Assassin's Creed's hitmen have had a rough time recently. Just look at poor Arno. When he wasn't talking to Parisian rioters who were missing their faces, he was struggling to poke through masses of bodies outside Notre Dame as the framerate got Quasimodo ugly. Thankfully, this 2.5D stealth platformer absolves Ubi of many of Unity's sins by being refreshingly pared back.
Chronicles is all about killing people sneakily. There is some pleasingly hefty melee combat, but by and large your journey through the 2D ramparts of Chinese fortresses and the odd Black Flag-aping port is all about stealth. It feels like the first game in the series where the process of slaughtering your enemies unseen is very much the main deal, and you aren't asked to climb 73 church steeples before you get to the good parts.
To match its streamlined sneakery, the game's plot is stripped of much of the usual pomp and heaving canon that has come to weigh the Creed series down so. You play Shao Jun: a former Concubine of Emperor Zhengde and now a 16th-century member of the Chinese Assassins' Brotherhood. Cutscenes play out like short motion comics, and like the rest of the game, look like a murdery watercolour come to life. All you have to worry about is running, jumping and staying out of sight while occasionally whacking members of a dastardly group known as the Tigers.
Chronicles is a knock-off of 2012's Mark Of The Ninja, granted. Yet at least it's a successful one. There's a lovely symbiotic relationship at play between Shao's killing tools and Chronicles' level design. Make it to the Forbidden City, and Shao has to nimbly switch between noise darts, firecrackers and throwing knifes to sleuth through heavily guarded areas where every enemy placement forces you to continually adapt.
Shao's special abilities make things easier, and a rhythm quickly develops. Step one: use Eagle Vision to pull the camera out to observe the patrol patterns of three floors worth of Ming Dynasty goons. Step two: avoid detection by sliding in and out of cover, hiding behind bamboo curtains and squeezing up against pillars, with graceful stealthy dashes. Step three: evade or eviscerate guards along the way.
The violent option is much more fun. You can blind musket-carrying guards with a flung firecracker, rappel up into the rafters like a certain Mr Fisher, and strike from above with the retractable Rope Dart. Perhaps you'd rather combine parkour and pummelling with a slide kill: an ultra swanky move that sees Shao roll onto her knees, slit a throat, then carry on sprinting forward in one seamless transition. Murder may be optional for much of Chronicles' running time, but it's best played weapons-free.
There's a pleasing amount of scope for how you approach any given scenario. Some scenes are naturally more suited to pockets of controlled aggression or outright slaughter, but it's entirely possible to finish the game while only offing your main Tiger targets. With levels flowing between dozens of 30-60 second segments, the game is constantly grading you on the tactics you deploy. Make it through a section without being seen or assassinating anyone and you're rewarded a Shadow medal. Kill a few dudes but avoid detection and an Assassin rating awaits. Decide to indiscriminately butcher everyone in a 200ft radius and Chronicles classes you as a Brawler. Each award is further broken down with gold, silver and bronze rankings, and while you can still be rewarded for murdering without taking damage, Shadow spits out the most points. And what prizes to said points win? Increased health, quicker assassinations, bigger pouches for your selection of blades and other perks with which to make hits easier.
Some unpleasant Assassin's hallmarks remain, sure. While controlling your athletic wet work artist is mostly free from hassle, movement always feels a tad smudgy. The series' reliance on drawn-out animations doesn't help. It's also hard to overlook the fact that almost every good idea Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China has is plundered from the more satisfying and stylish Mark of the Ninja. Still, when Shao gets her hooks (and toe blades) into you, it's hard to resist.