All filler, no killer: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

I spent 58 hours with Ubisoft’s latest “map” game, traipsing from icy Norway to murky England, slashing and killing, burning and looting, and not once did I feel invested in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. My first 8 hours were the most enjoyable, with the following 50 being Viking-themed filler. Valhalla has a great setup, but fails to capitalise on it by plonking you in the middle of Anglo-Saxon England, circa 9th century AD, with a huge list of forts to raid and alliances to forge, without providing any sort of story curation, and emotional investment.

The word curation is key. I have been thinking a lot about open world games and how difficult it can be to deliver a good story with strong characters and meaningful choices, but also provide the player with freedom to explore a beautiful world, a murder-sandbox, without losing the fun of experiencing either. Unfortunately, Valhalla fails, in my opinion.

Valhalla’s main story is just endless side missions

Valhalla has an excellent opening sequence, with plenty of aurora-green, snowy mountains and a decent backstory for our protagonist, Eivor. Her (or his, depending on player choice), motivations for leaving the icy beauty of Norway are clear and simple; not wanting to live under King Harald’s rule, Eivor and her adoptive brother, Sigurd, leave the clan and head to cloudy England, seeking freedom and the chance to build a new kingdom there. Upon arrival, the narrative becomes very Ghost of Tsushima: make alliances with all the kings of England and its pockets of Viking raiders, in order to take down King Alfred who is down in Wessex.

Once you get to England, however, the entire critical path becomes a huge list of side-missions. Every mission is the same: travel to a region, learn about some Game of Thrones-esque political turmoil involving affairs, politics, first world king-problems etc. and solve it by knife or tongue. All these regions end similarly with a huge fort raid that on paper sounds very cool. Hamming it up with your Viking crew, charging through castles, burning down houses, and making it to a big bad dude… except, it’s not fun. I quickly learned that you could cheese this entire process, every time. Valhalla gives you the illusion of tension and high stakes, when in fact, you can leave your crew behind, quickly open the drawbridge, run straight past enemies (if you can dodge fast enough), get the battering ram through, then scale a building, find your dude and take him out. This turns a huge battle into a silly, cheating mess. I could have turned the difficulty up, but doesn’t that say something about the video game’s design balancing? In Ghost, you can’t just run past everyone and complete the objectives – you have to stay with your allies, you have to get through each stage of a fort run. It feels tense and challenging. Valhalla doesn’t understand that a power fantasy doesn’t mean breaking the illusion of immersion. At multiple times I could see the enemies just standing around, doing nothing, idling. No-one was coming for me. Clearing out an area and completing an objective suddenly has all remaining enemies disappear. I never felt like I was roleplaying as Eivor, unless I pretended to.

Xerox’d regions meant that I could not tell you any of my allies’ names. There were too many people I spoke to, with intertwining interests and motivations, backstories, and none of it interesting, so I stopped caring. Every region arc is a B-movie Netflix Viking politics movie that has no risk, no real peril. There is nothing epic about these stories, which is truly disheartening; I’ve had more enjoyment learning about Viking invasions on a school trip to York. When all my allies arrived for a final battle in Wessex, which is just like any other battle, copy-pasted from another region, I could feel the story was trying to tell me “look, all your friends are here! You should feel something!” Nope. It worked in Ghost of Tsushima, it worked in Horizon Zero Dawn, but not here. This is because each character’s stories were boring, and did nothing to tie into Eivor’s story of finding her brother. Or conquering England. Or something about Odin. For that matter, what even was Eivor’s whole deal? For such a talkative protagonist, I really have no idea why she was so hell-bent on helping all of England come together.

The only region story I actually enjoyed was the East Anglia arc. This one was to do with getting a “weak” king to his wedding, and also teaching him how to be a “lad”, with lots of fun times involving getting drunk, raiding camps and even a cool boss fight with a dude who has a pet wolf! I still don’t remember the king’s name though. Ironically, this region was the one marketed in the run-up to Valhalla’s release.

In Ghost, instead of side missions there are storylines, concentrating around one side-character. Each of these arcs ties into Jin’s story too, and more-so, they’re downright interesting. The Witcher 3 is another game that excels at making you feel like the side content adds in some way to the critical path, be it the Bloody Baron quest-line, or romping around Skellige. This worked beautifully for these games because by the end, when you saw all your allies in the final battle, you remembered everything you’ve been through with them, since you lived it. It was all in aid of the story.

Sidebar: Ghost of Tsushima is actually an excellent Batman story. I’m not kidding.

Meaningless map mop-up is a plague in Valhalla

Valhalla, being a modern open-world game, has numerous side-side activities if you can call them that. They’re not quite side missions involving characters, but tend to be little mini-games that serve to add detail to the world. In Valhalla, these amount to creating little stone cairns, finding secret tombs, going on hallucinatory mind-trips, some odd Tron-aesthetic platforming, or giving offerings to shrines, among many, many others. These can be fun, however, in Valhalla, they are not. They are dull. They serve no purpose to Eivor’s story. There is no reward. After clearing a few regions doing all these activities in England (there are 11 regions + 5 more outside England), I stopped doing them altogether. Being a semi-RPG, you do receive skill points from the mini-games that are used in a confusing, constellation-like ability tree, defining your power level, but on the default difficulty I was suitably powered by just doing story missions and a few of the default wealth/mystery quests I came across.

Video games such as Ghost of Tsushima, or Breath of the Wild do not fall into this trap; they place story and narrative structure right at the top of the core gameplay, with everything else you do in the world feeding into that. BotW takes far more liberties with less curation, but its emphasis on rewarding exploration that intertwines with the story gives a satisfying gameplay loop. Ghost, on the other hand, is a lot more “Ubisoft-y” with a large tick-box map for you to explore, but remedies the tedium of box-ticking by making every side activity enjoyable, that is somehow related to different facets of Jin’s mental process, be it peaceful Haiku composing or tactile bamboo strikes.

The modern day/mythical story is a mixed bag of godawful and alright

Asgard and Jotunheim are just another pair of regions with a silly, mythical aesthetic, with the same tick-boxing and boring missions, treating the Norse myths with all the cack-handedness of a monkey with a fountain pen. Seriously, just go play God of War instead. I’m all for taking a classic fairytale and forming it around your own, such as Kratos’ redemption arc, or in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where the ancient Greek monsters were reformed around the AC lore, but here, goodness me, they made it incredibly monotonous and fetch questy. There was nothing exciting about these regions. Nothing changed the gameplay loop. Which would be fine if the story was clear, but it wasn’t. When I finally got to the end of the Asgard arc, where I had to fight a big wolf (a boring fight where I spent 20 minutes shooting arrows into its legs), and the cutscenes kicked in I was amazed that actually, if they had presented it differently, the whole thing with Odin trying to achieve immortality was legitimately compelling! But they didn’t. So I came back to England deflated.

The modern day chunk of AC can be fun. Look at AC2, where you’re escaping Abstergo while learning about the memory bleeding effect for the first time. Even Odyssey’s was serviceable, with some sort of characterisation given to Layla (the recent games’ new animus occupier), with the “secret” ending after you defeat all the ancient monsters being certifiably silly enough that it works. Valhalla actually picks up here, even if it’s all over too fast. There are a few boss fights, a weird Control throwback (c.f. time loops), and a twisty ending, that barely registered for me. None of this was foreshadowed, or referenced to in the main story. But wait! You will argue that the Asgard arc explores this. Yes, it sort of does insofar that it explains the Isu lore from a different angle, but it’s so far removed from the animus lore that making that connection in your head is fragile at best. Additionally, the Asgard is completely optional. I will come back to this point.

Valhalla tries to marry the old Assassin’s Creed with the new and it doesn’t work

Valhalla tries to let you be an assassin, circa Desmond era, except it’s hugely more satisfying to rush in, throwing axes and hooking people left, right and centre, as well as being faster and more in line with Eivor’s actual expertise. Unfortunately, to allow the former, they have removed the RPG elements that were present in Odyssey, so there is no loot worth caring about (I used the same armour and weapons for pretty much the whole game and upgraded my equipment twice), and the skill tree is a mess. The developers tried to make a hybrid between the old and new AC games and it just doesn’t work.

Exploration is a clunky chore. I spent most of the time staring at the compass at the top of my screen, riding to the next mission, rather than enjoying the beautiful scenery. Yes, I did blank my HUD for a while to avoid this but it only left me confused and opening up the world map every 30 seconds. England is a foresty mess and it’s hard to navigate. I kept falling back on the thought, “why do I even care, I just want to get to the next point in the story.” I didn’t feel like I was living in a world, rather a simulation. It all felt too gamey and didn’t breathe – because the map eliminated exploration. Hell, even Ubisoft shot itself in the foot here by offering micro-transactions to clear the map for you (smh). Take Red Dead 2 or Death Stranding: worlds that felt lived in, worlds that didn’t slow you down but you chose to slow down for, to appreciate them, worlds that were curated for you.

In Ghost, the world is achingly beautiful and exploration is rewarding. In BotW, the vast emptiness makes each and every find like a gem. In Valhalla, your encumbered movement, the lack of a satisfying feedback loop on finding some random flowers for a stupid shrine just to have a box ticked deters any sort of exploration. By the end of the game I was beelining for the quest marker, every time. Also, no offence, but damn, England really looks the same everywhere, with the only change being the snowy parts in the north. Forts, villages, all feel copy-pasted across the map. This really doesn’t help the repetitive travel-to-region-talk-to-king-solve-problem-report-to-Randvi mission structure.

It’s frustrating that there are so many things that annoyed me about Valhalla, mainly because right now, it is one of the best looking games on PS5. At 4k, 60fps, the graphics are utterly astounding. The water effects, the lighting, volumetric fog and even the tiny little bubbles that foam around your feet as you stand in a lake, are shockingly realistic. The melancholy of Dark Age England is accurately described visually, the greyness, the murkiness, the muddiness; it’s all there. Ubisoft really excelled here; it’s one of the best looking worlds which begs to be explored – if only I cared about the story or any of the exploration was worth doing.

It’s a game where you can live out your Viking fantasy, except I am not a good storyteller.

This is something that has really bugged me about Valhalla. The game suffers from being everything and ends up being nothing. You can play with so many sliders, so many options, so many ways of experiencing Ubisoft’s world, which is wonderful for accessibility, but I’m looking beyond the options, I’m looking at the actual content of the game and how you play it. You can play as a stealthy assassin or as a rage-fueled Viking. You can ignore abilities, or wealth, or armor, or you can search for all that junk. You can attempt to grind, even though this isn’t an RPG, so the little loot there is doesn’t feel rewarding in any way. There’s no real reward for grinding because you’ll be fine most of the time. There’s a settlement building game, a Viking recruitment scheme, rap battles and bloody papers to chase after which let you tattoo your body. There is a gluttony of things to do, and honestly, none of it is satisfying after the 5th time you rinse and repeat. People argue about games being too long, but it’s a meaningless argument if that’s how long it takes to tell the story. If your content is all killer, no filler, then take as long as you want. If the grind is part of the game, and is meaningful and useful, then yes, put 100 hours into Bravely Default 2 or the latest Persona game, but when the game gives you absolute free reign with no real feedback loop, then what’s the point? Yes, combat in Valhalla is brutal and super satisfying, but so is the cover-based shooting in The Division 2. Why I actually enjoyed the latter a lot more is because I knew going in that the story is merely the framework for an online, service game where I want to go around and shoot bad guys with my friends. Valhalla had me thinking it was going to be a lovely single player, narrative-heavy experience. Instead, it’s a stupidly long buffet with no meaningful payoff at the end. I adore Assassin’s Creed for its ludicrous stories, even if it takes itself too seriously, and I wanted to fall in love with Valhalla, just like I did with Odyssey, but Eivor’s story never clicked for me.

Dude, where’s my epic Viking story?

Sound is an essential component of visual media. When used correctly in a work of art, it reflects, augments and parallels the narrative you experience with your eyes and reforms it for your other senses, heightening your emotional investment in a character’s state of mind, an exciting battle, or a tense situation. Music in linear stories, or cinematics, is a lot easier since you know that the audio is going to match up perfectly with what’s happening on screen. Take The Last of Us as an example. Ellie’s wistfulness amplified by her subtle guitar riffs (Take On Me), Abby’s memories being called up by Santaolalla’s wonderful Reclaimed Memories track, or the Pearl Jam song that keeps coming back with multilayered meanings throughout Ellie’s journey (I’ll stop, sorry). The auditory layer adds depth to your story. It sticks it in your memory.

Making music for an open world sandbox is difficult, since you’re not really in charge of how the player will experience the order of the story, or how they’ll get from point A to point B, etc. This means that most open world games rely on ambient soundtracks that weave in and out, amplifying at predefined points, e.g. synchronising a lookout tower, entering a cave or town, or any new environment. More modern games such as Spider-Man have a dynamic soundtrack that will drum up or calm down based on how intense you are “spidering”.

Breath of the Wild has large stretches of no music when running around its green plains but its iconic, nostalgic sound effects make up for it because the empty spaces are so noticeable compared to previous Zelda entries – BotW gives you room to breathe, to explore its ambient world. Then you get the bu-bu-bu-BUH and it’s a huge nostalgic musical throwback. It gives the game identity. Another solution to this problem is Death Stranding; arguably the most curated open world game ever, with Kojima-san trying his best to get us to listen to Low Roar at every opportunity. The timing of the music works because the core gameplay mechanic is walking for long stretches of time, with only the terrain as an obstacle. This allows an entire song to play out, possibly reflecting Sam’s mental state, or just a reflection of the situation you are in; walking in the rain, mind switched off, making a delivery – the zen-ness of that process is echoed by the music.

Valhalla has ambient music that drips in during traversal, but during large battles or emotional cutscenes, there’s nothing. There may have been some drums, or the odd Viking chant during the two times I actually used a long boat because raiding quickly became pointless once you realise that all the “supplies” you need to upgrade your camp are in aid of improving a feast buff which is completely unnecessary since the game’s challenge is down to a menu option – breathe out. I listened to the Valhalla soundtrack obsessively prior to release, finding remixes of Ezio’s Family, wonderful sea-shanty-esque chants from Miracle of Sound, among others, but I heard almost none of it playing the game. Why? Where is my epic soundtrack, Ubisoft? Where is my epic Viking game? What Valhalla is, is a recipe for everything that someone could possibly want in a Viking video game, chucked in the oven with no mixing, and baked for 58 hours. The cake is a lie.

In a parallel universe, this song plays as you row to England, montaged with raiding and burning down villages, Eivor sleeping in her quarters, reading diary entries from Norway, leading your crew to a massive fort. But no. Valhalla feels epic all too infrequently. Dammit Ubisoft, why!

Why do I enjoy Odyssey more?

It comes down to identity. Odyssey knew exactly what it was doing. An epic RPG, with a great loot system, wonderful mercenary system, exciting combat, and an incredibly fun world to explore filled with ancient myths and meaningful story arcs and companions. Yes, they copied a bunch of previous games (Shadow of Mordor, The Witcher), but what they made was a tasty remix. Yes, the music was lacking. Yes, the critical path was not perfect, but at least everything meshed together. All those dudes you have been assassinating? Yeah, the guy at the top was actually your brother and you need to reconcile your family! The mythical monsters tied into the best part of Odyssey, which provided some sort of conclusion to Kassandra’s father searching arc. Hell, even hunting down some mythical beasts for the daughters of Artemis gave me some cool armour and decent characterisation.

Valhalla dissociates itself from Odyssey’s best parts and attempts to unite the old AC with the new. It doesn’t know what is fun about itself. It provides equal weight to all of it, and only a tiny bit actually sticks the landing. It’s fan service, to all the fans, old and new, but it becomes unpalatable. Look at the mistakes made with the most recent Star Wars movie, episode IX. By pandering to the fanbase, thinking they were giving people what they want, they lost their identity, they lost any sense of direction and made a pile of garbage. Crowdfunding a piece of art doesn’t really work – everyone wants something different, and putting everything into a game will give you… a pile of garbage. Games with a keen sense of direction, stories with clear narrative structures where the gameplay feeds into the story are some of the best out there. Look at Nier Automata or Horizon Zero Dawn or Miles Morales. Everything is in aid of the story; the style, the traversal, gameplay. When I think back to Valhalla, all I see is a game without a purpose, without a soul. It has attempted to marry old with new, and also marry open world storytelling (lacking a good story) with modern live service games (with no rewarding loot or feedback systems), and is worse off for it. Regardless of what I wanted it to be, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has no idea what it is.

I didn’t hate Valhalla. Just look at popular reviews, it is a decent game with fun combat, but nothing more. Why did I force myself to the end? I honestly don’t know. Maybe through spite. Maybe because even 60 hours later, taking down a bunch of guys with flying axes is fun. I’m done, Assassin’s Creed. Thank you for everything, but you are not what I needed right now. Thanks everyone for reading 🙂 Skål!

Copyrights

Images taken from Flickr, with CC-BY-NC 2.0 license. Featured image is from user Scarlizz, others used in the article are from user Delyth Angharad. None of the screenshots I took even come close to these 🙂