Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (PS4) Review

Valhalla is the latest in the Assassin’s Creed series and the third in the revived, new engine sub-series. I was really looking forward to it as being a Brit who has looked into his own past I was actually far more familiar with the time period and (obviously) setting of this game’s Viking Invasion era than any other AC game, but sadly the story is stretched far too thin for the game’s own good, and the combat soon became far too easy. Still, there were plenty of highlights too, so… let’s take a deeper look! (and yes, that says PS4, I still haven’t gotten my hands on a PS5…)

Background:

Calling up the boys for a joy ride! … Or a monastery pillage. One of the two.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla was released on the PS4, XBOX One, XBOX Series X, PC and… Stadia (Yeah, that’s going to date this review quite quickly, I can imagine…) on November 10th 2020, with the PS5 release coming two days later on November 12th.

Valhalla is one of those games that straddles two generations, serving as a launch title for the PS5 / XBOX Series X, while also being a regular title for the PS4 and XBOX One. That being said beyond long load times when loading up the main map, I can’t see there being much difference if I do decide to take the free PS5 upgrade option when the day comes and I get one…

Gameplay:

Both of them are enjoying this way too much… especially as one of them is being choked to death.

Valhalla continues the open world action format of the previous two games, with a few minor tweaks here and there. The melee combat is pretty simple, though not as simple as old AC’s one hit counter system, as you have a very limited selection of weapons (no picking up new coloured loot here, that’s for sure…) and a light and a heavy attack combination, plus a parry button and a dodge button. Heavy does more damage but decreases stamina, dodging is easier, timing-wise, but again, decreases stamina. Doing light attacks or parries conserves stamina and refills your “Adrenaline”, which eventually goes up to four slots and allows you to do special moves you unlock as the game does on by collecting certain books. They range from an unblockable strike to some axes to toss and even a Scorpion from Mortal Kombat-style “Get over here!” knife on a rope that you can pull opponents towards you and strike them as they stumble. In terms of long range combat you have three different type of bows (and again, very little variety in new ones) that vary in how much you can aim and how quickly you can fire off multiple arrows, plus some different arrow abilities that use more adrenaline slots; and stealth is still a thing, though now when you try to stealth takedown an enemy that’s stronger than you a QTE-style timing-based button prompt appears that if you hit it right you can still take them down silently with one strike… at least when you unlock that ability anyway (more on that later).

As mentioned they’ve done away with multiple loot drops and just kept a small selection of weapon types and even few varieties in those weapon types, leaving you to pick a favourite and just keep upgrading it by using ores and materials you pick up across the open expanse. I got a golden Dane Axe quite early that ignited every time you got a critical hit with it and I never changed it, by the time I got a new type of Dane Axe I’d already upgraded the gold one so much that it was better, and to the get the other one up to the same level would take more materials that it would take to upgrade the golden axe (cue classic Mega Drive tune here) to the next level. The same thing with the armour: about a third or less of a way into the game I got an armour set that gave a bonus to melee damage if you have all five pieces equipped, and then just kept upgrading it, ignoring the two or three other armour sets I unlocked afterwards. It did make the game feel very stale, at least the old loot system meant I got a new looking weapon now and then.

This was quite a “wow!” moment for me, as the sun poked out between clouds in the rain storm and illuminated just one tip of one rock on the mountain. That’s an impressive lighting engine!

Another change is the levelling system, as you don’t really level up as such, instead each “level” you get two experience points you can put into a massive skill tree, and more nodes on the tree are active the higher your “power” is, meaning you don’t level up to “Level 6” but instead get two points that’ll take you up from Power 120 to Power 122. The nodes range from more health, attack points and stealth damage but also feature constant buffs like the now-classic steering a fired arrow with the camera trick, the ability to stomp on downed foes or a rather game-breaking “everything slows down for a few seconds when you dodge” skill which makes the simple combat even easier.

Every area of the large map (well, maps, technically) has a level rating, and that thankfully doesn’t change, so you can got back to the Level 20 area as a Level 320 character and feel like a God, which is always fun and weirdly something they removed in the previous effort, before patching it back in. Across the landscapes are your usual activities, main missions, side quests, viewpoints to sync, towns, forts and frankly some of the most boring map activities ever. They range from picture puzzles to dull QTE drinking games, embarrassing “Vikings were like rap artists, we’re cool now kids!” flyting challenges and I swear to God, a series of Cairn building activities, as in a whole bunch of missions where your goal is to stack rocks on top of each other. Throw in a dull and entirely fictional dice game and the usual “fight large creatures” stuff and yeah… Safe to say I didn’t do much beyond the core missions, even a lot of the side quests were so dull I couldn’t be bothered every time I saw them and just rode on past them. Oh and the fact that every time I found a fun location I almost ALWAYS ended up visiting it again during a story mission and there really wasn’t much of an urge to free roam.

This is my main complaint about the game: it goes on far too long. You see the main missions are split into areas of England to “pledge” to get on your side, and while a couple of them see the main story push forward, a lot of them are long stories that go nowhere other than the same castle siege mechanics in a different castle. Right at the end you have to do three or four long area pledges before getting the final mission and I just wanted it to end. The combat had become far too easy even when I was low level for an area, the map missions and activities weren’t worth doing and the storylines for these areas were clearly going to have zero impact on the actual story of the game, yet I had to do them. At least a completely dull set of missions in a hallucination version of Asgard are technically skippable, even if I didn’t know that at the time and so did them anyway…

This isn’t taking me out of Viking Era England at all! Nope!

A few other things of note: you can raid settlements for materials, which is just literally landing your longboat at the shore of a location and you and your men burn houses down and rob from religious sites (we’re the good guys, don’t you know!) which can be fun to be fair, then the materials gained here can be used to upgrade your settlement like in the old AC games, unlocking new shops and other places that can help you out. There are less cut backs to modern times, but there are map points in the middle of the actual historical gameplay where you find a glitch in the open world and end up having to do some platform puzzles as the modern day character, which was a whole new way of breaking the immersion, so… congrats on that! Alongside all of this is the return of the tree of Order members to kill your way through, this time they’re called the “Order of Ancients” and alongside three tiers of targets to uncover are Zealots, who act as this game’s equivalent of the mercenaries from Odyssey: extremely strong and cheap enemies that can wonder into where you’re attacking a settlement or having fun and ruin your day… then suddenly you master combat and then you can kill all of them with very little effort.

Overall I played through Origins and Odyssey at roughly 100 hours each and although I was somewhat burned out by the end I was still enjoying myself and would’ve gladly played more of the map if I had a valid reason to, where as for Valhalla I feel like two thirds of the way through I’d had enough and yet had to play through a bunch of uninteresting stuff to get to the end at 92 hours, and that’s including skipping much of the map content. Far from a bad game, but certainly one that needed a “Directors cut” in the mission department.

Graphics and Sound:

Trademark “top of a mountain at sunset” picture for the graphics section. Added bonus for “bird mid-flight”.

Graphics are great, as per usual for the last few AC games. Although seeing my entire country condensed into a small island full of a few rivers is really weird, they do a good job of making everything look all Viking Age-y, lots of Roman ruins still remain, Hadrian’s Wall is starting to crumble but is still keeping a lot of those “savages” at bay, and generally the landscape and buildings look spot on. You also travel to Norway and … elsewhere, and these places look great too, snow effects are well done (which is a must for Norway, obviously…)

Sound is good too, voice acting is perfect, soundeffects and the few background tunes that play are all well done. No complaints there either.

Story:

Yes I was thrilled in capturing the exact moment lightning struck in the distance. Thanks for asking.

In current times Layla from the past two games has met up with Shaun Hastings and Rebecca Crane from the OC Assassin’s Creed games as a strange increase in the Earth’s magnetic field is causing global disaster. A strange message has led them to New England, USA and to the grave of a Viking named Eivor They use the Animus to see how exactly his life can help them in the present. I say “his” because I played as a female protagonist last time I switched to a male, with the idea of alternating going forward, but you can once again choose to play as either gender, or weirdly a mode where you switch gender on the fly from time to time…

Eivor, also known as the “Wolf-Kissed” due to being bitten by a wolf when he was a child, grew up in Norway with his friend and adoptive older brother Sigurd, eventually the two taking a longboat full of their allies and going to settle in England due to Sigurd’s father deciding to join King Harald’s new united Norway rather than keep his own kingship he could pass down to his son. They set up a town called “Ravensthorpe” (their clan being known as The Raven Clan) and soon go about making alliances (often through war) with local Saxons and other Danes and Vikings in order to remain strong. We see such historical figures as King Aelfred, the Ragnarssons and Guthrum, plus several key historical events in very Assassin’s Creed style!

*Spoilers from here until the next star-pounded message!*

Sigurd had met a man named Basim on his travels, he is a member of an ancient order known as “The Hidden Ones” and soon begins convincing the Norseman that he is descended from Gods, something the Hidden Ones’ rivals, the “Order of Ancients”, also take note of. While Eivor is out winning over one of many… many areas Sigurd ends up looking for a lady named Fulke, who claims to be able to help him out. Eivor joins his sworn brother and Basim but witnesses only weird riddles and his brother being captured and tortured by the female who turns out to be a member of the Order. To make things even more confusing for him, Eivor had been seeing visions where he was Odin and living through several of the great Norse myths surrounding Loki, Fenrir and the Ragnarok, eventually seeing that Odin and select allies drank a mead that allowed them to reincarnate after the apocalypse.

Back in the present this is figured out to be a vision of the Isu, the highly advanced God-like race that existed on Earth thousands of years before recorded history and actually created humanity in the first place, and that they used their technology to live on. Odin, the Isu, was living on in the body of Eivor, which is why he had the visions. Back in the Viking Age and Eivor and Basim manage to rescue a now right arm-less Sigurd but he is mentally broken. After a bunch of other territory pledges (including a trip to Vinland, the temporary Viking settlement in modern day America) Sigurd takes Eivor to a Isu temple in Norway and the two are plugged into a weird Isu version of the Animus where they appear in a version of Valhalla, but our protagonist breaks free of the programming and even banishes the Isu Odin from his consciousness.

Why was THIS a thing I had to do in a game about modern day people reliving their ancestors’ historical memories?

When Eivor wakes he sees Basim has got a hold of Sigurd and reveals himself to be the Isu Loki, who had used similar technology to Odin and his pals to stay alive but has gone one step further and taken control of Basim’s body. He sees that Eivor was the reincarnation of Odin and attacks him out of revenge but only ends up being plugged into the Isu Animus and left for dead. Eivor is made the new head of the Raven Clan after Sigurd admits he is no longer fit for the role. I have to say the Basim twist was completely sign-posted by the fact that Loki and Basim had the same voice actor, much like Odin and Eivor did. I obviously didn’t know the Norse myth stuff actually happened, but I knew that was a hint that Basim would betray everyone.

Back in the current day Layla and co realise that the Norway temple was the solution to the world crisis and she soon enters the temple with the staff of immortality she got from the last game and enters the Isu animus. There she meets Basim and a data ghost that sounds a lot like Desmond from the original games’ storyline and decides to stay as data in order to find the right timeline where the world is saved from yet another world ending catastrophe that’s on the horizon. At that moment Basim’s mummified remains drops next to the staff and is restored to life, and therefore the Isu Loki is now wondering around modern times and working for the Assassins, though in reality he’s looking for the reincarnations of his children…

*Spoilers End!*

So overall it brings an end to this “Layla Trilogy”, for a lack of a better term, and also brings in some older characters and adds some new layers to the Isu. Plus we have a very real antagonist going forward…

Downloadable Content:

When the word “Klonk!” doesn’t do it justice. Maybe “Splat!” would be better… (Incidentally this may be my favourite screengrab I’ve ever done. Talk about “just at the right moment”!)

There was a pre-order DLC offer of a mission titled “The Legend of Beowulf”, plus at least two DLC chunks that introduce entirely new areas: “Wrath of the Druids” which takes place in Ireland, and “The Siege of Paris”, which takes place in Spain. … … Oh right, sorry, France (or Francia, technically). They haven’t been released yet, but I doubt I’ll be bothered to buy them…

Thoughts Now:

One last burning of an innocent person’s home for the road!

*Phew* Damn these large-scale Open World game reviews! Still, once again I had fun with a new Assassin’s Creed game, but unlike the two that came before it I found myself bored of Valhalla before I reached the end of the core story. A lack of fresh items to use or wear combined with some very “filler-ish” missions taking up large chunks of your time and no interesting things to do on the map meant Valhalla falls short of Origins and Odyssey. A good time in places and I like where the story is going, but I won’t be playing it again, that’s for sure…

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