A story better left untold

Once a series reaches a certain point, it becomes more and more difficult to keep things fresh. This problem only becomes compounded the more frequently new chapters are released, so a yearly franchise like Assassin’s Creed is definitely a prime example of something that’s begun to fatigue the gaming community.

I had hopes, though, that the latest entry in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, might jump-start my excitement again for the never-ending Templar-versus-Brotherhood conflict—even if it only comes six months after the one-two punch of Unity and Rogue last fall. A new developer, a new protagonist, and a new take on the series’ definitive gameplay were all things that even a tired fan could look forward to.

ACC: China follows a female Assassin named Shao Jun in the early 16th century during the Ming Dynasty. She’s the last of the Chinese Brotherhood, who were all but wiped out by a powerful group of eunuchs called the Tigers. In reality, the Tigers are Templars, and with the rest of the Brotherhood eliminated, they now control the Ming emperor like a puppet.

Driven by vengeance, Shao Jun returns home against almost insurmountable odds—but armed with special training from Assassin’s Creed II protagonist Ezio Auditore. She knows that her mission may be nearly impossible to accomplish, but the only way to free China and start her branch of the Brotherhood anew will be to eliminate the Tigers one by one.

The most striking thing that ACC: China has going for it—and immediately helps differentiate it from other games in the series—is the fact that Ubisoft and developer Climax Studios have shifted from the 3D open world we’re used to with the Assassin’s Creed franchise and instead made a more arcade-like 2.5D side-scrolling platformer. Besides the shift in viewpoint, ACC: China also touts a novel art style where every brandish of Shao Jun’s sword or stealthy elimination from the shadows is punctuated by a flourish of red-and-black watercolors, giving the game a sense of a painting come to life. It’s definitely a far throw from the more realistic-looking adventures in the main series, and I found it served as a much-needed twist on what we normally get in an Assassin’s Creed game.

The level layout is also meticulously crafted to take advantage of the protagonist’s nimble nature. Even considering the fact that this is a 2.5D game, Shao Jun still has a stunning amount of freedom to parkour, with multiple paths often available to reach each level’s end point. Finding different routes through the foreground and background—and switching perspectives as Shao Jun shimmies around the edges to another side of a building—gives the level design depth that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

Most surprisingly, though, the stealth gameplay for which Assassin’s Creed is known lends itself well to the shift in perspective. Shao Jun still hides in haystacks, crowds of people, and shadowy alcoves to strike at her unsuspecting foes as they pass by. The 2.5D viewpoint, combined with each guard’s “cone of awareness” that allow you to see where their focus is at a given time, makes it easier to plan a path and memorize patrols. Of course, the guards aren’t the smartest ever programmed in an Assassin’s Creed game, either, so luring them to their doom is relatively easy with the assistance of firecrackers, whistles, and special noise-emitting darts.

Playing stealthily is heavily encouraged here for two different reasons. The first is the game’s arcade-based scoring system that rewards clean play, with the highest possible score only achievable by working through checkpoints unseen and without eliminating a single opponent. The second reason? The combat sucks.

For as many cool weapons as Shao Jun has—her hidden toe blade, rope dart, and Jian sword—any direct confrontation against more than one foe almost guarantees certain doom. The 2.5D aspect proves to be flawed here, since it makes it incredibly easy for enemies to surround and overwhelm Shao Jin. This gives her a frail quality unbefitting an Assassin, and it’s easily my least favorite part of the gameplay. Even her counter, the only way to defend herself against an attack in combat, is unintuitive—it requires pushing the analog stick toward the attack instead of away, as one’s instincts would dictate. But why bother with any directional input at all here?

Since combat isn’t really a viable option, ACC: China has a very one-dimensional feel. A first playthrough shouldn’t take more than six hours, but you can’t help but start to become bored by it all around the halfway point. No matter how pretty the game may look, enemy variety is minimal, and the stealth patterns quickly become evident.

I might’ve been able to forgive monotonous gameplay if there were at least an interesting story to tell. Unfortunately, ACC: China falls completely flat here, too. Ever since Shao Jun debuted in the animated short Assassin’s Creed: Embers, fans have clamored for more of her. With nothing more than a thin revenge plotline to push her forward, however, Shao Jun’s time to shine feels wasted, and it does very little to expand the Assassin’s Creed universe in China. Her backstory is told through a few meager paragraphs that you find in collectible form, and the game’s cutscenes do her no favors either, only giving a brief explanation for why she’s assassinating her next target.

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China has a beautiful art style and distinct viewpoint compared to the other titles that share the Assassin’s Creed brand. The stealth works, but it also serves as too much of the gameplay’s focus. The combat and the story—or lack thereof—are both gaping holes that can’t be ignored, keeping the game from reaching its full potential. The one hope is that perhaps India and Russia, the next two games in this spin-off series, can remedy some of the mistakes seen here while building on what China does well.

Developer: Climax Studios • Publisher: Ubisoft • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 04.21.15
Assassins Creed Chronicles: China offers some solid building blocks for this spin-off series, including beautiful art and decent stealth gameplay. The poor combat and sad attempt at storytelling, however, both leave far too much to be desired.
The Good A colorful art style that really helps the world come alive.
The Bad The gameplay gets very repetitive very quickly.
The Ugly Shao Jun seems like such an intriguing Assassin, but it feels like her story is wasted here.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review.