Similar to how 2013’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag only felt like a traditional entry in the Assassin’s Creed series by virtue of the logo that appears on the screen once the game boots up, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey could basically ditch the Assassin’s Creed title altogether and be none the worse for it. What little there is here tying the game to its forebears is mostly a matter of mechanics. At the end of the day, Odyssey is more like a Greco-Roman mod for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt than anything else.
Odyssey begins at the Battle of Thermopylae, before players even get to select which of the game’s dual protagonists they get to play as. You’re briefly given control of King Leonidas as his 300 Spartans fight the Persians at the so-called Hot Gates of Thermopylae, and in case you’re wondering, Ubisoft doesn’t let the opportunity slide to visually reference Zack Snyder’s take on the subject in delightful ways throughout the campaign. Indeed, one of the first major special moves you earn in Odyssey is a super powerful front kick that lets you, in the spirit of 300, punt opponents half a screen away from you and, more than once, kick an enemy down a conveniently located well.
One full-blown battle sequence and boss fight later and you finally get to the meat of the game. You pick either Alexios or Kassandra, siblings who are unexpectedly separated when good old-fashioned Spartan eugenics (read: dropping sickly or deformed children off a cliff) forces their father to give up one child and toss the other into the ocean. Obviously, your player character survives, growing up to become a mercenary in Kefalonia, and after a bit of awkward introduction to the game’s basic mechanics, a mysterious stranger tasks you with traveling to Athens to murder a Spartan general. And that general, as it turns out, is Alexios or Kassandra’s estranged father.
There’s actually a fair amount of well-crafted and unexpected twists and turns along the way, effectively turning what is at first blush a simple tale of revenge into a thornier saga about the ties that bind and the deleterious nature of religion, but how engaging it all ends up being depends a lot on which sibling you choose to play as. The superior option is Kassandra, and in no small part because of the way mocap actress Melissanthi Mahut imbues her dialogue with a playful lilt that makes it seem like Kassandra actually enjoys being a mercenary for hire, instead of being stoic and burdened by her lot in life.
There are life-or-death stakes to just about every mission, big and small, in the game, from simply delivering a late payment to a debtor who can’t walk across town, to helping a hostile ship captain find the remains of her crew—including her lover—in the wreckage of her demolished craft. Naval combat is back in full force in Odyssey, and while not as fundamental to this game as it was to Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed Rogue, its inclusion does add to the epic scale of the campaign. All of your deeds and misdeeds contribute to the overall health of whatever nation you find yourself in, as well as your own personal infamy, leading to grand-scale conflicts where you lead the Spartans into massive-scale skirmishes against an invading army.
It’s an extravagant pilgrimage you take as Alexios or Kassandra, and the only thing holding it back from true greatness is the encroaching imbalance of the game’s leveling system, given how frequently your next major objective is left hundreds of thousands of hard-won experience points ahead of where you need to be. For example, Odyssey will give you a new vital target to kill who’s at level 30, when the last critical mission leaves you at level 26, and each side mission—be it tasks from strangers or slaying the keen-to-kill bounty hunters who come stalking after you for causing too much chaos in an area—only gives you a fraction of what you need to advance. Meanwhile, the next critical mission is nearly impossible to even attempt without getting within at least one level of your quarry. Even as enjoyable as the quests are, the gaping void preventing you from seeing the campaign at your pace gets ever more difficult to ignore in the later hours. More crucially, it makes the fact that the easiest solution to this problem—a boost to how much XP is earned per mission—is gated off behind a $9.99 real-world purchase in the store feels insidious.
There’s plenty of power and glory to be had in Odyssey. This is a vast swords-and-sandals epic that’s rendered in the finest of details, and there’s little else like it. Seeing it through to conclusion, however, has a major cost: your money or your patience. What’s waiting on the other side of that decision is compelling, but the fact that you have to make it at all hurts the experience.