Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review: Perpetual Padded Progression

Written by Allen

January 15, 2021

Last Christmas (where I did NOT give you my heart), I was asked to handle the dinner for the Eve. One of the things I had to do was prepare a soup stock. I had no idea how to do it but I was basically asked to simmer a bunch of meat and bones for a very long time. Generally, the idea is that the longer this was going on, the better and thicker the soup would become. And when I was trying to summarize my experience with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, this was what always came to mind. How your experience will be with the game will largely depend on your patience with it. As a reviewer, I usually try to cut to the chase and get to the proverbial meat and potatoes to see if it’s any good. But this latest installment of Assassin’s Creed won’t let you do that, or at least it won’t let you enjoy doing that.

Hi by the way, I’m Allen, this is my first review of the year, and in case you haven’t noticed, I like making metaphors through food. If you ever met me, you’d quickly guess that I like food. And well, it works for me.

Anyway, open world games generally follow a certain format. It’s a lot like a hotpot, you have your soup base, which sets the tone of what your experience will be. Now that can be spicy hard like the Dark Souls series, or just mild and easy like Sims or Stardew Valley. But what makes it interesting is what ingredients you mix and match into it. Are you going to center it around combat, role-playing, or crafting, or any other form of play you can come up with, sky’s the limit. Question at the end of the day, is if you enjoyed whatever was put together, right?

Will playing a Viking fit the rather complex niche that Assassin’s Creed had placed itself upon? How well have they developed their newer RPG approach to the series? Let’s chew on it’s parts and figure it out. You take on the role of Eivor, a viking who was taken in by village chief after losing his/her family. And you set out to not only protect your new community but also avenge the shameful death of your father.

Production (4.2 / 5)

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (let’s call it AC Valhalla from here) has rather impressive looking models. Most characters, especially the main ones, are capable of making good looking expressions. There are hardly any errors as well. They really shine during cutscenes where they fully move, emote, and interact with other people and objects.

Now I only wish that the characters looked more interesting, because they generally all look the same except maybe Randvi, who seems to be one of the few characters who are actually easy on the eyes. I mean sure, flaws and imperfections make it feel more authentic, but everyone seems to carry the same short or messy hair, with a haircut that doesn’t make sense, and are all flawed similarly. I mean when basic, no-name NPCs look better than most of them. Don’t get me wrong, on a technical aspect, they’re all great, just that I feel like I keep getting same-ish designs, and it gets boring. I could understand castles and general terrain a bit more. But really, they could have taken it further by making areas look a bit more vibrant by touching up the colors.

There are moments that the game does look great though, this is when you get to climb onto high vantage points. You press the synchronize button, and you get a great view of the surroundings, along with an impressive skybox and you get a feel of how big a place you really have at your hands. Then you climb back down to again see the more generic, mundane everything else in the game. I can see how well the game can make landscapes and areas look good, I just wish it happened more often than not.

By the way, the game performs just fine on PC, I’m not exactly on the high-end of things, carrying a laptop with GTX 1660 Ti and a Ryzen 7. I had to play with some compromises to maintain a high frame rate but I didn’t think it was a huge drop in quality.

The UI in the game generally does the job, except if you’re trying to play stealth or more or less trying to navigate around for treasure, map markers, while are generally accurate, are shown even if they’re still inaccessible. There were a few points where I found myself frustrated desperately looking for a way in to reach some random treasure only to come back to it hours later, opened thanks to some story progression. After this, I decided not to actively go after treasure items.

Music is generally atmospheric, but one thing I genuinely enjoy are the songs that you hear when you’re sailing with your raiders, as it helps with making the long journeys over water that much more enjoyable. Voices I find at least serviceable, but has in many points, shown a pretty good performance from its main characters. There’s the handful of scenes where the lines didn’t quite land, but that’s about it.

Mechanics (3 / 5)

You thought I was done with the food analogies? No, no I’m not, in fact here’s where it all starts. You see, this generation of games pretty much standardized open world games. The whole coming together of combat, exploration, and character building seems pretty par for the course. As if these are the minimum requirements of what you can consider a ‘blank slate’ for the genre. It’s kind of like fried chicken. Everybody knows what it is, yet everyone and their mom (especially their mom) would have their own unique take on making it. I mean back home you can eat out anywhere and there’s a 90% chance fried chicken is part of the menu.

Anyway, you’re able to attack, guard/parry, and dodge for combat. That should tell you quite a bit already. It’s pretty easy to understand and maybe parrying is a little too easy, it made it possible to take down higher powered enemies doable even on Hard mode. It’s pretty much chicken and pork broth soup, it’s right around where you’d expect it.

The skill system, however, is stringy, undercooked noodles. You expect it in the hotpot, and you usually think it’s easy to do, but it’s actually quite possible to get wrong. We revisit the three disciplines skill system, where every time you level up, you gain two points to spend on whatever you have in within reach. You can choose to be more like a warrior, a hunter or an assassin, or mix and match, sort of. You don’t just get functional skills, you also get stat bonuses here. And every point spent contributes to your total power level, an abhorrent number that I’ll talk more on later. Actually attaining skills feels convoluted as there are these winding paths to attaining them. On top of that, it’s difficult to plan out a build since you can’t see most of the skills early on. The part that hurts quite a bit is how some skills feel like they didn’t need to be there, some feel like they shouldn’t exist. Like, the ability to swap weapons when you’re dual wielding isn’t something I’d want to spend a skill point on. Adding a slow effect when you dodge at right time is something I expect to happen rather than an upgrade. The actual active abilities are something you’ll have to explore the world to find, so perhaps creating a build was never the plan in the first place? If that was the case wouldn’t the whole deal with pathing your stat progression feel fairly moot?

Power level seems to function separately from stats as well. It’s like that mystery seasoning you get, you can’t quite put your finger on what it is, but you know it’s there. Yes, it goes up along with the skill points you get, but how this number suddenly makes the enemies so much easier if your number is close enough makes doesn’t really add up if you think the only stat bonuses you get are the ones on the skill trees. They appeared to have used this more on to pace the content within the game.

In reality, they could have paced the games content in a number of other ways, but they chose to use power level. It’s true that your level barely scales right on schedule if you’re playing through story quests. And going through some side-quests would make up for the missing few levels, but most of this feels like padding. Sure, you might find gear, treasure, or a new ability, but you have no idea what you’ll actually get until you get it. And most of this is platforming or exploration puzzles, finding a way in or around a locked area. It’s generally not that interesting since your traversal and navigational abilities don’t really change.’

If it’s one thing I do highly appreciate with how the AC Valhalla works, it would be how the loot system works. No longer are you flooded with items constantly which quickly turn into junk later on, you can now find several equipment. Each with its own classification and unique play style and bonuses, where all of them can scale along with you so long as you’re willing to upgrade it. Through my playthrough of the game I have maybe swapped out maybe a few weapons but that’s about it. I get to keep what I like, and they don’t get phased out, I personally love it.

Content (4.5 / 5)

As I mentioned before, this is a lot like making a soup broth. It really takes a while before things get going. Usually, you’d be coming to a restaurant with the stock already good to go, but no, the slow, arduous, simmering is something you’ll have to sit through.

You see, you can actually travel around early if you wanted to. It’s an open world, after all. But you could quickly end up in a place that has power levels way beyond what your character can handle, and get picked off in one hit. It’s possible to skillfully play against those who are stronger than you, but then they can suddenly heal, and it’s maddening.

You can explore hostile areas that are brimming with rogues and warriors that won’t think twice about cutting you down, then discover that whatever they’re hiding in the very center of the base is locked, only to be opened later in a story quest.

I would strongly recommend sticking to story quests until a little later, and looking into the treasures, mysteries and artifacts after you clear all the story quests within that area. That way you’re much less likely to run into roadblocks like I did.

The occasional juicy pieces of meat that get served to you would be raiding camps and villages with your personal squad of Vikings. You get to lead them, fight a bunch of soldiers together, and pillage a village. Suddenly calling in a boat makes sense, in fact if this was how you grind in the game, it wasn’t so bad. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly true.

I would like to give a bit of spotlight to mysteries, as they are a bundle of mixed side-quests that you can do should you decide to check them out. They’re packaged in such a way that they’re standalone and provide some relief to the rather dark and dreary story that the main questline brings. It’s like drinking a bit of yogurt after eating some pretty spicy noodles. It’s pretty great since it showcases the creativity of the dev team behind it. Where you can be dealing with viewing puzzles, some household’s problem, or even a guy that would refuse to take a bath. One of the most notable ones I recall would be settling a squabble between a clergyman and group of musicians. Where it was to my pleasant surprise that it turned into a pop culture reference as I ‘smacked a bishop.’

You can also raise your settlement into a proper village if you’re willing to grind out the materials for it, and I would certainly recommend doing a bit of it as opening some facilities in the area not only unlocks some useful things for you, but also unlocks quests that you can do. Particularly for the seer, as this makes the best side-content in this game available.

Assassins’ Creed Valhalla offers a huge variety of things you can do. Just that it won’t really let you do it on your own terms, until at least much later in the game. I’d have to say I started genuinely enjoying the game at round 20-30 hours in. So yes, it’s an investment, but when everything finally started clicking together, it was hard to put the controller down.

Another thing I’d like to point out is that the writing is actually quite capably done. One thing I really enjoy about this series is how it has a way of synthesizing historical events and the myths tied to that place or time period. It’s like chocolate and peanut butter, they’re great by themselves but make something pretty amazing when put together right. It does pull it off in this game, but again, it takes a long while to get there.

Features (2 / 5)

There isn’t really an online mode on this game, however I’d like to note that it made a tiny surprise of adding an event for Christmas which was a pleasant surprise. It was pretty much a reskin of the home base and a few minigames based on already existing material within the game but it was by no means, not fun to play through. What it offered wasn’t really that attractive for me as the prizes you can win are all cosmetics, so whatever.

There’s also incoming new content if you’re so inclined, though that means you’re either buying the DLC or already own a season pass. They also tacked on an XP booster a month after the game launched, which I find not very palatable.

Another thing I found as tasty as burnt rice (it’s not and I don’t recommend it) was all the bugs and crashes I faced playing this game. Sometimes a quest wouldn’t play out as planned, sometimes I floated in the air, trees would be growing in wrong places, the list goes on. However, nothing was more frustrating than blatant freezes and crashes. I later learned that most of the crash issues stop once you restart your PC, but man did those bugs leave an impression.

Conclusion

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, like I said, is a fairly complex hotpot. It has the broth of what you would use to setup a pretty standard Ubisoft open-world game. Following markers and completing quests. But getting to the fun part is what makes it difficult. The bits and pieces thrown into this dish are large, take a long time to be ready to enjoy, and may be difficult to chew. It took around a week of me playing this game to get to the moment where I would say things started falling into place. The open world approach isn’t felt until you clear at least a few territories, since that’s what actually gives you some wiggle room to move around and do what you want.

I soldiered on, got to the point that I was enjoying the game, but something happened along the 60-hour mark. I got tired of playing the game. It’s like getting served food you gain a taste for, but get served the same thing again and again. You just get sick of going through the repetitive cycle of going to another area, dealing with a king’s problems, possibly finding a traitor, and ending the saga there.

The story beats that directly affect Eivor and other people he cares about is tangential at best, some of them are great where they have an issue that isn’t necessarily solved by taking killing somebody else, but those are the exception. Everything is literally going somewhere and fighting or fetching something, and the reason being just winning over somebody else’s allegiance just feels too contained. Quite literally when it got to the point where Eivor’s newfound allies were called to battle, I had a hard time remembering most of the people that answered that call.

While AC Valhalla had its moments and some encounters feel well-orchestrated, a lot of it felt like fighting through a padded content. Ever felt like you’ve had enough soup, maybe because it was oily? It’s that kind of feeling. The story beats were rather predictable, the stakes for more than half the things I was asked to do didn’t feel like it mattered. You had to grind to be able to progress the story quests, and I only enjoyed a fraction of what it had offered. Maybe it’s because I’ve played maybe 3 other open-world games prior, maybe I just couldn’t get connected with the characters, maybe it’s just not my cup of tea. There’s certainly a lot to do and find in this game, but perhaps it wasn’t paced quite right, as I personally have had enough Assassin’s Creed or for a while (or open-world games for that matter).

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, wasn’t exactly a surprise waiting in the bushes for me, scoring a 3.4 / 5

Available on X1, PS4, XBX, PS5, Stadia, and PC

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