Finally we come to the end of my foray into the Assassin’s Creed Chronicles side-games. After slowly souring as I played through China and sitting in a festering grump as I slogged through India it should come as no surprise that I was not particularly looking forward to Russia. It’s a shame that I felt like that going in as it already had some very interesting elements; between the main character, the setting and the visual style, Russia had already done a lot of the initial work.
Thankfully it’s by far the best of the bunch.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: Russia (PC, PS Vita, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Feb 2016 | Developed: Climax Studios | Published: Ubisoft
Genre: Platformer, Stealth | HLTB: 7 hours
This is not the first time the Russian Assassin Nikolai Orelov has appeared in this series. Sharp adherents of the franchise will remember his name cropping up in Assassin’s Creed III as a ancestor of recurring villain Daniel Cross; he also starred in The Fall and The Chain, graphic novels that detailed his involvement in an assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander III in 1888 and in the 1908 Tunguska event. In Chronicles, we join him as an old man in 1918, during the wake of the October revolution. Tasked with recovering a Precursor artifact from the estate of Tsar Nicholas II, Nikolai quickly stumbles across the Bolshevik troops massacring the Tsar’s children. This cracks Nikolai’s attempts to remain detached from the revolution and in his rage he kills the Bolsheviks, saving the Tsar’s last remaining daughter, Anastasia. Together the two decide to work together as Nikolai tries to deliver her to the Assassin Brotherhood in order to keep her safe.
Unfortunately for the pair, events take a turn for the complicated. Soon after they meet, the Precursor Box, sequestered away from the marauding Bolsheviks by Anastasia, begins to react violently in the presence of the shard of Rasputin’s Staff of Eden that Nikolai carries. Suddenly Anastasia, surrounded by guards, dispatches them with consummate ease and using Assassin techniques. When she turns and talks to a stunned Orelov, she speaks with the cold voice of Shao Jun, our protagonist from Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, whose spirit and skill has been awakened within the Russian princess. The ruthless spectre of Shao Jun crops up time and again during the pair’s journey through Russia, offering Anastasia power to defeat enemies but at an unknown cost.
This plays into one of Russia’s more interesting gameplay mechanics. Nikolai and Anastasia often find themselves separated but Anastasia is no damsel in distress. Instead, thanks to Shao Jun’s skills bleeding over she gains a small selection of Assassin techniques and becomes a fully playable second character. In fact, she’s also very distinct from Nikolai, despite the two sharing some basic movement controls. She doesn’t have access to any gadgets, but quickly gains some special abilities that allow her to quickly zip from hiding place to hiding place, or to dissipate enemies she kills. This simplicity is its strongest strength; the highlight of India was the section where Arbaaz was stripped of all but his most basic skills and it feels like Russia took that lesson to heart as Anastasia’s extremely limited pool of abilities forces each individual section of her levels to be more concise and more tightly designed and, by extension, far more fun to play and figure out.
Whereas Anastasia gets access to the more preternatural skills in the Assassins’ repertoire, Orelov is gadget-based. Thankfully he still has only a very limited pool of gadgetry to work with, all of which is based around his specially-modified rifle. Unsurprisingly, it can be used to shoot enemies, making it immediately an upgrade over Shao’s daggers and Arbaaz’s chakram. However, it also contains a grapple and winch that can pull items in puzzles and, most usefully, it can also be used to short circuit fuse boxes throughout the levels, allowing players to disable sources of light. Again, the sheer simplicity of it is excellent; Nikolai doesn’t expand his skillset and the player is tasked with trying to figure out how to get through tightly-designed stealth sections with the small amount of tools they have. Occasionally Nikolai also gets to indulge in short sniping sections, which are always quite brief and offer a quick change of pace from the side-scrolling stealth.
Chronicles: Russia also features much improved writing over its predecessors. Nikolai takes some pages from Ezio’s book in Revelations; like Ezio, Orelov is a jaded old man looking to leave the Brotherhood. Just as Ezio meets Sofia Sartor and his grumpy weariness begins to be replaced by love, Nikolai quickly starts to see Anastasia as a daughter and his tired mask slips. For the first time in the trilogy we start to see our main characters emote with any depth as Nikolai and Anastasia come to depend on one another as they struggle to escape the Bolsheviks and the Templars in their journey across Russia. Ultimately it leads to a very effective ending which showcases the extent of Nikolai’s rage and paternal instinct towards the princess, which makes for a fantastic change from the character relationships normally seen in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
Regrettably it’s this ending that also contains Russia’s biggest flaws. Although the game preceding it is a very well constructed set of stealth scenarios, the finale brings about the return of some disappointingly frustration-inducing sections. The individual checkpoints within stages get stretched further apart, forcing players to perfectly work through longer sections. New mechanics are introduced and then immediately discarded, keeping the player on edge as they wait for mechanics to return and be implemented in different ways. Levels get populated by enemies that are impossible to stop, with instant-failure states around every corner. The very final boss fight, such as it is, begins with such an infuriating exercise in failure and extremely poor visual feedback that it is, frankly, rage-quit inducing. The last two stages do an awful lot to undo the foundations laid by what had been a rather solid game and personally I wouldn’t blame anyone for giving up on the game during it.
Still, Russia is by a long way the strongest of the three. Between the writing, a majority of tightly-designed stages and constant switching back-and-forth between two similar but just-different-enough characters, at its best it sparkles with verve and imagination. At no point would I consider it an adequate replacement for playing any of the main entries – Assassin’s Creed just works better in a 3D environment with less punishing ideas about how stealth should work – but if you do want to try one of the Chronicles entries, then Russia is the best bet.
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.