Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China takes Ubisoft’s mammoth historical-action series, and flattens it out. Literally.
Nearly a decade on, the Assassin’s Creed franchise is freighted with expectations: Sleek parkour. Cat-and-mouse slinking. Crypto-silly storytelling. Sandbox exploration. Lots and lots of climbing.
But 2-D, side-scrolling gameplay? That’s a new twist, and by “new” we mean “not new.” Ubisoft already did it with Assassin’s Creed II: Discovery on Nintendo DS in 2009. So China, the first in a planned trilogy of downloadable episodes for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows, isn’t the first side-scroller in the series. There are big differences, though.
Discovery on DS was an arcade platform action game, whereas China wants to be a bona fide Assassin’s Creed, replete with impossible gymnastics, Bat-belt gadgets, camouflaging crowds, and hay carts to hide in.
You’re pitched along a 2-D plane towards battalions of hyper-vigilant enemies and meticulously choreographed detection scrums that require balletic finger-work.Ubisoft
For the most part, the metamorphosis from open-world to platforming sneaker works.
Insert a female Chinese assassin in the early 16th century, plucked from prior series lore, bent on revenge and restoration of her order. Add swords and throwing knives and grappling hooks, distraction gimmicks, leaps of faith, extrasensory abilities and other riffs on familiar Assassin’s Creed concepts.
Then, tuck dozens of collectible anomalies—the series’ hallmark “simulation glitches,” because of course every Assassin’s Creed historical scenario is a VR sim of history being played by the protagonist’s ancestors being played by you—away in off-road cubbies.
Staff up the levels with opponents, whom you can either battle Prince of Persia style or tiptoe past, if you can avoid their ever-swiveling car dealership spotlights of detection.
It all makes for an effective, if eventually rote, experience: You creep through levels, usually toward some endpoint assassination, getting sidetracked if you like by secondary objectives like rescuing hostages or dispatching informants.
Game concepts iterate from level to level, sometimes as new abilities, but mostly just plus-this-or-that bonuses to existing ones. My favorite is probably Eagle Vision, which highlights A.I. vectors, which manifest like the probability lines extending from the doomed occupants of Donnie Darko‘s tangent universe.
Combat tends to be costly (you’ll croak after just a few blows), and avoiding battles produces the best level scores anyway. You’re thus incentivized to find nonviolent solutions, sussing enemy patterns and trying out different action sequences until you find the one that’ll get you through whatever perception net unnoticed. But it’s a formula that changes very little between the first and final of the 12 levels; thus, you’ve seen all the game has to offer by the midway point.Ubisoft
Some of the design choices feel off-key, too. Maybe I’m hearing things or missing the historical point, but half the Chinese nationals in the game speak English with a British accent. You can hide bodies in chests or background spaces, but can’t lob them off the edges of things—if you try, they’ll levitate! Certain collectibles don’t reset when you manually restart a checkpoint, meaning you can be sloppy while getting them.
And while the levels are technically open-ended, stealthy backtracking is generally impossible because the enemies are staged to allow passage (by stealth) one-way only. Thus, if you miss a secondary objective and trigger a checkpoint save, there’s no way to go back, short of butchering everyone or replaying the level entirely.
If you don’t care about maxing your level score, China does support alternative play styles. As you pass checkpoints—and the levels are big enough that each sports upwards of a dozen—you’ll get a little progress report on your Style Grade. Avoid detection and kill no one and you’ll earn a coveted “Shadow Gold” rating. But go the assassination route, or out-and-out brawler one, and you’ll earn alternative appellations.
My only quarrel here is that the studio ranks play styles from best (stealth) to worst (brawler) instead of making each a viable path toward perfect play. I get that assassins are supposed to be sneaky, but when the sneak-play changes so little, it’s a shame the Style Grades all slot on a single barometer instead of viable competing ones.
My only other bone to pick with the game, as someone who’s half-seriously followed the byzantine Assassin’s Creed lore, is that it’s hard to empathize with the game’s heroine. Newcomer developer Climax Studios gives the backstory a buzzcut, putting too much distance between you and what should have been a fascinating protagonist, her goals, the setting, and pretty much everything else.
I never connected the way I did, for instance, with previous protagonists Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad or Ezio Auditore (who makes a few tutelary appearances here). It’s a shame, because of all the historical scenarios I’ve been wanting for an Assassin’s Creed game, China was tops.
If you’re looking for a competent vamp on the Assassin’s Creed games inflected by Metroidvania concepts, then here you go. It may play like an aperitif between entrees, but it’s also just $10—or totally free (and definitely worth a look) if you’ve already purchased the Assassin’s Creed Unity season pass.