Assassin’s Creed is starting to resemble an annoying uncle who insists on attending family dinners and thinks is welcomed because he once told an interesting story and was the center of that night. Only his siblings really want him there, but his nephews and their kids look at him funny every time he says he’s done something new. If it’s not a new shirt, it’s a different story, but he is still the same guy who joins you on the table uninvited.
Before I carry on with my review, let me clear the slate with you by informing you that I absolutely hate the franchise. That can be a major disadvntage or it could play positievly for this game, depending on how you see it and what angle you consider my words from. The AC games have offered me nothing to celebrate or wet my shorts about, and I honestly do not understand where this fanbase has grown from. I understand that the world is catering to teens and young adults, but for fuck’s sake this same demographic that enjoys Justin Bieber also enjoys Minecraft. I guess The Assassin’s Creed games are more interested with the audience of the former? Again, my words may be taken in either direction, depending on how you choose to perceive them.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is Ubisoft’s way of throwing in the towel when it comes to AAA games and taking a few pages from their currently more interesting and successful UbiArt initiative. It is a simple 2D take at an Assassin’s Creed game, and as with their last “mini” version of the games, Liberation, the protagonist is a female, because, well, she was not as hard to animate apparently. Ubisoft seems to only experiment with female assassin’s when it’s not a AAA release and that right there is questionable bull shit.
In the past with the Prince of Persia IP, it blew chunks in 3D, but played very nicely in its 2D iteration that remastered the classic original. I don’t want to say that Ubisoft had nothing to do with the game mechanics as this was an established game, complete with its level design and story progression, but they did a kick ass job of bringing it back. So what did Ubisoft understand from this transaction? The Prince is not an interesting protagonist to pursue and is not our original IP anyway, so let us create a 2D AC game to remind people why they fell in love with AC games in the first place.
Based in China, and being the first chapter of three that will cover Russia and India in its future releases, the game has you hunt down someone because your people asked you to and because, well, they needed a purpose to keep you going from level to level. The story could not have been more disposable if you put it in a dodgy paper bag and threw it down a trash chute. It offers you no motivation to keep going, and I imagine I would be saying that on behalf of stout fanboys who would refuse to see beyond the shiny title. Yes, loyal supporters, the story is a bunch of words jumbled together to form coherent sentences, and your love for the games won’t make it any better.
Our heroine Shau Jun is a monotone, cookie-cutter of a character who tries to impose determination by talking quietly, as all stereotypical badasses in pop culture do these days, and feels like a performance from an actress trying hard to not give a rat’s ass about the Templars. The game starts off with her intentional capture and has you escape and search for her weapons in the process that had been confiscated from her, all the while teaching you how to apply the mechanics of the game. You’d think a 2D Assassin’s Creed game would be a simple matter of jumping and wall scaling. Nope. Ubisoft has actually done a good job of translating everything the assassins have learned in previous games to this one. You will run, hide, leap and assassinate like the best of them and I have to admit that when everything falls into place, Shau can actually look pretty awesome avoiding enemies and/or disposing of them, performing a ballet of stealth that will have your heart racing as she tackles the landscape. “When” everything falls into place. It’s a shame, then, that most of the times, seemingly amateur assassins like myself will fumble the plan and end up button-mashing the heavy attack button just to get myself out of a seedy situation that will deserve me the bronze ranking. Though the game offers you the freedom to approach situations in a gung-ho-swords-out manner, it will punish you with low rankings and force you to use stealth in certain situations. You are an assassin, ultimately, and I understand why stealth needs to be enforced, but if you’re a sword-thrashing gamer, you should be awarded for being that as well, but that wold not be an AC game, I suppose.
Since I’m on the subject, the controls are not as intuitive as I would have entertained them to be. Jumping off of a ledge downwards, for example, can only be done by hitting a button that has no other purpose in the game, like it was specifically designated to cancel your grasp. Shouldn’t the jump button serve as the same function? Nope, not for Chronicles. rather than have the player direct the orientation of her jump when on ledges, Shau will only jump if there is a surface behind her to jump to. Having her climb down or up a ledge to avoid detection is finicky as well, and more times than not I had her dash straight at the soldiers instead of discretely go down a ledge and hide. This is a flaw with the analog controllers that are not really designed with twitch decision-making in mind. That’s what the d-pad is for, but games, in their attempt to forgo inventory screens, have assigned items and weapons to each one of the four d-pad buttons. This is not an AC flaw, per se, but rather a general problem. This function works best for 3D, FPS games where a quick inventory and weapons switch is a blessing. For 2D games that depend on sudden movements and platforming, however, the d-pad is sorely missed and a much better, radial wheel system would have done the trick and left you with the liberty to fine-tune your movements with the d-pad.
The AI is brain-punching dumb. Asides from waltzing around with their cones of vision, they are only capable of beating you in numbers. If a room has multiple soldiers, it gets tricky to maneuver around their lines of sight, but one lone soldier, even two, can never stop you. Two soldiers are talking? Never you worry, you can perform a full Kata inches away from them and neither of them will see you. Is there a recession in the wall right behind them? Their generic and repetitive conversation is apparently so enthralling, they won’t notice you leap into hiding, sneak, and step out. Some soldiers prance around with swords and spears, others are equipped with shields and some others employ ranged combat by using crossbows and rifles. Nevertheless, and no matter how threatening an enemy looks, climb a ladder to a higher level and wait for him to cool off. He will never follow you up, down or anywhere beyond his 2D realm and will actually opt to just look up the ladder until the threat counter resets. Lest you bump into another soldier while avoiding him, you are free as a bird and only risk a potentially lower rank score.
When I think Assassin’s Creed, I think of lush colors and beautiful level designs. You will get neither in Chronicles. Levels are bland and unimaginative, and their accompanying graphics are even worse so. Everything is a dull shade of beige to give the effect of playing on a scroll of papyrus, but it just gets so boring to look at eventually. All your movements and actions let off cool water color swashes that mirror those in Prince of Persia (circa 2008), but they are barely visible and go to waste.
Of the four inventory slots that you are given, three of them will be used for distraction purposes, and one of them will be reserved for the throwing knife that you will use to cut down ropes as a means of revealing your path. The other three are the sound dart, whistle and stun grenades. The sound dart will create a distraction in a specific set point of your choosing that soldiers within its range will go to investigate, the whistle will bring soldiers who hear it closer to your location, and the stun grenade will stun soldiers within its area of effect for a handful of seconds. None of these, mind you, are crucial for your survival, save for a few scripted set pieces where you are forced to use one item or another, and are only made available for stalwart assassins who are looking to achieve a gold rank for every section.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is the first chapter of an already revealed three, and is bringing the franchise to a 2D realm while Ubisoft plans its next AAA iteration after the abysmal experience that was Unity. Not all games need a yearly release, in fact, no franchise should be milked on a yearly basis. As is, I believe the AC brand needs to go on hiatus for a while and give Ubisoft back its creative reigns to explore and work on new IP’s.
Unless you’re a die-hard AC fan, Chronicles will barely satiate your search for an entertaining quick fix and if you entertain this model of 2D stealth, you are better off playing the superior Mark of the Ninja.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is available on Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PC and was made available to us via a review code from Ubisoft.