There are plenty of games out in the wild featuring vikings, or viking culture, but none have embraced those tenets quite like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. I say this because, while named “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla”, this is more or less a standalone viking saga with peppered bits of the titular series thrown in for franchise consistency. Make no mistake, “The Hidden Ones” make an appearance, and our protagonist, Eivor, does learn the ways of the Guild, but at his or her heart, vikingr blood runs true, and it’s in this embiggened redirection Valhalla sets itself not only apart from most other entries in the series, but also helps elevate it to a perch of near-perfection where this now longrunning IP is concerned.
In short, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is both the best Assassin’s Creed yet, and also the best viking game, maybe ever.
Like ancient Greek culture before it, the viking pagan beliefs and lifestyle are effectively IRL videogame in makeup; they arm themselves, they raid to get better gear and loot for economical gain. They build, explore and conquer. They even had an early strategy dice game called Orlog that can be attributed to the creation of games of attrition, strategy and chance. Ostensibly RPG in nature, albeit limited to the number of die rolled, and what each die cast. The vikings kept pets, they employed servants, and shared stories -- watercooler moments of an ice-age past where no tale was too big, too lost, too poetic, or too much.
Sagas, they’re called.
"But the vikings spoke only in verse and song, in words over the hearth, or upon long voyages within the longship. Nothing of their history is concrete beyond the physical we’ve found...”
It’s why we know so little about viking culture and history. The Greeks, Egyptians and Romans kept meticulous written records. Their history remains because they intended it to be poured through by future generations. Their structures and conquests still exist today, but the vikings spoke only in verse and song, in words over the hearth, or upon long voyages within the longship. Nothing of their history is concrete beyond the physical we’ve found and how we’ve sewn a tapestry of their lives and cultures together through the eye of an archaeological needle. But it’s what also draws us to this culture; the nomadic lives of feuding clans and the machinations of each between whom to side, and whom to sack.
Kings, Jarls, Crew Masters, Raiders… each and everybody within viking culture understood a hierarchy, but fed off either ambition or loyalty, and it’s in all of this we find the heart, or hearth, of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla -- a saga for the videogame ages, and one not to turn your back on.
We’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible. But know at the very least this: Valhalla is massive. Intimidating levels of massive. Your starting point in the game is Scandinavia (Norway) and even trouncing through soft snow, or over sheets of ice, or dropping into sub-zero temperature water, the game, while barren, serves up a special kind of *something*. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what that is, but the game speaks to you early, and you listen. You listen, and walk, and climb and listen again. This is not your usual Assassin’s Creed affair. It’s a deeply personal voyage through components of discovery and self-worth. Eivor is no Medjay, he’s no Spartan, nor is he a pirate, revolutionary or playboy. He’s not even on the same plane as Altair. He’s just… Eivor. (I played as male Eivor, so from here on out, I’ll be referring to him as him, for clarity.)
"There are some Animus bits to deal with in the ancient world, but I won’t spoil these for you, save to say you’d best have your Ninja Warrior skills in order, because “jumping” and “gauntlet” slide together nicely within these...”
So just why is Valhalla so different? To begin with, the Animus side of the game, that is, the future content, is minimal, at best. Over 50 hours in I’ve had just the one side section where I’m in the future. And it lasted, maybe, 15 minutes with me nosey-parkering about. There are some Animus bits to deal with in the ancient world, but I won’t spoil these for you, save to say you’d best have your Ninja Warrior skills in order, because “jumping” and “gauntlet” slide together nicely within these. But really, they’re just an unwelcome distraction.
I’ve railed against the series’ future side for over a decade now, and I won’t back down, it’s my hill and I’ll happily be hidden-bladed upon it. That said, it’s clear after Odyssey that Montreal understood less is more in that space, and more history is better on the whole, which is what we get with Valhalla.
In the shortest of shorts, you play as a viking raider. In your homeland, clans wage conflict among one another, until an offering is made to unite the disparate factions under a single king. This does not sit well with your clan -- Raven Clan, and upon rejection of the idea, Raven Clan is cast out of Norway and heads towards the greener pastures of merry old England. Beyond that basic setup, I won’t spoil any more for you, suffice to say you will have a heavy hand in shaping the future of the nation, how the ‘Danes’ are perceived from a bigot level and just what kind of person you really want to be.
So then, choice and consequence rain heavily on Valhalla. Dialogue options and hard decisions aren’t fast, but they are thick when presented before you. It’s an interesting spin on the franchise, because Valhalla is as if Origins and Odyssey had a baby. A little from column O, and a little from the other column O -- but this isn’t a bad thing. I found the combat in Origins way better than in Odyssey, but Odyssey had more depth and a steeper learning curve that rewarded patience and sublime finger usage. But it also scaled its world against you, something Origins didn’t. I mean, Goats on the first island in Odyssey mountain climbing from Level 1 to Level 6 just because you did the same, in the same space? Please…
"You’ll play with children and meet an ancient version of Keith Flint who asks you to “smack my Bishop, smack my Bishop” as you wail on an anti-music man of God...”
Still, the amalgam of ideas works and a new blueprint for the future of the series is presented in storytelling form. You’ll find love, you’ll trip balls, you’ll raid, slaughter, and nurture. You’ll play with children and meet an ancient version of Keith Flint who asks you to “smack my Bishop, smack my Bishop” as you wail on an anti-music man of God. You’ll rescue wolves and foxes in kind and they’ll join your Settlement -- the central piece to the game. Valhalla is a metaphor for a better life; vikingr prepare themselves for “the day”, but you’re preparing your kin and culture to form a kind of symbiosis to a new world, lost in and of itself. The chasm between the unassured, seemingly weak and feeble Anglo-Saxons to the stout nature of the vikingr makes way for sagas even the devs might not have foreseen.
This is truly next-gen, next-level shit.
What works from a foundational perspective is the Night Boat initiative -- remember, there’s always a canal. This means the game’s much-needed and perhaps only hamstrung gameplay loop in Raids, allows you to travel along inland rivers and estuaries to reach Holy Ground and sack them. It’s an interesting mechanic. On foot you can gain certain resources, but there’s a two-ingredient recipe for growing your Settlement, and one third of that recipe is only found in Raids. But Raids are ranked. Remember I mentioned the game tracks power, not level progression? This is how it works. You need to power Eivor up, as well as his crew. You can recruit crew members for 100 silver, and these are often from friends or randoms who’ve been playing the game properly. It adds an element of investment in your crew, and I’ve found myself making sure my 2IC is decked out in all the latest medyevalgear, just so she slays and looks good while doing it.
And that’s a thrown axe of a segue right there. Of choice and player-agency, Valhalla is by far the most liberal of Assassin’s Creed games. Sure, you still fight the Order of the Ancients, and they’re still shit people, but there’s more to Valhalla than that. The “tripping balls” stuff I mentioned earlier… I can’t say any more than I’d pay $200 to just *be* there, *doing* that. And also, while we’re on the topic of silver coins, dollarydoos or space flat-earther conspiracurrency, this is actual next-gen. Like, yeah “no killer app” is a go-to line even we’ve used, but we reneg. Valhalla is it. And Microsoft was smart to hoist its longship sail to this next-gen invasion. Outside of that other game everyone else on the publisher-developer side of the fence breathed a massive sigh of relief at, when it decided to to go fashionably late, Valhalla remains to breathe gust into your sail and take you on a journey for the ages.
More akin to Odyssey, Valhalla’s edge lies in its brutal approach to conflict. You can take the stealth path and wait in that un-mowed grass, but what’s the viking fun in that?! The game caters heavily in the melee stakes, while ranged and stealth are still options, I found myself, with my dual-wielded axes, axing peeps left and right. On top of the ever-growing skill astrology tree, you also earn abilities with “Books of Knowledge”. And nothing, NOTHING, beats a Viking spear tackle followed by an age-old left, right, left, right, left, right, headbut.
But you cater your style to you. Each ability has two tiers, the second being the most powerful, but these are all interchangeable, in the same way your skill alignment is. If you’re unhappy with your character build, the game lets you respec. And as a viking in a New World, that’s as about as good as it gets.
Ubisoft was coy on this in the early throes. And it makes sense, because it’s such an integral part of the experience. There’s politics that come into play, but we’re a spoiler-free site (tell your friends), so learn how this works for yourself. What we can say is people set up shop, but like those “hardware boys” from Deadwood think, “ain’t no shop till the timber’s up”. So you’ll gain recruits, of a sort, but you won’t taste of their fruit until the shop is legit. This means Raids, but Raids are ranked, so it’s a slow build. Remember, however, you’re integral to the growth of Ravensthorpe, and your investment is worth more than a Murder of Crows at a Raven funeral.
But what gains do you gain from a Settlement? Well, the chance to find a partner, or partners, comes to mind, but you have additional benefits beyond the economy of the world. When your Seer arrives and you build her hut proper, the game just kind of… opens. You can also ring the dinner bell and host massive feasts in the longhouse which gives a community-wide buff, making Raids all the more fruitful. Plus there’s just the satisfaction of making sure your fishing hut is now a home for a dad and his son who just love to fish -- pillaging is one one-hundredth of viking life, and Valhalla teaches us that, in handsful of opal.
In Assassin’s Creed games past, exploration is, for lack of a better word, “forced”. Less so with the past two, but even still, they both featured a structured layer-upon-layer concept of discovery. Valhalla is an open book. Your Saga, to remain repetitious. What this means is World Events and discovery or noseying about POIs is par for the course. AI remains not so great, to be honest. You can dispatch enemies who might have had brekky together and one won’t know the other is gone unless his vision cone detects it. Or you alert him or her. It’s better, but it can be even better.
That said, enemy camps and AI do not make the open-world, and Ubi has been solid in its delivery of what is arguably their greatest feat to-date. I loved Egypt, Kosta loved Greece, but there’s something about the juxtaposition of the fish-out-of-water tale here; based entirely on how it all likely played out back in the day. You’re loved, or hated. Until you do that lovely thing, then the ‘Heathen Dane’ handle leaves you, while the Vikingr handle remains when you dispatch occupying forces or simply swing an axe in defence, or defiance.
An axe is only as good as its handler. There are some issues to be had with Valhalla, which cost it a full score. These might be addressed in later updates, but we’d be remiss not to mention them. Screen tearing is an issue. It’s not game-breaking, but it’s there (and more than noticeable on a Samsung 75” 8K 950TS). Other problems present as well. In combat, for example, if you start ranged, powerful enemies will have highlighted spots, hit these and you open yourself up to an R3-prompted finisher. Problem is, if it’s in a Raid scenario and your ally hits the enemy before you can initiate the attack, it’s no longer on the menu.
Moreover, your Rations are super-important (build your pouch quickly, and earnestly), but you need to manually activate your health rebuffs. This means a high-level enemy you could have beaten with patience needs only one fell swoop and your doneski. These are all lessons you learn from, but it doesn’t make them any less annoying.
Your Blade, Will KEAL
For a game that centres itself around the idea of settlements, negotiation, alignment and choice, Valhalla does an amazing job of making you feel like the spotlight is always on you. It redirects misconception around viking culture and remains an Assassin’s Creed game, though perhaps the lesser of all before it, for the betterment of the franchise. Game of Thrones’ Magnus Bruun is a shoe-in for best voice actor in a videogame this year but, more importantly, Valhalla is a game that will drag you along the Bifröst bridge and into the vision of Fenrir. How you handle all of this is up to you, but to boldly state in the positive, this is as anti Assassin’s Creed as we’ve yet played, and we love it all the more for it.
What we liked
Treats Viking history and sagas with respect
Less an Assassin's Creed game and more a Viking redemption game
You'll be hooked on Orlog before you know it
Magnus Bruun is sublime as male Eivor
What we didn't like
Raids add a grindy element to the game
Some world events aren't explained all that well to follow
Screen tearing and a few glitches here and there we hope get patched sooner, rather than later