All right, how’s my PS4 these days? Lessee…Brothers, played end-to-end three times and got every trophy an eternity ago…Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, yeah, liked it, pretty good overall but way too much work to go through again, and I’m not sure that the Jack The Ripper stuff is worth the trouble…Project Diva, can barely even look at it now…aaaaaand, Atari Classics, of which there are maybe six titles I still want to play on a semi-regular basis. And that’s all the games I have left now that I got hopelessly lost in Submerged and never achieved anything other than motion sickness and my Stardew Valley experience consisted of constant, crippling time pressure, wandering aimlessly, not being able to get to places and never knowing why, not being able to refill my watering can (I know, “Read the guides!”. Filling a watering can should not require a damn guide.), and planting a parsnip and forgetting where it was. On top of that, the Blu-ray function stopped working for some reason. Videos? Already have a computer. Movies? Kinda handy, but hardly my only source, maybe not even my best.
And that’s when I heard some noise about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. You may have heard about how I found Origins a big turnoff, so much so that I never even touched Odyssey. But one of the nice things about Ubisoft is that they learn from their mistakes and try really hard to do better the next time. (I’m aware of the company’s abysmal track record with employee relations…not this thread.) On top of that, this is going to be one of the last games for the PS4, and late-run titles are often some of the highest quality games for the console…think Mega Man 6, Castlevania 3, or Gran Turismo 4. And I’ll be honest, I’ve grown kind of attached to the plucky Rebecca Crane and Shaun Hastings and their eternal quest to keep the world from exploding for another year. The tipping point was discovering theRadBrad and his series of Valhalla gameplay videos (currently on the back burner while he’s engrossed in Cyberpunk 2077). From what I’ve seen, he’s not a wizard at Dark Souls-style games and has an unfortunate tendency to miss things, but he’s still been able to make steady progress…exactly the endorsement I needed.
And so here I am, just about completely done with console games, but not before writing one last chapter, and with what promises to be a, dare I say, mostly enjoyable and satisfying journey. Goddesses, it’s been too long.
So far I’ve just finished clearing out the bandits from the initial settlement, so I’ve barely scratched the surface. Next up storywise is getting my first raid under my belt, but exploring and finding stuff takes up so much time that it’ll have to wait. Anyway, here are my initial impressions.
(You might want to give this excellent essay a read as well.)
Control scheme: Eeeugh. This…will take some getting used to. The problem isn’t remembering the command for what I want to do so much as remembering the command for what I should be doing. Pulling out a bow when a torch would work better or vice versa, jumping off a high cliff instead of descending, raising my shield against an unblockable attack instead of dodging, and so on. It’s an unfortunate fact that the more options you have, the more ways you have to mess up, and Valhalla has them by the longboat-load. I’ll figure it out eventually, of course, just fair warning that if you’ve been away for a while, it’s going to be a very steep learning curve.
Female option: Let me just get this out of the way. I don’t give a damn what Ubisoft’s motives are, I don’t give a damn if it’s pandering, and I don’t give a damn if, hey, wait a minute, women don’t have sufficient red corpuscle count for high-altitude climbing or whatever crap. It’s a game. Games have options. This is one. Take it or leave it. You buy the game, you can play it however you like. I’m cool. I don’t care.
Personally, however, I think if you’re going to put a woman in a nontraditional role, either make it meaningful (breaking barriers, defying the patriarchy, refusing to be a victim, personal quest that everyone else thinks she’ll fail miserably, etc.) or make her beautiful. (And by “beautiful” I don’t mean “underdressed” or “sex symbol”; Chizuru Kagura from Art of Fighting and Alicia Winston from Time Crisis are quite beautiful, among many others.) And yes, I understand that in real life women are human beings and should not be objectified. Game women, however, are nothing but objects, and since the programmers can design them any way they want, it doesn’t make any sense to me to make Lady Eivor basically a man with a few superficial changes, and to have her femaleness in a historically completely male-dominated profession never be any kind of issue, ever. I just feel more comfortable picking the man and sticking with him, especially since Eivor’s divine analogue (you’ll know him when you get to him) is completely male.
Loading times: The only things I noticed that take a really long time are going through the shop/rewards menus (which I’ll probably never get anything from anyway) and starting up the game. Unless you have other stuff you want to use the PS4 for (and, if I haven’t made it clear yet, I don’t), it’s best to simply leave the disk in and put the machine into rest mode when you’re ready to quit. You only need to restart whenever there’s an update. Fast travel takes a little while but is still way faster than getting there manually, so I’m using it.
Graphics: Top-notch, as always…I always take the time to skygaze when climbing to a synchronization point, it’s just that beautiful. The only little caveat I have is that friends and enemies are no longer automatically tagged in fights (more on this in a bit). I’ve never seen the benefit of “immersion” and I’m dead-set against it when it results in a worse gameplay experience. I really like the fact that you can set the size of subtitles and set a black backing to them so text doesn’t get lost in the background.
Exploration/free running: This has the unique distinction of an activity that seems to take ages and take hardly any time at all at the same time. The thing is, it’s a long slog to pretty much anywhere, especially since the bulk of travel is over extremely rugged terrain, but Eivor’s such a freerunning superstar that even the most forbidding peaks are child’s play to him. It’s pretty amazing to see him, with no climbing gear or Assassin equipment, scale a steep mountainside with lots of outcrops and juts and weird angles as easily as a ladder. If he ever gets the luxury of a long journey on relatively level ground, the ability to call a horse anytime, anywhere is a real boon. Exploration has always been a criminally underrated facet of the AC saga, and I’m glad to have a great big land to romp around in. Enthusiastic thumbs-up!
Inventory/upgrades: The things I noticed right away are that unlike Origins there aren’t a bazillion options and I’m not going to break the bank on arrows (which seem to have limited use anyway…see “stealth”). That’s a good sign. Selling junk is always easy money…not a LOT of easy money, but I’m grateful for what I can get. (If that stuff turns out to be absolutely critical for something, I’m confident than I can find another broken club or pile of pig entrails somewhere.) The one slight issue I have with upgrades is the risk of wasting resources upgrading something only to get a better weapon right away (or, as I call it, the Duck Life: Battle problem), and given that it’s going to take a long time to get the best weaponry, upgrading is a leap that I’m leery of taking. That plus my quiver and rations pouch are going to be eating up resources for upgrades, and believe you me, those are two things I do not want to skimp on. For now, fights aren’t too demanding, so I’m content to go by a need basis for now.
Dialogue choices: I remember all the screaming about how the response options in L.A. Noire didn’t produce the friggin’ exact wording they were expecting, and I found a bit of grumbling about this on GameFAQs as well. Eh. Plenty of my real-life conversations don’t go the way I intend or want to; I’m used to that nonsense. And much like L.A. Noire, it rarely makes any meaningful difference anyway. My advice, don’t sweat it, just pick what sounds good and let nature take its course. There are a few decisions which directly affect the game, but I don’t expect them to be a huge struggle. (From what TheRadBrad has shown me so far, always taking the lethal option regarding defeated enemies is generally a smart idea.) There’s what seems to be a fairly important decision near the beginning whether to take Kjotve’s treasure hoard to England and face censure or leave it for the great, glorious, honorable king whom Eivor is, ahem, about to turn his back on forever. (Oh, so damn wrenching. ) I decided to take the money and run. The king rambled a bit about not leaving Eivor to the wolves while he had a chance, waah, waah. I don’t think I’m going to lose any sleep over this.
Extracurricular activities: Flyting…bleah. Hard pass. I have zero interest in “rap battle”, and the whole concept of “insult a man to his face in such a way that he’s somehow unable to take violent umbrage” (never mind that violent umbrage happens on a regular basis despite anyone’s honorable intentions) just makes me shudder. Furthermore, I’m absolutely petrified at the possibility that if I mess up, some smarmy little twerp Eivor could disembowel with his eyelashes is going to fire off a blistering final blast while Eivor has to trudge away red-faced, sent off by the searing laughter of the spectators who witnessed his humiliation, and be absolutely powerless to do anything about it. It was bad enough watching Connor get repeatedly cleaned out by Checkers or Six Men’s Morris or Fanorona players and be absolutely powerless to do anything about it even though realistically he could just beat them up and take the money back. I’m not taking that risk again. (“Extra dialogue choices”…feh, who needs them. ) Drinking contests…goofy fun, and not really that hard to win (get a good rhythm and keep your eyes open for the “L” prompt and you should win every time), but I’m just not seeing the point. Did one, and that’s plenty enough for now. Oorlog…ugh. No. No more games. The only thing I’ll try at this point is tic-tac-toe, and even then I’ll have to think about it. Which leaves heading into the countryside and finding what those white and yellow dots have and…let’s just say that hasn’t been very productive so far. Will work on it in the future, though!
Stealth: Gaaah. This one always seems to be either feast or famine for me, and right now I’m dining on grass and rocks. It seems like no matter what I do, I always get spotted. AL. WAYS. All I’ve been able to discover so far that I can’t hide and aim my bow at the same time. Well, how am I supposed to reduce a stronghold’s defenses (the primary purpose of stealth when it’s not tied to a specific mission) without a bow?? I remember how Shay and his multi-function rifle could take out practically an entire fortress sight unseen, and seeing Eivor get punked again and again is demoralizing. What am I missing? What’s the trick? It’s really too bad there aren’t in-game tutorials so I could really nail this part down. I usually don’t mind getting into a big fight, heck, I’ve triggered more than a few myself (“Filth! Harlot! Succubus!” “All right, scumbag, time to die!” ), but being forced into it is never fun. I’ll see if there are any skills that can help me here, but for now, this is a big work in progress that I’m not sure will ever get finished.
Combat: Firstly, let’s get one thing quite clear…I freaking loathe Dark Souls. I loathe the degenerative influence it’s had on video game culture over the past several years, particularly this vile “git gud” filth, and I especially hate how SEEMINGLY EVERY FLIPPING GAME needed to copy-paste its combat system. Syndicate’s combat wasn’t original either, but at least it was fast paced, it looked spectacular, and I could see what was going on and GODDAM PROTECT MYSELF which is a lot more than I can say for the infinite pit of misery that’s Dark Souls. Apparently it was meant to follow the “Japanese” idea of slamming your head against a brick wall over and over and over and over and over until either the wall or your brain shatters, to which I’d like to rebut that games like Pop ‘n Music and Dance Dance Revolution were and are a thing, hell, they were pretty much the only reason I ever got an import PS2, so the idea that “Japan” will only tolerate freakishly difficult games is hokum.
So what is the Dark Souls method? Well, the thing that’s always stood out for me is that the tough enemies with all the special moves, which I’ll call “bosses” for the sake of simplicity, are handled completely differently from normal foes, or for that matter the entire rest of the game. Against regular enemies, you can take them out however you like. You can use stealth if that’s an option (and you manage to remain unseen!), you can face and cut down your foes one at a time, you can run from enemy to enemy and take a bite out of each at a time (the Batman/Syndicate method), you can target the biggest threat and take it down first, you can do a patient hit-and-run from the fringe, it’s all really up to your abilities and style. But once a boss steps into the fray, you get thrown into a special arena from which there’s no escape, and there are only two possibilities…win or die. They not only hit a lot harder than the mooks, they take a ton of damage, have nasty special abilities or attacks, and can often turn the fight around with just one big counterstrike. Defeating a boss is a real, major accomplishment. And that, I believe, is this game’s biggest betrayal from the core concept of AC, not that Eivor fights a lot (Every other Assassin fought a lot! Freaking Altair fought a lot, and he actually bought into that strike-from-the-shadows booshwah!), but that there’s a privileged class of enemy which cannot be slain quietly and must be engaged in a grueling, bloody, exhausting slugfest. From the very beginning it was implicit that the throat of a king and the throat of a peasant cut just as easily, and to see that abandoned is a tad disheartening.
So what is combat like in Valhalla? In a word…messy. Maybe it’ll get better against the English forces, but thus far I’ve found it tough to even distinguish my allies from my enemies. There are three primary attacks, light swing, heavy swing, and bow, and given the pace of combat, doing any real damage with anything but the first is a struggle. (There are apparently big upgrades associated with all three, but I haven’t gotten to them yet.) Blocking with the shield allows you to hold your ground, making counterstriking easier, but you can only block in one direction at a time and there are a lot of unblockable attacks. (There also seems to be a defense factor with the shield which dictates how effective it is; I’ll find out what I can.) Dodging and rolling work against all attacks; the problem is that you have to choose the exact direction to make your move. Unlike Ezio or Edward who always moved to a place where they could hit back, an even slightly errant dodge here will put you way out of position. This problem is compounded against bosses, who frequently have wide-sweeping attacks or who can adjust if you jump the gun. On top of that, all the running around and dodging means that the camera POV goes all over the place, making it very easy to lose sight of your foes. I cannot overstate the importance of choosing a difficulty level you can handle (something Ubisoft finally got the hang of). The bottom line is that if you are not an ace with the Dark Souls system, you are going to mess up a lot, you’re going to get disoriented a lot, and you’re going to get hurt a lot, and it probably will not be very satisfying.
All that said, IF you choose a reasonable difficulty level, winning a fight is not super-hard. In stark contrast to Unity, where Arno was pretty much a hopeless bum, and Origins…which was a neverending nightmare, let’s leave it at that…as long as you’re doing some things right in Valhalla, you will get the W in the end. Eivor may get beat up, tossed around, even run over, but he’ll live to tell about it. So in this respect it’s not a literal duplicate of Dark Souls; it’s a harsh system, but you don’t have to COMPLETELY master it just to get through Eivor’s story, something I definitely appreciate. (There do seem to be “Epic Ship”-style foes in the wilderness, and quite a lot, too, which I’ll get to when the time is right.)
And that’s all I got for now. Still haven’t done my first raid yet, and you’ll definitely hear all about it when it happens. Right now, though, I am liking this game. This is the first game in eternity that’s keeping me going despite the mishaps, and at my age and tolerance level, that’s saying a lot. I’m going to be updating this whenever I get the time.