Video Game Review: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Exploration is a big part of Valhalla.
Over the last 14 years, there has been a new Assassin’s Creed released in all but two: 2016, which still had two parts of the Chronicles spin-off, and 2019, which stood as the first year since the series began in 2007 to have zero releases. While the previous two-year gap between Syndicate and Origins ushered in a major overhaul, the changes from Odyssey to the all-new Assassin’s Creed Valhalla aren’t nearly as significant. That being said, Valhalla still serves to move the series forward in some meaningful ways.
By and large, Valhalla retains the combat introduced in Origins with weak/strong attacks, dodging and timed parries to break an enemy’s guard. You’ll have some options within that as you can choose to use a shield, dual-wield axes or blades and so on. A target lock allows you to focus on a single enemy, but fighting multiple foes at once can still feel sloppy — there’s a fair amount of flailing and awkward dodging that both looks silly and drains your stamina gauge.
Initially, combat is pretty basic, but as your level increases and you apply points to a branching skill tree, you’ll start to unlock new moves that help freshen things up. In addition to that you’ll also find books that grant special abilities that operate off their own gauge, allowing you to pull off powerful attacks that can help turn the tide. While the resulting fights don’t feel nearly as smooth and choreographed as the older AC games did, these do feel more challenging and organic, and when some of the more visceral animations kick in, it’s an awesome sensation.
When you consider how vast the world of Valhalla is, the consistent quality of its visuals is highly impressive; and this is the Xbox One X version we’ve been playing, not the Series X or PS5. There’s a lot of diversity as you traverse the map with plenty of moments when you just want to take in the scenery in a way that we haven’t done since Red Dead Redemption II. Animations are smooth, and the frame rate remained steady even during raids when there were literally dozens of allies and enemies on screen at once.
As a series, Assassin’s Creed has come a long way when it comes to presenting a mature narrative and employing serious voice actors. On that front, Valhalla probably represents the high-water mark with strong performances across the spectrum from the game’s characters, conveying more depth and subtlety than earlier installments. The sounds of battle are effective as well, creating the sense of large-scale conflict as you and your fellow Vikings wade into combat.
Set in ninth Century Europe, Valhalla tells the tale of Eivor, whose parents are murdered when he (or she, depending on which you select) was a child. After seeking the perpetrator for nearly two decades you finally exact your revenge, freeing yourself and your adopted brother Sigurd to leave Norway when their father pledges fealty to a new king against their wishes. Thus the pair make the trip across the sea with dozens of others to settle in England.
Upon arriving in England, Eivor and Sigurd lay claim to a settlement for their people that they name Ravensthorpe. From there it falls to you to strike out and make alliances, raid towns for the raw materials needed to build your own community, help ferret out targets of your friends in the “Hidden Ones” and much more. It’s a massive world split into different regions that are separated by their suggested power level, which effectively sets the pace for advancement.
Progression is tied to the aforementioned skill tree. Each time to level up you’ll get two skill points to unlock nodes. Most of them contain modest bonuses to health, damage, resistance and so on, though at the heart of each one is a new skill. What’s annoying is that the tree is clouded until you unlock enough nodes to reveal the next branch, which makes it difficult to plan for what skills you’d like. It’s also massive with each node adding one to your “power,” and higher regions containing suggested power levels above 200.
One nice change from the two most recent games is a renewed focus on stealth elements, which is a return to the series’ roots. No, it’s not as prevalent as it was a decade ago, but it’s nice that Valhalla gives more options for how to tackle a situation — though even within that you’ll need to unlock an advanced assassination node to take down higher-level targets via a timing mechanic.
Another quality-of-life improvement Valhalla offers over its predecessor is loot management, as instead of constantly finding dozens of slight variations of the same weapons, you’ll focus on improving the weapons you like by investing in-game resources or currency. Doing so will alter attributes, unlock additional slots for stat-improving runes and even change the appearance as it grows in rarity. It just makes everything much more manageable.
With its gorgeous open world and a darker, more mature narrative, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla delivers an engaging and enjoyable experience. It can feel a bit slow at times, and it takes a while to hit its stride, but it’s worth sticking it out.