Developers of long-running game franchises are always stuck in a tricky limbo. You can either completely reinvent the series by introducing new mechanics and plots, alienating those who love it for what it is, or continue to push out games so similar to the last that they will only appeal to those who are obsessed with the formula. It’s a hard balance to strike and many falter when trying to do so. Assassin’s Creed has been tinkering with this balance for the last few years, shifting the foundations of the series to be more in line with an RPG than a stealth-action game. It’s mostly paid off so far, but I must say that I longed for that perfect balance between old and new, stealth and RPG. With Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, this harmony has never been closer. Savage combat meets with a reintroduced focus on stealth to create a worthwhile package for fans old and new.
Right out of the gate, this is my favourite setting for an Assassin’s Creed game to date. Taking place in ninth-century England and Norway, you play as the hardened Viking raider Eivor of the Raven Clan. Alongside your adoptive brother Sigurd, you are forced to leave your clan’s home in Norway to conquer lands anew in English countryside. Far from peaceful though, England at this stage in history was ripe with infighting and chaos, with multiple Kings vying for control of the various regions. Rolling green hills, half-standing Roman ruins and snow-capped mountain ranges are just a few of the locales that Valhalla’s huge map has to offer.
Our leading axe is Eivor, The Wolf-Kissed, who can either be portrayed as female or male and can be changed at any time. Orphaned as a child and attacked by a pack of wolves, it’s probably safe to say that they are a badarse. Stoic and brooding, yet full of character and life, Eivor is a surprisingly strong protagonist, though he/she does take some warming to initially. I played predominantly as female Eivor, as I think her voice actor and general look are far cooler, but both variations are great.
Poor Eivor had been jumping from obscene heights the wrong way all these years, what a shame
Now this is an Assassin’s Creed game, so it must feature the everlasting battle between those pesky Templars and the Assassins right? Yes, they are absolutely present (though going by the names The Order of the Ancients and The Hidden Ones respectively), but the overall narrative is more focused on The Raven Clan and Eivor’s destiny that is interwoven with that of her brother’s. The story is mainly told through smaller, self-contained tales that are presented as Eivor makes their way around England, strengthening ties with Saxons and Danes alike to bolster the clan’s foothold in this new land. This approach to the story not only allows for more variation, but it also injects the campaign with an ever-present sense of purpose. There are few moments where you feel as though you’re doing something for the sake of it, as you’re usually building trust with a new king by aiding in their fight against raiders or investigating the death of a monarch to ease tensions in the region. Each story arc feels like a micro campaign that’s both satisfying and conclusive.
It’s worth noting that the modern-day element of the story is still present and picks up where Odyssey left off, but Eivor’s story is the true standout here and it takes a number of twists and turns before its conclusion. I wasn’t expecting to be invested in the story at its beginning, as it takes a while to get off the ground, but building bonds with the people of England, leading your clan into a new world, the sting of betrayal and the glory of redemption, they all come together to provide a story worth experiencing and a protagonist worth caring about.
As I said, England in the ninth century was rough and you are a Viking after all, so fighting is a part of day-to-day life. In keeping with the setting, combat is brutal and versatile. You have your basic light and heavy attacks, dodging and blocking, but there’s also a laundry list of combat abilities such as throwing axes and rope harpoons tied to an adrenaline bar that can be used to spice up a confrontation. Beginning the game with an axe in one hand and a shield in the other, that is far from the only option. Hammers, great swords, flails, war axes and many more weapons can be assigned to either hand, allowing for plenty of combat options. Would you prefer to draw your opponent in, parry their attack and then go on the offence? Or are you more interested in spinning a flail in one hand to knock them off balance while finishing them off with the hammer in your other? Either way Valhalla has you covered. In saying that, the game doesn’t throw a garrison’s worth of weaponry at you with slightly varying stats, instead it will occasionally pepper in a new, worthwhile addition to your collection for you to try out. This makes finding a new sword feel more special and it also gives you the chance to enhance your gear instead of constantly swapping it out.
A fleet of longboats approaching an island fortress during a storm, this raid is amazing
You’ll come face to face with a vast number of different enemy types that require different tactics to best. From archers and common swordsmen, to multi axe-wielding berserkers and huge handsy goliaths, you will need to pay attention to who you’re fighting and plan accordingly. Combat is at its best when you’re surrounded by dozens of clashing swords, but this can get a tad confusing at times, particularly when the larger enemies use grabs and throws, which gets downright irritating. Regardless, the enemy variety is solid and some of the boss fights are punishingly hard, yet engaging, so that fun combat doesn’t go to waste.
When I say the combat is brutal, I mean it. From decapitations and head-stomping to stabbing and headbutting, the physical clashes feel just barbaric and violent enough for the Viking setting. You’ll often find yourself in a fight as well, as the allure of a good raid is never far away. You’re more than capable of riding a horse around through the rolling hills, but the best and most rewarding way to travel is by longboat. Manning the vessel packed with your clansmen you can sail through the many rivers of England, to simply get from point A to point B, but you’ll rarely get there without being distracted.
While sailing past a Saxon encampment or temple, you’ll get a prompt to raid and I tell you what it’s hard to pass up. Running to a fight with your Viking crew is a brilliant feeling that never got old. My favourite moment from my 40-odd hours with the game came during such a raid. Fog was covering the lake, but I could see the torches of a campsite in the distance. Landing on the shore, Eivor sounded their horn to strike fear into the men in the camp and to rally the raiders as we sprung from the boat and rushed towards the camp screaming with weapons drawn. These moments are savage and visceral and they never fail to be entertaining.
The act of raiding is reward on its own, but plundering these spots also nets you valuable resources that can be used to grow your new settlement. Spending these resources you can build new structures to house traders, stables and plenty more. Quite a number of these builds result in a questline becoming available, such as the Hidden Ones base allowing you to take part in hunting down members of the Order of the Ancients. This give you an added incentive to focus on building your settlement outside of aiming for completion.
Helming the battering ram during a raid, arrows flying at you from all directions, what a good time
Direct confrontation isn’t the only option you have in Valhalla, as this entry into the series brings back a stronger focus on stealth. With the reintroduction of the hidden blade, you’re able to sneak around and pick off your enemies one by one. This doesn’t just mean skulking in tall grass, however, as social stealth has finally made a return. Donning a hooded cloak, you’re able to blend in when moving through areas of distrust. Taking a seat on a bench, using drunkards to cause distractions and stashing bodies in handily placed bales of hay are all features that I associate with Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft have finally managed to blend them with combat that is just as satisfying to employ. You often have the choice to either sneak around or go full, crazy Viking and both options are brilliantly implemented.
Whether you decide to attack head on or pull up your hood and go in quietly, you’ll want to scope out the scene with your raven Synin. Flying over the map, you’re able to survey the landscape and discover enemies and points of interest from afar. Unlike Odyssey, enemies spotted by your bird won’t stay highlighted, so it’s used as more of a surveyance guide than an all-seeing drone. Synin is particularly helpful when you’re feeling a bit lost with an objective, as a portion of the map will light up to guide you on your way. It won’t pinpoint anything specifically, but it does give you a gentle push in the right direction.
I’ve mentioned that you can ride a horse or sail your longboat around the map and you’ll need to as it’s massive, but not overwhelmingly so. Gone are those painful Ubisoft checklists that loom over your playtime like an overbearing parent and in their place is a new system that is far less daunting. Looking around the map you’ll see three kinds of glowing dots, blue, white and gold that represent mysteries, artifacts and wealth respectively. These dots vary in size depending on their reward and importance, giving you an idea as to what you can expect, but withholding enough information to entice you to explore. Looking across the map didn’t fill me with dread like other Ubi games, but instead it spurred me to jump on my horse and set out to discover.
I can’t properly explain how refreshing these quest markers are
Something that I wasn’t at all expecting from Valhalla was the amount of character it holds. From the amazingly entertaining flyting (which is literally a Viking rap battle) to clashing horns of mead in a drinking contest with an old woman, I was never far away from a levity-rich activity between moments of drama and action. Even the side quests are filled with personality. I found myself partaking in an egg hunt for a flatulent old woman, a mock raid with two dim wits who set their own home ablaze and a fear-riddled lesson on how to perform the classic leap of faith just to name a few. Most of the characters you meet in your journey will have their own charm about them and the side activities on offer are the same.
Valhalla also leans heavily into mythology, similarly to Odyssey and Origins before it. Interactions with deities like Odin are seen throughout and trips to, let’s say, very foreign lands are exceptionally exciting for those who enjoy myths and legends. I won’t spoil any of the surprises in this regard, but just know that there are plenty of mythological dealings in Valhalla and they are incredibly welcome.
Visually Valhalla is equal parts stunning and muddy. The environments are gorgeous, with sun shining through trees and bouncing off of rivers it can look stunning, but up close it can be a mixed bag. Facial features can often be rough, if not ugly for some lesser NPCs, and I noticed a dull fog covering the screen for most of my play through that obscured fine detail. My time with the game was spent on a PS4 Pro, so I’m keen to see if these gripes of mine are cleared up with the next-gen versions. On a similar note, the game did have its fair share of open-world bugs and glitches. Mostly your common pop-ins here and texture issues there, but when a whole bunch of character models are freaking out behind you during a cutscene and your controller won’t stop vibrating it can take you out of the moment.
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with Valhalla, but I don’t at all feel overly encumbered. Whereas other open-world games can feel unsurmountable in scale, this entry into the Assassin’s Creed series manages to feel huge and contained at the same time. The glorious return of social stealth and the savage combat will see me coming back to this Viking epic many times over I have no doubt. If the next-gen versions of this game can iron out the technical problems that sprout up here there that would be great, but even with the open-world oddities and occasionally frustrating enemy I still think this might be my favourite Assassin’s Creed game to date.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher