The Bottom Line
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: November 10, 2020
Platforms: PS5 (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PC
Genre: RPG, Action, Adventure
- What it is - A massive RPG set amidst a realistic historical backdrop with interwoven mythical fantasy elements. Expect a game that practically never ends. Lots of crafting, exploration, incredible beauty, and unique encounters.
- What it isn't - A short game you can just pick up and play. AC Valhalla demands your time and could comfortably be the only game you buy on next-gen consoles.
Note: All of the screenshots included in this review were captured on a PS5.
What happens when you mix Skyrim, Game of Thrones, Vikings, and The Witcher together and jam-pack the concoction with tons of content? You get Assassin's Creed Valhalla. The game is literally a love child of these franchises.
Valhalla has the siege warfare and political intrigue of Game of Thrones. Players forge strategic alliances with other clans, kings, and thegns as they dominate England. The wide, sweeping medieval fantasy castles and gritty hack-and-slash combat is reminiscent of The Witcher. Valhalla's massive webwork of unlockable skills and varying seasonal environments reminds me of Skyrim. Then there's the brutal, gruff, and massively machoistic characters pulled right out of the Vikings TV show.
Valhalla has it all. Raids. Longships. Cairns, runic stones, ancient mythical lore. Brutal warriors slinging axes and cruel blades of steel. War songs, towns on fire, and the strong religious convictions that stand in the way in these heathen hordes. It has all the major themes and production values of a cinematic film but all the interactivity of a game, blurring the lines of what meaningful games can offer.
Despite its derivations, Ubisoft's new Viking-themed Assassin's Creed finds new ways to sharpen an old axe. It significantly sets itself apart from its forebears Origins and Odyssey with its scope, detail, and cultural focus.
The game has a magnetism, a certain kind of mysticism rooted deep in the mythos of the Dark Age Viking culture. There's something powerful about this period, about Nordic legends, about city-smashing Vikings and their primal brutalism that's horrifying and somehow appealing.
At the same time, Valhalla humanizes the Vikings in a way that's captivating and interesting, revealing customs like a sloshing drinking game, the ultra-fun Magic The Gathering-esque dice game Orlog, and flyting, which is like a rap battle mixed with roasting mixed with poetry. There's a strong-knit familial fabric that ties these peoples together, woven with themes of honor, bloodlust, and pride.
The Vikings weren't just bloodthirsty warriors. They were also nerds who liked to play MtG and rap. Who knew?
Story: Odin's Saga
One of my favorite things about the game is how Valhalla merges the mythical with the historical.
Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, is actually in the game. Odin comes to you in visions. Fenrir stalks your nightmares, a giant wolf shrouded in fog. Strange portents open your mind, sear into your imagination. It's a visually stimulating experience that sparks curiosity and speaks to your inner shield-biter.
The history is just as intriguing.
The game starts in 873 AD and moves forward throughout the decades. England (or Angland) isn't a country but a series of kingdoms. As you play, each kingdom falls one by one. You have a direct hand in how these kingdoms fall. You are a conqueror, the famed warrior Eivor Wolf-Kissed, thus named for the mauling that scars your face.
The game depicts a world riven by strife and war, a world on the cusp of a religious revolution, a time when heathens, infidels, and God's chosen warriors paint the countryside in blood. It's a time of burning cities, of sacked castles, of fallen kings, and mayhem.
Ubisoft has taken great pains to make the game as historically accurate as possible. Ubisoft masterfully crafts a saga with two sides: The Vikings who conquer and invade England's four kingdoms--Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Wessex--and Alfred the Great, the Wessex king who resists this tide of change.
Brawn and raw might will only get you so far in AC Valhalla. To really proceed, you'll need to forge alliances. It's a game centered around a pivotal point in history where the Anglo Saxon kingdoms were not only dominated by, but integrated with, Dane and Norse cultures.
The game features main cities across Norway and England, along with various villages and towns to conquer along the way: Winchester (Wessex), London (Wessex), York (Northumbria), and Jorvik (Norway). The four kingdoms are separated into lots of regions and zones with their own forts, villages, and towns to scour, raid, and interact with.
Like any Assassin's Creed game, Valhalla feels authentic but is fluid enough to bend to your choices. Not everything is set in stone, and it's here where the game shines.
As you play, you're weaving a thread of fate based on your choices. There are pivotal moments in Valhalla that will alter the events of every playthrough. Some of these choices are more obvious; others are nuanced. But all of them matter. The things you do and say actually matter, and some more than others--but they still have an impact on gameplay. We won't talk about these defining moments because of spoilers, but just know they're there and pay attention to what you do.
The result is a compelling tale of history and myth that you not only unravel, but you have a direct part in. You're a Skald warrior chronicling your own saga, forging a legend to be sang at campfire feasts and as warsongs in battle. Eivor's deeds are being writ not by the Norn, but by the player.
Like a Homeric saga, Valhalla is a game that just doesn't end. It's designed to keep you playing and playing and playing.
Valhalla isn't coy with its demands: it wants all of your spare gaming time. And honestly, I don't mind.
The game is good enough to make this proposition sound appealing. Not everything about Valhalla is great, and there's a lot to go over...but all in all, this is a remarkable experience that you should play regardless of platform. But it's especially true if you own a PS5 or Xbox Series X.
Visuals: Revolutionizing console gaming
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. The visuals are an awe-inspiring spectacle of next-gen power, exemplifying the new enhanced graphical capabilities of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5.
The colors are so crisp and vibrant. The textures are heavily detailed. The world feels rich, like a satisfying meal. Valhalla is a feast for the eyes.
The northern lights cover the frosty skies of Norway in an eldritch glow. The fields of Mercia shine with golden splendor. Wessex's plains are bright and verdant, and fog curls around East Anglia like a shroud. The atmospheres are so varied and inviting; castles dotted on the hills call to you, the moon-lit forests pull you in, the rivers are your highways to the heart of your adventure.
It's more than that, though.
The real magic of Valhalla is the intense immersion that happens as a consequence of all the little things moving behind the scenes. A big part of Valhalla's spell revolves around things you're aware of on a kind of subconscious level, but the escapism is so strong that you simply accept things like higher resolution/frame rates and next-level lighting and effects.
These features just become part of the experience as you're absorbed into the game.
The ultra-far draw distances that add more depth to any environment, the huge open world that feels alive thanks to the dynamic lighting and shadows, the atmospheric fog that curls around ancient monasteries and Roman columns--all of these things are remarkable in their own way.
After playing Valhalla in 4K 60FPS on a PS5 and enjoying the massive convenience of the PCIe 4.0 SSD, there's no going back to the PS4. The load times are blazing fast (the game only takes 15 seconds to load up a save), and the raw horsepower of the console's Navi 2.0 GPU and Zen 2 CPU shine enable performance that unfolds before your eyes like a movie.
The PS4 version still looks and plays extremely well, but it's just not the same.
Gameplay Mechanics: Shades of Diablo, Witcher, Dark Souls, and Path of Exile
At its heart, Valhalla is an evolution of the new revamped Assassin's Creed saga--the one based around never-ending content and a replayable RPG scope.
Valhalla borrows from games like Diablo (gear), The Witcher (combat), and even uses Path of Exile's constellation-style upgrade tree. Then there are assignable skills, which can only be unlocked by finding skill books throughout the world, and a massive PoE-esque tree filled with buffs and further unlockable passives and active abilities.
There are ten item slots, and all of them can be upgraded. The game gives you lots of opportunities to improve, but they're not always necessary. I've skated by with basic upgrades...but you should definitely improve your rations pack right away.
Valhalla's gear is interesting. It's a lot like Diablo, with various rarities and sockets. The better rarity an item is, the more sockets it can have. Gear is tremendously nuanced insofar as stats: Every piece has its own stats like Armor, Light Attack Resistance, Weight, Heavy Attack Resistance, and Evasion.
I've found these stats don't always matter unless you're playing on the hardest difficulty. They do have a tangible effect on gameplay--the less weight an item has, for instance, translates to faster move speed--but the effects aren't always tangible to combat. Fights tend to end quickly enough by simply by dodge-slashing enemies, and this kind of nuanced RPG system isn't always warranted.
What I absolutely love about the gear system is how it corresponds and synergizes with the three main ability trees.
Gear is separated into three governing types: Wolf, Raven, and Bear. These are also the three skill trees. Wearing a full set of Bear gear, for instance, will unlock specific bonuses like increasing armor at low health. There are also bonus nodes on the Bear skill tree that buffs your stats while wearing Bear gear.
The best part is how you can mix and match the gear sets. It's a LOT like Diablo's set system, and I absolutely love it.
I do have some big issues with how often gear is doled out. I honestly didn't really find any good gear as I played, and the best armor I've found so far is from the free Twitch Prime drop issued out by Amazon.
The game technically has stats, but they're not governing attributes like those of TES (Strength, Endurance, Speed, etc.). Instead, Valhalla has a Power rating right out of Destiny.
Replayability: Writing your own Eddic Poem
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is so big that it could be the only next-gen game you buy, and you'd still be busy for weeks on end.
It's massively replayable and has even more to do than other Assassin's Creed games. In pure Ubisoft fashion, there's content, collectibles, materials, and missions everywhere you look. It's almost overwhelming and obnoxious, but Ubisoft is eager to keep you cemented into the game for as long as possible.
The trick works. Valhalla is worthy of your time. Maybe not all of it, but you could be well-served by adding a heaping portion of Valhalla to your gaming diet.
You can spend countless hours doing meaningful or random things in Valhalla; the game has a kind of nebulous scope that rewards you for just meandering and exploring. I've encountered lots of weird characters when roaming, including a killer nun who called herself the Hammer of the Heathens, or Otta Sluggarsson, a Dark Ages ballplayer. I even met a man and his giant pet bear.
If you're not careful, the grind will burn you out. I've learned to enjoy Valhalla in smaller-sized chunks throughout the day or the week.
Marathon-running Valhalla is great at first, but after a while, you feel like your accomplishments aren't actually doing much. The progression schemes are fun and rewarding at times, but ultimately I find the game's storyline, weird global events, amazing visuals, and interesting characters are the real prize of gameplay.
The issue is that Valhalla simultaneously makes you feel powerful while also keeping you in stasis. I don't feel like I'm actually becoming any more of a badass warrior when I find some new gear or when I level up. The skill tree is there telling me my stats have increased, but I don't really tend to notice much of an impact on gameplay.
This can break the immersion spell, and it's as if Valhalla tries to gamify a gaming experience just to create the illusion of progression.
This is a gross over-simplification of Valhalla's RPG mechanics, but that's really how it feels at times.
It's all because of the combat, which resembles Origins and Odyssey's third-person action. The game tries to push Dark Souls-esque combat--rolling, timing strikes correctly, a mix of light and heavy attacks, powerful moves--but the fights themselves don't always feel noteworthy. There are some bosses and higher-level Zealots that roam England to kill you, but for the most part, the combat is against smaller-scale enemies that don't put up much challenge.
The RPG elements aren't always justified insofar as combat--at least in my experience. But I'll freely admit I haven't leveled up to 300 Power just yet.
Other times I'm completely sucked into the grind. I scour 9th century England for ancient artifacts and gear to build up Eivor's war chest. I raid villages in search of plunder to fortify Ravensthorpe, my own city-settlement in the heart of Mercia. Sometimes this feels like a chore. Sometimes it's a blast.
The real point is that Valhalla fades in and out of being a grindy Ubisoft game. There are moments where you genuinely want to do these activities, not for their rewards, but to actually do them to keep things fresh. Then there are the times where they become rote, and you question why you're doing them.
Maybe to get more tattoos or build up a general store at Ravensthorpe? The motivations aren't always clear, nor do they have to be. This can also unravel the game a bit, though, and make certain tasks feel like busywork.
There are points where the game feels artificially inflated in order to do two things: Keep you playing or sell you shortcuts via microtransactions. The one thing that bugged me was having to find skill tomes to unlock combat abilities. This makes sense on paper as another means to push you to explore the game and uncover its riches, but it also feels like Valhalla isn't respecting my time.
Naturally, if you don't have time to invest 70 hours in Valhalla, you can just buy shortcuts from the in-game microtransaction storefront. This store sells you convenience items like gear sets, crafting materials, and maps that show you where the skill tomes are found throughout the world.
The game is surprisingly emotional at times. The plight of kings and their subjects was something that I didn't expect to hit so hard. And that introduction...Valhalla has one of the most impactful intro sequences that I've seen in a long time. I won't spoil it, but let's just say the game takes no time to introduce lots of bloody violence.
World events can be emotional too.
Near Alescre Monastery, I found a girl named Mae near a small cottage. She was outside crying for her father, who had been gone for six weeks. You had a choice on how to handle the encounter.
Mae said her dad would be back before the last leaf fell during the Fall season. Every day, Mae came out and checked the trees. When you arrived, all the leaves had fallen from every tree except one. This tree had a single leaf left. You could choose to comfort her or make her face reality by saying the leaf falling didn't mean anything.
On a lark, I shot at the leaf with my arrow, and it fell. It destroyed Mae's hope. Mae cried, went inside, and chastised me. I went inside and read a journal entry talking about how lonely and sad Mae was, but she never gave up hope. The game let me put the leaf down on a nightstand next to Mae as she slept. That was the end of the encounter, but it really affected me.
Here are a few other notable things I saw and did in AC Valhalla:
- Visited Yggdrasil, the Gallows Tree that Odin hung himself on
- Fist-fought a bear during a hallucination
- Met Bjorn the Berserker and his pet bear, Njal
- Fought a psycho nun named Aelfwyn, the Hammer of the Heathens, in Edmund's Hope in East Anglia
- Found a glitch in the Animus
- Conquered Mercia
- Fought Otta Sluggasson, basically the 9th century Babe Ruth (played by real-life MLB star Cody Bellinger)
Wrap-Up and Score: The Ultimate Viking Fantasy
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is a must-have game on next-gen or even current-gen consoles. It's not as bright and colorful as Odyssey, but it has a kind of deadly charm that Origins and Odyssey don't have. There's a brutality to the game that extends past the crunchy, visceral combat and into the Viking culture itself. The backdrop of a bloody, blazing England torn by religious war has more gritty realism than the myth-filled Odyssey.
In short, Valhalla is the ultimate Viking fantasy. Throw in a ton of RPG mechanics, a never-ending scope, and amazing graphical capabilities on consoles, and you have a recipe for one of the best games of the year.
Should you buy a PS5 or Series X just to play Valhalla at 4K 60FPS? Kind of. Sort of. Maybe. Honestly, I'm tempted to say yes because the game really is that good. But it's still a grindy Assassin's Creed game, so if you don't like those, then rethink this plan.
Like Black Flag before it, Valhalla helps usher in a new era of console gaming that's just as every bit of a paradigm shift like the one from PS3 to PS4.
This shift--this evolution--isn't entirely obvious at first. Playing Valhalla at increased resolution isn't enough on its own. Sure it's a big jump going from 1080p to 4K, even upscaled, but it's also the other graphical enhancements that come with it.
The atmospheric effects are immaculate and permeate 9th century England with an air of mystery. Light is more radiant than it's ever been on consoles, and the shadows are more dynamic. The shifting day-to-night cycle creates a global environment that feels like it actually changes and shifts before your eyes. The spell is so powerful that you sometimes forget it's happening (just like the other effects and features).
Ultimately, I feel Valhalla is something that all gamers should experience. How, when, and where you experience it is up to you. Just don't let this one pass you by.
+ Visuals completely redefine what consoles can do
+ Ultra-fast load times on PS5 are game-changing
+ Graphical effects, shadows, and lighting are incredible
+ Gear system is a fantastic blend of Diablo's items with Path of Exile's skill tree
+ Choices you make actually have an impact on gameplay/story beats
+ Female Eivor is the best protagonist to date thanks to her deadly charm and charisma
+ Lots of content and massive replayability
+ Intriguing world full of history, myth, and exploration
+ Amazing sound effects and score--Jesper Kyd really outdid himself this time
- Gear is way too rare
- Content can feel like busywork
- Combat isn't always great
- RPG mechanics incentivize microtransaction purchases
Visuals and Graphics
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is a must-have game that redefines what consoles can do. It's the best way to kick off the PS5 and Xbox Series X generation.
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