Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China sets you in the role of Shao Jun, the Chinese Brotherhood’s Last Assassin of the Ming Dynasty. Climax Studios has really wasted no time living up to the standard of quality set forth by Ubisoft in terms of their treatment of the Assassin’s Creed series. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is tragic in that is has a lot of good ideas, even somewhat tight gameplay, implemented rather poorly. Pair this off with a ton of bizarre choices and you have a game that goes from feeling like a standard platformer to a frankly disappointing platformer.
The most egregious thing here is the animations of the lead character, Shao Jun. She looks a bit stilted and moves like she’s constantly walking through glue. I suppose the latter isn’t so shocking as all assassins (yes those stealthy rogues that should be able to silently tip toe on a pile of dry leaves) in the series handle like tanks. However the stilted animations are jarring because otherwise it’s a very pretty and stylish game. The backgrounds are glorious, like a Chinese painting brought to life. Some of the attack animations are as slick as you’d expect from an assassin, but when Shao Jun moves a bit like a marionette you wonder why they didn’t pay more care to the femme fatale you’re going to be spending the next several hours with.
Similar to some of the other minorities Ubisoft has brushed aside in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Shao Jun is oozing with style missed in the fisticuffs type moves of Shay and Edward. Her sword play is slick, she has little neat tricks such as a hidden foot blade that she’ll kick into an enemy’s head and a cannonball tuck she’ll do after taking a leap of faith. I loved triggering her executions and dives, even if some of her simple walk, runs and sword swings felt stilted.
This title takes its inspirations from Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey and Mark of the Ninja. It’s also hard not to draw a few minor parallels to the 2D Prince of Persia games. These comparisons aren’t so surprising as 1. It’s a platformer about sneaking and 2. The Assassin’s Creed series has its roots in Prince of Persia. The problem with Chronicles is that while these other games relied a lot on stealth, they also often presented you with clever puzzles and traps to really tease the brain. Chronicles does nothing to give your grey matter a workout, so everything you tackle in the game is relatively straight forward. This gets a bit boring as the game goes on, with no puzzles or inspired combat to break up the monotony.
Enemies have vision cones so the player can see when they’re about to enter their opponent’s field of view. Dogs, birds, wind chimes, rotted wood floors and other level hazards will also create a sonic sphere that can easily alert your presence. None of this is too worrying however as the enemy AI is a bit lacking, more-so than it is in other Assassin’s Creed titles. So yes, incredibly lacking. You can move through crowds of people in select areas, hide in haystacks and take a leap of faith from high ledges. Climax does get credit for squeezing the Assassin’s Creed experience into a small platformer package, good and bad.
Combat is both harder and yet still doesn’t require much skill, if that makes sense. To counter you are no longer pushing a single button, instead you now push a button and a direction. It feels arbitrary, like they wanted to make me more of an active participant in battle but didn’t tweak the combat enough to really make it fluid. Shao Jun will fight in the direction you have her dodge without automatically locking onto an enemy. This frequently sets you up for a few blind swings into the ether, setting up enemies with a prime chance to hack away at your already low health. Automatic counter executions are also gone, despite countering itself being more difficult.
In that same vein using tools, of which there are too many to be fun for a platformer, requires a silly combination of button presses and aiming. So a whistle is no longer a simple press of the circle button, instead I now have to select it, hold down L1, expand its range to target it, then press R1. I don’t want my combat to be pedantic and picky, I want it to be fun.
The game exists on a 2D plane with a few 3D elements. Think games such as Oddworld or, if you’re too young for that, try Little Big Planet or fighting games such as Smash Bros and Injustice. In part of this 2.5D design there are levels where you’re expected to traverse from the foreground to the background. However you can’t move freely between either, instead you’re moving in one very linear, guided direction that breaks the “illusion” of their background. It’s kind of frustrating to see an element in the foreground or the background you’re supposed to reach, then try and jump or climb to it, only to find out that’s not the spot that will lead you to it and instead guides you to your death. A simple push up on the left stick would have sufficed for 2.5 plane movement, and really added to the experience they were trying to create. Instead with all the restrictiveness of only jumping where they tell you it feels like a distraction and a detraction.
Players also need to beware if they’re trying to do sections in short bursts. While the checkpoint system logs your progress often, saving does not. Saving and exiting might find you with a chunk of level reset, and it will undo all of the optional objectives you’ve achieved. This is especially ridiculous considering optional objectives often require you go pretty far out your way to clear rather large platforming sections.
The game has a point distribution system that will reward you for your performance in different areas. If you choose to open up a path with your sword, you’ll be awarded Brawler medals ranked in Gold, Silver or Bronze, while taking the sneaky approach will get you a Shadow medal and killing your way through while also being a ghost will net you an Assassin ranking. Despite points and medals being awarded for different approaches, Stealth is probably the most satisfying and rewards the most points, which is fine for anyone who really digs stealth gameplay.
The plot is thick as tissue paper. Like basically every assassin, Shao Jun is off to both get revenge and find a MacGuffin. All of this has happened before and will happen again. Pair this with a bunch of other odd choices (Shao Jun carries a slight British accent, while Ezio’s is a very generic ornery old man accent.) and you have yet another bummer of an AC entry. Apparently this is also the first in a trilogy of platformers, including adventures for Sikh Empire Assassin Arbaaz Mir and Russian Revolution’s Nikolai Orelov, both from AC graphic novels. While I want to have higher hopes for the sequels the Assassin’s Creed legacy won’t leave me holding my breath.
There really isn’t much more to say about Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China other than that it’s a competent Platformer. Which is a lot like having a competent Action movie in theaters or a competent historical drama on Television, there’s so many of them who really gives a damn? Chronicles is only ten bucks so the price is at least right, so if somehow yearly Assassin’s Creed entries of varying declining quality aren’t enough to whet your appetite until Victory is released later this year, I suppose Chronicles is a decent enough waste of time.