Assassin's Creed Valhalla is excruciating
Around the 35 hour mark of Assassin's Creed Valhalla the game began to lose me, but then I acquired an ability that completely turned the combat on its head. This ability allowed me to dual wield heavy weapons, an absurd proposition that was as ludicrously powerful as it sounds. All of a sudden I had the power to shear limbs off of enemies with single attacks, pounding them into the ground and looking quite silly doing it. Finally, after nearly two dozen hours of unchanging tedious fighting, I had my secret weapon. I selected my equipment--a greatsword and a golden battle ax--and it was off to the races.
But then 10 hours passed, and nothing had changed with my loadout, nor my fighting style, nor the abilities I was using. Then 20 hours passed, and still no change.
And finally, as I uninstalled the game at the 60 hour mark with half of the main story still remaining, I couldn't help but wish that Assassin's Creed Valhalla had more moments like acquiring that new ability, instead of just the one. This is the story told by my time with the game, a far cry from the promise of exploration and discovery suggested by its narrative. Its promising tale about moving to a new land and playing politics with its rulers is let down so harshly by the execution of everything else as to be almost offensive.
In Valhalla, Ubisoft Montreal attempts to cover the Viking invasion of Anglo-Saxon England during the second half of the 9th century. The studio is no stranger to bringing difficult-to-study periods to life in these games, having previously put together a beautiful recreation of ancient Egypt in Assassin's Creed Origins. As is the series' hallmark, Valhalla features historical figures, locations, and battles, and seeing many of these brought to life for perhaps the first time in this sort of medium is fascinating. Whether the real world Ivar Ragnarsson was the Skrillex cut blood-lusting maniac that he's portrayed as here I cannot say, though given Cleopatra's treatment in Origins I wouldn't be surprised if liberties were taken with some of these figures. Still, the game manages to bring sufficient personality to most of these individuals.
Valhalla's supporting characters are doled out slowly over the course of its incredibly long campaign. The game structures its narrative around regional conquests. From your settlement conveniently located in the center of England you'll pledge to one territory at a time, which officially begins the questline there. The goal is to gain allies for your Viking clan by making contact with rulers and helping them with their problems. This could mean unseating a political rival from their throne and installing a new king, or helping an existing one with a domestic issue. Characters and factions weave themselves in and out of these stories, and the game does a decent job bringing back characters you thought you might not see again. Having played many hours of Crusader Kings 3 this year, it often felt like I was playing out that game's conflicts from the ground. It also helped me understand some of the political structures at play here; for example, why a bishop might be able to stand in for an absent ealdorman. It's probably the most complex plot this series has attempted to tell, and it's mostly successful.
I genuinely wanted to see where this story was going to end up, and Eivor was a tremendously enjoyable protagonist. The problem is that playing Valhalla is so uniformly unpleasant across nearly every aspect of the game. So many of its systems are compromised by poor decisions at worst and experiments that swing and miss at best that it's difficult to know where to begin.
I mentioned the settlement that Eivor and his Raven Clan call home. This settlement, called Ravensthorpe, serves as a hub for various services and is the point you return to whenever you've completed a region to regroup and decide where to go next. Using supplies and materials gathered across England, the settlement can be grown by building and expanding facilities. These facilities unlock features such as longship customization, fishing, and hunting orders. One of the facilities is necessary for turning in one of the game's collectibles, which feels like a bit of a waste of resources. None of these are particularly exciting, nor do they have any meaningful impact on the game; the entire mechanic is largely forgettable, save for the visual improvements brought to the settlement.
So Ravensthorpe isn't all that breathtaking, but what of the rest of England? Valhalla seeks to address a criticism lodged particularly against Odyssey by altering how destinations are presented in the game world. Previously in this trilogy the maps were filled with question marks denoting bandit camps, fortresses, towns, villages, ruins, and other locations. These would often have objectives associated with them for collecting treasure and eliminating officers. Valhalla dispenses with the question mark entirely; the replacement is a colored dot system that denotes the type of thing located at a particular point. A yellow dot represents Wealth, a blue dot represents a Mystery, and a white dot represents an Artifact, or collectible.
It's not exactly a better or worse system than what came before, but the Wealth and Mystery "systems" are notably troublesome. I'll start with the Mysteries, which are outrageously overacted encounters with strangers that only last a couple minutes. Some of these are memorable, but there are far too many time wasters here. The nice thing about them is that they never launch into formal side quests and rarely launch into full dialogue scenes, meaning they keep things moving along. But boy are some of these annoying, and they all require so little thought or input that the worst thing you can do is stack a play session with a bunch of them. Rarely has a path to boredom (or irritation) ever been this quick.
They aren't the end of the world though, not quite as much as the Wealth system is. Here's the thing: Valhalla is not a loot game. But it thinks it is. It has a shambling corpse of a loot system gutted so severely from Odyssey that it's practically nonexistent, but it maintains just enough of a presence to not go away completely. Whereas Odyssey fed a seemingly endless stream of loot drops that offered the chance to dramatically change your playstyle at any moment, Valhalla settles for a small selection of weapons and a limited number of gear sets for armor. These weapons and armor pieces are found at the Wealth icons around the map. Problem is, they're collected so slowly, and are often not better than what's already equipped, that I spent the first 35 hours of the game playing with the starting equipment. There is no longer any sense of progression here, save for being able to upgrade your stuff with ingots. These ingots make up the majority of the Wealth icons, by the way. So most of the time, when you finally get to a treasure chest, the reward is not a usable item but a piece of metal that can be fed into something you've had for dozens of hours to raise its stats by a couple points.
I say "finally" here, because one of Valhalla's cardinal sins is putting up constant roadblocks to acquiring the pieces of Wealth. I've never played a game with this many locked and barred doors. Locked doors feel like they exist only to extend game time, since the key is always nearby, but still far enough way to require too much effort for what the reward is. Barred doors cannot be unlocked or broken. Instead, you must search around for an access point that is frequently difficult to find and often requires dealing with finicky climbing and navigation. What's the reward again for doing this? Sometimes it's an underwhelming weapon or armor piece. Most of the time it's an ingot for slightly upgrading the underwhelming weapons and armor pieces you already have. And in some especially aggravating situations, the key to a locked door is itself behind a barred door.
The Wealth is a nightmare to acquire and I had to force myself to stop seeking these icons out. I don't know if it's a problem with the game's design or my own compulsion, but it's no secret that filling a game world with shining icons is going to tempt even the most fed-up players. Everyone I know who plays these games does the same thing: they clear the map. And it's not a bad thing, so long as the gameplay loop is satisfying and there's a good sense of progression and reward for the effort. Valhalla has neither.
The lack of progression on the loot side of things is not made up for by the skill tree, because it's one of the worst of its kind. The Skill menu takes the form of a bunch of constellations, similar to what you see in Skyrim. Each node on a constellation costs 1 skill point, and they grant paltry, insignificant bonuses to things like attack damage and health. Each constellation has a central skill that will grant new passive and active combat maneuvers. However, most of the skills are deliberately hidden until you acquire a node that connects to it. So it's impossible to actually build your character in any meaningful way, because for some reason you just can't view all of the skills. You literally have to blindly move your way through the different branches of this preposterous system to find what's available.
Valhalla also does not have good combat. The game had me questioning why I loved Odyssey's combat so much, and admittedly it's been long enough that I can't pinpoint why. But Valhalla's combat feels off. Its brightest moment came when I acquired that overpowered ability mentioned earlier, but even that became dull after using it for nearly 30 hours. Similar to how Valhalla's treasures hit you with terrible environmental roadblocks, its combat is hindered by frustrating enemies that knock Eivor to the ground and poke him back out of range with spears. Input queuing doesn't seem to function properly, if it even exists. Abilities feel clunkier than they did in Odyssey, and some don't seem to actually work at all. Some faster enemy types are able to dodge everything you throw at them and attack with such a small parry window as to feel impossible to fight.
The AI is also shocking, especially during larger fights such as raids and fortress assaults. Your Viking companions can be seen engaging in combat with enemies and doing little to no damage whatsoever. Often during fortress assaults the AI shuts down completely. Friend and foe alike will stand around on the battlefield not interacting, not attacking, not defending, not doing anything. I've pushed battering rams past enemies standing tall, watching stupidly as my companions and I crashed through the gate they were supposed to defend, completely unopposed. During a raid, you need an AI Viking to help you open doors and treasure chests; good luck getting them to obey in a timely manner.
Why did I play this game for 60 hours? Probably because that main narrative felt worth it, at least for a time, and it sure does look nice. Valhalla has the occasionally rough looking animation or visual effect up close--fire looks especially gnarly--but it's also filled with stunning landscapes and excellent daytime lighting. Riding my horse along village paths, over rolling hills and through the shadow of towering castles brought back memories of much better games. And that was enjoyable to do in Valhalla. The ferocity with which this enjoyment was dashed whenever there was combat, or an annoying stranger shouting referential humor at a Mystery encounter, or yet another barred door hiding the world's most underwhelming treasure cannot be understated. What an immense disappointment.