Just Misses The Mark (of the Ninja)
See what I did there? The obvious comparison for Ubisoft’s side-scrolling stealth-action game is 2012’s Mark of the Ninja from Klei Entertainment. Unfortunately for Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, this comparison sets the bar way too high – out of reach, actually. Check out some of the reviews for Mark of the Ninja on Metacritic to get an idea of how well-regarded it is.)
Before you start thinking that this is bad game, however, hold that thought. AC Chronicles: China isn’t the best game in its genre, but there some notable moments that make this game worth a look.
You take the role of Shao Jun, an Assassin in 16th century China, who has just returned to her homeland during the fall of the Ming dynasty. Her training with famed Assassin, Ezio Auditore, now complete, she is ready to utilize her skills to stop the Templars from taking advantage of the nation’s turmoil and seizing power. Her motivations also include elements of revenge, which I won’t go into for the sake of avoiding spoilers. Suffice to say that there is an emotional component to her quest.
Is the story good, though? That question has an annoying answer, so I apologize ahead of time.
Yes and No.
There are moments in the story that had me interested and caring about the characters. Especially towards the end of the game, I felt anxious about discovering the outcome of the narrative. For much of the experience, however, the story took a backseat. As neat as the painted cutscenes looked, the dialogue felt canned and cliche. It’s a story that has a few solid moments, but is overall forgettable.
Shao Jun is incredibly nimble and acrobatic, and you’ll need to unlock all of her abilities (which become available automatically as you complete each of the game’s 12 chapters) in order to complete your Assassin’s toolset. A few of the abilities that are learned in later chapters would have been welcome earlier in the game – particularly the “Run while Crouched” and “Slide Assassinate” abilities, but the environment & onscreen tutorials provide enough clues for Shao to move from area to area without much trouble.
This game is at its best when you find ways to use your skills and tools to stealthily sneak past guards. It feels great to see that “Gold” progress tracker pop up after completing an area without setting off any alarms. There’s another side to that coin, however, and getting into full-fledged combat is when the fun starts to fade. Shao Jun has a number of combat abilities at her disposal, but none of the actual fighting mechanics feel intuitive or satisfying. Your chances of surviving an encounter with more than one or two enemies are slim, so getting spotted usually meant I would be reloading a recent checkpoint in short order. When I had the chance, I always opted for stealth assassinations from the shadows.
Speaking of stealth assassinations: damn, those are fun! Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China offers a number of obvious hiding spots that have a shimmering green glow to them. In the later chapters, those spots are fewer and further between, and enemies have higher awareness as well as lanterns to peer into the dark. It’s in those moments when the odds seem overwhelming that I found a ton of satisfaction in the challenge of clearing an area one soldier at a time.
Hide behind a pillar. Roll into a dark doorway. Assassinate a passing guard and hide his body. Use the grappling hook to climb up to the ceiling and pull your legs up to avoid detection as another guard passes by.
These moments were fun and often exhilarating as the difficulty increased. Right as I thought I had no choice but to fight a room of enemies toe-to-toe, the solution made itself clear. More often than not, using your distraction tools is essential to maintaining your stealth. Noise makers, firecrackers, throwing daggers, and a controlled whistle are all available early in the game, providing Shao with a wide variety of ways to distract and disorient.
I should also mention that there is a special ability in the game called “Helix” powers. When you collect enough Helix, you can activate the power and use it to move invisibly between hiding spots or quickly dispatch enemies during combat. It’s an interesting idea that feels incomplete. This is one area of the game that feels like lost potential to me.
Most of the game is fun to play, but the tactics quickly become repetitive as the soldier AI patterns are discovered. The toolset they provide you with is cool but limited. More variety and creativity in both the stealth and combat opportunities would have made a huge difference for my experience.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China looks like an impressionist painting brought to life. It’s not the first game to achieve this aesthetic, but it’s a beautiful look nonetheless. I found myself pausing to take in the views of billowing smoke or a landscape of mountains and lakes. It all looks very dreamlike, and the game achieves an atmosphere unique from other Assassin’s Creed entries. When you step out from the shadows and stab a guard through the back, the screen gets a temporary splash of soft red paint. Certain scenes have foliage that really pops and adds a ton of character to a game that is filled with browns and grays.
The character animations look great, too. As Shao Jun climbs, runs, and slides her way through each environment, her movement looks smooth and effortless. Also, for as mediocre as the combat mechanics are, the fighting animations do look quite good. In particular, I like the way the block & counter animations look when used correctly. If only those moves were actually fun to perform… (We already covered that, so I’ll move on).
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China does a lot of things well. For fans of the series, there are some great references to previous entries, and Shao Jun is a great addition to the heroes of the Assassin’s Creed universe.
There is some replay value to be had in collecting trophies & achievements or trying the game on a tougher difficulty level, but the 12 chapters were long enough that I didn’t feel the need to continue as the final credits rolled.
As an overall experience, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is a solid game with some great ideas. With a little work and added creativity, I could see future Chronicles games raising the bar even higher.