As the years have gone by, Ubisoft have worked to evolve and iterate the Assassin’s Creed formula, moving away from the city games to vast open world RPGs. There have been self-inflicted wounds along the journey with an unhealthy corporate culture leading to a large restructure in their editorial teams in the summer, but ultimately Valhalla was delivered in time for the launch of the new console generation and it’s a brilliant piece of work.
You probably know the basics of the setting by now. You take the role of Eivor, a Norwegian Viking who travels to England with their Raven Clan to raid, make friends and create a new life. It’s a simple idea with the classic Assassin’s vs Templars dynamic of the series framed as a battle between the Hidden Ones and Order of the Ancients for influence over the English kingdoms of the 9th Century.
In a similar fashion to Odyssey you can choose whether to play through as a female or male version of Eivor, or “let the Animus decide” which will change your version of Eivor to best suit the DNA flow or somesuch Animus jargon. I started with the Animus version which gave me a female Eivor who I took through the prologue set in the snows of Norway, before ultimately settling on playing as the female Eivor for my whole playthrough. It’s nice that you can change between the options as you wish, but with the start of the game putting you in female Eivor’s shoes, it does raise a question as to why the initial marketing of the game focused on male Eivor. I wonder how those editorial changes will influence those types of decisions in the future.
The Norwegian prologue sets the scene for some of the core mechanics that will take you through the rest of the game. Combat in general is near as damnit identical to Odyssey with a focus on parrying and abilities, but the return of the hidden blade puts a focus on the stealthy approach that hasn’t been seen since the series entered full-blown RPG territory. I appreciate being able to sneak about with my cloak up and take down bad guys from bushes, and there are moments where social blending is useful, but ultimately Valhalla is still geared towards large fight scenes.
You are guided towards these larger fights through the Raid and Assault mechanics. Once you arrive in England and have established your settlement of Ravensthorpe (which I can’t stop calling Ravenholm) you will require supplies and building materials to construct the various buildings that are required to expand your new home. Key Raid locations tend to marked on your map, though by navigating the riverways of England in your longship you will find numerous smaller villages and military encampments you can Raid. For the smaller locales you can usually steal the relevant goodies by yourself, either through a stealthy approach or by going loud, but the larger Raids which are predominantly on monasteries need your Viking warriors by your side to force open doors and the chests containing your glorious loot.
The Assaults which bookend the main story chapters are a step up from Raids. They are large scale battles where you take your clan to the main fortress of the antagonist of that chapter. They involve plenty of bloodshed and breaking through gates guarding the centre of the settlement or castle until you find the chapter boss. While there is scope for approaching these Assaults in different ways and a chance for delivering a one-shot stealth kill on the bosses, I ultimately took the most obvious path of using a battering ram to breakdown the gates, and defeating the bad guy in one-on-one combat.
I am a big fan of how Valhalla structures your story and side missions. With Odyssey at the 25-hour mark, my quest log was filled with main missions and side-quests with icons filling the map to the point of incomprehension. Valhalla takes a more controlled approach to things, I might have a small range of quests granted by my friends in Ravensthorpe, but side-missions from any and every random Anglo-Saxon or Viking you come across just don’t exist in the same way that you might expect.
Rather than having available mission markers appear in every town or village, the map highlights wealth (armour, skill upgrades), artifacts (treasure maps, Roman trinkets) or mysteries (small quests, encounters with beings of Norse lore) through colour coded dots. Each dot offers something to do, but they don’t rationalise into a marker revealing their true meaning until you come across them. It makes for travelling through the gorgeous swathes of English countryside much more rewarding when you feel that you have stumbled across something worth finding. Sometimes you might find a puzzle which you can’t complete until much later in the game, but other times there is a simple joy in finding a hidden entrance and figuring out how to gain access, then exploring until you find your reward.
For some this might lead to a game world which feels empty and devoid of life, for me it means I can focus on the main story missions when I want but also offering a true sense of exploration and excitement when I find something new. Viewpoints are of course important to climb and synchronise, but even then they will only reveal the wealth, artifact or mystery locations, not what those specific moments are.
Story missions themselves tend to follow a fairly structured route, but feel like well paced chapters in a novel with an introduction in Ravensthorpe, plenty of middle action then a blow-off battle during the Assault, normally followed by a quest which feels like a nice epilogue to wrap up that part of the story.
The story chapters in England are focused on forming alliances with established Viking settlements or friendly Anglo-Saxon rulers, and while the game might not accurately represent 9th Century English politics, it makes sense in the context of the game and the story being told.
What you have with Valhalla is a very good game, and one that when I put together my Game of the Year thoughts will come right near the top. It offers a beautiful world to explore, although it certainly lacks the Mediterranean flair of Odyssey, and the structure of the quests avoids the sense of being overwhelmed that can come with so many open-world RPGs. The return of some aspects of the traditional ‘Assassin’ moments is welcomed, and there is enough Norse mythology to entertain those who want something beyond the real world. It’s up there with some of the best games I’ve played this year, and is a great game, not just a great Assassin’s game.
The Verdict – Red Mist
Platforms Available – PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series S|X
Platform Reviewed – PlayStation 5
For more on our scoring policy, please see this post. Review based on retail purchased copy.