REVIEW: Assassin's Creed Valhalla - Joyful Raiding and Charming Diversions
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
Being a viking is a lot more joyful than I ever thought possible, though my joy started to drain by the end of my near 100 hour journey with Ubisoft's viking simulator. Come along with me as we discuss going-a-viking with a boat full of jomsviking fools singing songs with the best Assassin's Creed game since the original trilogy, Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
Just the Facts
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5*, Xbox Series S and X, Xbox One, Google Stadia *platform reviewed on
Release Date: Nov. 10, 2020
Assassin's Creed Valhalla was developed by Ubisoft Montreal (Unity, Origins) and published by their controversial overlords at Ubisoft proper. I'm playing it on PS5 via a PS4 copy and free upgrade.
Right out the gate, I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss some of the problems that followed leadership on this project.
Ashraf Ismail served as Creative Director on the project for most of the game's development, having previously been in the public eye for his lead role on Assassin's Creed Origins. Notably, Ismail was the face of Assassin's Creed's major overhaul and transition from the more focused original trilogy (ending with Assassin's Creed 3 and to some extent Black Flag) to the more accessible and "modernized" experience that the series has transitioned toward since Origins.
In June 2020, Ismail and many prominent Ubisoft names were accused of varying levels of sexual misconduct. The details of these claims are summarized in this Polygon article. It came at the height of a #MeToo resurgence in multiple industries earlier this year that is more than necessary to clean out an industry full of toxicity. This news was incredibly disappointing to hear, especially as a long-time fan of Ubisoft's and of the Assassin's Creed series as a whole. Hearing that there was a concerted effort behind closed doors to suppress female lead characters in Ubisoft games, especially coming off of the "women are just too hard to animate" scandal of yesteryear in the Assassin's franchise, did not surprise me but certainly made everything a bit more malicious. These things often get brushed over when looking back at games and while it may not have had a major effect on the development, it's important to recognize and address.
Ubisoft has more work to do, after backpedaling from making femme Eivor the sole lead of Assassin's Creed Valhalla, instead offering a masc option for players that can thankfully be changed at any time. But all throughout my adventure in Valhalla, female characters were not only empowered but usually the most competent in the room, so the signs of change are in the air.
Valhalla takes its time to get going, following the precedent set by the last two titles in the latest trilogy, Origins and Odyssey. It took me a full 10 hours of prologue before finally getting a title reveal and an actual introduction to the main gameplay systems in play.
The prologue takes place entirely in the Viking homeland, and it's here you learn about main character Eivor's tragic background as a very suddenly orphaned viking child during a party between clans gone wrong. Raised by a neighboring clan's king, Eivor grows a blood bond with the king's son Sigurd. Where Sigurd goes, Eivor follows. After some viking infighting, Eivor, Sigurd, and a select group of their most trusted Vikings leave Norway and head for the fertile lands of England.
The story toes a delicate balance between the broad story of feudal politics in an untamed land of Danish and Saxon folk and the more personal story of your developing Viking settlement, Eivor's growth as a leader, and the relationship with Sigurd that stands as the heart of the story. As Vikings look to settle new land, help depose kings, and otherwise leave their mark on the land, Eivor makes a name for themself (I played as femme Eivor but as I mentioned, the option to change is available at any moment) by helping friends old and new throughout the land. There's also the modern day storyline, where Assassins Layla, Rebecca, and Shaun are dealing with an impending end-of-world catastrophe that they figure can only be solved by their Viking friends in 873 AD. Its presence is lighter than I remember the last few games being, with little to no reason to leave the history-diving Animus device at any point in the game, but long time fans will find a lot to love in where this story ends up. If you don't care, you can basically act like it doesn't exist and focus on Viking glory instead.
It's a grand affair that culminates in a mostly satisfying ending, both for the modern day story and for Eivor's saga.
The first thing you're introduced to in England is the settlement system. Your viking family takes little time to establish a foothold in ye olde Englande and it's up to Eivor to build up this new home slowly by establishing partnerships with each of the major players in England's 11 regions and raiding monasteries. It's a simple system that will likely go mostly ignored by folks looking to speed through the experience, but there was a genuine feeling of accomplishment in seeing this scrap of land go from a handful of tents with a few villagers to a full-fledged town by the end of the game.
Doing so provides a few advantages, but after the first few crucial upgrades (a Blacksmith to upgrade weapons, a bureau for your Assassin friends to further the plot) there is less and less impact in your moment-to-moment gameplay when building the village up. You gain a few more checkboxes to fill via resource requesting NPCs (a hunter who wants a bit of EVERY animal in the game, a fisherman who wants all your fish, a Roman simp who wants all the Roman artifacts you can spare) but it adds little to the experience otherwise. The most substantive thing you can get from building and upgrading everything are supplements to your settlement's Feast ability, a timed buff that gathers your clan for a giant meal reminiscent of Monster Hunter's meals, but they almost forget to introduce this to you.
Completionists will love it, but most will probably be happy to do without it.
At your settlement, there is a region map that outlines opportunities to spread Viking influence in the land. This is where the main narrative thrust lies, providing multi-mission arcs in each region that push the story along. These arcs represent a shift in the narrative style for the series, moving away from a linear plot and instead going for something more akin to serialized television storytelling. This makes the game more consumable for those seeking more segmented play sessions and generally makes for a better story on the whole.
Each region's story is generally the same, Eivor needs political allies, political allies have a problem, Eivor does everything to solve said problem, yay friends. But there is enough variance in each region's greater theme to mix things up. One region features a slow-burn murder mystery. Another features a light-hearted love story. And throughout this, much like a television show, a greater story lurches forward before paying off in a few major moments.
Visually, these regions of England are rendered beautifully by Ubisoft's technical teams. Some vistas and classic synchronization points that give you a panoramic of your surroundings truly took my breath away. All that beauty was also packaged in a mostly smooth experience with the PS5 version delivering VERY rare framerate hitches (oddly enough a lot of those came AFTER a patch). Characters are impressive in close-ups during cutscenes but not much to look at otherwise. Conversation animations were rough to my memory in the last few games and are much better this time out. Glitches were rare as well, but there were definitely a few that hindered some very important scenes. One major boss basically t-posed his way across the screen before settling into a battle pose. But regardless this game looks better than expected.
Eivor as a character is interesting enough, with a rugged compassion and a lust for the Viking life of raiding and feasting coloring every decision you make in the game. She's a few steps behind Cassandra and Ezio in the charisma department, but her story feels like one of the most compelling in the franchise. It helps that Eivor's voicework is incredible regardless of which version of the character you choose. The same can be said of most of the other characters though you eventually run into the open world issue of hearing the same voices again and again with certain side characters.
Early on, Eivor is seen to have a connection to the Nordic god Odin, as he helps guide her through major moments in the story. And without spoilers, I have to commend Ubisoft for embracing mythology so much more directly in the last few games. Assassin Creed's present day world has always presented the idea of mythology being real, with weird future Adam and Eve, Roman gods being called Isu or something, and generally showing the gods more as advanced sci-fi lifeforms from the way way back who had very human struggles rather than higher beings.
Outside of Eivor, characters in your settlement can feel a little same-y -- rough and tumble Vikings trying their hardest to make their way in the world -- but there's enough to make them distinct with each given at least one spotlight moment in the main story. The continued return to the settlement after each arc offers these characters the chance to develop over time, giving you ample opportunity to get to know these folks if you see fit.
Regardless, I find myself thinking back almost as fondly on the characters in the greater world, some of whom remain unnamed. The couple who needed a raiding environment to get "into the mood" and called upon Eivor to literally burn their house down so they could GET DOWN. The woman in the sewers with a bad case of gas who needed Eivor's help to relieve her gas. The child living in the forest with his best friend, Winifred the Bear. These characters populate Valhalla's version of side quests, known now as Mysteries. Doing away with the usual side activity format, Mysteries dot the map as amorphous blue blobs. You don't know what they are until you approach them, changing things up from the usual cluttered mess that Ubisoft maps end up being.
Mysteries can be side quests, where you meet some of the characters I've described above. They are short, sweet, usually funny, and don't ask much of you. Some take literal seconds, asking you to light something on fire or carry someone from Point A to Point B. Some spin off into something more involved, with multiple Mysteries needed to pay off the full story. With the way they're presented, things feel more natural like situations Eivor just stumbles on rather than boxes to check.
Other Mysteries point you in the direction of some of the game's minigames. Flyting was heavily marketed in the lead up to release as "Viking rap battles" though they play out a lot more like Monkey Island Insult Sword Fights, with Eivor trading rhyming barbs with some of England's finest. There are Standing Stones that have a hidden symbol painted on bits of them, asking you to align the full image by standing in the perfect spot and get the camera positioned just so. Cairns where you use finnicky physics to stack a pile of stones. Hidden Treasures of Britain reminiscent of some Tombs in previous Assassin's Creed games that have you going full classic AC platforming and parkouring through caves. And of course, multiple Legendary Animals and various high level mini bosses to do battle with.
With the hidden nature of these Mysteries, it can be exciting to find out just what activity you'll be up to next and there's a ton of variance in what you're actually doing, so no pain in repetition here.
I think it's about time we talk about combat and stealth huh?
Assassin's Creed Valhalla embraces old and new when it comes to the actual nitty gritty here. In combat, it's the fast paced stand your ground, parry and guard, break stun meter, and smash. The inherent Viking theme encourages some more aggressive gameplay this time out and to great effect. You've got 11 melee abilities and 11 ranged abilities to find throughout England and a skill tree with over 400 nodes on it split between three combat styles: The Bear (melee), The Raven (stealth), and The Wolf (ranged). The flexibility in choosing how your Eivor will turn out is impressive here.
Early on the combat is a little overwhelming. Enemies mob you if you aren't careful, mixing up their timing and throwing non-blockable attacks at you left and right. But as you level up, the difficulty really starts to fade away. Gone are the worries about mobbing when you can slow down time and gun down enemies with a barrage of arrows. No need to worry about finnicky timing when you unlock the ability to tackle folks to the ground and bash their faces (and 75% of their health bar) into nothing. And why concern yourself with non-blockable attacks when you can eventually dodge roll into them and bypass the attack completely. Regions ratchet up in difficulty as you go, but it's easy to powerlevel and end up unbeatable less than halfway through it all.
Despite that, it only feels fitting that your Viking warrior would end up ALL POWERFUL in the end, smashing feeble Saxons under your various axes and hammers.
Speaking of equipment, there are a ton to find here, but you won't end up with as cluttered an inventory as the last two titles in the series. I actually grabbed a weapon early on that I was able to stick with through the end of the game, due to the ability to upgrade any weapon to keep it relevant as things get tougher. As such, if you find a weapon that fits your style, stick with it and ignore the siren song of spears and shields a'plenty.
On the stealth side of things, Valhalla's devs were committed to making stealth as important as it used to be in the franchise. Some have complained that the latest trilogy has been drifting away from the stealth-y assassin focused format and instead embracing a more action-y Souls-like combat style. This means actual use of the hidden blade, hooded stealth that allows you to "blend in" with your surroundings organically, and the return of one hit assassinations no matter how large the target. Heavier enemies are given a Stealth Attack prompt that can turn into an all-out assassination with a short timing based minigame.
This would all be great if not for the fact that guards have magic auto-targeting eyeballs that can spot you from across the map within seconds of leaving cover. For all their focus on stealth gameplay, they really did make it easy to break stealth and end up fighting anyway. The only way I was able to enjoy either side of the game, combat and stealth, was to pump up the combat difficulty from Normal to Hard and turn stealth difficulty down from Normal to Easy.
For a quick aside, kudos to Valhalla for having some incredible accessibility options here as well. Difficulty is broken out across Exploration, Combat, and Stealth. Exploration affects how easily you find objects and locations in the world. Combat affects the ease in fighting enemies. Stealth of course affects your ability to be detected and to successfully pull off the one hit assassinations. Between these and the various sight and hearing options, Valhalla's accessibility options are pretty damn solid. Read about each of these options here.
All in all, neither combat or stealth totally sticks the landing but both blend together in a satisfying way to remain enjoyable from end to end.
The only major negative of my time with Valhalla comes in the game's length. Even with the more stumbly freedom, my monkey brain doesn't let me approach this game any different than the others, so the checkbox mentality kicks in and next thing you know, I'm up at 6 AM riding toward 100% completion in my third region of the night. Tie that with the main story's insistence on giving you time at each of the 11 regions and you end up spending almost 100 hours just trying your damnedest to reach the end of Eivor's journey.
A last minute shoutout here to the game's score. Assassin's Creed's original music has always been a notch above and the same can be said of Valhalla's score. There's a haunting tone to it all, exemplified best in the game's title track, and music perfectly anchors every moment. Oh and to Orlog, one of Valhalla's non-Mystery side activities that just rocks. It's a dice drafting board game and its killer.
A few finnicky glitches here, a few difficulty problems there, and I'm still happy to call this game the best in the franchise since Black Flag in 2013 (ironically enough, the last title in the franchise to bridge the gap between generations). Assassin's Creed Valhalla proves that even the big big companies can find ways to bring tons of heart and charm to a cash cow franchise all while embracing its past and setting up for an exciting future.
video games are good and Valhalla is... GREAT. (8/10)
+ a beautiful lengthy title full of varied content that embraces Assassin's Creed's past and future, tells worthwhile stories at every level
- a lengthy title that drains your will to live, requiring a weird mix of difficulty settings to be made the best it can be
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