Valhalla, Part 2.

A dichotomy runs through it all

There’s something quite magical about a large, powerful character like Eivor who is also a renowned, gifted poet and animal lover.

This dichotomy plays well into this game that itself wishes to be a many-faced entity: At once a stealth-em-up, but also a brutal viking simulator; a game of conquering and invasion, but deeply concerned with home life and family and friends; everything is alien but Eivor is of course among loved ones; there’s an entire sequence – if not an entire game – where you play as Odin buried in the game itself. And, added to this, Eivor turns into a cooing mess when she meets an animal she can pet or hug.

There have been a total of three whole side-missions, where the object was to interact, meet and/or rescue an animal who becomes a companion. The most memorable is a wolf Eivor found.

*Spoiler begins* It was caged in a random hut, and his howls were brought to Eivor’s attention by some pesky children. After following the children, freeing the beast, he ran off – only to return when Eivor escorted the children back to the village and was herself attacked by wolves. The wolf stayed and happily followed along, like a well-trained hound. I decided to call him Mouse. And throughout the game, you can summon Mouse to leap at the throat of some poor fool, see Mouse trotting happily through the village and watch him curl at your bed when you return home. Each time, Eivor would call out what a good boy he is, “Mooooooouse!” *spoiler ends*

I loved that. Ubisoft managed to create an actual mechanic, a wolf summons, out of a sidequest. Truly excellent.

Eivor with her poetry and flighting ability, her fierce battlecries but ability to charm the pants off women she desires (sometimes literally), makes for an interesting protagonist. One I enjoy spending time with. The character is testament to the abilities and talents of Ubisoft’s writers and to the talents of Eivor’s performers, Magnus Bruun and Cecilie Stenspil. (I played for a few hours with Bruun’s Eivor and his performance was spectacular, but my preference was Stenspil’s and her husky fierceness. Hearing Stenspil speak “normally” is quite shocking and totally unlike Eivor. Also, speaking of dichotomy, it is notable that the game changes not a bit depending on whether you play as male or female Eivor – which seems to me further proof of excellent writing. The game never uses pronouns or gendered terms, like brother or sister, when referring to Eivor. I might be wrong, but I’ve deliberately kept an ear out for this and thus far have not heard it.)

Mission creep

Being an Assassin’s Creed game, the missions came in specific flavours and there is little variety. However, there’s always a slight change here and there that prevents it from becoming stale.

  1. The first way it does this is with excellent writing. I don’t just mean clever dialogue or good characters: I mean genuinely beautiful and clever writing (here’s a nice listicle of one-liners.) This is coupled with excellent performances. While villains can occasionally ham it up, where it seems like they’re crawling out of a Saturday morning cartoon show, it’s rare enough to not be noticeable. Characters display delicacy, warmth, concern, frustration in their voices. It’s a pity that the graphics engine is beginning to show its age: characters are very stiff, often expressionless and most of the emotion is through big gestures and voices. Still, with a game this big, we can’t expect the developers to hand animate or motion capture everything. Yet, it seems to me, the faces and expressions in Odyssey and Origins were a lot better (not to mention that Unity, the first Assassin’s Creed game on current gen systems, remains the best-looking of them all.)
  2. The second way the game prevents sterility is through making lots of interesting environmental puzzles: Access is often not a simple matter of reaching a marker, but figuring out the environment, picking up on clues and finding a way to get to a blocked off area. It sometimes involves finding a key, reading notes and so on. Solving puzzles at least promotes an interesting challenge and allows the developers to use simple tools to do so.
  3. The third way sterility is prevented is by not revealing what the dots actually are until you get to them on the map. This is ingenious: Some side-quests types are buried under the Blue Dot and they only reveal themselves once you there. You no longer feel overwhelmed by the particular task because it’s there, waiting to be fulfilled, and you have done 7 of the 15. Instead, its revealed to you when you’re right there – it will take on average 5 minutes, so you “might as well”. This is a clever way to keep players engaged – it forces you to reach your hand into the murky depths of the map and grab hold to feel what shape this strange object will take, then, since you’ve already grabbed it, you pull.
  4. The fourth way it prevents sterility is through interesting and varied environments. You’d think “English countryside” would be one theme, but the artists and engineers have found ways to make places notable. I can tell you when I’m in Lunden versus when I’m back at Ravensthorpe (“thorpe” means hamlet or small village by the way), by virtue of the geography, climate and colours.  

The story takes extremely long. At the 50 hour mark, the story had not really presented itself: There was no big bad, there was no real conflict. I felt, as I said in Part 1, a little disconnected by the goals of my character and my caring.

However, it is the experience of playing and exploring this beautiful game that nevertheless still works. It’s an extremely long game and I’m baffled at the size of it. I am fearful that people will simply get worn out, much like I did with Odyssey.  I myself prefer smaller, but more detailed, deep worlds, like God of War (2018). While there is no doubt depth here, I feel it still suffers from the size over substance in some key points.

Let the formula cool

While the rebooted Assassin’s Creed formula has been hammered and refined in Valhalla, that doesn’t negate we’re still using the same material. We still have a gorgeous, albeit sparse world; an engine showing its age with plastic characters; a well-told story buried in a large mushy pulp of Content, no matter how short or good that Content is; and movement and combat that leaves something to be desired. Yes, the combat is fun, for once, thanks to enjoyable Skills and Abilities (I won’t bother detailing the difference), it’s still button mashing rather than careful Soulsbourne’s lethal artistry or God of War’s brutal ballet.

Valhalla is not a place to start in this franchise and to me it’s a matter of whether you like Assassin’s Creed or not. A case can be made it’s just better written MMO activities doled out dutifully in a single-player game, that even comes with microtransactions. Not to mention it comes from a studio that has been in the headlines for its abusive policies and mistreatment of its employees.

While I love Valhalla, and have spent many words now indicating this, whether I recommend it is a more complicated discussion. It is a good game, if not an excellent one, but by now (December 10 2020), you have made your choice.

Certainly, if you are wondering whether I loved it, you now know – but reviews for me are not really purchasing aids, but primarily expressions of the reviewer’s views. I’m not here to tell you to buy something: only whether and to what extent I enjoyed the piece of media you have an interest spending a lot of money on.

To that end, I will leave it there: a beautiful game, refining the formula that began in Origins, with good combat, fantastic characters, a stunning, mysterious world, but in a now dating engine, with stiff animations, and a long slog of a story. But it’s not a bad place to lose yourself, not a bad world to journey to, and we could all use that during this shit-show of a year.