Ubisoft must really love trilogies, and going by how the main Assassin’s Creed series is going, they’re probably in bed with trilogies of trilogies right now. It was no surprise then that Assassin’s Creed Chronicles, a 2.5D stealth platformer series was announced as a trilogy, set in China, India and Russia respectively to tell the stories of lesser known Assassins. The first installment, the story of Shao Jun in 16th Century China, is out and I’m here to tell you that it is exactly like Mark of the Ninja.
Yeah, that was kind of abrupt, but if you’ve played the excellent stealth platformer from Klei Entertainment back in 2012, the comparisons will come in thick and fast the moment you boot up the game. This, however, is not such a bad thing considering how well the gameplay suits the series. In fact, it is safe to say that the experience of ACC: China is more in line with what you’d expect from Assassin’s Creed rather than the loud, bombastic, spectacle-laden collection quests that the main series is throwing at us.
Chronicles is tight in its gameplay and tells a simple, yet interesting story, and for that it is the best Assassin’s Creed game to have come out in some time, even if with a few missteps along the way. Die hard fans of the series will remember Shao Jun from the animated short film, Assassin’s Creed: Ember that is set during the last days of Ezio Auditore’s life (Nope, if you haven’t watched it in four years, you can’t cry ‘spoilers’). Shao Jun escaped China when the Templar seized control of the nation and almost wiped out the Assassin Order. Trained by Ezio and armed with a first civilization artifact, she returns to China to avenge the massacre of the Assassins.
The most appreciable aspect of the story is its simplicity. There’s no attempt to force a personality onto Shao through exposition. Instead, her story is fleshed out with the help of historical facts mirrored upon events of the game. She started off as a concubine in the Emperor’s court with the intent to be his favourite, and joins the Assassins after a successful attempt by the Templars to overthrow the emperor and put their own puppet in power. The purge of the Assassins fuels her quest for revenge. It is loss that sets her on this journey, and it is loss that makes her see the futility of it as well. The most refreshing aspect of the story is the fact that Shao Jun grows as a person through the adventure in the most legitimate way as compared to other Assassin’s Creed games.
The adventure itself is no slouch either, even if the Mark of the Ninja influences are more than evident. The game is played entirely in 2D, though at times you can move Shao between layers or move her around a corner to shift the perspective. The pacing is slow and deliberate. You’ll move from one hiding spot to the next, waiting patiently for that opportune moment when none of the guards are looking to either move forward like a ghost or leave a trail of bodies in your wake.
The game awards medals (gold, silver or bronze) depending on how well you executed your preferred playstyle. You can be a ghost, clearing segment without making a single guard aware of your presence by moving quickly from one hiding spot to the next. The game makes this accessible by allowing you to shift between close-by hiding spots at the press of a button. This strategy requires the most thought, but successful execution is also the most rewarding in terms of both points and satisfaction.
You can also move like a stealthy assassin, killing enemies when they are not looking, and hiding their bodies behind curtains and doors or inside bushes. Or you can go at it in a straight-up brawl, though sustaining a battle with more than a guard or two at a time is rather difficult. The combat is counter-based like the main series, where you must block and counter-attack to get the best result. However, a wide range of enemies and a short health bar make this the least desirable of all options. Most of the time, you’ll want to stick to shadows and either execute enemies stealthily or simply avoid them altogether to move forward.
The game facilitates both these strategies with multiple paths across a segment, a plethora of hiding spots and the platforming abilities of Shao. Most moves are simple enough to pull off, though the 2.5D can sometimes be confusing while moving the character inwards and outwards. This is especially frustrating towards the end levels, where the windows of opportunity are slim, and any error can alert a rabble of guards who’ll come baying for your blood. The game does a good job of introducing a wide variety of enemies. Apart from the standard enemies, you have shielded enemies that only take damage from heavy attacks, pike-wielding guards with greater range, and thieves with increased radius of awareness.
All enemies, however, go down in a single hit with stealth kills, instantly making it the most attractive option. I never really experienced the true threat of some of the more dangerous enemies that are introduced later since I made it a point to either stealth kill them or bypass them completely. The game also gives you a few tools to aid you. You can whistle or throw noise darts to distract guards, use firecrackers to stun them, or use darts to cut ropes and bring down heavy objects upon your unsuspecting enemies.
All these elements come together in some interesting levels, but as you go along, the game starts to drag its feet by simply throwing more difficult configurations that require more repetition than out-of-the-box thinking that the level design of Mark of the Ninja inspired. A couple of levels, such as one where you must escape a burning dock, do well to introduce some variety, but it soon turns out to be the only trick to change things up. The game could have benefited immensely from more variety and cleverer levels.
The one area, however, where the game doesn’t disappoint at all is its presentation. The visuals look like a vivid watercolour painting. The different settings within China, such as quaint countryside of Nan’an, the docks of Macau, the nighttime crawl through the seat of royalty at the Forbidden City, and the Mongol siege of the Great Wall of China, come to life with some of the most exquisite artwork this side of Okami, with blood splatter literally splashing onto the screen like blobs of red paint. Even the background score is tastefully done, maintaining a calm and subtle version of the themes from the main series as you sneak through the levels, and immediately shifting tone on being discovered. The series is definitely worth trying out for the visuals alone.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is easily the best Assassin’s Creed in recent times, though that alone is not compliment enough anymore given how the main series is devolving into predictable annual holiday season fodder. That said, apart from a few hiccups in its level design, it is definitely worth a playthrough for its beautiful visuals, well-told tale, and interesting (if borrowed) gameplay mechanics. With two more games lined up in the series, we can always keep our fingers crossed for improvement. With Assassin’s Creed though, you can end up with your fingers crossed for a very long time.