Tempted by the promise of an epic Viking saga for the ages, a wave of positive reviews, and a need for something new to play on my PlayStation 5 (sorry), I bought Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. It’s an enormous open-world action RPG that casts you as Eivor of the Raven Clan, on a mission to conquer England during the Dark Ages.
There’s a lot to like. The snowy mountains and sparse settlements of Norway serve as an ideal tutorial environment. By the time you load up the longship to settle in a beautifully realized and atmospheric Anglo-Saxon England, you feel like a real Viking raider. The forests of England are teeming with wildlife, and the towns are peppered with Roman ruins. You have to raid monasteries to build your settlement, and you form alliances to spread influence.
Valhalla has several exciting and well-told missions. I'm particularly fond of my time with the sons of Ragnar, and King Oswald as he laid claim to East Anglia. The game's sound design also deserves plaudits, with a catchy theme and musical cues that draw you into the story and forewarn action.
But what should be a glorious celebration of Viking history and culture is often bogged down by bland and repetitive gameplay. The game also carries too much baggage from Ubisoft's long-running series—Assassin's Creed.
Like most open-world games today, Valhalla tries to do far too much, and in the process stretches itself too thin.
The idea that we should accept bugs in open-world games is tenable when the game is truly special, but there's a lack of polish in Assassin's Creed Valhalla that hints at a game rushed to capitalize on next-gen console releases.
This particular point might be specific to the PlayStation 5 version of the game, but even months after release, Valhalla is filled with bugs. Visual glitches are common, from missing lip-syncing and ugly clipping to bizarre physics. The sound can be muddy, and characters sometimes talk over one another.
Even basic navigation can be annoying. For instance, pressing X lets you climb over anything, except for the things you inexplicably can’t. There’s a lack of visual clues or logic to inaccessible areas. Swinging and successfully hitting a stationary crate, rock, or pot is often surprisingly tough, and climbing into a high open window is one of the hardest challenges in the game.
I encountered several game-halting progression bugs in various missions, with some non-player characters refusing to talk to me and one who wandered off into the woods after being interrupted during an infuriating escort mission.
It's difficult to appreciate the beauty of this world when it always takes two or three tries to hit a rock.
All Filler, No Killer
Valhalla has a designed-by-committee feel, with activities and mechanics that echo better games. Side activities, like fishing, feel distinctly underbaked, and much of the game feels like filler. Paper-thin side missions are little more than momentary diversions, often accompanied by a letter of explanation. Most are predictable, forgettable, and take less than a few minutes.
One mission with warring brothers is solved by setting fire to their disputed barley silo, which also burns down both their homes and bizarrely results in the whole family cheering with joy.
Many of these side missions should never have made it into the final game. It’s also jarring to encounter a pro-baseball player with a joke Viking name in 9th century England (Otta Sluggasson, if you must know, who is voiced by Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers). These types of things should have been cut, but others could have been combined to create stories with more depth and challenge.
Rinse and Repeat
Valhalla’s gameplay can also drift into repetition. Puzzles and mysteries repeat ad nauseam: You find the hidden entrance, move the shelving unit, shoot the lock. Easy.
Every enemy camp is populated by soldiers with identical tactics. They wait patiently for their turn while you slice up their chums. Even the initially impressive dramatic death animations, where you cleave someone’s head off or impale them on their own spear, get tiring over time.
Viking raids and set-piece battles should be the core of the game, but see one and you’ve seen them all. Your crew and the enemy defenders are just set dressing. You only need them to open large chests for plunder. That's about it.
Too Much Baggage
As the 12th major installment in a series that totals 22 games, Assassin's Creed Valhalla is burdened with series lore. The presence of the overarching AC universe feels forced; it’s out of place like the bejeweled blade on Eivor’s wrist.
If you've never played an Assassin's Creed game, what joins the series together is the Animus. It's a futuristic, high-tech device that allows modern-day adventurers to use ancestral DNA to experience the memories of people in the past. Unfortunately, it's difficult to keep track of the (stale) modern-day storyline. We are repeatedly torn out of the beautifully crafted historical setting to engage in boring missions set in 2020. If I wanted to read emails and make awkward small talk with coworkers, I’d go to work.
Valhalla would be so much better if the developers weren't saddled with the task of making it fit the series. It detracts from the game.
Choices Make No Difference
In cutscenes, Valhalla lets you make certain choices that can impact the outcome of the game. But for the most part these decisions lead to the same dialog, so they feel meaningless.
This pretense of choice is ripe throughout the game. For example, you can complete main quest branches in whatever order you like, but you’re going to end up doing all of them so it makes no difference. And with the nebulous skills tree, pick a direction and you’ll find a lot of the same options.
The world is also teeming with loot. With every raid, kill, or completed quest comes treasure, most of which is useless. You can offload these bagfuls of wooden buckets and old pillows on hapless shopkeepers in return for silver, but there’s nothing to spend your money on. You can level up your weapons and armor to be as tough as any you find, too, so why bother seeking them? Rather depressingly, Ubisoft has locked some of the best-looking gear behind a paywall. Microtransactions should have no place in a $60 game.
Valhalla tells enjoyable stories, has inventive ideas, is dazzling to look at, and debuts excellent voice acting (especially by Magnus Bruun as the male version of Eivor). It's a shame the developers were stuck to the confines of the Assassin's Creed series and couldn't give us the epic Viking adventure that was promised.
Pick up the game if you want to spend hours in a wonderful, reimagined world. Just make sure to hurry through the main missions, and skip the rest. Otherwise, you'll end up like me. I'm closing in on 50 hours, but Valhalla has become a chore. I can barely muster another raid.