king without consulting the rest of his family. The journey leads Eivor and Sigurd to seek out their Norwegian brethren in England, where the game blooms from a set of linear plot points to a much looser structure.

The next main story mission is always out there waiting for you to tackle it, but with enough time, effort, and honest detective work, visiting a diverse array of well-written and amiable NPCs will be a great opportunity to tame the hostile English terrain. That work will also lead you to the two dozen or so assassination targets that will make settling down in England easier in the long run. There are still plenty of mindless sidequests, minigames, and timewasters to blow a 40-to-50-hour game out into something closer to 90, and a plethora of fascinating little nooks and crannies to explore for treasure, customizable items, and random secluded hermits with grand stories to tell. But blessedly, these are truly optional, instead of a required grind. Now, just about anything you do in game can help improve your equipment, or provide enough XP to unlock new tricks, better attacks, defends, and the like.

Raids are the backbone of Valhalla, at once the main source of its enjoyment and its most problematic component. On its face, a raid will find you blowing a horn and charging alongside 30 of your best CPU allies into battle against the Saxon dogs who choke the life from the land, burning their villages to the ground. It feels as if, in the thankful absence of rape, there’s triple the amount of pillaging to be done. At its best, the film’s combat strikes that happy medium between patient, Souls-like sword-and-shieldplay and easy, effective button-mashing that usually ends with your enemies finding out what your favorite axe tastes like.

The quests as part of the main story go even further, turning into full-on Lord of the Rings-scale melees. Aside from the rock-solid frame rate, if there’s anything that truly shows off the power of the next-gen consoles, it’s the way these battles, such beautiful displays of chaos, never skip a single frame—something that can’t be said about the stuttery previous gen port.

Stop for even a moment to consider the implications of all the looting and burning, though, and Valhalla starts to unravel. You spend much of the initial boat trip into England talking about how you intend to take the land from the Saxons, who had to take it from the Romans, who had to take it from others before them. But the option to take a different path, one toward coexistence, isn’t an option. And why not? A dialogue system has been built into this game that takes some rather intriguing twists and turns with the story, where enemies can become friends, innocent people can die as a consequence of your actions, and Eivor can try to find diplomatic solutions before things escalate into war. But bloodthirst is always the first option.

Granted, Valhalla is a game about a Viking assassin, so it’s difficult to imagine peace as a possibility within that premise. But the violence you bring about in prior Assassin’s Creed titles has a different flavor. You’re meant to revel in the good you’ve done in the other games, while chaos is your guiding principle here, as it’s considerably easier to progress with fury than it is with grace, which nearly every other game in this series makes a point to lean into.

There are a few motions toward grace later in Valhalla, especially when some of the more despicably bloodthirsty Vikings start to play a role in the game’s narrative, betrayals start to pile up, and named innocents start dropping like flies. Eivor begins to develop a wider, empathetic view of the world around the Vikings as the narrative progresses. There are more than just Danes trying to carve a small piece of England for their own, and Eivor is able to recognize that same settler struggle in others as time goes on. Given that everyone has lost friends and family trying to make England their home, and Eivor is often tasked with being an emotional bedrock for them as they build and rebuild. At the same time, you can’t help but wonder why Eivor is meant to feel so uneasy about the way their people operate now. Why wasn’t it a problem decapitating the men whose primary crime was defending their village?

Of course, you know the answer to that: Because it’s fun. Admittedly, lots of fun. Indeed, Valhalla surrounds you with people, places, and activities that make spending time in a bloody Assassin’s Creed open world the most enjoyable it’s been since Syndicate. A golden sunrise greets you every few hours in the game to bless a journey you take. You get the sense that you’re not supposed to think about the implications of your actions, that you’re supposed to kill and pillage at your leisure, which doesn’t make the game much different from most others, except that it makes such a point of bringing frightened terrorized bystanders into the mix.

Valhalla is fairly dedicated to correcting many of the worst creative decisions made across the lifespan of the Assassin’s Creed series. Most notably, it empowers its female characters and puts them on equal footing with the male characters. But there’s a cost, as the force of colonialism is front and center here in ways it never has been before in an Assassin’s Creed game: You’re meant to take anything that’s not freely given in England, and not nearly enough nuance has been baked into the story to say that your enemies deserve what your Vikings have come to bring. That makes the primary mode of advancement in the game rest a bit uneasy with where the narrative ends up going. Arguably, that uneasiness is the point, but it’s not enough to support how much fun the game wants you to have throughout.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by 160over90.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: Xbox Series X ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol Buy: Game

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