Assassin's Creed Chronicles consolidates the series' epic tale of parkouring and stabbing into two-and-a-half dimensions, while broadening its perspective to even more historical eras and exotic locals. Rather than focusing on just one time period, Chronicles will release in separately sold episodes, with a new character and time period for each. The first of these stars a female assassin in Ming Dynasty China, the next is set in 19th century Russia, and the third in colonial India.
Based on the handful of levels I've played at a recent preview event, the results so far are okay. Not as good as the best Assassin's Creeds or the 2D games that inspired Chronicles, but okay!
It's a 2D stealth platformer clearly inspired by, and not as good as, Mark of the Ninja. That's fine: Mark of the Ninja is hard to top and I could suffer a few imitators. Mostly, it's nice to see an Assassin's Creed game focus on stealth, which has been pushed to the margins as each sequel became bloated with more features. Chronicles is the first Assassin's Creed in a long time that had me hiding and assassinating in a manner that justifies the series' signature cloak and dagger.
Enemy lines of sight and hearing radii, as in Mark of the Ninja, are represented plainly on screen as cones and circles. Trial and error are sort of baked into stealth games, so this information let me make good decisions and minimize uncertainty.
The shapes are rendered in Assassin's Creed's familiar motif of clean software interface layered on top of the historical era. In the past, this has created an interesting contrast. In Chronicles, it seems pasted on, and not as functional as the visualizations in Mark of the Ninja. Ledges don't always break line of sight as you'd expect and sometimes they surprised me by penetrating objects.
However, they worked fine most of the time, which allowed me to sneak around the edges of the guards' awareness. I hopped across rooftops, slipped into shadowy doorways, and waited for guards to pass by so I could reach out, shank them, and pull them into the darkness.
As I progressed, I collected a few more tools that allowed me to handle more complex rooms with more guards. Firecrackers stun and distract, whistles lure, and throwing knifes are best at cutting ropes that will drop heavy things on guards' heads.
I also learned a few new moves along the way, like the badass ability to slide, stab, and instantly kill an enemy mid-run. This was especially useful during an extended platforming sequence in which I escaped a burning port in China, jumping from ship to dock with the flames fast behind me. It was the flashiest section I played, and its mix of platforming and killing was where Chronicles found its grooviest groove. Neither one is remarkable on its own, but they came together nicely.
As long as I was doing well, Chronicles was moving along at a nice pace. Each room or section was like a little puzzle I could solve with different combinations of platforming, timing, and gadgets, and since I was rated bronze, silver, or gold for every encounter (the stealthier the better), I always tried to sneak in and out like a ninja assassin. When things took an unexpected turn, I could mostly improvise a way out, which was hectic and fun.
When I really messed up, or in situations that left little room for error, Chronicles became stubbornly locked into repetitive cycles. There was one hallway where I had to sneak between two guards with very precise timing. Most rooms had a bush I could hide in or several routes where I could lose the guards, but in this room there was no way to retreat if I was caught.
I could theoretically fight my way through the guards that ganged up on me, but I didn't want to because it was pretty damn hard and not that rewarding. Blocking and parrying is the solution to every problem, but extra long beats between inputs made for awkward timing. I assume that they're meant to give me time to decide if I want to return the blow or leap over the enemy and get some space, but the beat is just a beat too long, which creates confusion and unnatural hitches in the flow of combat.
Chronicles forgoes the series' realistic look for an art style that's mostly desperate to differentiate itself from previous Assassin's Creeds, but it's not as creative as Ubisoft seems to think it is. It falls somewhere between the thick comic book outlines and light water colors, but nothing pops.
An Assassin's Creed in China, for example, could be the visual kick in the butt I think the series needs, but in practice felt more like checking boxes than taking advantage of the opportunities. There are pagodas and the stumpy mountains in the background that vaguely signify "Asia" but it doesn't feel like a real place, let alone one that's embraced like Brotherhood's Rome, or even Mark of the Ninja's version of same thing.
Each of the episodes also has their own little visual flares, which is a neat idea that isn't coming together yet. It's weird that when you go to the Indian setting it suddenly starts to add floral trail effects to sword swings, for example. It's out of character for the series as a whole and doesn't feel well integrated into Chronicles regardless of the wider context.
Everything about Chronicles felt stuck between wanting to respect the main series and wanting to do something completely different. I'm not sure if going boldly in one direction or the other would make it better, but every choice it made felt hesitant. It was kind of fun solving small assassination puzzles, but mostly it reminded me that Mark of the Ninja was a great game.