The Assassin’s Creed franchise is nothing if not consistent. Without fail, Ubisoft releases a new, mainline game in the fall, and typically takes players to a new time period and an intriguing locale (France, Colonial America, the Caribbean). Over time, however, the franchise has grown to include offshoots and spin-offs, many of which take the same approach of Assassin’s Creed proper, but incorporate unique twists. Some would say that these spin-offs are where the real innovation happens, while the main games stick to a pretty strict formula.
That is no truer than with Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, the first 2.5D side-scrolling adventure in a planned offshoot series. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles retains the stealth focus of the main franchise, but assimilates that into a slightly different framework. Players are still seeking out assassination targets and sneaking past guards, but how they achieve those goals is markedly different.
As the subtitle implies, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China takes players to the Far East and casts them as female assassin Shao Jun. An apprentice of Assassin’s Creed 2 hero, Ezio Auditore, Shao Jun is a relatively untested assassin and like her master is also out for revenge. In true Assassin’s Creed form, that means navigating a handful of environments while taking out a few lower totem pole villains before eventually taking down the big bad, who just so happens to have a mysterious box in his possession.
With 16th century China as its base, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles breathes new life into the franchise on the back of a bold new art style. Almost like a moving oil painting, AC Chronicles channels a calligraphic sensibility that both evokes the time period and is stunning on screen. As they progress through the game, players will see all that the Ming Dynasty has to offer, from bustling markets to rain-covered ships. What’s more, the game finds a clever way to keep the environments dynamic through its multi-layered level design. Although players are technically on a 2D plane, traversal will take players into the foreground and background, mixing up the level layout along the way. At times the design can get a bit derivative, but there’s enough compelling elements to make the game a visual treat.
Combat, on the other hand, is a very mixed bag. On the one hand, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China’s 2.5D side scrolling stealth combat calls to mind the very successful Mark of the Ninja, as Shao Jun stalks her prey from foreground and background hiding spots. If there’s one thing that the game gets consistently right it’s the movement, be it climbing up facades, darting between dark doorways, or slinking across the ceiling. The animations are silky smooth and the stealth mechanics are as tight as can be expected, making players feel like an agile assassin and leaving the enemies ripe for the picking.
The game also outfits Shao Jun with a nice arsenal of weapons and gadgets to accommodate her stealthy antics. There’s a noise dart for directing guards away and a firecracker for stunning, and while they are not used for offense the throwing knives can cut ropes and unlock new pathways. Ultimately, though, these tools become the means by which players redirect or block the guard’s vision cones, allowing forward progress. So, while the means are actually quite interesting, the basic actions, like assassinating guards, are pretty standard.
However, while players can take out any enemies they like, the game strongly encourages stealth over anything else. At certain intervals the game will score the player based on only one of three categories – Assassin, Shadow, Brawler – and depending on how they approached the area they will be given a Gold, Silver, or Bronze designation. So, players can run through the area and assassinate targets, but they will need to take out more than just a single enemy to get an Assassin rank Gold. Moreover, they can go in wildly swinging their sword, but triggering that category and getting gold requires more than winning just a single fight. Realistically, a combination of stealth, assassinations, and occasional combat would suit the game well, but Assassin’s Creed Chronicles’ scoring system forces players to pick a style and stick with it. If they dabble, chances are players will come away with a Bronze or Silver.
But where the game’s assassinations are of the single button press variety, straight combat in Assassin’s Creed Chronicles is the most involved it has ever been. Rather than the dull, hang-back-and-counter approach, this game forces players to be active during the entire fight. While in combat, players trigger counters by perfectly timed actions, but any followup can leave Shao Jun vulnerable. As well, specific enemies will require more than just a set of basic attacks – some may need to have their shield destroyed before they can take damage, for example. As a result, combat should be the last option on players’ lists, despite some reasonably clever mechanics. And Shao Jun’s health is so limited that it’s best to save the fighting for single enemies, but even then there is a lot of risk.
Packaging the stealth and combat together, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China finds a competent way of bringing the main franchise’s gameplay to the 2.5D environment. But by discouraging open combat and favoring stealth, the game succumbs to the pratfalls of the genre. Sure, players can try to hide when they are spotted but in most cases it’s best to simply start the area again. However, restarts don’t change anything about guard behavior or level set-up. As a result, players will spend a lot of time following the same path and triggering the same actions, which takes a lot of the fun out of the game. And by the end, getting through the levels loses most of its luster.
Although the game is short, it does encourage replayability through the aforementioned scoring system. For each medal a player receives they will earn points, and those points go towards a final score for each level. At its core, those scores unlock upgrades at certain thresholds, but they also fuel that high score mentality. On top of that, the game includes both a ‘New Game Plus’ and a ‘New Game Plus Hard’ option after completion, in case players want to up the difficulty and run back through the game.
It’s hard to imagine too many players feeling that urge, though, as 4 hours with Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is more than enough. We wouldn’t say that the game overstays its welcome, but by the midway point getting through the levels starts to become a chore. The visuals and level design shine thanks to the minimalistic, hand drawn aesthetic, and the gameplay has some really smart concepts at play. But, in the end, the game faces the same struggle of the average stealth game: how does one make a game about avoiding action engaging? At times Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China offers that excitement, but other times it’s pretty boring.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is available now for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.