CrossSection | Assassin’s Creed Valhalla first impressions: Viking saga storytelling at work

Gather round, and listen to this tale of a series that finally found its way to a compelling opening to an adventure.

This article contains spoilers for the opening pre-title section of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, i.e. the opening few hours of the game. It doesn’t cover the wider story events or themes so you’re safe to read on if you’ve played past the title screen, or if you don’t mind hearing about the opening hours – most of what’s here was already shown in Ubisoft’s marketing and previews for the game. It also doesn’t cover the changes to the game’s mechanics or technical performance – there are plenty of great reviews out there if that’s what you are looking for.

A real sight for Thor eyes (sorry)
A real sight for Thor eyes (sorry)

There have been around a thousand Assassin’s Creed games over the years and none of them had openings that were particularly memorable for the right reasons. Ubisoft has won widespread praise for its reinvention of the Assassin’s Creed series back in 2017, transforming it into an open-world RPG (as gaming law states every series must now be). Sadly however with both 2017’s Origins and 2018’s Odyssey, Ubisoft don’t in my view deserve much praise for the underwhelming way those journeys began.

Origins had such a baffling start I had to restart it once, thinking I’d accidentally skipped an important scene. It dropped you in the middle of the action but left you confused as you chased down someone, for some reason. Tragic events have just happened, but you aren’t given any idea about what, so the impact went completely over my head.

Ubisoft clearly didn’t learn anything though, as the following year’s Odyssey started its story equally as blandly. It took a while to reveal a backstory that, even when fully revealed, still eluded me. I just went along with it, but Kassandra’s motivations never really made sense in this never ending story, plodding from one corner of Greece to the next (please don’t hate me Origins and Odyssey fans, I still loved both games, just not their stories…)

As these previous experiences had me expecting the worst, when I booted up Assassins Creed Valhalla, I was relieved to be presented with instant, understandable action in an exciting and well directed sequence.

You’re the child of a Jarl (the local Viking ruler), celebrating at a feast that of course gets interrupted by the latest twist in a long running blood feud. Your parents are murdered, but you manage to escape. The action fasts forward to adulthood and you find yourself captured by your adversary and sold into slavery. Naturally, you soon escape and rescue your crew before making it back home, even managing a quick raid on the way home.

In a single hour-long mission, Ubisoft has served up a complete adventure that in previous games it would have surely been tempted to spread over 10 hours with their characteristic scant regard for your free time. Valhalla doesn’t try to be overly clever or mysterious, it just gets on with telling you a cracking story.

Shortly after this opening sequence, we are introduced to Sigurd, your adopted brother, who has returned from his Viking-raids. He’s a charming, well-acted and memorable character. We have time to take in a quick vision of Odin, setting up themes of betrayal. We’re also introduced to the Hidden Ones. Not through some tenuous and drawn out process but through a quick and simple explanation of who they are and why they are there. It’s all so refreshing after an entire series of riddles and poorly handled intrigue.

This section of the game concentrates on seeking revenge on your parents’ killer, enlisting the help of a local king with a few twists thrown in for good measure that ultimately results in you and your clan deciding to flee to England to set up anew and establish your own powerbase, where the game starts proper.

Eivor is a real norse to be reckoned with (really sorry)

The key success Ubisoft achieves is presenting us with a set of characters that have understandable, clear motivations. We’re not left trying to puzzle out their back-stories or who they are. We know what they are doing and why. When they react to events, they’re easy to empathise with.

The characters are distinct and likeable. The villains are suitably wicked, and the heroes charismatic. There’s no irritating, idiot ‘funny’ characters, like we were forced to endure with Odyssey’s Markos.

In fact, we’re given a whole Viking saga in the space of a few hours. All of the key Viking tropes are there – hall burnings, blood feuds, raids, and seidr magic-induced visions of Odin. Whatever comes next in this game, Ubisoft has firmly planted us in Norse culture and sown all of the seeds needed for an epic adventure that I’m fully engaged in.

The only thing I’d criticise Ubisoft for is not committing to one version of the character. I chose the default ‘let the Animus decide’ option for which gender I played as and it serves up the female version of Eivor for this section (promising to change gender at some point for reasons unknown).

Female Eivor is brilliantly acted by Cecilie Stenspil, with a raw fury and hoarseness to her voice, the product of a life spent screaming battle cries perhaps. Curiosity got the better of me though and I found myself switching to the male version occasionally – the game lets you swap back and forth instantly. He’s played with more of a quiet sadness by Magnus Bruun, well known for his performance as a Viking in television’s The Last Kingdom. He gives the character a different, but equally valid, feel.

Both are strong takes on the same character, but I felt myself more drawn to the female version. Like Kassandra before her, she just seems to be the more knowing and intense performance. I wish Ubisoft had just picked one though, so I wasn’t left always wondering if the scenes would have felt any different with the other version. I ran a Twitter poll to ask which version people were playing at – it was more or a less a 40% split for either version, with only 20% choosing the ‘let the Animus choose’ version, suggesting that the default approach taken by Ubisoft hasn’t really resonated with players.

I could axe lyrical about the game’s opening all day long (ok, I’ll stop now)
I could axe lyrical about the game’s opening all day long (ok, I’ll stop now)

Regardless, I’m nit-picking here. Ubisoft deserves credit for finally creating an opening to an Assassin’s Creed game that is exciting and memorable, one that crucially doesn’t feel like a slog to get through before you can get to the proper bit (I’m looking at you Assassin’s Creed III). It helps that Norway is beautiful to explore. It’s easy to spend hours putting off the inevitable departure as you climb snow-capped peaks and sail through the fjords. It’s a monochrome world of white snow, black rock and grey seas, with the only colours the pink sunbeams hitting the snow or the dazzling green northern lights in starlit sky. The simple look and easy to follow storytelling makes the arrival in a verdant England all the more impactful, as the colour pallet explodes and a story unfurls before you.

And so, Eivor’s saga begins.