Good old Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft’s series that just won’t quit. Although the company pledged to take a break after the understated release of 2015’s Syndicate, it didn’t exactly turn out that way. Origins would be the next major release two years later but before that Ubisoft oversaw the release of not just a movie based on the franchise but also contracted the British-based studio Climax to develop a series of 2.5D sidescrollers based on characters first introduced in the Assassin’s Creed expanded universe. The end result was Assassin’s Creed Chronicles.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China (PC, PS Vita, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Apr 2015 | Developed: Climax Studios | Published: Ubisoft
Genre: Platformer, Stealth | HLTB: 6 hours
This time around our hero is Shao Jun. Fresh from training with Ezio in the short film Assassin’s Creed: Embers she returns to China to get revenge on the Eight Tigers, a group of Templars that wiped out her Brotherhood. As the game starts the leader of the Tigers, Zhang Yong, has also managed to relieve her of a mysterious box gifted to her by Ezio at the end of Embers, giving Shao Jun an extra impetus to her revenge quest as she scrambles to retrieve it before the Tigers ship it out of the country to another Templar Chapter.
It’s a simple plot which really should suit the stripped-down and briefer nature of the game but it doesn’t really hold together terribly well. Neither Shao nor the Tigers ever question exactly what the box is or does; both parties just act on the assumption that it must be important and nothing is ever established concerning the actual nature of the box. It’s a meaningless macguffin, existing purely to give Shao any sort of reason to change locations and to try and provide some vague link to the wider Assassin’s Creed lore.
Even a poor narrative can be saved by having half-decent characters but regrettably Chronicles: China doesn’t deliver on that front. Shao is consumed by vengeance but fails to develop from that; all of her problems are sorted by stabbing the Tigers and her final narration dips into an unearned introspection about revenge. Additionally, she primarily emotes in a monotonous drawl; ultimately the writers succeeded in creating a completely bland protagonist. The villains fare little better; not one of them left any lasting mark on either the story or me. In every way they’re simply there as obstacles to overcome so that a level will end.
The levels at points do seem to attempt to recreate the Assassin’s Creed feel in a 2.5 environment. Some mainstay franchise elements are here; leaps of faith from viewpoints, crowd blending and multiple paths to approach situations all make the transition to 2D. They aren’t all necessarily integrated enough though: the viewpoints don’t have a function so they’re essentially merely paying lip service to their place in the other games and the crowd blending is used extremely sparingly (a shame since when it is used it works rather well). Instead the game makes use of a small range of scenarios and pieces of equipment to facilitate a stealth-based approach not dissimilar to Mark of the Ninja.
Shao can use multiple different pieces of cover, ranging from hiding in the shadows to crouching behind bamboo screens, and she can flit between them at the touch of a button. Like other Assassins she can clamber up and over the scenery though naturally she’s a bit more limited due to the way the game is built. Rather than freely climbing Shao can only grip onto marked walls and ceilings though obviously most of each level is slathered with climbable surfaces so as to try and give the player some choice in paths. Shao also comes equipped with her trademark rope darts that she can use to swing between the foreground and background at specific points. Certain levels make fine use of Shao’s freerunning as the game turns into essentially an autoscroller during chase or escape sequences and when you get into the flow of things Chronicles: China finally comes alive. Unfortunately, although the platforming is fine in concept it’s let down by the stiff controls; rarely will Shao move as smoothly as you want, which makes maintaining stealth difficult when she refuses to get out of a guard’s viewpoint quick enough and can ruin the escape levels as you can easily fall foul of the encroaching instant death wall because Shao refuses to grab a ledge or climb a wall.
Sneaking about makes up the majority of the game. As well as hiding in cover, Shao has access to a few tools to distract enemies, including a whistle, firecrackers and throwable noisemakers. They all work quite similarly, with only small differences separating them. Essentially all three work by making a noise to attract a guard’s attention but the whistle is stationary with a bigger noise radius, the noisemaker has the farthest range and the firecrackers temporarily stun. Often however it feels like you simply don’t have the right tools to get through the levels unscathed; the ideal paths that the developer wants you to take are sometimes hellishly complex to pull off and can try even the hardiest patience. Helpfully the guards have very clear cones of vision and noises have obvious and distinctly marked areas of effect but between the ideal paths being difficult to pull off and the guards’ tendency to go to alarm state within an instant of spotting you, the game leans into frustrating and unforgiving territory and it’s here that a lot of my issues with the game stem from.
I’m sure it’s easy to slip into “git gud” territory when talking about difficulty but frankly Chronicles: China’s difficulty curve was a load of bollocks. Particularly during later levels the stages are so packed with guards that sneaking through them requires replaying a section over and over after you’ve been spotted and quickly dispatched and the controls for movement and for combat are neither quick nor responsive enough to give you reliable alternative options if stealth fails. The controls become a bugbear particularly when embroiled in combat. Shao Jun has access to only a sword in combat; rather than lots of equipment the game loads you down with an array of tutorials for a bewildering set of moves, many of which are designed for precisely one enemy type and are tricky to pull off thanks to the sticky controls. Plenty of times I found myself killed because Shao refused to block or roll over an enemy, and so I became more and more exasperated with the game. By the end I had resigned myself to trying to find the quickest path through a stage because I couldn’t bring myself to deal with the clunky stealth and glacial fighting. It became an exercise in irritation which was compounded when I reached the end of a level and was rewarded with more stilted dialogue and strained voice acting.
The only area the game excelled was in the presentation. Visually the game resembles a Chinese painting, with broad brushstrokes of red across paths to follow, heavily stylised fire effects and exquisitely drawn background art. The music takes similar cues from Chinese art, making liberal use of native folk instrumentation and mixing them into the franchise’s typical film-score styled orchestration. The Master theme is a fine example of this, featuring a bombastic brass-led version of Ezio’s Family framed by flutes, sharply plucked zithers and dainty percussion.
I wish I could recommend this game. I had high hopes going in; transitioning a typical Assassin’s Creed experience into a 2D stealth sidescroller sounded like such a fine idea to me and although the start isn’t too bad the entire experience fell off such a sharp cliff for me that by the end I was so relieved to have finished it. By the time I completed the game I’d beaten my head against the wall enough to have scraped through the exhausting last few levels, I’d struggled to escape from combat time and time again, I’d been killed multiple times by an instant death trap in the finale because Shao wouldn’t climb up a ledge and I’d wrestled with and cursed the controls far too often to have gleaned any spark of enjoyment from this wretched, miserable experience.
Ah well, here’s hoping Chronicles: India isn’t so shit.
1/7 ABYSMAL – Oh dear. Perhaps it’s broken, perhaps it’s savagely offensive, or perhaps it’s a barely-constructed mess. Either way, avoid it at all costs.