Long-running franchises tend to go one of two ways: they evolve or they stagnate. I’ll be the first one to say that doing what works repeatedly doesn’t necessarily lead to stagnation; Pokemon still works, after all, and it still functions on the same basic concept as the original games from back in the 1990s. Evolution tends to be more exciting, though, and we saw that with the Assassin’s Creed series back when Origins brought some RPG flavor into our stealth action. The later Odyssey did more of the same, taking what worked and offering much more of it.
Now we’ve got Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the latest historical open-world epic which serves as another step forward in the evolutionary chain, changing some things here and enhancing other things there to make the best iteration of the concept yet. Let’s take a look.
In the late 9th century, Viking warrior Eivor battles with their family, the Raven Clan, against other clans and bandits in the snowy fjords of Norway. Everything is great! There’s tons of battle! Loads of mead! Tickets to the Norse afterlife paradise of Valhalla for everyone! That all changes when the King of Norway makes plans to bring peace to the land, though, particularly when its at the expense of Eivor’s clan. Eivor and company are having no part of that, so they decide to head off to build their own Viking paradise elsewhere.
Turns out there’s a nice place called Britain that’s not too far away. It’s got delicious food, abundant natural resources and plenty of monasteries to burn to the ground to obtain said food and resources. We follow Eivor and their pals as they get to raiding – and get mixed up, as you might expect, with the Hidden Ones and the Order of the Ancients.
At its heart, Valhalla plays a lot like the previous two AC games, Origins and Odyssey. It takes the formula that those games developed and sharpens it like a head-chopping axe, though, and it’s these refinements that make the game shine. Obvious issues have been addressed, conveniences have been implemented and the result is a game that feels like the best moments of the previous two slammed together.
Case in point: one big complaint about Odyssey was that the sheer amount of content made the game drag a bit. The Greek adventure was a massive game absolutely loaded to the brim with things to do. That’s a good thing, sure, but it also meant that much of the content felt similar and that, in the interests of keeping the player engaged, rewards were distributed at something of a trickle. It was possible to load up Odyssey, spend an hour or two playing, then stop for the day and feel like you hadn’t really accomplished much at all.
Valhalla addresses this in several ways. First, there’s now several different means of upgrading Eivor’s efficacy. Odyssey had a skill tree and collectible equipment, both of which were heavily level-gated to ensure a slow and steady pace of progression. Valhalla, meanwhile, dispenses with level-locks altogether. Eivor still gains experience and skill points, but the skill tree is now enormous and it’s possible to progress through it in whatever direction you please. If there’s a particular ability you really love and you’d like to get it early, well, go for it!
Remember how Odyssey felt a little punishing until you got the ability to avoid fall damage? Valhalla has that too, but you can get it within the first few hours if you go the right direction in the passive tree. You might be missing out on other upgrades you’d like, but if there’s a particular convenience feature or ability you’d like to have, you can do it.
The lack of level restrictions also applies to equipment; this is another system where a lot of beneficial changes have occurred. Rather than infinite piles of randomized loot, all of which is level-gated so you can find things that you can’t use before spending another hour or two leveling up, the gear in Valhalla is custom-built. There’s still plenty of it, but you’re not going to find enormous heaps of junk to dismantle or sell. Instead, each weapon and armor piece you find is perfectly usable in and of itself, not to mention you can do so right from the second you obtain it. Your gear is upgradable as well using resources you find throughout the world, so that dagger you find in the first hour or two might be something you keep forever if you end up enjoying it.
What’s more, Eivor’s now capable of dual-wielding all of these weapons (up to and including dual shields and even dual two-handed weapons with the right skills!) so you’re allowed to fight in whatever way you see fit. Combining your choice of gear with your choice of passive skills allows you to customize the game’s playstyle in whatever way you’d like.
Speaking of which, there’s one other little customization option I really enjoyed. As you might expect, you can play as either a male or female version of Eivor. Unlike Odyssey, though, you can switch between the two whenever you want! You don’t even have to restart the game, as you would have in Odyssey if you wanted to switch between Alexios or Kassandra! This is a great touch, especially since the two characters were clearly given different voice direction, with male Eivor supporting a sly and stealthy playstyle and female Eivor screaming battle cries all over the place.
It’s worth mentioning that Valhalla plays its Viking influences pretty openly, including when we’re talking about gameplay. This is still an Assassin’s Creed game! You can still stealth about, including using a toggleable hood to minimize attention from enemies, and you’re still perfectly capable of obliterating an entire camp’s worth of baddies should you choose. It’s a little more difficult in this game compared to the previous two, given that Eivor’s raven isn’t capable of tracking every enemy in an area, but the loot-seeking pulse function now serves this purpose as well so it’s not the end of the world. If you’d like to lean hard into being an assassin, you can do that.
But…well, you’re a viking! You can sneak around, sure, but Eivor Is absolutely fantastic at combat compared to previous AC protagonists and the game would very much like it if you murdered and pillaged. Grab those weapons and get to chopping! Combat feels like a much more refined version of what we saw in Origins and Odyssey, with a new stamina system designed to encourage accuracy rather than flailing. There’s plenty of new and brutal special abilities to use as well, including an iconic ground-and-pound that remains useful throughout the game. Getting caught and having to fight no longer feels like a punishment, especially when new activities like raiding monasteries for resources are available to encourage you to hack away.
Raiding’s just one option for your viking adventures, of course, and there are plenty of other activities to check out. You can go fishing! You can play dice! You can…engage in a rap battle with other vikings? That last one, called flyting, is essentially the insult swordfighting minigame from the Monkey Island series and it’s just about as hilarious. There’s no shortage of things to do in Valhalla. Side quests are also readily available, though it’s worth noting that Valhalla focuses on an exploration-style experience as per that mode from Odyssey, so you’ll want to pay attention to NPCs and explore rather than relying too heavily on waypoints. That might take a little getting used to if you went with the more traditional non-exploration mode in that game, but generally it leads to a more organic experience.
As one of the representative games from the next generation of consoles, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that a lot of time was spent on Valhalla’s production values. It looks fantastic! You’ll need a PS5, XBSX or a hardcore PC to get the most out of it, but even when its settings are restrained Valhalla still impresses. Fans of the recent Ghost of Tsushima on PS4 will appreciate the sheer amount of particle effects, leaves and snow all over the place. Valhalla sounds great as well, though you might miss the variety of hilarious accents from Odyssey. On the performance side of things, Valhalla does alright if you’ve got the power for it, but expect the odd crash here and there until a few patches show up.
Crashes aside, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla looks great, plays great and offers an absolute ton of enjoyable content to hack and slash your way through. It’s a superlative experience for Assassin’s Creed fans that, as this series often does, offers an interesting historical setting and plenty of lore to read up on as you go about your business. There’s a considerable amount of actual gaming here that should tidy you over for months, and if this is the quality we can expect from the coming generation of game consoles, we’ve got plenty to look forward to. Grab your axe and go a-viking.