Review: Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is a bit of a peculiar game. It’s the first entry in an announced Chronicles trilogy, with the next chapters taking players to Russia and India. It’s also an offshoot of the heavyweight Assassin’s Creed series that no longer seems content with merely having annual releases, even after last year’s headliner, Unity, turned out to be a total mess. With the Assassin’s Creed name attached, it shouldn’t surprise you that you’ll be doing a lot of killing and sneaking around in this game. What you may have not expected, however, is to find one of the better games in the entire franchise.
As a “2.5D” stealth platformer, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China often feels more like Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja or Ubisoft’s own Prince of Persia Classic than the open world console adventures of its namesake. The primary gameplay loop consists of traversing through levels within a 2D plane while sneaking around or surgically neutralizing enemy guards along the way. The heavy use of cover, enemy vision cones and movement patterns, and an array of nifty gadgets makes the game truly feel like an Oriental Mark of the Ninja. When ACC China is at its best, it flows at a steady rhythm as the protagonist–a female assassin named Shao Jun–methodically darts and dives through beautiful levels that look like living oil paintings. As Shao Jun progresses in her quest for vengeance, she picks up new tools and abilities that keep gameplay feeling fresh all the way to the end–and even then, a New Game+ mode beckons players to make a return trip to medieval China.
Mechanically, the game is tightly designed and encourages the player to use the many tricks at Shao Jun’s disposable throughout the course of the game–and, smartly, builds upon foundational concepts as it goes along. Shao Jun doesn’t even get a sword for awhile, meaning that the player is forced to learn the ins and outs of stealth-heavy platforming (and assassinating) before ever being able to defend themself. Even once the sword is acquired, melee combat is intentionally unforgiving; Shao Jun can take very few hits, so if there are more than one or two enemies in the area, it can be nearly impossible to survive. While difficult, the relatively straightforward melee mechanics (attack, parry, leap over enemy) are rewarding when pulled off, but more importantly, they underscore the game’s stellar stealth movement and encourage players to stick to the shadows as much as possible–you know, like a trained Assassin.
Outside of combat, Shao Jun’s tools and abilities gradually build upon themselves and crescendo into a beautifully complex experience full of options for the player to experiment with. She starts out with typical 2D stealth tricks like running, sliding, climbing, ducking behind cover, and hiding bodies in everything from patches of fauna to shadowed corridors. Just as you get the hang of these basics, Shao Jun picks up a rope dart that allows her to climb vertically so as to play monkey bar with crossbeams, and she even breaks it out occasionally to stretch the typical 2D plane and traverse deeper into the screen or toward it–not an original effect for a 2.5D games, but one that impresses nonetheless. Her arsenal for maneuvering around and through enemies eventually expands to include throwing knives, firecrackers, and noise darts, each with their own situational applications.
In perhaps the truest homage to the Assassin’s Creed name, China‘s parkour gameplay is an invigorating star of the interwoven mechanics, even without the extra dimension. Moving around the environments is just plain fun, especially the few times the game lets the reigns loose and pushes Shao Jun into a fast-paced extended parkour session that tests player reflexes and mastery of the game’s movement systems. Optional objectives and collectibles for each level add a little bit of nuance and a reason to explore the nooks and crannies of the painted environments. Some of the Assassin’s Creed series’ signatures make an appearance, too: eagle vision, diving off of high outcroppings, hiding in bales of hay, and, of course, the heroine’s pointed cowl.
One area where ACC China does fall short is in its story. For the most part, story is told through a series of 2D panels with splashy, oil-painted artwork and overlayed voice acting. The art looks nice, but it’s not the most effective tool for conveying the story. You get some decent characterizations from the actors and are fed the notion that Shao Jun’s quest has more to do with a personal vendetta than loyal altruism to her Creed, but the plot never manages to establish itself as an interesting vehicle and is bereft of any help from the game’s static presentation. Ultimately, the story does little to actually sullen the excitement the gameplay brings, but it is the one noticeable area that feels like a departure from the identity of the mainline Assassin’s Creed series.
Review: 6 (out of 7): Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China may be a mouthful of a name, but it’s an exciting interpretation of Ubisoft’s flagship series. Methodical, stealth-heavy gameplay proves to be a great match for the core tenets of the franchise. Climax Studio’s first crack at the series is well-designed and revels in its elegant visual identity. Fans of Assassin’s Creed will get a great, digestible palette-cleanser, while newbies don’t have to worry about the convoluted fictional history and can just enjoy a clever downloadable experience.