Valhalla is another enormous Assassin’s Creed saga, lavishly designed, with its sights set on story direction over narrative choice.
There’s a Viking belief that the paths we walk are predetermined, and that the threads of our lives are already woven like strands in a collective tapestry. Where your own thread encounters others, even where it ends, are points in history already sewn together by the Fates. But the Vikings also believed in an idea of free will, in the possibility to see the path prophecy might have chosen and the ability to resist it, to fight for your own destiny and the destinies of those whose lives you might touch. Such ideas run through the brilliant narrative of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the life of its heroine Eivor, to lift this beautiful game into a saga for the ages.
A Viking-set Assassin’s Creed is a perfect setting for a series which has always been obsessed by the ideas of order versus resistance, of Assassins versus Templars (or again here, in this third chapter set in ancient times, the Hidden Ones versus the Order of the Ancients). It’s also a perfect setup for whatever kind of Assassin’s Creed game you’re looking for – one which involves some wonky sci-fi shenanigans and fun mythological elements or simply a 60-hour Viking tale about knocking English heads together.
Valhalla protagonist Eivor is a very likable Viking, a level-headed conqueror suddenly set on a path for England in search of a new home and in support of her clan. There was always going to be a tension between the popular view of Vikings as only raiders and pillagers rather than the settlers they were also – but Eivor’s story and search for her own brand of peace smooths away this tension as much as possible. Over the course of her quest around the kingdoms, her task is to unite more than it is to divide – something underpinned by your regular returns to the settlement of Ravensthorpe, a place you’ll help grow into a home for a diverse cast of characters. It’s not perfect – smashing up monasteries simply to build huts in your hometown and only slaying soldiers, rather than monks, is pure video game logic – but as far as Valhalla’s charismatic and wonderfully dry main character is concerned, Eivor does enough to carry the story through.
Much has been made of the option to play Eivor as either male or female – a first for the Assassin’s Creed series – and in particular of Valhalla’s default choice which has the game pick this for you at specific points. With hindsight, knowing the narrative reason for this and seeing its overall impact on the vast, vast percentage of the experience, this option is actually the one I’d recommend – at least until the game swaps who you’re playing as for the first time, or it finally clicks for you as to why it does. Suffice to say this option never impacted my attachment to the Eivor I played as across the majority of the game, and it is not the situation some had expected, where your immersion could be broken by a constant ping-pong back and forth.
Your version of Eivor – their life, their choices and their relationships – is never detracted from, something that had been a valid concern. This option also has wider – and ultimately, I believe, positive – implications in the struggle to see better female representation in the Assassin’s Creed series – something pushed for by Ubisoft’s own developers as well as fans, especially in a game that is still overwhelmingly being marketed with its male option front and centre.
Eivor’s story thread involves a prophecy she will eventually betray Sigurd, her brother and clan leader, something initially as unthinkable to her as the idea their collective glories won’t earn them a place side-by-side in Valhalla. Their bond is strong, forged amongst family tragedy and the need to survive in new lands, but slowly the threads binding the siblings begin to fray. There are many hours of story and several key characters that play a part in this, and while it’s a tale best left to be unravelled by yourself as much as possible, it’s a changing relationship that is well paced. As Eivor, I was the one journeying the land to form alliances and grow our settlement while Sigurd was off messing around with Basim, his new assassin buddy. Whenever Sigurd disappeared off-screen for several hours, I would wonder what he was up to, and when he popped up again, I wouldn’t always like what I heard.
Eivor’s path towards this reckoning is one she walks alongside the mysterious figure of Odin, someone she has a peculiarly close connection with. The Viking god has a prophecy of his own to struggle with: the legend he will meet his maker on the apocalyptic day of Ragnarok, in the jaws of the giant wolf Fenrir. Ubisoft has already shown glimpses of Valhalla’s mythological realms, which Eivor can visit via a dream-like connection, and it’s in those you will find out much, much more about Odin’s role in the story, the parallels between him and Eivor, and the connection between the two. It’s smartly-plotted stuff, couched in just the right way so it never feels too out of place, while acting like a mythological story add-on woven directly into the base game.
For those who enjoyed the more experimental and varied environments found in Odyssey’s excellent Atlantis expansion, Asgard and Jotunheim are built in much the same vein. Finally, it’s worth mentioning what’s going on outside of the Animus, where there’s a quick conclusion to the ongoing story of Layla Hassan, the character you played in the modern day sections of the two previous games, Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey. It’s 2020, the pandemic is real, and on top of that there’s another newly-prophesied threat to stop, similar to the impending solar flare back in the series’ Desmond era. As ever, the answers lie back in the past and specifically, in Eivor’s story.
Can this trio of characters – Eivor, Odin, Layla – unpick the threads of their fates? That is the story Valhalla tells and ultimately answers in a more cohesive way than the splayed story threads of Odyssey’s own trio of plotlines (and for those who just want to play the historical stuff, rest assured that remains the overwhelming focus). But while there are similarities to Odyssey in the shape of Valhalla’s story, there are some key differences in how it is told. I had expected Valhalla to stick to the formula of Ubisoft Quebec’s very popular predecessor, but the Origins team at Ubisoft Montreal has come up with something much closer to its own previous Ancient Egypt-set chapter. Where Odyssey offered branching storytelling and quests with a cascade of narrative outcomes, Valhalla’s story is noticeably more linear, with few places to really exert your own decision-making and control. Each of its many map regions holds an arc with several main missions and perhaps a secondary objective, but no side-quests whatsoever. Indeed, in what feels like a regression even from Origins, you’ll simply run across fleeting world events, which amount to quick interactions with NPCs.
Valhalla’s winnowed quest structure feels like a decision made to provide a more focused tale – one that is never left to wander all over the Mediterranean, but that instead directs you to specific parts of England, one at a time, before reporting back to your settlement for a debrief. Each region you visit feels like a feature-length episode of a good TV show, with guest stars that often recur further down the line. The focused plot twists and heartbreaks in Valhalla’s tale often hit emotional highs Odyssey sometimes struggled with amongst the sheer weight of storytelling spread all over its world, while Eivor’s journeys further afield to Vinland, Asgard and Jotunheim are well integrated into direction of the main narrative rather than being left for players who still want more after the main quest is done. Still, it’s a disappointment that the flourishing RPG-side of Assassin’s Creed has been impacted, that Valhalla does not hold much room for meaningful choices, and that the few dialogue options on offer give little more than quickly-forgotten flavour. Eivor is a great and memorable heroine, but one I rarely felt I was forging my own version of, as I had with Odyssey’s Kassandra.
One antidote to the lack of side-quests is the impact of your settlement, and the time you’ll spend getting to know its growing community. For those who remember Assassin’s Creed 3’s frontier village, the vibe is very similar – and, ultimately it feels closer to that than the kind of RPG hub where everyone has something new to say every time you visit. Still, every so often, a new quest will pop up involving one of your villagers, and typically these slice of life stories offer an enjoyable palate cleanser from the drama of the main campaign. You’ll go hunting or sightseeing, sometimes to be rewarded with an unexpected new ability or item as a result, or other times just to get closer to a character who might otherwise be a vendor. Some of these characters can be romanced (there are a few options for flings outside the village too), and some can become a permanent partner for Eivor. It’s a step up from the fleeting romance options introduced in Odyssey, but it still feels mechanical. And while one particular romance option does impact the game’s story – one of the few times I felt able to see something of my own version of Eivor play out – this thread still felt abrupt.
Otherwise, your settlement features a bustling population you can mostly ignore, unless you need their services or access to one of the game’s various systems they control. There’s a blacksmith who can upgrade gear quality, boat workers who can trick out your longship, or hunters who reward you for slaughtering wildlife. Assassin’s Creed Origins fans will recognise a familiar face once again providing quests to let you grind out items from the game’s paid cosmetic packs. Other characters here have even less to do – the initially interesting Hidden One named Hytham, for example, or Roman fanatic Octavian, both essentially act as places to dump collectables you find when exploring the open world. I love having a settlement with so many familiar faces in it, I just wish there was more for them to do.