Since playing Brotherhood and Revelations many moons ago, I have come to enjoy bridge or “.5” games. While they are always shorter and focus on a more defined area of the overall narrative, I usually find them satisfying. So if one is good then three must be way better, according to Ubisoft; thus AC Chronicles was born. China, India and Russia Chronicles will all be out over this year as DLC platformers, and no, I’m not sure what they were thinking either.
Usually I’d tend to the narrative first but in this case I need to address the design: I can’t even call this a 2D platform/puzzle adventure, apparently it’s 2.5D. I’m going to go ahead and assume here that the .5 refers to the magical dimension of the game, where level design means you can throw down through a floor to hit a guard. Or how jumping down or up a platform transports you to a mystical place known as ‘out of reach’ to any alert guard who hasn’t mastered the functionality of steps. The first time I scaled a 2D tower was interesting and brought a new angle to stealth movement. It became stagnant from then on: climb tower, stabby stab, torch overly flammable structures and run for life. Even the map felt flat as no more than a blue version of what I was already seeing.
I enjoy 2D games and platformers for their creativity, and mostly because they use the medium to show off worthy art and style. Chronicles’ watercolour scenery was my favourite part from the easily overlooked backgrounds to the paint splash of blood from ex-guards. The soundtrack was decent enough; the instruments and tone fit the setting well throughout the whole game. It was refreshing during the two identical “running from flammable buildings” levels to have music differ to the expected high tempo beats. Instead, the accompanying sounds kept the anxiety high without relying on classic timed-level freak-out music.
The solid surroundings had character breathed into them through brush strokes that suited the China setting and followed through to the stills of the cut scenes. The cut scenes were nicely styled but bland to the point where I missed plot points because my attention drifted constantly. This was greatly due to the voice acting: Ubisoft, I thought we covered why the wrong accents in the wrong settings were horrible. Our assassin, Shao Jun looked epic in her custom-styled robes, but every time she opened her mouth I heard Lara Croft. It wasn’t just her either; every named character that spoke had that frustrating habit of sounding like they’d never spoken a Chinese word in their life.
The hapless guards did fit for a change; however, their ability to speak their native language evidently short-circuited other synapses that were needed. One skill acquired was how to use the guards conversations to your advantage, this meant walking right by them in complete safety. Not crap enough at their jobs yet? Throw a bomb at their face from a ladder and listen to them rationalise it as probably being the wind. As the only enemy in the game, each variation of the guard was lacking and deserved having a knife thrown at them through a closed door and around a corner. This cross breed of lighthouses and guards was a necessity given the 2D nature, but their abilities were too inconsistent with mine. For example, a guard passed in front of a wind chime, yet I had to duck under the same one meaning we were not on the same plane of existence. However, when I slid under the same chimes I’d collide with the guard every time, so we had to be crossing direct paths. This is where the 2.5D comes in, I think.
One sure fire way to make sure I’ll love an AC game is to include Ezio, conversely, a never really in focus, odd-sounding and ill-timed Ezio displeases me. The only time there is any hint of an animus involved or correlation with a larger AC narrative is during the brief involuntary Animus training sessions with “Ezio”. During plot points, a database update or sudden late-coming insight from Shao “Lara” Jun will cause you to freeze, yet everything else continues and ultimately left me dead frequently. The Animus training sessions felt just as messy and shoved in, Ezio’s understudy had little to say and had a penchant for teaching skills, such as counter, a little too late. Three times during the game, I had hope for some meaningful AC background story after finding hidden number messages, but I guess I’ll just Google them to find the meaning I’m after.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China was pretty to look at, as short as I’d expected (5 hours with several reloads) but missing the soul of a good AC game: the gripping narrative. I honestly tried to care about the box and Asian Lara’s vengeance, but it had no substance. If a game doesn’t grip me with its story, then it has to be the one thing games are designed to be: entertaining. Personally I felt it failed that too. Other titles have shown how fun and engaging a 2D platform can be, this just had too many elements not reaching their potential and leaving me disappointed. I’d have been happy with a challenge at least, but as the game attempted to increase the difficulty I’d use the design flaws and apply them all the way to the end, ensuring an easy run. I’m looking to next quarter to see what they can do with instalments two and three, and how they can bring this story back to the gripping narrative it should be.