Let me start things off by saying that I have REALLY enjoyed the whole Assassin’s Creed series. Like, a lot. I ADORED Odyssey. Even a good portion of the die-hard fanbase has their qualms with either 3, Unity, or both, but I finished those and didn’t dislike them at all despite their flaws. Valhalla however, is quite possibly the worst game I’ve played since the gamecube days and it’s quality of life features make it feel an additional decade older than that.
Ubisoft was onto something beautiful with Origins in 2017. The world felt alive and the shift to action RPG was unexpected but definitely not unwelcome, quite the opposite. Sure it didn’t have the meticulous planning and precision elimination of each target like the Ezio trilogy, but the mechanics were tight and the game was fun while keeping the assassin vibe. Odyssey took this new gameplay loop and perfected it.
Both these games featured vast maps riddled with collectibles that could be located reliably by the player’s eagle companion who could also tag enemies in the surrounding area allowing you to plan your own path to completing the location. It was very rewarding to clear a fort without being spotted and equally rewarding to go in swords swinging and have to kill a few powerful enemies in the middle of the scuffle.
Valhalla has a bird too. It flies, and it says caw. That’s the extent of its abilities. It can’t find collectible locations. Collectibles only show up on the map as little gold dots and they’re placed helter-skelter throughout England and/or Norway. One of these countries is a boring field with nothing in it and the other is a boring field with snow in it. Regardless of locale, when you reach the rough area where the dot is, everything comes to a halt as you use your ‘eagle vision’ which was honestly implemented way better in ACII [over a decade ago] to get a rough idea of where the chest is then spend upwards of five minutes literally “f– around and finding out”. Chests are always behind a locked door or underground or whatnot and your left to tediously scour every square centimeter of a 100 meter radius to try and find some incredibly easy to miss key/hole/stairway/breakable wall [which you can honestly bare tell are breakable] or whatnot. When you open the chest all it typically has is materials for your gear, but once you’ve hit the soft cap on your current set, everything else you find is essentially useless and the upgradability of gear in the game is severely underwhelming. You can only make a few enhancements before you need materials from higher level areas and you’re only collecting chests for a metaphorical pat on the back. Sometimes the chest has 'supplies' for the settlement, but that’s even more of a waste because you’re likely sitting on a surplus of it just waiting to get more ‘raw materials’ which can only be obtained by raiding monasteries.
The gear system itself is so dumbed down from Odyssey that it's not even relevant. There's only a few sets of gear in the game and none of it is particularly interesting. The set bonuses and runes fail to provide any meaningful gameplay changes and really only serve to pay homage to the much better systems from the previous two games.
Enemies can’t be tagged by the raven and the perimeters of restricted areas are very convoluted. You never know if you’ve cleared a place out or not, but chances are you didn’t. The enemies just keep coming. There are way too many enemies for a game with such clunky combat that completely lacks the fluidity of it’s two predecessors and really only boils down to stabbing things repeatedly until they die. Well, it sometimes works like that. Eivor can’t grasp the concept of stepping into an attack so you have to move within hugging distance of your enemy, set your feet, and then stab which is definitely at odds with the pacing of combat. If you have to dodge first, you might want to do the whole get close and set your feet thing three or four times just to be safe. Or if you’re underpowered for the area, combat consists of getting hurtled through the air like a shotput and spending the next five minutes trying to get whatever threw you to stop chasing you.
The abilities that made Odyssey so engaging are sort of back, but they feel like an afterthought not really being overly helpful and also being acquired by finding books for them in the world (more dull and frustrating treasure hunts) instead of the skill tree. Instead the skill tree in Valhalla is needlessly cumbersome with hundreds of ‘nodes’ and only a few passive skills buried in all the minuscule stat changes that would’ve been much better suited happening automatically through leveling up like a typical RPG made this century. For the most part, the passive skills themselves are mostly just things we should have had from the start anyway, like auto looting.
The looting in this game is abysmal. You can’t loot anything unless you can physically see the button prompt to do so, but there are so many tight spaces that cause the camera to be blocked from that button prompt. They also brought back the flying papers collectible type from III and Black Flag and it’s even more dreadful now than it was then. In order to properly perform the series signature parkour maneuvers [which again are a downgrade from where they were a decade ago] you have to hold A [X] while running and while holding that, pressing Y [∆] to pick up the papers mid run. Gripping the controller while doing this is awkward to say the least. If you get all the way to the end of the rather long chase of the papers, keeping them in sight, they will linger for a little bit, but literally every other function of the button is prioritized over picking up the collectible. This includes hold prompts like carry corpses, which will also make it nearly impossible to pick at the one body on the stack that has loot.
There were many memorable side quests in Origins and Odyssey, but Valhalla essentially has none. None that you can track anyway. You come across ‘mysteries’ which show on the map as random green dots that are equally as unexciting as the gold ones for the chests and more often than not it’s an npc with a vaguely quest-like proposition with a completely asinine premise. Actual quests in the game:
1. Help an old guy throw all his belongings off a cliff then watch him kill himself
2. Listen to a guy complain and then tell him he has an axe in his head
3. Convince to people to fight and then burn their houses down to convince them to stop.
This list stops at three, but I could go all the way to twenty three and I’ve only seen the first two areas. Maybe one of these got a chuckle, but mostly they just left me asking "why?". Almost every npc in the game fails to operate on any recognizable plain of logic and we see them just long enough to wonder whether any actual human beings were involved with the writing in this game and then they disappear forever. The writing for the main story isn’t any better. Eivor is the most uninteresting protagonist that I can remember for the series and the supporting cast lacks humanity as well. Adding insult to injury, your adoptive brother’s wife is also just a shameless recoloring of Kassandra from Odyssey. For the first time in the series, I care way more about what’s happening in present day than I do about what’s going on in the animus, but even Shaun and Rebecca lack the personality they had in the games with Desmond.
I cannot honestly remember the last time I picked up something so uninspired and unmoving. I played for about 20 hours, but I only pushed through that on the wings of being mesmerized by just how badly the developers destroyed a working formula. I wish I could sit here and point to something in the game and be like ‘that! That was satisfying!’ but there’s really nothing worth noting. Origins was really really good. Odyssey was absolutely fantastic and probably in my top 3 games of the Xbox One/PS4 generation. Valhalla is...just not worth playing. Even if I had waited and picked this up on sale for $20 I’d still regret it. Did you know that ‘norse’ is an anagram of ‘snore’?