It’s hard to believe that in its short time, Assassins Creed has become such a huge franchise, rich in lore and more plot threads than your average conspiracy theory. In fact, it bares the hugest conspiracy theory of all, one which spans all of human history and tells of the struggle between Assassins and Templars. Almost good and evil, except both essentially commit murder to better gain their side an advantage.This story is so vast in fact, I’d be willing to bet thats exactly what bred Assassins Creed Chronicles China.
A clear attempt at delivering a fresh Assassins Creed experience, Chronicles is a stripped back affair, really focusing in on some of what makes the franchise great but while cutting out the fat and hugely long, confusing plot lines. Shifting from a sprawling 3D adventure to a 2.5D stealth platformer, I can easily say that this short spin off has a lot to offer.
Negatives out of the way first, Chronicles China has a fairly vanilla story, thankfully told through some rather fetching watercolour paintings, casting you in the shoes of Shao Jun. A chinese assassin that fans of the series will recognise from the short film ‘Assassins Creed Embers’ as the final student of Ezio Auditore. That Italian stallion that so many fans loved, he ended up with his own slew of sequels.
Juns tale in Chronicles China is much the same as that of her late masters. Starting out young and tempestuous, making rash decisions on her quest to get revenge and find the Templars who killed all those she once loved.
Not a bad story, one in fact that Hollywood would normally pour a lengthy 2 hour run time over if they were given the chance (and perhaps are) but beyond this, the story never gets much deeper. There’s no real twists and turns or deep character development to be investigated, instead working as a simple lubricant to move from A to B. This sadly means Shao Jun never really opens up as a character and subsequently never reaches the heights of charisma and personality as she once displayed in Embers. In short, if you're looking for deep story and exciting voice acting, then this isn't the game for you.
This isn't a nail in the coffin of Chronicles as such however. Nor need it be the end of the world, as while the story being simplified isn't a boon to the game, the spirit of simplification does wonders for the gameplay itself. Cutting away the fat and lengtyh re-introductions to the franchise instead offering some great stealth sections, smooth action sequences and immediate gameplay!
Take the games opening moments for example! If this were the next full on sequel in the Assassins Creed franchise, you’d no doubt be expected to endure a good few hours of exploration and tutorials long before you were able to wear the robes, call yourself an Assassin and head out, armed to the teeth and ready to crack some templar skulls!
Not the case with Chronicles China as Shao Jun is ready to be a one woman murder squad straight from the word ‘Templar!’
Equipped with a boot blade among other staples such as a Sword, Throwing Knives and Firecrackers, Jun offers some of the most brutal takedowns the series has seen, with a swift kick to the face from her boot blade, topping my list of the most wince inducing assassinations. She's kicking you in the head with a knife! Even JCVD only saved that for his worst enemies, not just any old guard!
As hefty as the games stealth mechanics are, It’s not all about quiet takedowns and hiding in the shadows, with Jun often being forced to tackle larger groups of enemies in one fell swoop!
Now, while its obvious from the start that combat in Chronicles China isn't as face paced as that of the series main line titles, the mechanics on offer feel fluid and satisfying whilst still maintaining an air of grace and beauty, as you paint the back drop with blood and ink on each successful blow.
Of course you can block, parry and leap over your enemies to mix it up a bit, but with a short health bar don't expect to ever feel invincible and instead get used to hanging back and choosing your battles wisely. Fighting only when really necessary as stronger enemies such as shield bearers and archers begin to appear, all requiring different methods in order to be taken down.
Don't get me wrong, its entirely possible to take down everyone you see, but this will take time and patience, while in the mean time, the game will gently nudge you towards safer options of distraction and sneaking.
As the game progresses you’ll learn new moves and tricks along the way, with these lessons delivered through flashbacks of training with Ezio himself. A rather cool nod to the series past and a great opportunity to see Ezio in his later role of Assassin Grand Master. Donning the full on white beard and long white hair.
Usually at home with sprawling open world maps, Ubisoft have really focused in on the series key elements, offering tense sneaking with multiple routes open to you, depending on how loud or quiet you want your evening to be.
It’s almost hard to imagine, or indeed explain, how well the mechanics of previous titles click with the new format but everything fits together exactly how it should. Sneak attacks, hiding places and the all important free running work beautifully without any need for complicating the core controls or feel. Jumping, climbing, sliding under rocks and leaping huge gaps all flow smoothly, offering an immense feeling of satisfaction as you traverse each new section.
Foreground and background areas are freely accessible in context-sensitive situations, but this isn't the open exploration you’ll be used to. In most cases, the goal is to sneak through a given area past a series of increasingly agitated guards using any hidden space or passageway you can spot. The gorgeous watercolour visuals compliment the world around you which promotes passive or at least quiet strolls through enemy territory.
Things aren't quiet straight forward though, built somewhat like MGS: VR Missions guards have clear cones of vision and your standard colour key to know wether they're simply investigating or on alert, the latter of which will send reinforcements your way. This of course means, like any true assassin, you’ll need to use your eagle vision and work out patterns you can take advantage of.
There’s some help at hand, with lots of means for distraction from birds you can send into squawking fits, dogs you can have growling for blood or the whistle you yourself can send out while hidden in a hay bale or darkened doorway. You’ll even find boxes suspended in the air, ready for a well placed dart to loosen and send crashing down on enemies skulls.
With so much tension being built up as you progress, Chronicles China occasionally throws in a mission or two thats built more like an iOS based endless runner. Forcing you to free run to safety as the world around you crumbles into fire and flames. While these occasional distractions may seem a little bit forced, they offer some great fun and always end in a rather spectacular fashion, delivering a beautiful leaps of faith into the arms of safety as the watercolour behind you burns bright!
It takes a little while for the game to hit its stride, and for the tutorials to finally stop but there is so much to enjoy here for fans of the series new and old. From the colourful all out brawls and smooth free running across beautiful maps to the satisfying stealth kills delivered from the shadows, the core of Assassins Creed fits perfectly into this formula with only its short play time and skin deep story left to mar what is otherwise a perfect spin off for the series. Worth every moment!