Assassin’s Creed has become an annual juggernaut for Ubisoft for the past five years now, and shows no sign of slowing down. It’s not surprising, considering the stealth-based franchise attracts millions of gamers worldwide each year, and is backed up by a massive trans-media blowout of novels, action figures, clothing, and spin-off titles. Hell, there’s even a Hollywood movie in the pipeline, lead by the brilliant Michael Fassbender. As such, it’s unsurprising to see the French publishing giant add another string to the series’ meaty bow, this time in the form of a 2.5D platformer in the shape of Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China; the first in a three-party series of side stories taking us to Russia and India later this year.
AC Chronicles: China takes place in the year 1526 and stars Shao Jun, a female assassin trained by Assassin’s Creed II protagonist and lovable ladies’ man, Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Set during the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Jun is on a mission to track down the Templar group Eight Tigers, who were responsible for systematically wiping out the entire Chinese brotherhood of assassins. That’s the backdrop at least, although to say the narrative presents itself as strongly as the core instalments would be disingenuous; if anything, it serves as merely a catalyst to get from A to B and give you an excuse to exact bloody revenge.
One thing that will strike you immediately when you boot up China is the visuals. Inspired by water paintings, the game’s aesthetics are beautiful, and a far cry from the gritty realism of the main console entries. There’s a dreamlike-quality to them at times, with China’s visuals evoking an ancient mood that is befitting of the time period. Sure, they may seem simplistic in a world dominated by blockbuster titles pumping out blistering 60fps/1080p set pieces, but they work great.
For the most part, the transition to 2.5D works admirably well. This is Assassin’s Creed, for better or for worse, and you’ll be sneaking around locations---which range from mountain forts, slippery docks, caves, and more---stabbing unsuspecting guards and diving into haybales before you know it. The controls have been simplified to accommodate the shift from 3D to 2.5D, although all the staples are here, right down to hitting Circle to block attacks like the core games. Disappointingly, the combat is probably the weakest aspect of China. The 2.5D arena lacks the dynamic feel of the 3D games, and you’re simply forced to block then deliver a few sword slashes---light or heavy, depending on your opponent’s strength---to eliminate your enemies. There’s no fancy maneuvers to spice things up like with Ezio or Edward, and things feel a little flat as a result. Sure, it's quite challenging when it comes to blocking attacks or dodging crossbow bolts, but the meat-and-potatoes of the action gets pretty stale fast.