Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is a game that I wouldn’t have played if I weren’t trying to go through all the console Assassins Creed games. It’s a spinoff of a big high budget 3D series, which is already highly suspect given the quality of most spinoff games, and it’s a (mostly) 2D stealth game, which is not one of my favorite genres.
Nonetheless I tried to approach the game with an open mind (hey, I liked Unity!) and after playing through it I found myself surprised again. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is not a great game but its competent, workmanlike, approach to gameplay is compelling enough to carry it for its 5 or so hour run time. The game looks decent, feels good to control, gives you lots of options in approaching its various situations, and manages to change things up enough to stay fresh. Its biggest flaws are an irritatingly repetitive soundtrack and some rough around the edges issues like obfuscating camera angles and a few technical issues. Despite those problems and a story that’s impossible to invest in, it’s not a bad deal for $10 and has more to offer than most cash in spinoff games.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China puts you into the robes of Shao Jun, a female assassin who has survived the destruction of her branch of the order by evil Templars and is out for revenge. She intentionally gets herself captured along with a precursor artifact, immediately throwing out a lot of the series’ lore in pursuit of the game’s flat and emotionless narrative, only to break free and start killing Templars. Over the course of the game she will track down the Templars who killed her friends, murder them, and retrieve the artifact that she willingly handed over to the Order. The cut scenes are done with some decent watercolor art but they are barely animated slides with some so-so narration. There’s barely any in-level story, so the game’s story feels closer to what you’d see in an NES game like Ninja Gaiden, albeit expanded and voice acted, than something you’d see in the normally high production value Assassin’s Creed series. The game also features some training sequences where Jun recalls a totally unrecognizable Ezio teaching her how to sword fight. It’s a cheap nostalgia play that doesn’t work because Ezio has no real personality in these sequences, where he is voiced by an unfamiliar actor who can’t summon any attachment to Assassin’s Creed’s most popular protagonist.
With the story an afterthought the game has to be carried by its gameplay, and its there where Assassin’s Creed Chronicles China makes a respectable effort. This is a 2.5D platformer where your character can run, jump, climb, assassinate fools, and even engage in a little swordplay. Shao Jun is quick but with enough momentum that you can’t turn on a dime. This makes the game’s parkour and stealth have some flow and resistance to it in a way that encourages planning routes out ahead of time and committing to actions, much like a standard 3D Assassin’s Creed game. The levels start out simple but soon sprawl with multiple pathways and often multiple approaches to rooms or new areas. You might want to assassinate someone to free a prisoner but how you get into the room where she’s being held is up to you, with sliding in through the window just as viable as walking in the front door or dropping down from a level above. You can get past a bridge by fighting your way over it or finding an alternate route around by moving into the foreground. The level design is much more intricate than most 2.5D games, with higher and lower paths as well as background and foreground paths, and the camera will always move with Shao Jun to whatever layer she’s on.
In addition to the game’s complex levels, Shao Jun has a very deep move set for a platformer character. She has access to gadgets, a grappling hook to pull her towards certain ceilings, the ability to crouch and sneak or pull her legs up to a ceiling she’s dangling from, a sword, a boot knife she can kill people with, the ability to hide in the background and foreground, and a bevy of other moves and options that make her feel like a real Assassin’s Creed character. The game focuses primarily on stealth, with the easiest routes through most areas being either sneaking or stealthily assassinating everyone and hiding the bodies, and combat serving as a last resort and usually ending either in death or a bad rating for the section.
ACCC has a section rating system that awards you a gold, silver, or bronze medal depending on your performance and feeds into a level score that determines what upgrades you’ll get at the end of each level. Certain upgrades are progression coded but others, like health and ammo gains, depend on hitting certain score levels. Doing better in each section will increase your score, as will an optional objective during each level, like freeing three captives or collecting items from guards. It’s a system that encourages you to try to play stealthily and avoid getting spotted, though it has the perverse effect of making the game easier the better you play.
Of course like all stealth games Assassins Creed China can be finnicky, with guards that hear you when you think they shouldn't and complex controls that can have Shao Jun flipping up over a ledge into full view when all you wanted her to do was shimmy up to the lip so you could wait for the guard to turn his back. It has some intentionally frustrating level design with enemies clustered too closely together, and its grading system encourages you to forgo the use of certain gadgets and techniques, which can make areas frustrating. The inconsistent controls combined with the precision demanded by some of these areas creates dreaded difficulty spikes, though if you're willing to forgo the good rating you can usually brute force your way through without too much effort.
ACCC can be clunky at times but when it’s clicking it’s a lot of fun. You slip in and out of windows, climbing around above unsuspecting guards before slipping past or dropping down to kill them. You watch guard patterns to find moments when an enemy is not being watched by one of his compatriots and then you strike quickly from the shadows, or boldly charge out into the open to cut him down and ditch the body in a nearby doorway. You weave back and forth between the planes, evading searching enemies by hanging off the front of a platform or tucking yourself into some bushes. I still have the same fundamental issues that I do with most stealth games, primarily that just waiting around and watching enemies to learn their paths isn’t a lot of fun, but it’s impressive how well stealth works in the 2.5D format. I also think that combat is decently fun, with the abilities to strike, parry, roll over enemies, and execute foes. One on one or against two foes Shao Jun is a capable fighter, though ranged enemies or large groups are better to flee than stand and fight.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles China also has a couple levels that aren’t stealth focused and instead are about trying to run through the level as fast as possible. Here you are graded on speed, not stealth, and it’s a lot of fun to run through a level that’s literally exploding around you and use the various skills to avoid hazards and move through as quickly as possible. Enemies can be taken in stride via slide or jump assassinations and the game becomes more about rhythm and reflexes than good planning and execution. These were my favorite levels in the game.
Assassins Creed Chronicles: China owes a lot to the greatest stealth platformer of all time, Mark of the Ninja, but manages to carve out its own niche. While its story does directly tie in to the Assassins Creed franchise it isn’t particularly important and feels perfunctory. The lovely watercolor visuals and the tactical stealth gameplay are the reasons to play this one. The soundtrack contains very sparse and repetitive traditional Chinese music, and it quickly becomes grating. Bring a podcast. Voice acting is acceptable but nothing special. The production values here are well above indie level but nowhere near full Assassins Creed.
I came into Assassins Creed Chronicles: China thinking it would be a slog, but I had a decent time with it. Like a lot of Assassins Creed games it’s not necessarily a must play, but it has a surprising amount of depth and it really does offer a more stealth-focused experience than the mainline games of the time. The Chronicles project was an odd one, where Ubisoft released 3 $10 games within a few months of each other, each game having the same basic format but a different protagonist, and without major implications for the series as a whole. They were eventually combined into a triple pack. Why did Ubisoft have Climax Studios make these games? I have no idea. They make for an odd little side series. Assassins Creed Chronicles: China was included as part of the Unity season pass. I got it through Games With Gold.
I liked Chronicles China a lot more than I expected, but not enough to give it a strong recommendation. It’s a decent stealth platformer but has enough rough edges (such as camera angles that obscure Shao Jun and level design that can be frustrating) that you’re probably better off just replaying Mark of the Ninja. It has nothing of substance to offer Assassins Creed fans. It’s a quintessential 7/10 game. If you got it cheap or for cheap and are in the mood for this kind of game it’s good enough to get the job done, but it’s possible for a game to be better than one would expect and yet still nothing special.