There have long been rumours that the Assassin’s Brotherhood would be heading to China with fans of the series screaming out for an Asian adventure as far back as the release of Assassin’s Creed II. Well now the story has finally been told as the Assassin’s and Templars take their centuries old battle east for Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China.
This isn’t your bulk standard Assassin’s Creed game though, this is something new. This time there is no open-world, no glorious 3D environment to openly explore at your own leisure, this is Assassin’s Creed back to basics as a 2.5D side-scrolling linear game.
Set in the 16th Century, Chronicles: China follows the Chinese assassin Shao Jun during the downfall of the Ming Dynasty. A pupil of the Assassin’s Creed II legend, Ezio Auditore de Firenze, Jun returns to her homeland from Europe to exact vengeance against a group of Templars known as the Eight Tigers. We learn very early on that this group is single-handedly responsible for the annihilation of the Chinese brotherhood, leaving only a handful of Assassin’s alive. Shao jun’s adventure takes her across China in search of the Eight Tigers, along the way mastering new skills with the help of her Chinese mentor.
Despite the interesting blurb, the story isn’t told anywhere near as well within the game itself.
In-game, the story is pieced together through a series of still drawing sequences which appear between levels, one at the start, and a follow-up at the end. While the work is beautifully animated, it has no life, no depth and as a result you never feel connected to the story or our new assassin’s motivations for the carnage that follows.
If we pretend for a moment that the story isn’t of much importance to an Assassin’s Creed game and purely focus on the gameplay then we can certainly find a few positives. The game itself is very well designed if a little bland in its decor at times. The levels are exceptionally well put together, designed with the level of precision we’ve come to expect from Assassin’s Creed – just without all the glitches that the triple A titles have seen in recent years.
Using multi-layed backgrounds, allowing the player to move between these layers, was a fantastic design decision as it opens up what could have been a basic, flat platformer and gives the game more substance. This also brings with it the possibility of not only multiple routes to a specific goal but also exploration as the keen Assassin’s Creed player will no doubt push the environments to their limits, limits which are quite large both horizontally and vertically. Given the sheer importance of exploration is the franchise as a whole, it’s fair to emphasize how well Climax Studios have managed to include it in the game without the open-world setting available in the bigger budget games of the series.
To me though, as an Assassin’s Creed fan, Chronicles: China just doesn’t feel like an Assassin’s Creed game, it feels like a Prince of Persia game from the turn of the century. Before all of you Creed fans run away, this isn’t a bad thing, after all, the original Assassin’s Creed was designed with the intent of making it a Prince of Persia spin-off. Whether intentional or not, Climax Studios have taken the Creed back to it’s origins and it’s never more noticeable than in the gameplay and level structure.
The mechanics of the game are introduced slowly as you progress through the main story. From the start, stealth is your only weapon but as you work your way through the game you’ll pick up a number of tools and skills to aid you on your mission, much like the mainstream games of the franchise, variety really isn’t an issue here. Before long you’ll have the ability to use multiple attack skills, with multiple weapons, and yet stealth is very much core to the mission structure.
The number of options in play is surprisingly impressive considering this game is supposed to be a side-scroller. In additional to the parkour standards of running, jumping, sliding and crouching, you also have the ability to hang off ledges to stealth your way around bad guys as well as grapple your way across certain ceilings, the diversity of skills is one of the major highlights of the game.
Sadly though, this smorgasbord of abilities and weapons are wasted as the game never really challenges you, never pushes to you to think for yourself in the same way as the 3D open-world games where puzzle solving has been a core part of the experience since the franchise’s inception. It is far too easy to switch off, play on auto-pilot and follow the path the developer wants you to follow, a route that wouldn’t be more obvious with little arrows pointing you home.
This all kind of dulls the game slightly, there’s no real “oh crap, I’m gonna die” moments here and that’s a shame given the source material.
Visually, this game is an odd mixture of stunning animation and dull, bland backgrounds, it’s actually quite frustrating how a game can offer so much in one area and nowhere near enough in another. Set-pieces, assassinations, and battle animations play perfectly, the animation and style are slick and smooth, but there’s something missing which sucks the power and excitement out of the environment. It’s the same with the audio, the actors voicing the two main protagonists just sound bored, it’s a shame because the ambient soundtrack works really well.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China has left me with a feeling of ambivalence, many aspects of the game are done so well that they exceed expectations while others have failed badly. While creating perfect level designs, turning the side-scroller concept into an awesome 2.5D multi-layered environment and providing the player with a superb variety of way to complete the missions, yet Climax Studios have failed to make it a challenge, make it exciting enough to go back for more.
The poor way in which the story is told is one of the biggest let downs of the game, yes it’s presented well but without any depth, any heart and the player is left disjointed from the story and ultimately you’re left with absolutely no interest in Shao Junn or her battle with the Templar’s. That all said, this is new territory for the franchise and the developer deserves credit for trying something different with what many now consider a franchise running out of ideas.
The good news is that there are two more games in the Assassin’s Creed Chronicles series to come, hopefully, the lessons learned from China can influence the games moving forward. This game is worth a playthrough if you are a fan of Assassin’s Creed but Shao Jun deserves so much more.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is available from the PlayStation store for the PS4, the Xbox One store and on Steam and UPlay for the PC. Those who purchased the Assassin’s Creed: Unity season pass before it was disbanded, can download the game for free on the platform you purchased the season pass.