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.
It’s much more satisfying to kill your foes stealthily, which is where the game’s strengths lie. Sneaking about is easy thanks to the addition of a crouch button, and getting the jump on your foes, which consists mainly of sword or bow-wielding grunts, is always satisfying. Navigating locations patrolled by guards on multiple levels can prove quite tricky, and there’s a certain element of strategy here as you scrutinize your foes’ movements and pick the optimum time to strike. You also have a few options open to you, keeping things fresh. While the old ‘sneak-up-behind-them-and-stab-’em strategy is sound, you won’t always be able achieve this with multiple enemies, and it’s more fun to experiment. Stunning foes with firecrackers, lobbing throwing knives, leaping out of hiding places, or striking from above as you cling to the rafters is just as rewarding, and as mentioned, keeps the bread-and-butter stabby antics from getting too stale.
Sadly, your foes aren’t the smartest bunch, with some questionable AI on display during my playthrough. Enemies engaged in conversation don’t even notice you even if you stand right near them, while their line of sight—illustrated by Metal Gear Solid-esque cones—is pretty limited, so staying out of danger is relatively problem free. Even if they spot a body, they won’t venture far from their patrol path, and merely gaze about for a few seconds before settling back into their routine. Still, things get tougher once your enemies’ numbers increase and bosses start to show up, but still, you get the feeling Shao Jun has it too easy at times.
Pleasingly, every location is dripping with collectibles to grab, such as those ubiquitous Animus fragments that have been popping up everywhere as of late, as well as hidden chests containing story-filled scrolls. There’s also side objectives to complete, such as rescuing prisoners, silencing Templar informants, and the like, which offers incentive to explore the otherwise linear environments. And that’s the problem; stages are often too simple to navigate, with the designs never feeling overly challenging or complex. Sometimes you’ll traverse multiple stages, such as swinging into the background or foreground, which helps to break up the linearity, but overall the locations, while beautifully drawn, lack the diversity seen in the majority of platformers of this ilk. Platforming sections are all too easy, packing none of the nuanced timing of other genre staples; in fact, you’ll have more trouble perfecting jumps in the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES.
China grades you on your performance as an assassin, rewarding you with more points the stealthier you are or how efficiently you dispatch your adversaries. As such, it’s always handy to be mindful of your performance, and this can be rewarding as you attempt sections multiple times to score the highest you can. There’s no penalty if you don’t either; however, it’s far more gratifying to do so, and adds to the overall replay value of each stage.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is a solid attempt at bringing the series’ core template to a 2.5D environment, but it stops sort at offering anything remarkably different than its contemporaries. The game’s locations are stunningly rendered and there’s immense satisfaction in the stealth elements, but monotonous combat, poor AI, and an overall lack of ‘wow’ factor in the level designs prevents China from being a truly memorable experience. Let’s hope things improve for Russia and India.