An Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review. In March 2021? Surely you must have been living under a rock, the game has been out since November last year! Well, no. I’ve actually been playing it all this time and if you’re somewhat familiar with this review format, you’ll know that you’re in for a (long) ride as we’ll be doing a deep dive into EVERYTHING that makes the game tick.
As any good adventure goes, it all starts with the story. We get to start Assassin’s Creed Valhalla in control of young Eivor when things quickly escalate from a friendly Viking feast into an all-out slaughter fest. An enemy tribe attacks your colony and both Eivor’s father and mother die in the assault.
Your best friend Sigurd saves you from certain death but during the escape on horseback, you take a tumble and get attacked by a pack of wolves (Eivor REALLY can’t catch a break). It’s during this animal encounter that Eivor earns his nickname “Wolf-kissed” but strangely enough, that moniker doesn’t carry as much weight throughout the game as it did with Kassandra’s “Eagle Bearer” in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and as such, isn’t explored further.
Now, the attentive reader may have noticed that I referred to Eivor as “him” but it’s important to point out that you get a choice at this very moment, about ~15 minutes into the game, to continue on as male, female or a mix decided by the game. (I went with male Eivor as I felt the voice acting felt slightly more on point and a little less over-acted compared to the female counterpart – Kassandra 2.0, this was not). Good news: this time, you can change your gender at any moment and will no longer have to restart your game.
If you played any of the previous Assassin’s Creed games, you may be familiar with the Animus: A machine used to dive into the memories of people who have long passed away. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, our real-world protagonist is Layla Hassan, an Abstergo employee who we got to know in Assassin’s Creed Origins and who obtained considerable power in Odyssey. The fact that we’re diving into Eivor’s memories in this game means that, well, he’s dead.
Fast forward a bit and we’re back in control of Eivor, now an adult, who’s just been captured by the very same man that killed your parents in cold blood. You’re part of the Raven clan now and together with your adopted brother Sigurd, you’re soon given the chance to exact your revenge, with the help of a few assassins that have come to meddle with local Viking politics in search of Order members (an organisation that later games will refer to as Templars)
Where Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was a story centered around revenge, you can pretty much have closure in that department only a few hours into Valhalla. To drive this story forward instead, Sigurd has a falling out with his father, after the old man bends the knee to a local Viking king, and the two brothers decide to take their clan across the sea and make a new home for themselves in England.
Sigurd is set on establishing a strong colony for his clan, so the first order of business is forging new alliances with the leaders in the various surrounding regions. Most of the locations serve as a self-contained story, with only a few of them required to push the narrative forward. Yet it’s perhaps here where Assassin’s Creed Valhalla shines brightest: Each region has a ton of locations to discover, secrets to unravel and a story to unfold.
Let’s give you some examples:
- You’ll help a king & queen escape their marriage vows by kidnapping her
- You’ll have to play detective and figure out which of three trusty advisors is trying to betray their leader
- You’ll help solve a murder in Lunden.
- A region with pagan beliefs is looking for a good successor, as the town’s leader will be sacrificed to the harvest gods in a wicker man.
While England seems rife with various beliefs, you’ve arrived at a time where Christianity is the one that seems to have garnished the most followers and you’ll see several monasteries spread across the map.
And perhaps here is where the game rubs me the wrong way: as a Viking you can raid & pillage these locations for resources that you can use to expand your base of operations. It just feels a bit wrong to attack these peaceful communities and just take everything you want for yourself. It feels selfish and like we’re actually playing as the bad guys.
Because you’re playing as a Viking, the combat has also become a lot more brutal, but we’ll delve deeper into that later.
Now, it may not feel right to plunder and steal to your heart’s desire, but in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, you will be instructed to return to your settlement after each chapter and you will want to make use of this opportunity to erect some new buildings, each with their own benefits.
There are some very important buildings like a Blacksmith to upgrade your gear, the Assassin’s office so you can start killing order members, or you can get various rewards by turning in fish you caught or (legendary) animals you killed. Most of them however, will contribute in some way to the buff that you get from organising a feast in the central hall. (Think of bonuses like added damage, stealth or HP.)
If you, like me, value the way your character looks above all, you’ll probably give preference to a few of the buildings that let you customize the appearance of your raven, horse, ship or even your own body. You can go more than “skin-deep” into the tattoo designs, which you can find across the world or buy in stores.
While we’re on the topic of appearances, I also want to make it clear that Valhalla doesn’t offer quite as much freedom as its predecessors. In Odyssey, I was riding a Unicorn or a Pegasus rather early on, while such exotic options seemed to be locked away behind microtransactions here. The best I could do, was white skeleton-paint on my black horse or riding a majestic moose. If I wanted to ride a giant direwolf however, I’d have to “pony” up some real-world money.
Or you can always hope to get lucky with Reda’s shop, which offers different gear, tattoos and other interesting stuff every week. It’s just that they cost Opals and that’s about the rarest resource in the game. The gear usually costs 120 opals and if you kill one of his targets in the time-limited quests, you’ll only get around 5-10 as a reward.
Similarly, your gear is less extravagant. Where Origins and Odyssey had a tendency of giving you new and exciting weapons all the time, Valhalla focuses more on upgrading your existing gear and outside of three legendary weapons and a single set of legendary armor, you’ll again have to dive into the store and reach into your wallet for anything worthwhile.
That’s just taking the visual appearance into account however. Strangely enough, I found the starting Raven gear to have the best statistics in the entire game and I kept it equipped until the very end.
EDIT: I was happy to see that Ubisoft included the option to change the appearance of your gear to whatever you already own in the latest patch. They call this the Transmog system and I’ve equally appreciated it in Odyssey. I just thought it was a bit weird to not have the option from day one.
Speaking of patches, I have to give them an applause for continously updating the game with new (free) content and fixing a lot of bugs. I wanted to get into this later into the article, but I’ve written myself into a corner and may very well bring it up now:
When the game launched, there were a ton of bugs. From small visual things like getting an arrow stuck in your hand or getting the blurry drunk screen whenever you used the fast travel, to the more aggravating issues like losing progress or not being able to see a certain quest through to the end.
Myself, I played Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on the Xbox One X first, before the Series X was available. When I then wanted to continue playing on my next-gen console, I had lost 10 hours of progress. Unable to recover it from the hard drive, the cloud or the Ubisoft network. Not exactly motivating.
Sometimes it was the free content, like the Yule festival (similar to our Christmas) that accidentally brought along new bugs that didn’t exist before. Like gear losing upgrades (without getting your resources back) or your arrow quiver going back down to the bare minimum, despite it being upgraded to the max amount.
Besides the time-limited events like the Yule or Ostara events, there is also an interesting schedule of added content that keeps you busy even after you have completed the main content. The River Raids for example, introduced an entirely new region to discover, by river and you have to (you guessed it) raid villages in search of rare gear.
There is little to no additional story in these, but it’s hard to complain about new and above all FREE content being added to the game at a regular pace. With the first paid DLC also arriving shortly, at the time of writing.
At this point, I should be going into the combat and other neat gameplay mechanics of Valhalla already, but I first want to have some closure on storytelling-related elements while also diving deeper into the improved presentation.
Something that was immediately apparent to me, was how much better the scripted cinematics looked, like the opening scene with the village being attacked. It was a continuous cut with a camera following Eivor around, obviously inspired by the awesome work done by Sony Santa Monica in the earlier viking-inspired game: God of War.
While not quite reaching the same level of excellence, it came impressively close.
There’s a lot of random moments scattered throughout the game that surprised me for the craziest reasons. Like seeing Eivor and another character dragging a heavy table and it was clear that even this once-in-the-entire-game animation was motion captured. No expenses were spared.
I’m not entirely sure how they make sense in the game (let’s just blame it on the animus) but Eivor also has the ability to investigate the environment during certain quests and he can then recreate what has happened in a sort of AR rendition. It looks awesome, yet feels a bit out-of-place in the Viking world. In Watch Dogs Legion, it made sense, in Assassin’s Creed, slightly less so.
What did make more sense, were the moments where you find an anomaly in the world and you briefly gain control of Layla in Eivor’s stead. You have to solve increasingly difficult platforming puzzles and as a reward, you’re given very short segments that give insights in the ancestral race that came before humans (At this point the overarching plot that ties all the Assassin’s Creed titles together has become somewhat hard to keep track of, much akin to Kingdom Hearts where it has become a running joke among fans)
While still on the topic of storytelling, and I promise I’m rounding things up (there is such a thing as reader fatigue after all and I’m probably testing your patience already) there is one last aspect I’d like to bring to the attention. After every important kill in the game, you briefly get a glimpse of the afterlife with Odin sharing his thoughts on Eivor’s victim.
What’s weird, is that this is never properly explained throughout the game. Yes, I could go into massive spoiler territory about Valhalla’s ending and it gets close to becoming reasonable then, but in the first 4/5ths of this MASSIVE 100+ hours game, there is hardly any indicator why any of this happens.
It just feels like so many important plot-points are stretched out or never really go anywhere. The self-contained quests in the various regions are much more interesting, mostly because you can actually experience them in 1-2 sittings. I guess the game has become the victim of its own padded length.
Readers: FOR THE LOVE OF ODIN, WILL YOU MOVE ON?
Yes, maybe it’s time we cover the gameplay, not the least interesting aspect of an ACTION-adventure after all.
Combat in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is bloody entertaining (and I do mean that literally) but it takes a bit to get going. Most abilities are earned by finding tomes across the world and it’s these attacks that make the combat flow more naturally. Just like in the previous games you can slot 4 ranged skills and 4 melee attacks and they’re quite spectacular.
While the camera seems to be a tad distant during combat, it appears to do so for a reason: You get a better overview of the many enemies besieging you from all angles and when you get a spectacular kill in, the camera zooms in on the action and gives you a sort of kill cam to behold the brutal execution in all its glory.
The irony is not lost on me that this game is called Assassin’s Creed, yet the focus on assassinations has become less important with each new entry in the series. I’ve rarely found myself sneaking around and using stealthy takedowns this time around, because going in as a viking berserker was usually the quickest approach.
This kind of also made the stealth-branch of the skill-tree less interesting to invest points in. Whenever you gain a new level, you get to assign two skill-points. Most of them offer small bonuses like increased melee attack damage, but if you plot a smart course through the skill-tree, you can focus on new passive abilities like recovering arrows or new adrenaline slots = the energy source for your special attacks.
Luckily, combat isn’t the only gameplay element in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and your braincells will also get put to the test, though more often than not in optional content. Variety truly is the name of the game and it’s mainly because of this that it’s possible to play the game for hundreds of hours and yet not feel any kind of boredom seep in.
The Standing Stones activities, ask that you find the perfect camera angle to recreate a pattern in the runes. If you played Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, you may be familiar with this type of visual puzzle. It can be frustrating if the solution escapes you and I have to admit I had to consult an online guide for a few of them.
No guides could help me with these next puzzles though, if you can call them that. There is a stone-stacking minigame where you have to build cairns out of rocks and while the game calls it “a relaxing activity” it’s anything but. You can rotate the stones in all possible directions and choose which order you stack them in, but the final few really had impossible dimensions to work with. From what I could tell: PC gamers had little issue completing these, but everyone playing on consoles is losing their minds over this activity. Two of these are the last challenges standing between me and 100% completion of the game. And it kills me!
For our next “minigame” we look to an activity that most people find very relaxing and what has become a running joke in the world of open-world games: Fishing. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has a perfectly fine fishing mechanic with reeling them in and playing with the tension on the line before it snaps. Yet, I didn’t actually bother with it after the first few hours after obtaining the fishing rod: it turns out simply shooting the fish with bow & arrow was a way more efficient approach.
You’d think we’re about finishing up with the minigames, but we’re only getting started! It wouldn’t be a Viking game if there wasn’t ample opportunity to get drunk on mead. In most towns you can challenge people to a drinking contest. It’s a rather simple set-up where you just have to mash A in time with the shrinking ring, while sometimes correcting your balance when you get a bit too tipsy.
Since we’re already covering drinking, why not add gambling into the mix? Perhaps my favourite passtime in Valhalla, is playing a game of Orlog. You roll a set of 6-sided dice and then get to choose which dice to keep from 5 different options: Axe, Arrow, Shield, Helmet or Grab. You can deal damage to your opponent with the first two, but to do any real damage you’ll have to use one of your totems.
These totems give you special attacks like doing a set amount of damage, multiplying the amount of arrows or axes or restoring your lifepoints. You need to spend tokens to use them and that’s where the grabs and special dice come in. It’s a lot deeper and more tactical than you’d first give it credit for and I honestly would consider purchasing a physical version of this to play with friends.
There’s one final side-activity to cover before we move on to the next topic: Flyting.
It was perhaps the single most exciting aspect of the game to me, when I first heard about it, but the reality was a bit of let-down. It’s simply just a rhyming contest where your opponent drops a few insulting lines and you have to pick the offending reply that rhymes the best. It’s easy, I’m glad it’s in the game, but it’s far from memorable.
Except that one time when I had to face a talking squirrel in a flyting contest.
What? You were expecting a “deez nuts” joke?
No need, Eivor already covers the brass talk:
At this point I’ve shared a ton of screenshots already and you’ve gotten to marvel at the beauty of the game. But most screenshots can’t do it any justice. This is an open-world that lives & breathes, with animals walking around, clouds moving overhead and not a single loading screen in sight while you cover thousands of miles.
Sure, you could use the fast-travel, which only takes an instant on Xbox Series X and is, for the first time ever, actually faster than travelling a short distance on foot or on horse. But you’d miss out on all the gorgeous environments.
Let’s take a moment, where I stop talking and you can take a breather to enjoy this eye-candy!
It’s not an exaggeration if I say that I easily spent 10-15 hours of my 130 hour playthrough snapping pics in photomode. This game takes my breath away, even on the Xbox One X.
For the first time ever though, I found myself preferring the 60fps of the Performance Mode over having a consistent 4K output. The game looks amazing either way, but the smooth framerate just had a way bigger impact and when I truly wanted to enjoy a scenery in all its glory, I could just switch to Photomode and take it all in. Also, when using the Quality Mode: I noticed weird behaviour where simply moving the cursor over the world map felt like I was watching a slideshow.
I’ve already touched on a few bugs earlier, and it can be expected to see some issues in huge titles such as this one at launch, but we’re now more than four months after release and there are still some issues that happen frequently, like fast travelling into a permanent black screen that only a restart will fix or having to quit the game on Xbox because the Quick Resume doesn’t work with online features such as refreshing Reda’s store. The most frequent bug that broke the immersion for me however, was having custscenes where the lip syncing would randomly stop working.
And that’s too bad because I genuinely was a huge fan of the voice-acting in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. The characters were well cast with a few memorable performances like Brigid, a pagan lass who speaks in a local dialect that no one seems to understand or hearing a random joke referencing the Prodigy with “smack my Bishop”. The guy even looks like Keith Flint.
And while we’re on the topic of audio: I’m head-over-heels in love with the soundtrack. Just like Odyssey before it, the vocals pulled on my emotional strings at key moments. It frequently reminded me of Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur Legend of the Sword, a movie I’ve always remembered because of its exceptional soundtrack.
Audio has a way of going unnoticed in videogames and I certainly find it the most difficult aspect to actually put into words on how it moved me. Nevertheless, it’s a key factor of setting the mood in a scene and Valhalla nails it every single time.
When you’re travelling the rivers of England, you can even ask your crew to sing songs or tell you grand tales of their conquests. It’s a very welcome feature but there is less of a focus on it than in Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, where I found myself just cruising on the ocean, listening to sea chanties.
Fair warning: fans of Black Flag’s or Odyssey’s naval combat will be slightly disappointed, as that’s not a gameplay element that is present here. Your boat is only used to get from one riverside location to the other and about halfway through the game I discovered that you don’t even need to bring it along to start a raid on a monastery as you can simply do so from a menu.
Lastly, I want to talk briefly about the fantasy elements in Valhalla. While the Assassin’s Creed games have always used existing historical characters and based some of their stories on real events from our documented past, they have also taken certain liberties in changing the details and adding elements from myth and legend. In the latest three games, these have played an increasingly larger role in the narrative and I’ve seen some people taking issue with it on social media.
I understand where they’re coming from as day one fans of the franchise, but I’m personally a big nerd when it comes to visiting places such as Asgard & Jötunheim and facing off against mythical beasts like Fenrir. I think there are fair arguments for either side, but you wouldn’t catch me complaining about it. After all, it means we can get fights like this one:
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla spins an epic tale of Viking legends and Eivor’s conquering of England. The world is gorgeous and chock-full of content, with a smaller map than Odyssey but feeling a lot denser and giving more weight to the side-quests than ever before. Know what you’re getting into when you set your mind to beating this game; you’ll be in it for the long run and you’re guaranteed to have a blast the entire time. Sköl!
*disclaimer: Reviewed on Xbox One X and Xbox Series X. Review code provided by Ubisoft.
Want to see the game in action? Check out the first half hour: