VIDEO: My favorite Vahalla sidequests, also available on YouTube.
The first thing I do in an open world game is ditch the main quest and bolt into the woods. This is how these things go. So I used my six hours of free roam time in Assassin's Creed Valhalla's Ledecestrescire region to test its scope. I went looking for organic points of interest to pull me around like a curious, dumb meat magnet, hoping to find distinct sidequests that color in the character and culture of the setting. Seeing that this is the third Assassin's Creed of this type—a more RPG-tinged open world game trying to cut a similar silhouette to The Witcher 3—I figured it must also be the best so far, right?
Broadly speaking, Valhalla is going to hit a lot like Odyssey did, sans the open sea sailing. Like Odyssey, which I spent 100-plus hours in, I'm still digging the premium cable TV treatment of the history here, and the characters are all pretty fun so far. Female Eivor's gravel-throated performance is especially good. We might have a Cassandra usurper on our hands.
But this is an Assassin's Creed game made in a very familiar shape, and the sidequests (labeled "mysteries") still can't compare with anything in the best RPGs, although they're sillier and more diverse than what you get from more recent Ubisoft stuff.
I know because I played 15 of Valhalla's sidequests, a decent sample size which includes all but two in the Ledecestrescire region. (One I couldn't find, and one that was too boring to bother with.) Let's look back at them, make a few sound judgements, and figure out if turning over—or stacking—every stone in Valhalla will be worth our time. Spoilers from here on, obviously.
Seals of Approval
Love the presentation here, but the actual interactions? Puh. I'm hoofing it through the woods as a Viking does and spot some psychedelic mushrooms just sitting there and figure, ah, what the hell, a Viking needs to have a little fun now and then, so I hork some down and take a trip to Lil Valhalla.
It is, of course, a realm of seals and chromatic aberration. My early twenties come flooding back, but are quickly washed out when I realize I'm just playing a simple game of follow the barking seal through the cosmic gate. Once I walk through a few gates in the order loudly barked at me by the very needy and bossy seal, my trip ends and reality melts back in.
I'm hoping this one was just a tutorialized example of many better trips to come where I truly need to listen and observe in order to figure out which gate to enter each time, but who knows? Does Ubisoft trust its players to have an attention span? I do appreciate the finisher though: my Viking has an epiphany and says something wise about war. Overall a cute distraction that I'm hoping becomes more challenging and bizarre later on.
I run into someone in the woods who's hallucinating and rambling on about his 'saga' and 'achieving greatness'. I think he had what I had, but no cosmic seals are involved. He runs off and for some reason Eivor chooses to protect the guy as he stumbles into an enemy camp and picks a fight with his bare fists. After we murder several men together, the guy collapses from exhaustion, still going on about destiny. I pick up his limp ass and drag him home.
I guess the big ideas here were: A) These folks sure did a lot of psychedelics, eh? And B) Let's have the player kill some people while tethered to an NPC. I'm not feeling it. There aren't enough ingredients to stand out from all the killing and psychedelia already going on. If I consider playing another 80 or more hours of this, it's difficult to imagine holding onto the memory of this dope tripping through the forest.
It's a perspective puzzle. A mostly harmless change of pace that works for me because I'm such a sucker for these things. I blast that eagle vision, move around the scene, and tweak the camera to connect disparate lines and shapes to create a larger image. My reward: a skill point and a nice panoramic view of an old stone construction. There's even a little note nearby that explains the spiritual significance of the symbol. Not the worst pit stop to make, a self-contained medieval-flavored puzzle for a little XP treat.
This quest rocks
If you shop at REI and call yourself a "riverdog", then you'll love this sidequest. Granted, it is actually a nice change of pace compared to the lot here. You stack stones. Stack 'em high. In whatever arrangement or order you like. And that's it. Take in the lovely scenery, listen to a short conversation from Eivor's childhood, and just play. Talk about world-building, eh?
More dink-around quests for taking a breather in games please! Encourage players to consider geology, geography, topography, and the totality of creation—but if they get as far as catching their breath and making a cute stone pile, that's good enough. I really liked this one.
Medieval insult rap battle
I've never looked forward to a series of repeating Ubisoft sidequests like the flyting duels. They're basically medieval insult rap battles, little improvised limerick showdowns that reward you with Charisma points. Once you find one of these guys you'll talk a little shit, throw down some money, then get to it in a timed series of dialogue choices. Your opponent spits out an insult in a certain meter and your goal is to choose the one that best fits the rhythm and contains the best personal digs. Nothing is quite as clever as The Secret of Monkey Island's insult sword-fighting, though the vocabulary is still pretty broad in Valhalla. It's been a minute since I've heard cadger, milksop, or louse used as pejoratives.
In the end you're basically making your dialogue lockpick more powerful, opening up some persuasive options in certain conversations by stacking your Charisma stat. Even if you don't get microscopic control over the insults spewed, I was smiling throughout this one. Looking forward to the rest.
In this quest I discover a secret meeting of local Christians getting ready to head for the hills. They aren't happy with this "ungodly" war and wanna bail, no matter who's king. But before they can dip, the leader of the bunch says she needs her crosier back, which was confiscated by soldiers dispatched from Mercia, one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the era. Eivor, ever the burly taskrabbit, agrees to help because Mercian soldiers "make good practice."
Finally, a sidequest that directly supports the main questline of the region. We're trying to take out the existing Mercian king and replace him with a buddy, so I dig this little scenelet. The vox populi are pretty pissed about the state of affairs, so they help me kill some Mercian men, charging in with bare fists after I lead with my daggers and axes. Clearly, they ain't cowards and have the courage of their convictions. Eivor might be a blasphemer in their eyes, but she still respects a confident show of force.
We find the crosier, sprint for the border, and my little army seeks refuge elsewhere. I don't know that it will end well for them at the rate of wanton bloodshed I've seen in this short demo so far. And hey, it's not the most elegant murder-men quest framework, but I like the narrative wrapping even if it does feel a little rushed.
To get into the BBB, an exclusive fight club, I have to find out the secret passphrase and tell it to a man who speaks exclusively in rhyme for the next 30 minutes of our time together. Oddly, the passphrase is not something I steal from someone else in the world. It's just sitting on a note hanging in a nearby tree. Not a satisfying solution.
As part of the BBB, the first guy I'm up against is The Wall, Edward of Lincoln. He goes down easy, a basic brawler. The next guy, Tom o'Bedlam, prefers headbutts to punches and throws himself like a ragdoll across the arena at me. His special move is a butt-butt, where he spins and folds down to spear you with his ass. Nice one, Tom. Last is Thickskull, the quest giver himself. One or two hits from the guy depletes my health bar, so I go down a couple times before finding a rhythm and taking him down.
And that's it. I'm invited back whenever I like, but I'm not sure this boys club is for me. A tender note in the corner expounds on the warm companionship between the brawlers, though it's not enough to keep me around. I'm noticing Valhalla's quests often open on an interesting premise, but rarely do much to wrap up neatly or gift you more than a skill point. At least my dodge timing is better now.
The Twit Saga, Part 1
Assassin's Creed casts everyone that isn't the player as either a noble, principled leader type, or a complete dolt. Enter the latter, two brothers practicing their raiding skills by setting their own house on fire. Except they can't because one of the brothers forgot to bring the torch. While they go on bickering, I toss my own torch onto the roof. Pretty nice of Ubisoft to trust the player to burn down the house without a prompt or an icon. Arson: it's creative problem-solving.
What follows is a slapstick window into a pillaging lifestyle, a fun if not disconcerting way to skirt around the grim reality of murder and destruction through the lens of two incompetent dummies. After thanking me for the arson, the brothers note that they upped the stakes by storing their most prized possessions within, including their mother's axe. But they aren't strong enough to bust down the door, so I break in from the back and find the key to let them in, only for the brothers to suddenly discover their mother's prized axe was outside the whole time.
I'm not hugging my sides from laughing, but these two are stupid enough to love. We'll meet them again, too. This is only part one of The Twit Saga, as the quest completion screen notes. I'm all for some recurring comic relief characters, though they stand out less then they ought in an ocean of quests gunning (and stumbling) for a laugh.
I didn't know they were just doing a sex thing, OK?
I hear someone crying out that a brute has her trapped in a "sultry tower"—and upon reflection that should have been my first clue. She continues to cry out as I creep towards the alleged abductor. I can lock on, but he won't attack, a clever confusion tactic on the designer's part here. It feels like his AI broke, but it turns out he's just playing his part: some horny guy just trying to please his partner. But I didn't know, so I backhand the guy and he runs off wailing only for the tower maid to explain they were just trying to get saucy.
She's pissed for approximately half a second before Eivor's bold intervention becomes the new windblown horny mountain to crest. She gets back to screaming, this time about how she's a king's daughter that's just run away with all her jewels in tow. Like a moth to flame, a videogame grunt shows up for Eivor to outright murder. And that's it.
The whole thing feels like an improv sketch on account of the pure convenience of everyone being in the right place at the right time, the absurd premise, and Eivor saying 'Yes and…" throughout. I'm not bored or upset, just amused on a low level. The context here: Ubisoft's flagship series, a grim historical setting, and I'm hanging out at the open mic. If only I had a horn of Coors. Am I dreaming? Why is this happening? Silly, interesting setup, but bewildering denouement.
I'm not allowed to talk about this one. It was cool. Big Assassin's Creed 2 side stuff vibes. One for the Old AC Slobs, especially if you like deeply stupid but sincerely fun Assassin's Creed lore. I'm a prime target for the stuff.
My least favorite sidequest is the only one I don't finish. I run into a guy making sauces by the river and he asks for help finding eels. But I can't find any eels. I look for too long in my precious six-hour demo, which as it turns out is also too long to look for eels in any context unless it is your job to look for eels. I'm pinging with my eagle vision, scanning from the sky with my raven, but coming up empty, so I call it quits.
With more motivation to find them than 'help a stranger make sauce' I might've kept looking, but, phew, this one nosedived quickly. I love sauce on my food, but I prefer my sidequests with extra stakes and lean pacing.
One for the kids
I hate this quest so much. It's bad on every level: it's a tedious chore, tells me nothing about the setting I don't know already, and reads like it was written in a windowless room by a bunch of stinky nephews.
I'm wandering around the sewers because it's a videogame when I hear a voice. "Eggs! Eggs! Eggs!" After stepping over a few vipers I find a woman hiding beneath her home, now claimed by Mercian soldiers. She's upset and seeking vengeance, and requests that I find her a couple viper eggs. OK, sure, but why? I'm a videogame protagonist so I say "Yes, and..." and go viper hunting which means I wander around the area and scan with my raven to find snakes to kill.
Drops aren't one-to-one, which extends the hunt, but eventually I give her the eggs only for her to demand more viper eggs. This happens a couple times. I run out of vipers to kill so I leave the area and come back to spawn more. After killing around 20 vipers I give her at least 12 eggs. She eats them all and rips a dangerous fart. A green haze fills the room and floats up, presumably into the Mercian soldiers' noses which saves the day, I guess.
The whole thing reads like it was made to be memed. Check the /r/assassinscreed subreddit in the first week and you'll see a couple Egg Celebration posts. Don't get me wrong, I love a good fart joke, but not if they're set up with a bad chore and no sensible, interesting narrative context. It doesn't have to be a huge character moment or touch on the setting in a big way, but if the payoff is just a big fart, don't make me wade around a riverbed for 10 minutes to hear it.
A grave sacrifice
I expected more out of this scary gravestone. It's a pretty badass gravestone, too, rough and tall and engraved with strange runes, flanked by various animal bits and little effigies. Something spooky would surely happen after I brought the gravestone three rabbit feet, as it commanded through the occult magicks of videogame UI.
Nah. After killing about eight rabbits (foot drops aren't one-to-one), I find enough feet and bring them to the scary gravesite. Boo! A terrifying quest complete notification. And to my absolute horror, I also I get a skill point. That's about it. No communing with the dead. No voices whispering at the back of my skull. The scariest thing? There's probably a bunch of these boring hunting quests in Valhalla.
New friends, old songs
If I'm hearing music in the distance, I'm already primed for some good sidequesting. I track down the melody and find a retired raider picking away at a tiny harp. He invites me to sit next to the fire for a chat.
Eivor recognizes the tune from her own time on the water and the two get to talking about the longship raiding life. Turns out the guy was recently cast out, not as punishment, but because he's too old and frail to keep up with young warriors, which is surprising given his healthy stature. He's a bit anxious about his future now, thinking he would've died in battle long ago, and Eivor reassures him to just keep writing tunes and go with the flow. It's a nice exchange that colors in the deep respect the Norse people have for warriors, including some high expectations for their physical prowess.
He's grateful for the chat and gifts Eivor his house key, saying he won't need his old raiding gear anymore. Finding the house on my own isn't difficult. Repton is a small village and Eivor usually calls out nearby locked doors. I find a bunch of loot inside (want) and a crate of old songs (don't want), which kicks off a nice optional end to the quest. I carry the songs down through Repton and back to the old raider, which endears him even more to Eivor. He promises to tell Odin I'm cool when he eventually croaks. Nice guy. Nice little quest.
I'll just leaf now
This was easily my favorite. In the distance, I spot a little girl standing beneath a tree staring at something, and I'm immediately curious to find out what she's fixated on. It's a single leaf that still hangs on the otherwise barren tree. Her father is gone, has been for a while, and I'm thinking he's done for. But she thinks there's still hope until the last leaf falls from the tree. Oh boy.
Given the option to reinforce her delusions or not, I roleplay the realist Viking and tell her daddy is probably gone for good. This upsets her, obviously, so she plants her butt on the ground beneath the leaf, drowning in hope. I choose to make a hard lesson even harder, pulling out my bow to shoot the leaf down. Eivor says it's for the best, but the girl's heartbroken and pissed anyway (fair), and storms off. I pick up the leaf as a little keepsake and leave her to her fate. I wonder if her dad is actually gone.
We've got it all here: a ruthless opportunity for roleplay, no clear objective signposts, and a tragic story nested nicely in the greater historical context. And it all unfolds in a minute or two. No boring collection tasks, thin soldier-killing setups, or convoluted puzzle types I know I'll have to repeat a dozen times over. I'll take more precious keepsake destruction and difficult life lessons, please.