Assassin's Creed Valhalla: first impressions

By Heidi Nicholas,
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was beautiful and hugely ambitious, but it often fell short of its own enormous expectations. When Ubisoft unveiled its next foray back into the past as the epic Viking adventure of Assassin's Creed Valhalla, what I most wanted to see was a more rounded experience which managed to plug some of those gaps. I’m only partway through the Dark Ages behemoth that is Valhalla, but it’s already clear that it aims to build far beyond what Odyssey had to offer.

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is huge. There’s no getting around it: the areas available for Eivor to explore are enormous. When Odyssey was released back in 2018, it was a huge step forwards, improving on the changes introduced with Assassin’s Creed Origins. It was beautiful and incredibly expansive, but it could also feel empty, unpolished, and, towards the end, very repetitive. There didn’t seem to be much point to such a large map — even when it was so gorgeous — if there wasn’t really much to do in it, or much incentive to explore it. But while Odyssey crumbled under the weight of an endless open world, Valhalla’s fantastic settlement feature means the map feels alive with possibility. It functions as both the ideal solution for how to ground the player within such a large map, and as an incentive to explore the rest of it. For instance, by the time you were partway through Odyssey, you were likely so overpowered that collecting resources wasn’t really necessary. In Valhalla, everything has its purpose. You’re not just one person collecting endless resources for no apparent reason — you’re Eivor, gathering the necessary equipment to build up your settlement, provide homes for your friends, and to stake your claim on your tiny patch of England. Each building in your settlement unlocks new aspects to the gameplay experience, expands your presence in England, and makes a visible improvement to your burgeoning Viking village.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

However, you don’t actually get to start that awesome settlement stuff for quite some time, as the Norway prologue is pretty lengthy. On the one hand, the grim landscape of mountains and stormy skies is beautiful, with Eivor trudging through drifts of snow or fighting to survive the freezing rivers. It’s also during your time in Norway that you’re introduced to the basic aspects of gameplay that will define your Viking adventure. On the other hand, since the game really opens up when you get to England, the Norway prologue can begin to feel a little empty — almost like a snowy expansion to Odyssey with a few new bits thrown in, rather than a full game on its own. Even here, though, the improvements over Odyssey are clear. The inventory menu is cleaner, and the skill tree gives off some Skyrim vibes with its branching paths, each of which disappears intriguingly into mist, hinting at what you’ll be able to discover in future. Valhalla also massively improves on its predecessor with crafting and gear. Odyssey had pieces of armour lurking within every pot and crate you came across, leaving poor Kassandra weighted down under the burden of 100 pairs of bandit sandals. Valhalla scales this back — finding new equipment is rarer, meaning each piece feels like an exciting acquisition. Enhancing the quality of your gear can even give it a new appearance, although it costs you some of your most valuable resources, with the result that upgrading a single piece feels like a real progression. And one bonus of this extended prologue is that when you finally arrive in England, it feels truly epic: a momentous expedition into a new and mysterious land.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

One change you’ll notice from Odyssey is that side quests aren’t really a thing anymore — your “quests” page is now much cleaner, showing only the missions for the main storyline. Instead of a myriad of exclamation points scattered across the map, you’ll now see a bunch of glowing dots of different colours: blue, white, and yellow, corresponding to the Mysteries, Artifacts, and Wealth you’ll find in each region. What’s more, your raven’s abilities are a little more toned down than Kassandra’s Ikaros. Instead of the exact location for the objective of your mission, your raven only shows you the area you can find it. Exploration in Valhalla feels much more natural as a result, and the points of interest on the map itself are far more subtle and look much cleaner, although the different number of glowing dots can be a bit disorientating at first. The world feels full of things to do. England’s countryside is lush and green, a stark contrast to the frigid landscape of Norway, and it’s also alive with mystery. You might find anything: a cursed glade with creepy Blair Witch-style statues, a new piece of kit for Eivor, a Book of Knowledge, a trove of treasure — since this is an Assassin’s Creed game, the possibilities are weird and endless. You’ll also see a few callbacks to earlier AC games, with Eivor chasing music sheets over the rooftops, or even new tattoo designs.

Everything now has far more use than in Odyssey. Resources and supplies are vital to building your settlement, while hunting gets you new rewards from the Hunter’s Hut. Eivor levels up in new ways, too. The skill tree branches off into ranged, melee, and stealth skills at first, but progressing through each of these unlocks myriad new branching paths to follow, with more impressive options such as the timing-based advanced assassination skill. Abilities, meanwhile, have their own separate screen. Sending Eivor trawling through monasteries or secret locations can reward you with Books of Knowledge — these are hard to miss when you’re nearby, with a tantalising golden glistening effect — containing new powers for Eivor. These abilities aren’t quite as over-the-top as Odyssey’s, but they’re still a long way from the usual combat options. One, for instance, has Eivor leap into the air before hurling a wave of tiny throwing axes at every enemy in reaching distance. These are definitely worth hunting down. While the combat is fluid, and Eivor has a number of fantastic weapons — including an awesome Iron-Star flail — it can feel a little slow and limited before you unlock some of these extra stamina-draining moves.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Now, let’s talk about the settlement, because I am a huge fan of this feature. Kassandra was a solitary figure in Odyssey, but Eivor holds a position of leadership and is responsible for a ragtag band of Vikings. England, while beautiful, is hostile to these Viking invaders, and Eivor is tasked with increasing the renown of the Raven clan and building them a lasting home in this new land. All of this means that you have a pretty irresistible sense of ownership over your settlement and an urge to protect your little Viking family, especially since they don’t stop complaining until they have everything they want. Your building options are limited at first, but as your village grows, your renown increases, more travellers are attracted, and your options expand. Soon you’re building a bakery to improve your feast buff, homes for your friends, or a cartographer’s hut. This is when the game really opens up, with new buildings bringing more gameplay mechanics and breathing new life into your settlement.

There’s a hint of Red Dead Redemption 2 in the camp-style mechanics of Eivor’s settlement, such as the scraps of background information to be gleaned about each character by nosily rooting through their things and reading their journals. Nearly every building has something to do. If you’re hunting order members, head to the Hidden Ones Bureau. If you’re hunting actual animals — including Legendary ones — bring them to the Hunter’s Hut for trophies. Even in Eivor’s quarters, you’ll find a letter box where you can keep track of requests and messages, and a place to track the status of your settlement and to find recommendations of what to build next — think chatting to Tom Nook, except instead of a cosy chat at Resident Services in Animal Crossing, it’s a terse letter from the fearsome Randvi, another settlement leader. There’s even fishing, and Red Dead fans will again notice something familiar in the way you control the fish as you reel it in. Eivor has a million things to attend to at any one time in Ravensthorpe, and all of it helps the world of Valhalla to feel more full, more alive, than we’ve seen in recent AC games. The settlement can be customised and decorated, with small cosmetic additions helping to make it look more like a home. Even smaller additions, such as the option to train your mount at the stables, bring an improvement to Valhalla. Teaching your horse to swim does away with the irritating travel of Odyssey, where you had to either plan your route around water or get off the horse, swim across, get out, call the horse back, and carry on. Since England is riddled with rivers, this is a pretty useful addition. Ravensthorpe comes with a sense of ownership, motivating the player to go out and explore the rest of the world for the necessary resources to upgrade it, while also providing a living hub to return to, with all the shops and features you need in one place. It’s a great addition to Valhalla, and it really works.

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla

Aside from fighting, exploring, solving puzzles, building a home, infiltrating England, doing away with Order members, and all the other things Eivor gets up to in day-to-day Viking life, Valhalla also offers several mini-games, and there’s one in particular we need to talk about. If you’re a Witcher fan, you’ll remember that unstoppable urge to hurl yourself into every tavern in the game and barge into homes at all hours of the day, as Geralt abandoned his Witcher duties just to accost every poor passerby and ask, with a fanatical gleam in his eye, whether they play Gwent. Gwent is in a league of its own, but Valhalla’s dice game Orlog will have you similarly hooked. You each have a set of dice with various powers: attacking, blocking, and stealing God Favour tokens. The idea is to whittle your opponent’s health down to nothing by dealing damage, blocking their attacks, and using your God Favours to blast them into oblivion or to heal yourself.

Valhalla seems to have taken inspiration from games like Gwent in that Orlog has awesome little animations showing your God Favours zapping away your enemy’s health, or a rogue arrow managing to damage your own. I’m a few games of Orlog in, and already I can tell there will come a time when the peasants will whisper in fear of the mighty Eivor, who travels the moors of England at all hours like a possessed demon, howling into the night for a challenger to battle them in a game of Orlog. If that doesn’t fit your plans for a Viking life, there’s a number of other mini-games including drinking and Flyting — those intriguing Viking rap battles we keep hearing about. Flyting is pretty fun, especially since there’s usually a few hangers-on to “oooohhh!” each time you or your opponent comes up with a particularly good insult. The drinking games are also fun, with you trying to keep an increasingly wobbly Eivor upright in time to finish his three drinks before his opponent. Win or lose, you’ll be punished with a blurry screen and a weaving Eivor who’s in no fit state to play any game, drinking or otherwise, for a while.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Visually, Valhalla looks fantastic on the Xbox Series X, although it is a shame to see some assets reused, like the iconic Kassandra hairstyle, or the same clunky horse as we had in AC Origins. As you’ll know from the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla achievements, completing it might take some time. Odyssey’s got an estimated completion time of around 80-100 hours, and Valhalla has some similar achievements — such as the achievement to complete all territories — which looks as though it will take a while, especially considering how much there is to do. These are my first impressions of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and already I’m hooked. Valhalla improves on a number of areas introduced with Odyssey, offering a new and more refined gameplay experience that builds upon Odyssey’s ambitions, but it’s also completely its own game. It definitely still feels clunky in a few areas. The combat has yet to liven up and the map may yet prove to be too endless for its own good, but Valhalla ultimately feels alive with promise. I’m well into building my settlement and I can still tell that there’s so much left to do in this game that I haven’t even discovered yet. I lost months to Odyssey, and from the looks of things, Valhalla will be even more irresistible.
Heidi Nicholas
Written by Heidi Nicholas
Hey, I'm Heidi! I've been a staff writer for TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies since 2019. I love open-worlders, RPGs, and fantasy games, am obsessed with tea, and forever loyal to The Witcher 3 and Red Dead 2.