I’ve had quite a time with the Assassin’s Creed games over the years. I picked up the original game practically on release and had a good time with it. The second one was even better! Then it became a Christmas present my wife would get for me every year, which was pretty great. Brotherhood and Revelations were solid, and whilst Assassin’s Creed 3 left me a little cold, Black Flag was tremendous fun. Then Unity happened and I just stopped caring. The story was uninteresting, the world small and yet still packed with infinite collectibles, and the bugs. Oh, the bugs! I hadn’t played one since.
Then I discovered that I’d had all three Assassin’s Creed Chronicles games as part of Microsoft’s Games with Gold program, and decided to give them a shot. Set in China, India, and Russia, these games do away with the 3D open world exploration of their ancestors and replace it with a 2.5D linear platforming adventure. This, as it turns out, was a mistake. One of many in fact. Let’s break it down!
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China
The first entry in the series, and if you haven’t played an Assassin’s Creed game before then the plot will make absolutely no sense to you. You play as Shao Jun, an assassin trained by Ezio Auditore who returns to China to take revenge on the Templars that all but wiped out her brotherhood. Using a Piece of Eden, she arranges to get captured to begin enacting her plan. Don’t expect any characters or themes to be explained, if you want to have a clue, you’d best go and play the previous bunch of games and watch a few animated films.
Anyway, the game controls in a similar way to the 3D entries to the series. You can run up walls, vault over objects and clamber around the environment to navigate. This is itself is pretty cool, as you come in and out of the foreground and background to find your way around the fairly large levels. It looks quite impressive, even though the colour scheme used throughout is quite dull. Sadly, because the controls are the same as the 3D versions, it comes with the same issues. I’d leap off walls to my doom when I intended to hop to another wall. I’d leap into the backs of enemies rather than into the next bit of cover. Sometimes I’d hide right in an enemies sight line rather than on the other side of a wall as I’d intended. It’s sloppy, and it really should have been sorted out by now.
The rest of the gameplay is reasonable, and when you complete a section purely through stealth then it’s quite satisfying. Most areas can be finished without killing anyone for additional challenge. If you sneak up behind an enemy or hang from a ledge below, you can assassinate them. Make sure you move the body to a hiding place to avoid setting off the hunt to find you. You can hide in the shadows to leap out at enemies, assassinating them then immediately hiding their body. All this feels pretty good when it gets it right, but those controls are still the issue. In combat, you can attack, parry, counter, dodge and all the usual malarky. Each enemy has their own weakness, but when a brawl kicks off it can get very hard to tell which enemy is which making decisions difficult. This does make sense though, as the aim is to be stealthy rather than confrontational. Regardless, ‘reasonable at best’ is how I’d describe this.
The visuals are plain, with lots of browns and greys which is a shame. The characters stand out well enough from the environment which is helpful, and their vision cones are easily identified most of the time. The sound is much better, and I found the music to be something of a highlight, but it certainly doesn’t turn an average game into something any more than that.
After around five hours, it was all over with a disappointing boss encounter, and I was met with (obviously) a cliff hanger ending regarding the Piece of Eden in question. This sets up for…
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India
Flash forward over 300 years for the sequel and take on the role of Arbaaz Mir. Again there’s little explanation here, so you’d best play the previous games and read that prequel graphic novel! Arbaaz likes a girl and goes to visit her for…shenanigans. It turns out that he’s an assassin and then a Piece of Eden related to the previous game turns up! There’s some historical context again, related to British colonialism and so forth, but the story is still Templars, Assassins, and magical future tech stuff.
Some immediate credit here: Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India looks beautiful by comparison to China. There are so many bright colours across the varied environments. The contrast between the two games is incredibly stark. Having said that, other than the addition of one or two new items, that’s pretty much the only positive change.
The biggest change is how upgrades work. In China, you were scored based on how well you got through an area, with Gold earning you more points than Silver or Bronze. If you earned enough points in a level you would unlock upgrades. With India, they’ve introduced a multiplier that increases each time you get a Gold and resets to 1 if you don’t. This means that having a less than optimal section part way through a level can completely scupper your chance to get upgraded health, or additional smoke bombs, or something equally useful. Madness! I don’t mind an upgrade system, but not one that can completely screw you.
Other changes are minor, but they certainly didn’t bother to change the controls or make anything more responsive. The stages are more expansive, giving some scope to explore if that takes your fancy, not that there’s anything really worth finding. The boss “fights” in this entry feel more like puzzles though, which is interesting. Sadly, they’re more like trial and error puzzles as you try to work out who looks in which direction at what time so you can move forward. The final one took me more than a few goes to figure out which was I was meant to go.
There are a few more powers you get this time that let you instantly kill enemies, or more unseen between cover. This is based on that classic Assassin’s Creed thing where the “game” gets hacked or something to give you an advantage. Again, if you aren’t familiar with the franchise then this will come completely out of left field for you! They’re useful to have, but they seem to be designed to be used in specific areas.
Anyway, we have another cliff hanger ending to set us up for…
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: Russia
A smaller leap this time, heading about 75 years forward to early 20th-century Russia where we meet Nikolai Orelov, a man with a moustache to die for. He wants to leave the Assassins but is given one last mission. All of this is completely explained…in the companion book obviously, so no exposition here! He’s sent to steal one of the Pieces of Eden that’s linked to the previous games, and along the way meets with a woman, Anastasia. When she touches one of the Pieces, she momentarily becomes Shao Jun from China which is a nice enough call back. Anyway, time to escape the Templars, do the things, kill the stuff, and so forth.
There’s another shift in terms of visuals here, with the bright colours being replaced with lots of greys and reds. Whilst it may appear drab, it’s really quite striking and works well with the theme. There are a few other changes that add some depth to the game, such as your ranged attack being a rifle that can be freely aimed (that makes a lot of noise), and a portable winch to interact with the environment. Having said that, the crappy controls are still there, as is the frustrating upgrade system.
And there are so many instant fail stealth sections that you either perfect or restart. And you will restart. Over and over again. These (along with the hard to spot instant-death traps) were in the previous game, but they seem to be everywhere this time. There are sections in which you play as Anastasia rather than Nikolai, but she has next to none of his abilities. At least the final boss fight is pretty interesting.
After all this, you’ll finally reach the conclusion of Chronicles. And what a colossal disappointment that is as it resolves absolutely nothing that’s come over the course of the 15 or so hours it takes to get through these games.
tl;dr: Don’t waste your time. I did so you don’t have to! At least I hear that Origins was pretty good and Odyssey is too (if packed with microtransactions). But that’s for another day.