The ho-hum assassin.
While playing through Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China’s seven-hour campaign, I couldn’t help thinking about the horror movie The Devil Inside. Before that rather unremarkable flick, back in 1999, The Blair Witch Project was the real deal, as a horror flick made on a shoestring budget that changed the horror genre by implementing an effective (and cheap) premise: three characters lost in the woods while filming everything on a b/w 16mm film and consumer video cameras. Along the way, however, there have been countless attempts by major studios with mucho bucks to try and replicate that success, but have failed miserably. The Devil Inside (2012) was one such film. Big opening weekend but three years later… no one cares.
Now go back to 2009 when Chair Entertainment debuted Shadow Complex on the still fledging Xbox Live Marketplace. The result was somewhat similar to Blair’s: Shadow Complex was a breakout hit. The same can be said about Playdead’s phenomenal Limbo the following year, the return of the 2D sidescroller with games like Super Meat Boy, and the brilliant Swapper. Shadow Complex didn’t invent the 2D side-scroller genre any more than Blair Witch pioneered the use of found footage, but both subgenres found a way for creative studios with little money to make content that was entertaining, artistic, and adored by both consumers and critics. ACC: China seems to be riding on the same kind of coattails of better games that have come before it.
So now we have a 2D side-scroller version of the Assassin’s Creed series, which makes a lot of sense, actually. Like Ubisoft’s previous hit series Prince of Persia, ACC: China is essentially a 3D platformer that feels like it could be from the 2D era. Taking place in China, the game poises you as an assassin named Shao Jun, who’s out for revenge against the Templars and out to find a magic box. Will she succeed?
Overall, the game has many strengths that come from having major studio backing and ample resources: the art direction is top-notch, the watercolor-like palette is a treat for the eyes, and for a moderately priced game (ten bucks), the 6-8 hour running time is impressive.
I’d even go far as to say that I think most of the voice acting works fine, too. The core gameplay mechanics—while not exactly inspired or fresh—are solid. I also didn’t experience any major bugs. These are all the fruits that come from having the backing of a big company to start with. (Obviously, there are plenty of examples of bad big-budget games, but that’s for another article entirely.) The point is all of this comes from being backed by a much larger studio, which developer Climax almost certainly had with Ubisoft.
The level design is well-thought-out with a clever use of background that makes each area feel like you’re occupying space. It sort of reminds me of the early Paper Mario, but that is slightly too high praise. Regardless, the world of ACC China feels like there’s a lot to do and explore.
Now for the bad news… I’m sure it also comes as no surprise that the seemingly indie spirit of such a title is notably absent. Beyond the window dressing of an Assassin’s game in 2D, it has very little personality. I do wish the story or the characters were more engaging. Each level ends with a still drawing animation which is really pretty, but that’s about it.
While I can get over a story that is under-written, too many levels repeat themselves, which gets old fast. In some cases, I think Climax was aware of this and somehow it makes the experience of playing the game worse. By that I mean there are not a lot of show-stopping moments. It’s like they didn’t want to seem "too big," so the developers were content with being adequate instead of memorable.
How’s the combat? As boring as it is in the AC triple-A titles. Timing is important as usual, but not at all fun. (As usual.) This is an instance where the 2D version should have been way more fun. (Think of all the joy punching, jumping, and shooting delivers in practically any Metroid game.) A big issue is that Shao Jun always feels one hit away from death. At which point, stealth becomes more appealing an option to dispose of foes, but that gets old too.
Essentially, the gameplay pretty much reduces to hide in the shadows to take out baddies with other elements like combat peppered in. Shao Jun enters a new area and there are guards either to kill or to avoid. It’s a strange feeling to look at such a scene from her perspective, but not really have much to actually do. The closest the game gets to the big moments is when Shao Jun needs to escape a level and suddenly it’s all about sprinting. That can be fun.
Still, I think of how The Devil Inside essentially is a film with no third act. By the same token, ACC: China never really lets the itself soar. Everything feels deliberately muted. And that leads Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China being ultimately just as forgettable as The Devil Inside.