Let’s face it, Assassin’s Creed hasn’t had the best year. After the highly entertaining Black Flag breathed new life into a rapidly stagnating series, Unity was to be a new game on a new console generation. An ambitious and experimental vision that crashed like its terrible servers, and chugged like your Mum at a whisky-drinking competition, it was a game snared with the pride of Icarus – flying high with good ideas, only to be brought down by hubris and poor design choices. AC Rogue, the series’ rarely-mentioned last-gen offering was technically competent, but suffered from a fatal allergy to original thought.
All in all, not a year to be proud of for Ubisoft’s flagship franchise, but even though Assassin’s Creed Chronicles – a three-part series of 2.5D platformers – can’t repay us for these recent failures, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your time. This is especially true if – like me – you foolishly purchased the season pass for Unity and so they came bundled for free.
Set in China in 1526, and following the adventures of Shao Jun, concubine turned assassin, it is, without a doubt, the art style that sets this tale apart from other Creed games. Painted in the style of Chinese watercolours, the scenery is genuinely beautiful and compelling. It feels like playing through a piece of art, summoning the time and place far more completely than Assassin’s Creed’s more usual method of hitting you over the head with a history textbook. But atmosphere isn’t everything, and, much like Rogue and Unity before it, it’s in the story and gameplay that the wheels start to come off.
Shao Jun is seeking revenge for her slaughtered brethren, a plotline not on the shortlist for the ‘most original motivation’ Oscar, but with the right characters, the right villains, and the right narrative even the most boring tale can be made new again. Unfortunately AC Chronicles: China eschews all of these and instead produces one of blandest protagonists of the series (yes, including Desmond Miles), who has pages of motivations (see the wiki, seriously), but comes off as blank and shallow. The villains – an interchangeable conga line of Templars referred to as ‘The Tigers’ – don’t do much better, and after hours of playing I could not, even at gunpoint, remember any of their names. The plot is go here and kill this guy. Now kill this guy. Now run away from this thing – not forgetting to collect these random objectives we’ve set up, ostensibly to encourage you to explore. Sure, it’s a platformer. Sure, it’s short. But even with minimal dialogue Abe, Sonic and Mario all manage to have more personality than this.
The gameplay is functional (not a given from Ubisoft over the last year), and occasionally fun, as you climb, hide, and assassinate guards, using a number of tricks and gadgets to make your way as stealthily as possible towards your targets. Careful planning, good timing and some tactical thinking will get you through most situations, although the old AC fallback of fighting your way out when you get spotted is a no-no, as combat is hard and finicky. In fact ‘finicky’ is a good word for most of the gameplay as it’s easy to jump the wrong way, or stumble into the vision cone of an enemy and have to start again from scratch. Detection is particularly annoying as you get rated for your performance of each level – a feature that has enhanced no game ever – and your ratings affect what upgrades you receive. To the game’s credit, the levels are sprawling with multiple paths, but the frustration of being detected dampened my motivation to explore.
All in all, AC Chronicles: China is another example of good ideas and beautiful scenery squandered, and while being nowhere near as disappointing as Unity, the sense that it could be so much better lingers over the whole experience. I leave it neither anxious for the next instalment to arrive, nor disgusted at the waste of my time, and so give it the most unhelpful of ratings – a seven.
Beautiful but bland.