Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China Review
Words: Josh West
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to approach the Assassin’s Creed franchise without burning cynicism. After years of suffering through yearly instalments that seemed content with revelling in mediocrity, battlin’ crippling bug infestations and developing half-baked story ambitions, you have to wonder where Ubisoft could possibly take its Assassin’s series next. The surprising answer is this: slice away half a dimension and take it to China.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China successfully broadens the already convoluted pantheon of playable heroes stuffed inside the Animus memory banks to include Shao Jun, a young female assassin on a rampage through a Templar controlled Ming Dynasty. It’s an interesting new perspective, though it’s wasted on an otherwise forgettable story and detestable voice acting. Still, you don’t come to Assassin’s Creed to marvel at the writing, you come to bleed dudes from the throat with hidden blades and scale cool environments.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China lets you do both of those things, albeit not quite as well as the best Assassin’s Creed instalments have in the past, or even as well as the games that have inspired it for that matter. ACC: China is a 2.5D stealth platformer that is very obviously inspired by Klei Entertainment’s 2012 Mark Of The Ninja – we just can’t overstate this enough. And while it’s refreshing to see an Assassin’s Creed game actually focus on stealth again, the execution isn’t as solid as we’d have hoped or expected.
In fact, it’s a game that feels like it is at its best when it isn’t trying to find its place within the now-bloated structure and feature set of its namesake. There are fleeting moments of fun to be had hiding in the shadows, moving through levels like a ghost and assassinating targets in the most silently violent ways possible. But it lacks heart. This is an Assassin’s Creed game without a sense of adventure, and at times it even feels like it’s leaning closer to resurrecting the Prince Of Persia series, though it lacks all of the cool platforming and interesting mechanics you’d expect to see from such a revival.
Stealth games tend to have a punishing finality to them; you might know this as the game system known as ‘trial and error’ and it has become a bastard trope of the genre. Thankfully, ACC: China has plenty of mechanics in place that allow you to reasonably make smart decisions and minimise detection. Enemy lines of sight and sound radii are plainly represented on the screen as cones and circles, which shift colour as you veer on the edge of detection. In terms of style and functionality, it’s a straight lift from Mark Of The Ninja, though that’s certainly not a bad thing. In fact, it’s while you are dancing between the clearly defined lines of sights, pulling enemies into the darkness without a sound and gleefully skipping across environments to hunt for collectibles that you’ll begin to enjoy yourself.
That’s because developer Climax makes interesting use of the 2.5D style, layering backgrounds to give every area a sense of depth and place. It shows glimpses of genius level design, but we often got the sense that the studio was unwilling to trust its players to go their own way. There are often multiple paths and routes to every objective, though you are rarely encouraged or challenged to move off of the beaten path. ACC: China might give you a lot of tools and skills, but what you have to use and when you have to use it is clearly, frustrating, signposted.
The flaws in the layered design is a missed opportunity for Climax, and hopefully one it will address in future instalments to the Assassin’s Creed: Chronicles episodic series. It brings life and a sense of place to a game that desperately needs it. Which is useful, because in spite of the colourful drawn art style, the muted colours make the entire experience feel a little hollow. We’d never thought we’d say that about an Assassin’s Creed game that’s finally devoid of the sterile sci-fi overlay, so congratulations on that front Ubi.
Of course, stealth isn’t the only item of interest in ACC: China. You can try to do things your own way if you wish, though you are very rarely rewarded for trying to be smart. It usually leads you into direct combat, which somehow feels even more subdued than in other Assassin’s Creed titles. The animations might be fluid, but sword fighting is devoid of a rhythm. Swinging your blade, parrying or dodging attacks lacks energy, it’s all rather mundane. It’s more challenging than any combat we’ve seen in the series since perhaps the debut in 2007, but it isn’t fun or intuitive. That by itself pushes you to dance between shadows and avoid enemies entirely, but the combat represents one of the larger issues: it’s lacklustre, like the majority of the experience here. Hell, maybe we should stop being such cynical bastards and just enjoy the pretty new art style.