Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: a smörgåsbord of sparkling open-world ideas or a gluttonous, over-facing plateful that’s tough to stomach?
As Assassin’s Creed Valhalla‘s final cinematic cut to black and my 60 hours with the game came to a close, I felt exhausted. I wish I could tell you that was the kind of exhaustion one feels after wrapping up an epic adventure, but the truth is that Valhalla is much better equated to a twelve-course meal. Sure, the onslaught of expertly cooked food tastes amazing at first, but then you hit the fifth course, and the fine dining you once revelled in soon leaves you at that level of bloated that not even unbuckling your belt will fix.
The point I’m trying to make is that you can always have too much of a good thing, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the very epitome of that sentiment. What’s here has, for my money, maybe the best Assassin’s Creed content since 2014’s excellent Black Flag. But it can’t help feeling like Ubisoft has developed a 40-hour game and slotted it into a 60- to 80-hour shell, cramming more content into the newest Assassin’s Creed than its systems and story facilitate.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I really want to stress that the core of Valhalla is absolutely brilliant. Much like Black Flag did when straddling the line between two console generations back in 2014, Valhalla often feels like Ubisoft restructuring the franchise and forming a foundation for the years to come.
Included in that mission statement are several new features that prove the developer has acknowledged the complaints of its fanbase. For one, the needlessly cluttered mini-map is finally gone, with Ubisoft replacing the endless collectables and tedious side-missions with a refined and intuitive system that offers short activities to complete and useful loot to find. In general, Assassin’s Creed has always imitated popular video game trends to remain successful, and it seems the freer worlds of Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Metal Gear Solid V have been a big influence on the series’ newest entry.
Stealth makes a return too and, while admittedly too simple, successfully blends with the franchise’s new-found RPG focus. Meanwhile, Assassin’s Creed III‘s homestead feature rears its head again under the guise of the settlement system. Through exploring the world, raiding monasteries and looting chests, players come across materials to construct various structures around their village. It lacks nuance and could definitely be better interwoven into the main experience, but it provides some incentive to venturing out in search of settlements to pillage.
The structure of Valhalla‘s story has also diverged significantly from standard Assassin’s Creed fare. This time around, the franchise heads to the Viking era, following fearless Norwegian warrior Eivor (who can be male or female) and their brother Sigurd as they venture to England to form a clan. While most games in the franchise would convey this story through a set of standard missions, Valhalla instead leans on a fresh system that tasks players with completing set “arcs”.
Each of these arcs brings with it three to six hours of gameplay, seeing Eivor travel to a new area, get embroiled in a daring adventure, meet a set of quirky characters, and eventually partake in a climactic final set-piece. During the early hours, it’s a solid way of offering some of Valhalla‘s best moments, whether that’s through quest lines that advance the central story or build up some of the game’s more intriguing side-plots.
And, although it’s somewhat predictable, there really are some great story-focused moments here. Despite taking some time to grow on me, Eivor is an endearing protagonist, and I found his interactions with the likes of his brother Sigurd, the mysterious Basim, and the intimidating Ivar ‘The Boneless’ developed some of the series’ most compelling moments to date. There’s even a substantial retelling of Norse mythology lumped in that’s incredibly inventive and filled with memorable set-pieces.
This new system is as much as a blessing for Valhalla as it is a curse. For every great arc, there are two uninspired ones to take its place, and while that would be fine If they were relegated to side quests, you’ll have to play every single one to reach the climax of Eivor’s story.
In short, it’s bloated, offering five-hour glimpses of an entertaining central narrative before making you wade through ten hours of grindy, monotonous filler. It doesn’t help that each section is fairly formulaic, most notably through a series of repetitive sieges that conclude every story arc.
For the most part, it feels like the decision to pad Valhalla out makes its best aspects feel shallow. Take, for example, combat. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with Valhalla‘s fighting mechanics. Players get to wield several weapons that largely play quite differently, whether that’s spears, two-handed greatswords or, my personal favourite, dual axes.
It’s a fairly standard hack-and-slash affair, focusing more on players fending off crowds of enemies simultaneously than intricate, one on one combat. Sure, there are various special abilities to wield, a deflection and dodge mechanic to master, and gruesome finishers you can execute on stunned foes, but the system doesn’t boast much depth. During the early hours, that kind of works in its favour, as you channel the Viking fantasy of carving through dozens of opponents while raging battle horns echo in the distance.
But in Valhalla‘s latter half, that grows weary, and the hours you spend whittling through waves of repetitive enemy types and weak axe fodder soon become a tedious blur. The game just never evolves these systems enough to warrant such a long time playing them, and in return, they fall flat.
It’s perplexing why the story is so long considering the game’s side activities are one of its strongest assets. Its optional missions are mostly humorous and memorable opportunities to interact with Valhalla‘s world, offering small stories such as investigating the eerie poisoning of three travellers or comforting an ill-fated warrior with an axe lodged in his skull moments before death.
On the other hand, hunting treasures offers satisfying puzzles to solve and loot to find, while the bosses that roam the game’s countryside are testing encounters worth seeking out for a challenge alone. I wouldn’t have minded Valhalla leaning into these, especially considering they’re often short and sweet side diversions from the campaign.
It’s also worth noting that, in its current state, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a bit of a mess on current generation consoles. From frequent crashes and glitched character models to cutscenes that freeze and audio that cuts out, this is a rough experience for those without a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X. That’s without even mentioning the excruciating load times, the likes of which pop up everywhere, including before every conversation with an NPC.
In the end, I’m sure the millions of Assassin’s Creed aficionados out there are bound to pick up Valhalla and have a great time with it. When the bouts of filler and the artificial stretching subsided, I have to admit, I loved playing the game too. It holds some of the franchise’s most poignant story moments to date, while its exploration is vastly improved and its visuals are stunning.
But as the hours whittle away, Valhalla begins to show the cracks in its formula, never having the depth to warrant its excessive runtime. The end result is a good game; maybe even a great one at points. But it misses the boat on ever becoming something truly exceptional.
Game: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: Out Now