Hands-on: Raiding a castle and attending a Viking wedding in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Whether or not you enjoy Ubisoft’s upcoming Viking epic Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, at least from a gameplay perspective, will largely depend on whether you enjoyed the studio’s most recent franchise outing, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. In many ways, the two games function in a near-identical manner, and as fans of Odyssey’s well-honed blend of hack-and-slash combat, stealth gameplay, and RPG character-building know, that’s in no way a bad thing.

Valhalla, which launches on November 17, naturally refines the action/stealth/looter template Ubisoft first introduced in 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins and later brought back for Odyssey in 2018, and the changes, while subtle, work in the game’s favor. During a recent hands-on demo session, I discovered first-hand that Valhalla caters equally well to both existing Assassin’s Creed fans and those who want to just go out and unleash their inner Viking.

Storming the Castle

The main portion of the demo I played through was dedicated to a mid-game story mission where, after getting to pick main protagonist Eivor’s gender and going with the female option, I had to prepare for an assault on a massive fortress called Burgh Castle. Before that, though I had to prove to the local populace of British farmers and militia that I was a leader worth following, since my Viking clan alone, as fierce as they were, wouldn’t be enough to successfully storm Burgh Castle’s gates.

Naturally, the best way to prove myself would be by raiding a nearby village that had been taken over by a band of hostile rogue Vikings. This early portion of the demo allowed me to sample different gameplay systems such as both on-foot and on-horseback world exploration, multi-choice dialogue with NPC’s, and navigating the various water channels of the East Anglia region in my longboat.

For the duration of my play session, a demoist from Ubisoft was on-hand to help guide me and answer any questions I had. As I approached a shoreline, the demoist explained that I could actually summon my longboat at any point as long as I was near a suitable body of water. This is done by bringing up a new radial menu where the player can access a number of handy tools such as a torch, Eivor’s cloak (which helps with stealth gameplay), the longboat-summoning horn, and more.

By approaching the Viking-occupied village from the sea with my longboat, I was able to manually initiate a raid sequence wherein my clan drove the longboat right onto the beach before storming the village en masse. The demoist mentioned how, in the full game, there will be a number of these occupied villages dotted across the region, and the player has a choice of either raiding them directly or taking a stealthier route towards liberation.

It was during this initial raid that I got my first major taste of Valhalla’s combat system. As with Origins and Odyssey, melee and ranged combat are both viable options, and players can deploy a number of special abilities and attacks using adrenaline gained from successive strikes. Players must also manage a stamina system wherein they build up combat stamina by landing light attacks and then expend it by either executing heavy attacks or dodging.

If Eivor’s stamina runs out, she’ll be temporarily winded and thus more vulnerable to aggressive enemies. Therefore, managing your stamina is key, especially during hectic large-scale battles where you’ll often be battling several enemies at once. Thankfully, the various special attacks at Eivor’s disposal can often make quick work of enemy combatants who try to press their advantage. These special attacks include both direct combat moves, such as a barrage of multiple thrown axes or a powerful leaping strike, and passive buffs that enhance Eivor’s weaponry with status effects like poison.

After liberating the village and rallying the local populace to my cause, it was time to take on Burgh Castle, and it was during the assault that I learned the importance of carefully managing Valhalla’s health-regen system. Eivor can gather berries and herbs from out in the world to both recover lost health and build up a number of “ration charges” that can be deployed at any time for a quick health boost.

I suffered a few deaths during the initial attack phase where my clan had to use a battering ram to clear a number of gates while simultaneously dealing with enemy soldiers and traps. However, once I finally got the hang of the stamina and ration-based health-regen systems, dealing with the castle’s defenses became a lot less intimidating.

The final part of the Burgh Castle assault had me squaring off against my first proper boss, a fierce-looking Viking warrior named Rued. In combat, Rued had a number of different tricks he could throw at me including a tamed wolf companion, throwing axes, and even a flaming two-handed sword for good measure.

Much as I had during my time with Odyssey, I found myself falling back on my old Dark Souls habits, constantly dodging and backpedaling as I took my foe’s measure. I figured that removing the wolf companion from the equation would be a good first priority, and my instincts paid off as I discovered that, on his own, Rued’s combat prowess couldn’t hold up once I clapped back with an aggressive assault of my own.

With Rued defeated, I had accomplished my key goal for assaulting Burgh Castle in the first place: rescuing my ally Oswald, an East Anglian noble. It was only after the assault was over that I learned why Oswald was so important. By marrying Eivor’s Viking companion Valdis, Oswald would both become king of East Anglia and secure a marriage-bound alliance with Eivor’s clan.

Mere minutes after successfully liberating an entire castle, rescuing a dear friend, and sparing Rued’s life at Oswald’s behest (the player can choose to defy Oswald and execute Rued on the spot if they prefer), I was off to help plan a Viking/Anglian wedding.              

A Wedding to Remember

The second major portion of the demo involved attending Oswald and Valdis’ wedding, or more specifically, getting to enjoy the wedding’s post-ceremony festivities. The wedding reception afforded Ubisoft an opportunity to show off some of the various mini-games Valhalla players will get to participate in during their adventures in the full game.

Since this is a Viking game we’re talking about here, virtually all of the mini-games I sampled involved drinking in some fashion. The first game was a straight-up drinking contest where the player has to manage QTE-style button presses so they can successfully chug three large horns of mead faster than their opponent. As for the second game, it involved Eivor having to shoot a number of targets with her bow within a time limit, with the added stipulation she gets absolutely hammered first. The third and final activity wasn’t exactly a mini-game, it just involved Eivor having to help her passed out friend Finnr down from a rooftop.

After turning down the romantic advances of one of Eivor’s clansmen (beating me in a drinking contest doesn’t earn you a roll in the hay there bud) and giving a rousing speech in favor of Oswald, I was raring for some more action. Thankfully, Valhalla was all too willing to grant my request.

It turned out the mercy I had granted Rued at Oswald’s request had been misguided as he’d somehow escaped and showed up to crash the wedding, sword in hand. Rued challenged Oswald to a duel, leaving me with the decision of letting Oswald fight or step in as his champion.

I chose the latter, and when Oswald protested Eivor wisely pointed out that his new status as king was too important to risk in a duel to the death. In our rematch, Rued was even less of a threat since he no longer had his wolf companion or flaming sword, and when I felled him a second time I made sure to put him down for good.   

Side Activities, Sailing, and World Bosses

With the wedding concluded and Oswald and Valdis successfully installed as the new king and queen of East Anglia, the Ubisoft demoist announced that I had successfully completed the main story portion of the demo. I still had plenty of time left for my session though, leaving me with ample opportunity to go out and discover Valhalla’s various side pursuits.

As with many previous Assassin’s Creed games, Valhalla’s sprawling open-world countryside is peppered with different encounters and activities that the player can take in at their leisure. By this point, I had gotten quite good at navigating around East Anglia via both my longboat and my trusty horse steed (who, as in Origins and Odyssey, can be summoned at-will).

Utilizing both methods of transport, my first goal was to unlock all of the demo region’s synchronization points. I’ve always found a sense of familiar comfort in the old Assassin’s Creed routine of parkouring up a structure, taking in a spectacular view, and then leaping like a majestic eagle down into a conveniently-placed cartful of hay or a pile of leaves.

With the synchronization out of the way, I spent my remaining demo time completing as many side encounters as I could. Most were straightforward fare where I’d have to liberate a small farm or encampment from a group of hostile mercenaries or access a hidden cache of treasure by solving an environmental puzzle. It was nice seeing how much of my experience playing earlier Assassin’s Creed games was so easily transferred over into Valhalla’s world, but I still longed to see how Ubisoft was using this new game to push the series forward.

Again, I didn’t have to wait long before my curiosity was rewarded. For every routine side encounter I found, there was also something more unique and eye-catching. One encounter had me playing a game of hide-and-seek with a group of rambunctious children (the children giddily referred to Eivor as a “giant” and to the seeker as the dreaded wolf Fenrir from Norse mythology). In another encounter, I had to use Eivor’s unique “Odin Sense” ability to track a pair of siblings who had made their own little “kingdom” (basically a medieval tree fort) in a nearby copse of trees.

My favorite side pursuits, though, were undoubtedly the two optional world bosses I encountered. Each world boss was a fierce female warrior who used a combination of magic and aggressive melee prowess to push my combat abilities to the absolute limit. The first boss I found, Regan, could summon a fiery clone of herself while the second boss, Cordelia, unleashed devastating lightning attacks in-between her melee combos.

Both world bosses proved challenging enough that I also had to start experimenting with a facet of Valhalla’s gameplay I had admittedly ignored up to that point: weapon loadout customization. Players can choose to dual-wield a variety of one-handed weapons such as axes, swords, and flails, or they can sacrifice speed for power by going with a two-handed alternative. Using a shield is also an option, though I quickly learned that blocking was of little help against foes as powerful as Regan and Cordelia.

Thankfully, Valhalla also allows players to parry enemy attacks with a well-timed button press, and it was this parrying mechanic (along with no small amount of luck) that ultimately steered me to victory against both of the demo session’s world bosses.

To reiterate, neither world boss was easy, and Cordelia especially was all too happy to punish me for minor errors with a swift death, but it was that very challenge that made the fights so memorable. Valhalla is obviously not a Souls-like game, but the presence of such formidable world bosses ensures that Souls-like fans will still find a worthy challenge nonetheless.

Since I was already a fan of both Viking history as well as the new direction Ubisoft took with Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey, it didn’t take a whole lot to win me over to Valhalla’s side. Still, I was certainly happy to discover that, with Valhalla, Ubisoft isn’t resting on its laurels.

The game provides a faithful and compelling portrait of historical Viking fiction while also just being downright fun to play whether you’re exploring the countryside, raiding an outpost, or just drinking with your clanmates. I won’t go so far as to prematurely label Assassin’s Creed Valhalla a complete success just yet, but what I experienced during the demo absolutely has me excited to play the final product later this year.