So, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China was a bust. Bit of a shame but never mind, we live and learn. Well, some of us do but clearly not me because I’ve played another one. The follow-up to China is Chronicles: India; again, it’s a 2.5d stealth-based side-scroller but hopefully this one is a bit better.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India (PC, PS Vita, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Jan 2016 | Developed: Climax Studios | Published: Ubisoft
Genre: Platformer, Stealth | HLTB: 6 hours
Our Assassin this time around is Arbaaz Mir, hero of the graphic novel tie-in Assassin’s Creed: Brahmin. Set in the early 1840s in India during the British occupancy, a Templar-led East India Company seeks to tear the country apart looking for Precursor sites linked to the mysterious box from Chronicles: China. Arbaaz finds himself and his Brotherhood at the centre of the search due to his recent theft of the Koh-I-Noor diamond, which the Templars believe is a powerful Precursor artifact.
If that story doesn’t sound indescribably amazing, well that’s because it isn’t. As a rule it tends towards the bland, which isn’t helped by stiff dialogue or the bored and emotionless voice acting. Arbaaz is clearly intended to be a Ezio-type character as the opening sees him sneak into a palace to spend the night with the princess Pyara Kaur. Regrettably he lacks the innate roguish charm of the Italian Assassin, nor does he have the benefit of solid character writing and so never manages to expand his emotional range or complete any relatable character arc. There aren’t really any other characters to speak of; Arbaaz’ mentor appears to direct him once or twice and despite having a pair of major villains they have barely anything distinct between them.
If there is one department in which it excels, it’s in visual terms. Chronicles: India looks utterly stunning. It employs a far wider colour pallete than China, with bright pastel splashes brightening up the various locales we visit; hand-in-hand with that comes a greater variety in scenery, from sun-drenched Indian markets that teem with colour and life to sinister Precursor temples brimming with traps. There’s also more use of 2.5D effects in stage transitions, with Arbaaz often swinging into the screen to new stages, which is a gorgeous dynamic effect.
The soundtrack is pretty but a little lacklustre compared to China. There isn’t quite as wide a use of folk instruments or arrangement, which I find a shame; though I wasn’t hugely enamoured with China’s soundtrack, I did love the use of culturally appropriate instrumentation and I feel it’s an opportunity that India broadly misses. It’s also far less dark a soundtrack than China, which fits in with the theming of both the game and its visuals, so it is at least artistically consistent.
Unfortunately, the stealth systems are broadly unchanged from its predecessor. The game is still built around sneaking through levels and bypassing guards by exploiting tools, distractions, hiding spots and takedowns, which is fine but in general my complaints from the first game are still valid.
Most of Arbaaz’ tools are the same but have some small tweaks to differentiate it from China. Throwing darts are now chakrams which bounce off walls and are used in some puzzles and instead of firecrackers you get the more useful smoke bombs, which blind enemies and allow Arbaaz to run past undetected. There’s also a wider variety of enemy types; the game is constantly introducing new enemy types, most of which are simply harder versions of previous guards. Some can hide in shadows and stealth kill Arbaaz, some can only be spotted easily when in Eagle Vision and some particularly annoying enemies cannot be killed unless stunned by a smoke bomb first. It’s a neat idea but a flawed execution – beating them is tied to a finite resource, meaning you’re discouraged from killing them and forcing the use of smoke bombs and Eagle Vision is a way of artificially lengthening the stage as you have to stop your movement rhythm to deal with them.
In fact, stopping your rhythm is a core problem with India. Doors have to be slowly lockpicked and guards have to be laboriously pickpocketed or looted to replenish your tools. Traps often blend into the scenery, insta-killing players that fail to notice them; the hit detection is finicky so sliding under or jumping over them (especially jumping over) often fails and causes a death. Unlike China, the game makes a lot of use of instant-failure missions, including timed tailing sections that force you to platform against a tight time limit, and missions where getting spotted instantly fails you – often these are combined together for maximum annoyance. It also often has instant death traps in missions – Precursor light traps and fragile walls/handholds force quicker platforming but again, instant failure is the problem as it causes a severe break in the flow of play and can quickly build up frustration.
Compounding the problems is the fact that combat has been made significantly worse despite what are in theory good additions to how it works. Arbaaz can now dash quickly towards enemies to close down distance; the issue is the dash ends with extra animation frames that can’t be canceled out of, leaving him wide open for a hit and once you’re hit you’re done as Arbaaz commonly gets stunlocked. You can now dodge bullets by timing a button press when aimed at but the timing is extremely tight and when combined with the general lagginess of the controls it makes for an extremely infuriating time. Combat is generally discouraged. Unlike Shao, Arbaaz cannot take hits; even in the final level of my playthrough Arbaaz could only take two hits in combat before dying. India forces you into the stealth options rather than allowing freedom in play but it still pretends you have the option, leading to plenty of exasperating deaths.
Perhaps it’s this inconsistency that’s one of my biggest bugbears. Given India is built on learning guard patterns and knowing information like how loud one can afford to be in a given situation, it makes for a poor experience for the game to be so luck-based. You can replay a scenario in an identical way and each time have completely different outcomes; for a game that docks points based on how well you approach a situation, that becomes a huge source of annoyance because you can’t rely on the game to react how you need it to.
There are plenty of other little nuisances. The game gives you a special light dash between hiding spots but somehow it can still alert guards if you’re within range of them; flintlock guns can fire like machine guns; there are repeating puzzles and scenarios. The narrative has weird pacing that sees you go into a climactic feeling Precursor temple only for nothing to happen, then repeats the entire thing a bit later where it yet again feels like an ending until it lamely concludes with nothing of note and the story carries on.
What makes it worse is the flashes of potential. One late-game sequence sees Arbaaz lose all his equipment – you have no tools and no weapons, just your free-running and a special blend ability tied to a limited energy bar. The game strips back its stealth sequences to small instances against enemies you must avoid because you have no other option and in this moment alone India absolutely shines. The tools, the combat, the timed sequences and the complex paths to follow all drag the game down; when it’s just you with an extremely limited pool of movies versus a series of bite-sized stealth encounters the game is by far at its best but it happens only twice – once at the start of the game and once in the penultimate level.
China left me seething but India left me feeling even worse. The tiniest glimmers of potential only highlighting the utter misery I experienced with the rest of the game.
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.