Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China Review

Guess what? Assassin’s Creed is back again! Since 2007 the series has spawned 8 major console releases and dozens of spin off hand held titles, smartphone games, novels, short films and board games to name but a few. Almost no medium of entertainment has escaped the clutches of Ubisoft’s now behemoth franchise. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is the first of three planned titles built to take advantage of much of the series’ lore that has not been explored in video game form to date and to create a title that fits into the series but provides a different experience from what fans of the core games have come to expect.

Shao Jun is the main character in Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China and is one of the last remaining assassins in China following a purge by the Templars. After training from our old mate Ezio Auditore she, along with her master return to China in a bid to turn the tide of their own little slice of the clandestine war and stop the Templars from having their way with the Middle Kingdom.

Chronicles departs from the sprawling cityscapes and free roaming of the core console titles, instead dropping players into a side-scrolling platformer – an environment which until now had been the domain of the handhold spinoff titles. The game uses what it calls 2.5D, which Ubisoft dabbled with a little in Rayman Legends, in which the game employs not one, but three layers of scenery, allowing players to travel into the background or foreground to find alternate routes, collectibles or to reach objectives.

This game has a core focus on stealth and players are encouraged to make it through each zone as quietly as possible. Fortuitously, the game incorporates numerous elements to make this a little easier. Enemies have visible vision cones that reveal where they are looking and what they can see and in addition to moving between the game’s various layers there is an array of hiding places ranging from bushes, crowds, open doorways and pillars that allow Shao Jun to stay out of sight. Players are able to use the Assassin’s Creed staple Eagle Vision to view enemy patrol routes and plan their next movements.

From the get go Chronicles: China establishes that taking on enemies in hand to hand combat is not easy and although here are a number of combat abilities such as rolls, counters and dodges, it is not until players are given the sliding and jump assassination moves that taking on multiple enemies at once becomes realistically possible. Shao Jun is not completely powerless however, as the game’s gives her several stealth-centric abilities such as whistling to lure enemies into hiding place assassinations, noise darts to have them leave their posts so that you can sneak past (or up on them for a silent kill) as well as the use of throwing knives and firecrackers to damage and stun them.

Each level features a number of gameplay unlocks to make life easier such as additional ammo, increased health and damage boosts. To make players work for them, the unlockables are contingent upon getting a high score with points awarded for finding and undertaking optional objectives, level completion time and gameplay style. The levels are broken down into small segments, with each individual area being scored based on your actions and play style. Players are given three distinct ways to play through the game, with each providing a slightly different gameplay experience. Shadow points are awarded for progressing through areas without being seen or killing any enemies, Assassin points are similar but encourage silently assassinations whilst Brawler points are awarded for fighting and killing enemies head on.

It’s not all about sneaking and killing though as the game mixes things up with several levels where Shao Jun needs to get out of a bad situation in a hurry. These missions have players racing against the clock to outrun fires, navigate collapsing platforms, dodging obstacles and taking out guards as quickly as possible whilst maintaining constant movement. These chase levels are short, but extremely fun and help to break up the sameness that creeps into the stealth-based missions.

There is more to do in each level than simply the bare minimum and to encourage exploration, the game includes numerous collectibles and optional objectives. Upon completing the game for the first time, players will also unlock a more tricky New Game Plus mode which allows for some additional score-based ability/enhancement unlocks and the New Game Plus Hard mode which acts as the game’s ultimate stealth challenge in which guards are much more aware of their surrounds and far deadlier in combat whilst simultaneously reducing Shao Jun less health to make combat almost impossible.

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China has an interesting visual style that very much resembles Chinese scroll art with watercolour brushstrokes making up the game world and carrying over into the mid-mission scenes in which the game’s story unfolds. Unfortunately, despite the unique style, it seems somewhat held back by the fact that almost all of the games environs seem washed out with different shades of browns and greys finished with the occasional splash of red. The game’s areas fell somewhat drab and repetitive by the end. This feels like such a waste of a great idea because if some of the areas were a little more little more vibrant they would have been much more memorable.

The game’s music sounds sufficiently oriental with music that sounds very much like a koto (Japanese string instrument) being plucked away pleasantly in the background. The voice acting is as you would expect from an arcade title, passable but not fantastic either and the sound effects and ambiance continue the scroll-type visuals and Chinese vibe nicely.

For the most part Chronicles’ stealth gameplay is pretty top notch.  Unfortunately though the difficulty really spikes towards the end of the game with massive numbers of guards and very narrow windows for manoeuvring (if you want to be sneaky that is). This throw everything at the player design philosophy works in some games, but really does this title a disservice as it becomes less and less about fun, hunting from the shadows and more about frustrating trial and error gameplay requiring constant restarts. Add this to the wasted potential for a decent story that has been left begging and the environments that feel all too familiar before the end and you have a title that falls short of being truly great.

Despite its issues Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is a bit of a fresh break for the series. The increased focus on sneakiness and penalties for not using it makes Chronicles perhaps the most stealth-orientated Assassin’s Creed game to date and its use of layers in the environment feels well done. If you want a pure stealth-based Assassin’s Creed game and don’t mind the occasional difficulty spike or lack of story, well this might be right up your alley.

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