Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
In many ways, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the culmination of everything that Origins and Odyssey started while pushing the franchise in a bold new direction at the same time. Most of this is done well but it isn’t a totally clean transition as this latest entry comes with some radical changes that don’t always stick and tons of bugs.
A Delicate Balance of Playstyles
Coming off of my hands-on experience with Valhalla last month, I was concerned about how the gameplay would be but much of those concerns were squashed when picking up the final game. This title, more than any other to date, has the difficult task of constructing a fun action combat system while still having quality stealth.
Being that this is a full-on open-world Viking action RPG, it would seem like a contradiction to also have the less honorable stealth aspect of Assassin’s Creed thrown in there. Fortunately, both the gory Viking combat you would expect and the classic assassination elements are there in equal measure without feeling forced or out of place.
Without going into spoilery territory, Valhalla does a good job of making a believable enough scenario in which the main character Eivor would want to sneak around sometimes and bludgeon people to death with a club other times. When it comes to general physical combat, it is the best iteration of the style that started with Origins.
While I liked the combat in the past two games, especially when compared to previous titles, I always felt like it was just a tad off. Valhalla sharpens the gameplay and smooths it out to where it needs to be. Every weapon category in the game, from axes to hammers to swords, are unique and fill a purpose.
Whether you are someone who prefers hefty and powerful two-handed weapons or a dual-wielder who prefers to use a flurry of blows to slice up enemies, there is something for you. Each weapon type has its own weight, style, speed, and even special move that you can use.
It is a versatile system with plenty of other options to complement your basic light and heavy tracks, like setting traps, using environmental objects to start fires, executing one of the numerous collectible special abilities, and so on. If you are someone who likes to run in there and wreck the place, you can definitely do that.
But if you are someone who is more stealthy, like me, that will work almost just as well in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Stealth has always been my favorite approach in this series and I was happy to be able to continue the trend here. That said, stealth does come with some strange issues that were never fixed, even with a day one patch.
The detection system in this game is quite odd and a bit too sensitive with enemies picking up on you way too easily on the default setting. While this was something I was able to eventually get around and learn to deal with, I never was able to figure out how to determine when I had safely escaped enemies.
Sure, there is the same visual and audio cue from past games to let you know you’re now hidden from enemies trying to find you but it wasn’t any help at all. There were times the hidden signal appeared but there were still enemies chasing me and I had to wait a few minutes to try infiltrating once again.
It was frustrating at times, which led to me using the bow for most of my stealth attempts. The bow and arrows are unbelievably powerful here, with the different bow types all handling well. I also liked that equipment is scarce in the game, to the point where you can stick to the same items the whole time and continuously upgrade them. In fact, I changed equipment about three times in the whole game.
Much of the combat is also enhanced through the detailed customization system that overhauls the level system from Odyssey and turns it into a more natural RPG experience. You collect XP from quests and fighting, frequently “leveling” you up and giving you skill points.
Instead of having a level, though, you use your skill points on a massive and complex skill tree, reminiscent of the sphere grid in Final Fantasy X, in which you determine your progression in order to raise your power level. Skill points come very often, allowing you to frequently become more powerful and unlock new abilities and upgrades that matter to you. It is far less grindy than Odyssey and I never felt pressured to “level up” in order to progress the story, which was great.
The Viking Epic I’ve Always Wanted
As you journey across England using the combat styles of your choice, you will encounter my favorite story in the franchise. Valhalla starts awkwardly in what feels like the middle of the tale but I quickly forgot about that as the Viking plot kicked into high gear.
The story is divided up cleanly into different story arcs, most of which take place in a new destination in England that you visit as you attempt to make alliances with other rulers and further your own settlement. It does seem repetitive as the formula remains largely the same for most of the plot: go here, make an alliance, and return home to tell the good news.
However, what Valhalla does well is make each one of those trips into a fantastic tale that is just one piece of the greater whole. In many ways, it felt like each arc was a single season of an Assassin’s Creed Valhalla TV show. Along with that similarity is the fact that some of the “seasons” were better than others.
After looking back, I would only say that two arcs were actually forgettable and that was because one simply had a boring plot while the other had some frustrating mission objectives, like finding annoyingly elusive crates and destroying them. Otherwise, the story had me wanting to stick to the main path for the entire game.
Eivor alone is a fascinating protagonist, and while I prefer the female option once again in this title, I find that both versions are well-voiced and written. The same goes for the rest of the cast from your brother Sigurd to the strangely Kassandra-looking Randvi and more. Each arc typically introduces you to a new set of interesting characters and though I felt bad leaving them behind each time, it helped that almost every arc was consistent in unveiling more members of the unforgettable cast.
Side Content Leaves Something to Be Desired
It really helps that the Valhalla storyline is so excellent since the rest of the game can leave something to be desired. By no means is this Odyssey 2.0 as many would have expected. Valhalla takes a “less is more” approach to its open-world where there are fewer side quests and other content to do, and the world encourages you to explore at your own leisure Breath of the Wild-style.
Sure, it fulfills the open-world checkbox system of having a lot for you to do but it doesn’t feel as in your face as much as past games. The side content boils down to three main areas: finding collectibles, doing world events, and upgrading your settlement’s buildings and features. Each region of England has artifacts, world events, and valuable items for you to find or complete.
The collectibles are what you would expect but the world events, or mysteries, are essentially the bulk of the “side quests” that you will do in the game. These are minor story events that you can stumble upon across your journey but I felt no inclination to do them because of how short and insignificant they are.
These world events are short stories where you finish in a minute or two, like carrying a box to a nearby location for someone. It isn’t enough time for anything interesting to happen or for you to encounter a memorable character. These world events are a missed opportunity, especially when two (out of literally several dozen) of them were actually really nice.
It is clear that even Valhalla doesn’t put too much weight into these world events as they don’t show up in your quest log and their objectives don’t appear on the map either, which can make the more fetch quest-like ones annoying. It does emphasize the exploration-heavy nature of this game but, unfortunately, the content doesn’t feel worth the effort to figure it all out.
Thankfully, there are more traditional side quests with lengthy optional storylines like I am used to but I was more than 12 hours into the game before I came across one. But when I did need a change of pace along the way, I did find the minigames in Valhalla fun to play. Whether it was the drinking rhythm-based minigame, the poetry battle-like flyting, the intensely strategic dice battle game, or any of the others, I never got tired of doing them.
Even though the side content is disappointing, it is something that I could avoid. What I couldn’t avoid was the onslaught of bugs and glitches that plagued my entire experience from start to finish. The various parts of England, from the snowy mountains to the rolling hills, were absolutely stunning but also consistently marred by visual and technical problems.
I didn’t have to go or look far to see clipping in the distance or find muddied textures that took a while to pop up when entering a town. Then there were the strange occurrences of seeing invisible soldiers wielding floating ghost swords after defeating them in combat or my horse randomly popping a wheelie for several minutes like it’s a 21st-century motorcycle.
There were moments where the audio completely cut out for several lines of dialogue in a cutscene, other times where characters I needed to talk to wouldn’t appear for several seconds, and the list just continues. These frequently happened throughout my journey and, though most of them were pretty funny, some weren’t.
There were two bugged main quests that I ran into where I had no idea what to do. One, in particular, involved an NPC that I had to follow but they would always get to a certain point and freeze. I tried restarting the quest five times, changed the time of day, did other quests first, even contacted Ubisoft, and then it randomly fixed itself 24 hours later for no apparent reason.
The bugs can be extremely frustrating and hinder what would have been a much more enjoyable experience. And that’s not even including the occasional performance issues like frame rate dropping and insane loading when fast traveling or even trying to watch a cutscene.
Even the latest patch for the game did little to nothing that I could notice for any of these problems and the loading remains awful to the point where, one time, I was able to take a bathroom break, wash my hands (thoroughly, of course), and start to brush my teeth before the fast-traveling was done.
It is worth pointing out that I played Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on a launch PS4 so my hope is that this is just a problem for current-gen consoles and that it will run much better on next-gen systems. It definitely feels like it was built as a next-gen game but I wasn’t able to test that theory in time for this review.
Regardless, Valhalla will go down as one of the most complicated games in the series for me as it is easily my favorite thus far but it falls just short of being the best. Even still, I do think that Viking and Assassin’s Creed fans alike will find something to like here and I can’t wait to see what setting the series tackles next.