Rating: T for Teen
Assassin’s Creed is a video game series that bases its premise on jumping through time periods by manipulating certain people’s DNA. The idea is that important historic figures have their DNA carried through to their descendants and that same genetic information can be studied to learn more about their heritage.
This unique concept has allowed Ubisoft to release many games based on different principal moments in history, such as Civil War (1861-1865) times or the French Revolution (1789-1799). One time period that has been highly requested of gamers everywhere has been an Ancient China based Assassin’s Creed, and I am proud to say that we are (almost) there.
There is however one caveat to this Assassin’s Creed release though, it is not a triple-A (AAA) video game, although it tries exceedingly to be. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is an indie game that is developed by Climax Studios and published by Ubisoft. I would almost venture to say that the “Indie” label is just for categorization because this game is one of the most exceptional “Indie” titles I have ever played.
In Imperial China during the Ming Dynasty, the Assassins exist and are opposed by a “corrupt group of eunuchs” called the Tigers. The Tigers are a secret clan that represent the infamous Templars, and run China “from the shadows” while using the Emperor as their puppet.
The protagonist in Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is named Shao Jun, an assassin who has trained with Ezio Auditore de Firenze (from previous Assassin’s Creed games) before returning back to her homeland in China to help fight the Templar resistance. The Assassins begin their push against the Templars by making a plan to infiltrate a Templar prison and getting close to a significant target that will augment the assassins’ control over China.
Combat is the premise of games like these, so you should expect that coming in. Blood appears in generous quantities, but there is not much in the way of gore. I recommend keeping gamers interested in this game above 14 (like the ESRB rating suggests).
Climax Studios are not rookies to video game development so it isn’t surprising that the gameplay mechanics in Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China are smooth. Free-running, platforming, and combat make up the major gameplay elements and they blend seamlessly throughout. For anyone that has played an Assassin’s Creed game on PC, the controls will be very similar to what they are used to. Unlike most indie PC games, the mouse is used as a primary device in tandem with the keyboard. You might think that using a mouse for a side-scroller would seem foreign, but the familiar Assassin’s Creed control scheme works. The mouse is only used for it’s clicks, which are used for attacks with Shao Jun’s rope dart and shoe blade. On the keyboard, you use A and D to move left and right respectively, while SHIFT toggles a run, and CTRL makes your player crouch. SPACE is used for jumping, and holding it brings longer jumps, while also acting as a vault while free-running.
Shao Jun gets the use of four unique items along her journey, each enabling their own specific benefits to work in different situations. The items are: her whistle, throwing needles, firecrackers, and noise darts. Using any of these requires you to: choose the item you want by pressing 1, 2, 3, or 4, holding the F key which brings up a radius circle that shows the target of your weapon, and then pressing the G key to execute. This arrangement may seem impractical but trust me, it works. Notice that all these buttons are within finger reach to each other, this is on purpose because you can just slide a finger and hit whatever key you need without moving your hand. Each item breaks down like this: the whistle brings up a target noise radius that can be grown or shrunk to include or exclude enemies to distract, the throwing needles allow Shao Jun to manipulate the environment or attack enemies, the firecrackers stun enemies, and the noise darts act as long-range whistles to distract enemies away from the player or a certain area.
I assure you that this isn’t a game where certain weapons are unnecessary; I ran into situations that naturally required each of the different items. This happens because each enemy has a “vision cone” a la Metal Gear Solid that shows exactly where the player has to avoid to not be caught. When the game places multiple enemies together in the same area, and especially at different heights, you have to be extra careful and smart. Trying to tank your way through levels won’t last very long as enemies can be deadly in packs. In fact, if you choose to be more aggressive and focus more on combat than stealth, the game will track that and tell you after each section of the level whether you were: Shadow, Assassin, or Brawler. The game also grades you on how effective you were at each play style, like Splinter Cell Blacklist.
A popular complaint of the Assassin’s Creed series is the “Desynchronized” feature, which is basically how the player “dies”. In past AC games this happens quite frequently, and sometimes for small, petty reasons such as the player not being on exactly the correct path, or if they are trailing too much, or sometimes even for being in the wrong spot at the wrong time. This is probably not by design, but a similar problem appears in Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China. A few of the levels have parts where the player has to escape the level while running as fast as possible before they are caught by a fire or falling platforms. Each frequent of these “escape” levels presented spots where it seemed like it was just happenstance that I would “desynchronize”. Many times I would jump correctly or run as fast as possible but I would still end up being overtaken by fire. It reminded me of late in Assassin’s Creed 3 where a few prolonged chase missions were incredibly frustrating and not optimized.
Indie games are just simply not supposed to look this good. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China demonstrates one of the best presentations I have ever seen, let alone in an indie game. The Ubisoft assistance must have been significant and is especially felt when looking at the user interface because it feels incredibly familiar to past Assassin’s Creed games. While the environments may not flash off the screen, they pop with complementary colors like red and white, red and green, and so forth. The levels feel like ancient scrolls comes to life. The variety of environments is a treat as well from the starting prison, to a vast ship, a fortress, and more. The ten hours it takes to complete the main story is very pleasing to the senses.
Along with a fascinating color scheme, this game features brilliant environment layouts. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China at times feels like a three-dimensional game being played as a side-scroller. With all the depth (towards and away from the camera) you get to venture, and the camera rotating that happens, you forget that this game is primarily a side-scroller. Only in Fez do you get anywhere near this type of 2D/3D gameplay; it feels totally unique and fresh. The only part of the presentation that feels a bit underwhelming is the cutscenes that are basically storyboards with dialogue behind them.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China stands out on its own as a 2.5D action-platformer side-scroller with incredible presentation and seamless gameplay. While the story is lacking, the game plays exceptionally well, taking bits and pieces from other games of similar types such as Mark of the Ninja and Metal Gear Solid. ACC: China seems natural in it’s own right, which is a testament to the love and care taken by Ubisoft and Climax Studios. This is technically an indie game that plays and looks like a triple-A title throughout.
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The Bottom Line
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China stands out on its own as a 2.5D action-platformer side-scroller with incredible presentation and seamless gameplay. While the story is lacking, the game plays exceptionally well.