Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is the first in a three-part ‘spin off’ series—and it must be called a spin off, because Chronicles: China represents the most significant departure from the Assassin’s Creed formula since its inception. But the shift into 2.5D platformer territory seems natural and is an interesting (and unexpectedly creative) addition to the franchise.
Of particular interest is protagonist Shao Jun, one of the few surviving members of the Chinese Assassin Brotherhood, who is the second female lead Assassin’s Creed franchise. Shao Jun could easily have been male and Chronicles: China would be functionally identical; in only one scene is anything remotely related to her gender relevant. Set in a period with serious gender divides—and with Shao Jun being a former concubine to a previous Emperor—Chronicles: China pushes the equality wagon a little further up the hill. It is, however, particularly disappointing that the Assassin’s Creed franchise has relegated its two (both very superb) female leads to spin offs.
The open world has been traded in for a more linear approach: each of the eight levels/chapters is broken up into smaller sections; upon passing through each of the mini-checkpoints, Shao Jun is awarded points based on the type and success of her approach. Full stealth was often too frustrating (though, understandably, worth more points) so I tended to aim for the assassin-style: minimal detections but with kills. The sliding kills were by far the most satisfying, but Shao Jun has a lot of other impressive combat and movement abilities built around her rope dart, sword, and hidden shoe-blade. Reducing the weapon count to these three items—with four other pieces of ‘equipment’ to help distract guards—means that each feels purposeful.
The structure also means that Chronicles: China is more accessible: the control scheme is simple, which makes it easy to play through a level in twenty or so minutes and get the full range of Assassin’s Creed experiences. The stealth, free-running, assassinations, fights, treasure hunting—each level offers everything, so there’s absolutely no hassle involved. It is one of those simple pick-up-and-play titles—making the lack of mobile/handheld console options surprising.
But having Chronicles: China on a big screen means being able to fully appreciate how incredible the art style is. Every scene looks hand painted, and even the actions—Shao Jun’s movement, the blood spray from an assassinated enemy, the flickering flame trails—look like literal art in motion. I liked the art so much that I conceded to the main menu pop-up and connected my uPlay account so I could purchase the wallpaper pack with uPoints (or whatever they’re called).
I made the mistake of not turning on the subtitles before beginning the game, so Shao Jun’s whisper-quiet narration of her quest to eliminate the Templar influence in China and revive her extinguished brotherhood felt even less complex than it actually is. Shao Jun and her master return from Europe, having met with Ezio Auditore da Firenze—the series’ absolute golden child—and then proceed to smash across China, destabilise a puppet Emperor, and prevent a Hunnic incursion. Narratively, there is very little, but it was actually quite refreshing—the emphasis was firmly on satisfying mechanics and there was less (though still some) focus on trying to include any halfway relevant historical character or event.
I recall a panel at the 2014 Brisbane Writers’ Festival where Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer for Asssassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, discussed the team’s focus on infusing every element of the game with the core tenets of the series; Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China has adhered to those tenets in the purest of ways, stripping away anything that could be construed as convoluted.
Chronicles: China is short—I completed it in only a few hours—but with a cheap price and a handy new game plus mode, there’s certainly a lot of stabby-runny-climby value to be found. It also sets the tone for a new (supplementary) direction for the series; creating shorter spotlights means that interesting time periods and locations that might not have enough depth for a main series game can still be fleshed out. (And Chronicles: China is another step closer to that Assassin’s Creed in Japan title fans clamour for.)
It is, of course, a different experience from the main series and might not offer the familiar spread of features. But as far as ninja-esque platformers go, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is superbly enjoyable. After all, how often can you be an awesome female Chinese assassin kicking butts and taking names?
This review was originally published at Impulse Gamer.