Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China review: red ink

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Ubisoft
Developer Ubisoft
Release Date Apr 21, 2015

Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China is the first solid sign that this franchise can function outside of its established open-world stealth style.

Ubisoft has experimented with spinoffs of the series before, but they often end up like Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation — awkward attempts to create exact clones of the bigger games but on a much smaller budget. Chronicles: China finds its own path, transforming the series into a mostly-2D, level-driven test of stealth skills seemingly inspired by the roots of Ubisoft's less successful action-adventure franchise, Prince of Persia.

At its best moments — which are most of them — Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China is the most fun the series has felt in years. And even its few missteps aren't from straying too far from the formula; it only stumbles when it actively tries to emulate its predecessors.

Shao Jun looks cool but doesn't have much character development

Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China follows a Chinese assassin named Shao Jun who, we discover through flashbacks, was trained by Assassin Creed 2's Ezio. (You may have already met Shao Jun and be familiar with this plot point if you've seen Ubisoft's 2011 short film, Assassin's Creed: Embers.) Shao Jun returns to China to find that a group of evil Templar have all but wiped out the other assassins in the area. While seeking vengeance, she's also trying to track down a mysterious artifact that has fallen into the hands of the Templar.

And that's about the most I can remember about the plot. Shao Jun looks cool but doesn't have much character development, and story movement is largely kept to short cutscenes in between each level. It's unobtrusive, which is great, although if you're someone who cares about the overall fiction of the Asssassin's Creed universe, don't expect any major revelations here.

The actual gameplay of Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China more than makes up for the plot in bringing something fresh and important to the series. Where most Assassin's Creed games have a rambling pace — dozens of hours of game stretched across an open world littered with hundreds of distractions — this spin-off is more focused. You move through mostly 2D levels, running from left to right most of the time, figuring out ways to sneak past or kill any Templars who get in your way.

I say "mostly 2D" because Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China allows you to move between different 2D planes at certain points. For example, you might be able to drop down onto a ledge in the foreground and shimmy past a guard who is patrolling on the "primary" 2D path. This leads to some elegant and interesting level design, and forced me to stay aware in my constant search for the best routes through an area.

Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China review a 500

I was also urged to take in my surroundings carefully due to how beautiful they are. Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China employs a style that looks like classic brush paintings in motion. Splashes of color streak across the screen and are used in subtle ways to help you identify usable objects in the environment. And the traditional violence of the series is toned down to almost tasteful slashes of red whenever you take an enemy down.

Of course, ideally you won't have to take down many enemies at all. Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China provides Shao Jun with a nice list of tools to help her find her way past foes. Firecrackers can briefly stun guards, knives can snap ropes to open passageways or drop boxes, and in a pinch, Shao can simply whistle to get a foe's attention where she wants it.

The key to the design of the tools (and the game as a whole) is that it never goes overboard. You're given more or less everything you'll have to work with for the whole game by the end of the third level, around an hour in. Chronicles: China fleshes things out by introducing challenging new enemy layouts and clever level design twists, rather than by flooding the player with dozens of options in how to approach each situation.

You're given everything you'll have to work with by the end of the third level
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China review b 420

On the down side, that means that Shao Jun is a significantly less powerful assassin than previous protagonists. Stealth is more than heavily encouraged throughout the game; it's essential. Technically you can fight enemies with traditional melee combat, but Shao Jun cannot take more than two or three hits for most of the game, and her arsenal of attacks is slow, clunky and not particularly fun.

But at least I felt okay being discouraged from seeking out hand-to-hand combat. The same cannot be said for the handful of "speed run" levels in Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China. These levels seek to provide some variety by emulating the big action set piece moments that other games in the series are known for. Environments explode, lots of people die and Shao Jun must dash through the levels at top speed, usually fleeing from a quickly encroaching fire.

In a frustrating turnabout, these speed run levels trade the slow, methodical play of the rest of the game for a frantic foot race across the map. Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China's precise platforming controls work just fine in the former, but in the latter, under the pressure of an approaching wall of flame, they can be a frustrating mess. Every one of these levels had at least one instance where I died multiple times over in the same spot, unable to judge the exact moment I needed to tap the jump button to get across a tricky gap while still avoiding a fiery death.

Wrap Up:

Chronicles: China is the smartest twist on the Assassin's Creed formula yet

These bad levels are only a fraction of the game — a few five-minute scenarios out of the five or six hours total that Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China offers. If you're willing to look past that, it twists the Assassin's Creed formula in one of the smartest ways I've seen since the franchise started. It's also almost certainly my favorite stand-alone game from the series in years.

Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China was reviewed using a final downloadable Xbox One copy of the game purchased by Polygon staff. You can find additional information on Polygon's ethics policy here.

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