[Ed. Note: This review includes minor spoilers for “Legacy of the First Blade.”]
My player-character Kassandra and I are more than a hundred hours into our adventure when we’re confronted by a genuinely fascinating problem. Kassandra is a funny, warm, smart person (I’m slightly in love with her, by the way). And yet, she’s a one-person army, a goddess of carnage who has slashed and burned her way from the Mediterranean to the Aegean to the Black Sea. It is time for her to face the uncomfortable reality of her own bloody doings.
Now, let’s be clear. The problem of admirable video game heroes who are also mass murderers has been investigated at length. Game criticism is stuffed with earnest investigations by nice people who don’t feel right about their avatar’s capacity for slaughter. As an entertainment phenomena, gaming has yet to square this circle. I’m certainly not the man for that job.
But it’s notable that Kassandra — a highly competent assassin — is outright forced to contemplate her sticky situation. And, at least for a brief moment, “Legacy of the First Blade” is bold in its portrayal of her discomfort.
She’s on the trail of a murderer when she comes across a great tree. Corpses hang from its branches. These dead bodies are a small selection of the people Kassandra and I have killed. The bad man cackles from the shadows. He’s a killer, for sure, but he accuses me of gross hypocrisy. I look upon my works and despair.
Kassandra’s face betrays genuine self-doubt. Through a short sequence of dialog options, she can wriggle and squirm, but she can’t escape. There is really only one option for me to take: I am a monster.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a great, sprawling mess of a game. It’s a Ubisoft open world of violent activities. I kill soldiers. I assassinate politicians and generals. I hunt down members of a powerful elite.
My abilities are immense. I wield sword, javelin, hammer and bow, augmented with fire and poison and time-slowing powers. I slay cyclops, minotaur and sphinx. But my quest is noble, kinda. Because whatever evil I do, I do in the name of quashing a far greater evil.
This has always been the way in Assassin’s Creed games. It is a fight between good and evil that rolls across the centuries. Bad people must be stopped by good people, by whatever means necessary.
Generally, the series’ main narrative doesn’t spend too much time worrying over the implications of this Manichean dynamic. But “Legacy of the First Blade” touches upon its inherent problems, asking useful questions about the nature of free will and “goodness.”
If the battle between good and evil rages from the hillsides of ancient Greece to the slums of Victorian London, what is the impact of any particular participant? And what of the assassins’ loved ones? Experience shows that joining a secret cabal of noble murderers usually means doom for partners, parents, children and friends. It’s a high price.
What is the point of Kassandra killing all these people, and suffering extreme loss, if Bayek, Altair, Ezio, Connor, Kenway, Arno and the Fryes are all fated to repeat the exercise in subsequent tales?
And this allows me a few moments of my own self-examination. Like Kassandra, I’m a hypocrite. Here I am, canting about the meaning of violence. And yet, I’m the first to stab some hapless, humming guard in the bollocks, just in case he drops a handful of coin, or because I want to max a camp-clearing mission, or because I’m on an XP-boosting roll of kick-ass assassinations.
I’m a big fan of Odyssey’s writing, from its central character to its host of quirky NPCs, to its main theme of rejection and belonging. And I’m delighted that the writing team has introduced some element of introspection into this three-part DLC. It feels good to play a game that takes the time to ask tough questions, not only of itself, but of its players.
That said, these moments of eye-popping character analysis and philosophical ranging don’t last for long. Beneath the great tree, Kassandra is confronted by the family members of the soldiers she’s slain. I’m not sure if the events that follow are searing psychological commentary, or absurd videogamey farce. The magic dissipates. I go on with my missions.
As the story continues, it meanders off into tiresome foreshadowing of the Assassin’s Creed uber-arc. This is, after all, a tale of the first person to wield the famous secret blade.
I’m not wholly convinced the game’s brief flirtation with moral clarity will go anyplace revelatory, as the next two episodes unfold. But it’s given me a reason to look forward to the game’s series of DLC, which is otherwise unremarkable.
The story introduces some characters from Persia, who have their own Kassandra-like histories of loss and vengeance. Kassandra bonds with these men, which allows us to contemplate the nature of an assassin’s life.
My activities are the same as any other part of the game. It’s a bit like exploring a new island. I travel across Macedonia. I grind through missions in which animals and people are killed, or stuff is fetched, or ships are sunk. I level up and add skills that will come in useful when I go back and mop up some main game missions that I’ve left unattended.
If, like me, you’ve become enamored of this brassy game, “Legacy of the First Blade” is a pleasing slice of extra stuff. For a short time, it threatens to say something vital about games, heroism and violence. I take this as a good sign for the future of this form of entertainment, and as a frustrating demonstration of its present limitations.
“Legacy of the First Blade” is out now for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey owners, on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. It requires a level 29 character, and the completion of Episode 7 of the main campaign, which takes place on the island of Naxos.