The Assassin’s Creed franchise has been around for little over seven years, yet during that time, the series – originally imagined as a trilogy – has spawned an incredible number of titles, the quality of which has proven to be about as consistent as Labour’s economic policies. Typically, these have always sought to reprise the exact same formula though, one that for me, grew tiresome on its third outing, yet finally, Ubisoft have given us a break from the norm, and thanks to its developer, Climax, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China might just be the proof that the series can not only break free of its shackles, but – with some additional polishing – thrive in doing so.
Chronicles: China takes the series out of its tried and tested 3D open world environs, and condenses the project down into a stylish, 2.5D action-platformer that seems to recall the early Prince of Persia releases, and in doing so, Climax may just have crafted the most interesting Assassin’s Creed game that I have played since my first visit to a virtual Florence (I missed out on Black Flag). “Why?” you may ask, well, that is precisely what I’d like to discuss with you now, beginning with the most immediate, and attractive deviation for the series, it’s absolutely magnificent art direction.
“Painterly” seems to be a term that I have been using more and more recently, what with Ubisoft Montreal’s own Child of Light (my game of 2014) and Moon Studios’ Ori and the Blind Forest (my current game of 2015) to name just the peak of the bunch, yet once again, it is the first term to come to mind when observing the startling beauty of Climax’s work here. The screen is literally awash with the subtlety of gentle, romantic watercolour works that have been magically brought to life with luminous and atmospheric backdrops that see magnificent trees, mountains and rolling hills creeping forth from a perpetual haze, implied more with form rather than unnecessary minute details. The visuals recalling the later works of a certain J.M.W. Turner, or, perhaps more appropriately, the Japanese artist, Saburo Nimi, and his stunning depictions of Mount Fuji. The look is polished off with a paper-like texture that permeates everything, and the overall aesthetic is further complimented with a rather pleasant orchestral score, in short, it’s magnificent.
In terms of the game’s narrative, however, we see an aspect of its creation that was not deemed worthy enough to receive the same loving attention, though this is not too much a negative in all honesty. Still, in this iteration of the series, players assume control of the assassin, Shao Jun, who was trained by my own personal favourite, Ezio Auditore. This particular aspect of the game was apparently delved into in the short film Assassin’s Creed: Embers, or so I’m led to believe. Upon her return to her homeland, Jun finds that Templars have slaughtered every other remaining assassin in the area, plunging her into a quest for revenge, whilst simultaneously searching for some strange artefact that has fallen into her enemy’s hands – what this object is, is never really delved into, it simply remains as an arbitrary plot device, much like the contents of Pulp Fiction’s briefcase; we realise its importance, without ever needing to know the exact details surrounding it. Likewise, this rather vague approach is applied to the protagonist herself, there is precious little by way of character development, she certainly looks great though, but I suppose this is itself an extension of the visual approach anyway; bogging the story telling down with such minutiae would have likely meant that the pacing would have suffered as a direct result, so perhaps the developer made the correct choice.
I remember before the original Assassin’s Creed release hit store shelves in October of 2007, the development team billed the combat as being realistic, and from the sounds of it, brutally hard. Confrontations, therefore, were something that should be effectively avoided at all costs. As we all know, however, this is certainly not what became of the series, and players were left to happily tackle large groups of well-armed foes at any given opportunity, until now that is.
One of the key elements to the success of the stealth based design of the game is that it doesn’t bombard the player with a whole host of unnecessary skills or paraphernalia, the entire range of which is unlocked within an hour and a half of play. Shao Jun can utilise knives to cut ropes - doing so can open up previously inaccessible passageways - patrolling sentries can be stunned with the use of firecrackers and perhaps most convenient of all, adversaries can be drawn out by just emitting a simple whistle. Climax have opted to ramp up the difficulty during the course of the campaign by adding in more complex level designs and more challenging enemy types instead of cheaply bombarding the player with a plethora of gadgets to learn and utilise, though a more Metroidvania style of Assassin’s Creed game still seems like it would be an interesting proposition for the series, but anyway, I digress.
Stealth should always play a more active role in a game supposedly centred on a cult of secretive assassins, and here it isn’t simply encouraged, but rather necessary thanks to the rather shoddy combat system. Shao Jun can engage in hand to hand combat, but the system employed here lacks the fluidity of the Arkham series, Jun’s attacks are infuriatingly slow, yet this is almost acceptable as a means of discouraging players from engaging their foes. The game is typically played out at a methodical pace, yet in a bizarre twist, Climax have seen fit to throw in some unexpected, and rather unwelcome speed run levels that force players to engage in a mad dash across areas that are typically engulfed in fire. Under the pressure of imminent death, the usually accurate controls come undone and the whole experience ends up being an intolerably frustrating mess where death is no stranger. These areas are reminiscent of similar efforts in Ori, minus the excitement as well as the flawless execution, and upon their completion, they also fail to instil the same sense of satisfaction. Thankfully though, these levels only make up a small fraction of the five to six hour duration of the campaign, but they certainly do enough damage, along with several other detractors, to take the shine off what could otherwise have been a fantastic experience.
Chronicles: China rewards players with points for managing to completely avoid any confrontations with guards, allowing for upgrades to be unlocked that extend the repertoire of stealth moves, yet the puzzles never advance enough to take advantage of this, and the enemy AI feels altogether lacklustre, meaning that players will never have to do much more that simply dash away, and remain out of a guard’s line of sight for just a few seconds in order to lose them. There are also a few problems here though, I experienced a few unfortunate glitches, such as the AI failing to revert back to a normal state after having been on high alert, and again, these issues detract from what could, and should have been a more polished end product.
Ultimately then, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is a game of mixed results, a release oozing with potential only partially realised, yet based on its outstanding art style alone, I am already looking forward to seeing the next two entries that Ubisoft have planned, games that will take in the sumptuous, and varied locales of India and Russia. With only a touch more care and attention, superior AI, and a greater difficulty curve that makes better use of the protagonist’s abilities, the Chronicles trilogy might not just prove to be a viable alternative to the standard Assassin’s Creed formula, but perhaps even go beyond it to create a more stylish and rewarding gaming experience altogether.