Eivor looking out over England. Owned by Ubisoft.
Review by Alex Curthew-Sanders
The newest Assassin’s Creed game has a myriad of problems, but none stand out quite as boldly as one key element.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla looked to be Ubisoft’s return to glory. Not only was it set in the Viking era, but they re-introduced several mechanics that had been absent in the series for awhile such as social stealth and one hit assassinations.
When the game was released, everyone seemed to be enjoying it. Celebrating how great it felt to blend into crowds once more, and the exhilaration of sounding the horn to begin a raid on an English monastery. It was great fun… until the honeymoon phase blew over, and people began to see the game for its true colours. Tedium, repetition, and boredom. Wide as an ocean, but deep as a puddle.
I want to focus on one element that I believe the game got catastrophically wrong. The narrative structure. For ease of reading, I’m going to assume Eivor (the player character) is the female version, as that’s the version I played when playing through the game.
Valhalla’s narrative mostly centres around Eivor and her brother, Sigurd, as they seek to pacify England but upon reaching England, the story begins to focus more keenly on your brother. To do this, they need to seek alliances with the various regions of England to gain advantages over Alfred, the King. As a result, the story is split into several arcs, with each region having their own story arc.
Once completing the arc, you enter an alliance with that region, and it is considered pacified. There are 17 separate arcs in total and having played all of them and reaching the end of the narrative I can safely say that this is perhaps the worst way I have ever seen a narrative presented in a video game. I do not say this lightly.
So, what are some of the problems with this kind of presentation?
Well, firstly, there is no way to separate which regions are essential to the main story (the one with you and your brother) and which are just there as filler. But wait, what’s even better is that to unlock more regions (including ones that are essential to the actual story) you must beat all available filler arcs first! Not only are these filler arcs completely unrelated to the main story, but they’re also isolated within themselves, never being brought up again or even having any tangible effect in the game world. You’d think that after meeting with Halfdan Ragnarsson, the son of the extremely famous Viking, Ragnar Lothbrok, that there would be more than just a short cutscene at the end of his arc and nothing else.
It just feels as if you’ve opened a book, read the story, and then closed the book and forgotten the story. It’s bizarre and undermines any of the tension that is built up during the main story. For instance, there’s a critical part in one of the essential arcs that leads you to finding out your brother has been tortured pretty excessively. The final cutscene in this arc is clearly supposed to set up urgency, only to completely shatter that by having to then finish 3 or 4 other filler arcs before you can even find out why your brother is being tortured. These arcs usually lasting around 3-5 hours.
Just to reiterate, the filler arcs serve absolutely no purpose to the overall narrative, other than to tell their own self-contained stories so that a few characters from that arc can appear in the final battle against Alfred, which is still filler because even that isn’t connected to the main story of the game.
These issues result in critical pacing issues that serve to destroy any investment the player could have had in Sigurd and his story, which would otherwise be quite an interesting premise. Instead, you’re just sat there as you’re playing another filler arc begging for the game to just allow you to experience more of the actual story. The worst part about all of this is how easily this could have been avoided by simply unlocking all regions at the beginning and marking which ones are side content and which ones progress the main story.
That way, you can experience the main story as seamlessly as the system allows, without having to put the breaks on every critical moment to finish some side content. Seeing as the side content has no relation to the main narrative, this could literally just be patched in! Of course, this doesn’t help improve the already lazily produced side content, but at least it grants players the opportunity to ignore it.
None of this is even considering the arcs themselves, going to show how sloppy structure can utterly destroy your narrative. In this case, the main story isn’t the worst, but having it be interrupted so often by mind numbingly boring side content can make it appear to be worse than it really is.
Hopefully, this is the only time a system like this is implemented, and that the next Assassin’s Creed game will feature some actual pacing.