Let’s not bury the lede, shall we? Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is fantastic. It’s beautiful to behold in motion, and the saga it weaves reminds me so much of why I love reading about this time period – both fictional and historical. Ubisoft have pulled off a great feat with Valhalla, and, while not perfect, certainly has me wanting more even after almost 70 hours in Viking-age England.
In my review in progress, I touched on a few things I thought AC did well – the world of England is beautiful to behold, and while I have some issues with the RPG elements of Valhalla feeling a smidge gated behind power levels, as I progressed even further that stance softened a bit. But let’s back up and cover the basics.
Starting Your Saga
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla follows the story of the Norse Drengr Eivor, whose parents were killed in a raid at a young age and as a result she was raised by King Styrbjorn alongside his son, Sigurd. Fast forward two decades and Eivor has made a reputation for himself as a Drengr to be feared in the Norse homeland of Norway, though his blood-feud with his family’s killer, Kjtove the Cruel, still remained unfulfilled. That’s not the only threat facing Eivor as King Harald has started to consolidate power in Norway, forcing Styrbjorn to chose to rise up or bend the knee. To not spoil the beginning, events unfold which see Eivor with a clan of Norse at his side head towards England, a land ravaged by Danes in the late 9th Century.
Like Odyssey before it, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla allows you to play as either a male or female, but with a twist. Instead of two separate Misthios like with Kassandra and Alexios in Odyssey, Eivor is the same character, either male or female. Also, the Animus - the piece of technology the “real world” uses to access the memories of Eivor and players in the overarching Assassin – Templar struggle – allows you to choose at will. So one region you might want to play as female Eivor, and another male. Personally, as I explained in my previous piece, I opted for male, preferring Magnus Bruun’s performance over Cecile Stenspil’s, but that’s not an indictment on the quality – it was simply a preference, and I appreciate Ubisoft giving players that choice.
Once you’ve reached England, the centerpiece of everything you do is your settlement, Ravensthorpe. The mechanics of the settlement are rather simple: You’ll level up Ravensthrope by constructing buildings using materials found on your travels, as well as raiding the Monasteries and regions of England. These builds are pretty important to helping Eivor in his travels, such as the Hidden One’s Bureau which opens up the Order of the Ancients questlines, as well a the blacksmith which you’ll use to upgrade your equipment. Some buildings also give you bonuses to feasts you can call at your settlement, which give you bonuses to stats such as Armor as you travel England.
Critical to everything, though, is the Alliance Map. It’s here you’ll set out to establish your clan as a dominate power in England, creating alliances with the Jarls, Kings and Thegns of England. These stories take you all over the country, from the boggy mists of Norwic and East Anglia to the snowy lands of Danish-controlled Northumbria.
Beauty to behold
It’s great too that England itself – and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla as a whole – is beautiful to behold. Traversing the landscape, either on horseback, foot or sailing down the mighty rivers that crisscross England in your longship never gets old. There's a painterly feel to the artstyle of Valhalla adding to the beauty of the presentation. Addtionally, there is always something to see, whether it’s a few foxes scurrying away from your footfalls on a path nearby, or stopping your longship to venture ashore and explore a crumbling Roman ruin.
This exploration is coupled with a fantastic soundtrack – and one that always makes its presence known without beating you over the head with themes and music. You can actually adjust music frequency in the menu should you want more or less as well. The soundtrack worked well to help root me in the world – hearing Bragi, a member of my longship crew, break out into song while exploring England always had me humming along. The muted strings that would play after I synchronized an area on my map were always welcome, and when they were gone I craved more. Jesper Kyd and Sarah Schachner did a masterful job creating a soundtrack for the RPG, while Einar Selvik brought original tunes to the table, adding a distinct Nordic flair to the sounds of Valhalla.
The different regions of England, from Mercia to Northumbria feel distinct as well. Having never been to England except a few hours in Gatwick on a layover, I was excited to explore the country, albeit Ubisoft’s condensed version of it. One moment I’m riding across the lush green fields of Leiecestrescire, and a little later I’m exploring the untamed Forest of Denu in Glowecestrescire – each area setting a distinct tone and character of the region I was exploring. Cities like Lunden, Jorvik and Wincestre are a joy to explore, as I’ve always wanted to step back in time and see how the Roman ruins melded with the Saxon wattle and daub buildings. Ubisoft made each area a joy to explore – and part of that goes into how it treats the miscellaneous icons and side activities that define their open world games.
Wandering around cities and towns you would be treated to ancillary dialogue between NPCs – but what helped sell the atmosphere of Valhalla was how that dialogue was delivered. If it was something that Ubisoft wanted you to perk your ears up and listen to, it would be in English. But NPCs would also speak Old English, Norse, and Latin, among other languages. I found myself sitting on corners, just listening to the Old English flow off NPC tongues, or try to remember my Latin from high school and decipher what the priests were saying when preaching. It all really helped sell the atmosphere of Viking-Age England in a way I didn’t think of, but now I hope more games take this approach with how they handle portraying cities and towns from other cultures moving forward.
England isn’t the only area you can explore, as you start your adventure in Norway. The frozen skyline dominated by mountains felt both familiar and foreign – I live in a desert, but have grown to love the fjords of Iceland when I’ve visited there – and this landscape reminded me so much of those fjords. The Northern Lights would burst out with color at night, draping the sky with the splendor of the Valkyries, and I never wanted to leave.
All of the iconic…erm…icons still dot the map, only they don’t seem nearly as out of the way as they felt to me in other games in the series. This is further helped that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla doesn’t really have sidequests to chase after either, instead they have mysteries to uncover. Some of these are mini-games, such as solving the mystery at a site of Standing Stones, such as Stonehenge. Others involve fighting a Vikingr Warrior intent on joining Ragnar Lothbrok in Valhalla. Some, in the end, are simply small stories – vignettes – that distract you for a moment but don’t take up too much of your time.
One moment involved me helping a family who had been torn apart by a barley harvest and how much money each family member got from the reaping, sowing and sale of the barley. Another saw Eivor happen upon a dead body collecting alms for his soul. These small side activities gave me a brief reprieve from the storyline to recharge, while also providing some much needed experience to boost my power level for the challenges to come.
Also dotting the landscape are wealth and artifacts to collect. Wealth involves finding chests with material to upgrade your gear and settlement, while artifacts, such as old Roman artifacts, act as collectibles in Valhalla. This gear isn’t just laying around, typically you’ve got to find your way to the chests or places holding these items, and they also provided a great distraction when I simply wanted to explore.
Gearing Up For Battle
One of the mechanics I appreciated most about Valhalla was that there simply wasn’t a ton of gear to grind towards as well. I found myself using the same axe for 90% of my 70 hours thanks to how upgrading your weapons works in Valhalla. Each piece of gear has increasing levels of rarity and potency, going from basic normal gear to Mythical, cladding Eivor in his war-splendor for all to see. As you upgraded gear, it not only got more powerful, but you can see the progression in how it looks visually. That basic axe saw etchings and gold engravings as it got more and more powerful – a visual reminder that you, too, are getting stronger along the way.
It also felt nice not to have to try to chase gear and stats as sometimes is the case in RPGs. That’s not to say there aren’t different items and sets out there to find – there are, and equipping certain sets can confer certain bonuses, such as improvements to stealth damage or damage after landing a heavy attack. But it was nice I could simply focus on improving what I already had instead of just simply trying to find something better – something I hope to see more RPGs pick up on too.
You don’t just upgrade your gear, though. As I mentioned, your settlement is the centerpiece of your presence in England. All roads might lead to Rome, but the wind always calls you back to Randvi in the end. Upgrading your settlement requires raiding for materials, something that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla highlights all over the map of England as you explore.
You’ll raid monasteries, much like the Viking invaders did in real life, to plunder to wealth to grow your settlement. These raids are exciting – you’ll land, blowing your horn to sound your Drengr to the beach, chasing down monks and villagers as you race to the monastery proper. They are guarded by soldiers as one might expect in a country ravaged by Dane and Norse going a-vikingr.
Plundering the wealth of a monastery will get you’re the raw materials to grow your settlement. Each monastery has certain amounts of chests which give you wealth, and once one has been pillaged you can’t pillage it again. Raids themselves are fun breakaways from the story and exploration, but over time they just felt sort of tacked on and I left a lot of monasteries un-pillaged as a result. I didn’t feel compelled to raid them, especially as my settlement got resources as rewards from quest chains as well as stumbling upon them in chests throughout the Isle.
It’s here I felt some of the dissonance between what Assassin’s Creed Valhalla wants you to do and the story it’s trying to tell as well. It was always odd to me that the nobles, reeves and thegns I met never seemed bothered that I had pillaged their holy places and stolen their wealth. Indeed, I’ve picked my way through whole cities, wiping out guards from the shadows just to reach some materials to upgrade my gear and none of the ruling elite I worked with seemed to bat an eye. It’s a small thing, but it definitely stood out the more and more I savaged cities and towns in the Saxon countryside. And it wasn’t a deterrent as the combat in Valhalla is so damn fun.
As I mentioned, I spent most of the game wielding the same bearded axe I got at the beginning, but I dabbled in one of the many, many different weapon combinations you can take up along your way. What makes the combat all the more compelling is down to the fact that you can wield any weapon as a dual wield – even two handed weapons as you unlock perks on the web of skills Valhalla presents to you. I was as giddy as a schoolchild when I first swung a two-handed sword with one hand, and stabbed with a spear in the other. Each weapon has a unique off-hand attack you can use as well, keeping combat rather interesting as you try to string together combos with your weapons, as well as your abilities you unlock along the way.
Abilities are simply unlocked by leveling up, rather you have to find them by collecting Books of Knowledge. I actually enjoyed this approach, giving me more reason to explore. As I found the books andlearned what each skill did, I felt more and more powerful. Yanking an enemy towards you using a harpoon, coupled by a savage axe strike as they get close never got old. Raining a savage overhead strike with the fierceness of the Valkyrie was always a favorite as well.
Some abilities, such as a bow skill that essentially attaches an explosive to your arrow, helped in exploration as well. Many times I blew up false walls to expose a chest behind them thanks to that skill.
Becoming the Drengr
Combat itself is absolutely gritty as well. Viking-Age England wasn’t a clean, orderly place, and the combat reflects the savage nature of the time period. Seeing limbs fly as I struck down an enemy, or finishing with brutal animations that always looked stylish, no matter how many times I saw Eivor gut his foe with his own sword.
Stealth is still a part of Valhalla, though in recent iterations it’s felt less and less important than the brutal combat on display. As someone who is straight up abysmal at most stealth games, I found it a lot of fun to try to slink my way around a ruin, camp or city, and if I was successful that was a pretty great feeling. The AI aren’t that smart, though, which made the stealth a bit easier than some games, even when adjusting Valhalla’s incredibly in-depth difficulty sliders.
All of this wouldn’t matter though if Assassin’s Creed Valhalla didn’t tell a good story. One thing Ubisoft does well is pare down the intensely dense Norse mythologies, making it more digestible for players who might know their Thor’s from Tyr’s. The story itself has moments where I truly felt agonized, as Valhalla introduces many moments of choice, where you’re forced to live with the consequences of your actions as they reverberate throughout the rest of the narrative.
In almost 70 hours of gameplay – the vast majority of it doing story quests, securing alliances and more, I did have some issues with the pacing, as well as some quests and activities feeling a bit recycled after a while. Most regional story arcs end with an Assault with you trying to take a fortress or stronghold in the region from an enemy. At some point I came to predict, often accurately, how many quests it would take to get to the assault phase of certain stories.
These battles are scripted to a degree, and they never felt as epic as they could. There was no ebb and flow to the battle – I would break a barrier and move on, the end never in question for the most part. There were a few where I was genuinely shocked ended the way that they did, and many of the main set-piece fights with your enemies were fun and interesting, such as one that took place in a shadowy crypt, your opponent using the darkness to cover their movements.
The overarching storyline, though, is the real-world one and the struggle between the Assassins and the Templars themselves. As someone who actually enjoys the real-world segments, I’m happy to see them return with Layla and her crew after the events of Odyssey. Valhalla intertwines the Order of the Ancients, a precursor to the Templar Order, into the overall narrative quite well, and I cannot wait to see what comes next through DLC, and even beyond.
As for how Valhalla performs, I ran the RPG using my PC, equipped with an i7-10700K, 32GB of RAM and (originally) a Gigabyte Waterforce RTX 2080. Unfortunately, the 2080 starting having issues, which at first I thought were due to a lack of drivers before launch, but my EVGA 2070 Super did not display those same problems. Swapping those two cards, I went from trying to get 4K, 60 frames per second, to instead playing this at 1440p. Framrates were pretty stable, averaging between 55-60fps with everything maxed except for clouds and shadows.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, though, is a very, very buggy release. A few times, annoyingly, a section of a quest wouldn’t trigger, so I’d have to reload a previous save, redo the quest that led to that point and hope to Christ it would work this time. Bodies, after killing them, would slingshot around a room, which became distracting when it happened in a cutscene once or twice. However, though the bugs certainly detract from the illusion and pull you out of the experience, they definitely don’t ruin it. Hopefully these will be ironed out with post launch patches, but it’s a shame so many of them found there way into the launch in the first place.
Valhalla also continues Ubisoft's pattern of Microtransactions. The publisher sells weapons and armor, as well as cosmetic items for your settlement and longship. Tattoos and other cosmetics are also present, but thankfully what isn't are experience boosters. I can understand why someone might want a massive replica of Yggdrassil in their settlement, or deck out their longship with a Viking version of My Little Pony-esque paint, but in my almost 70 hours of gameplay I'm not sure I opened the store more than twice. It was seriously something that never came to mind, and thankfully I don't even remember a time when Ubisoft even prompted meto spend money in the store. They are there, but they don't feel intrusvie or even predatory. That said, I'd rather a game without MTXs entirely.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a triumph for Ubisoft, and one of the best games I’ve played all year. After almost 70 hours in Viking-era England, I still have more to explore and uncover with Eivor, and I can’t wait to dive back in for more. The story is excellent, leaving me eager to see what’s next, and while it had moments where it felt a little dissonant with what Eivor was doing as well as some pacing problems, overall I enjoyed my romp through England. Even as I finish typing this review, I’m already planning where to sail next and what to do differently in another playthrough. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has lingered on my thoughts, beckoning me to come back to England and continue exploring, raiding and going a-vikingr, even almost 70 hours after I took my first steps as Eivor in Norway.
Full disclosure: Copy of game provided by Ubisoft PR for the purposes of this review.