There's something to be said of the sprawling narrative of the Assassin's Creed franchise. Like a branching soap opera spanning the centuries it requires dedication to keep up. And while there may have been a soft reboot of sorts with Assassin's Creed: Unity, if you're jumping in now you have a lot of catching up to do.
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China may have an elaborate narrative for a 2.5D stealth platformer, but compared to the main entries in the series this feels focused and self-contained. A refreshing change.
Set during the 16th century, the game follows a female assassin named Jun as she attempts to recapture a box of tremendous value and avenge those who have brought her order to the brink of extinction. The story is told via beautifully rendered cutscenes. Much like the game itself it's inspired by brush paintings. It's a great fit with the setting and particularly the backdrops in the game are gorgeous. That's not to say the game is beautiful throughout as the technical side of things is a bit weak and doesn't do the best job of supporting the artistic vision.
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China is a 2.5D stealth platformer, in the vein of something like Mark of the Ninja. It makes clever use of the 2.5D concept as you moving in and out of the backgrounds and in some levels you'll move between as much as four or five layers. At times it can be a bit confusing to figure out your own layer compared to that of the guards and their two-dimensional awareness cones.
Jun is equip with an impressive arsenal of gadgets and moves and new features are continually introduced during the adventure. Naturally Jun will be climbing a lot, hiding in haystacks, making leaps of faith (synchronising means you will reveal weapon caches, collectibles and objectives in the map), hiding in bushes, but there are also a bunch of mechanics that are new to the franchise and that make sense for this kind of title.
Towards the second half of the game Helix orbs are introduced. These power an ability to move from cover to cover without being seen, but you'll quickly run out of juice so it should only be used when absolutely necessary.
You can sneak, run, sneak quickly, run into a slide and slide into an assassination from below. All of this connects nicely to form a deep system of mechanics that allow for multiple solutions to any given problem. The one thing about the mechanics is that they can feel a bit off, especially in the beginning of the game where you're not chaining together abilities as much as you are straightforwardly platforming.
As your actions are somewhat tied to context you don't really get the sense that you're playing a great platformer when playing Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China: it's just not about timing, precision and momentum. But then again this is primarily a stealth title and should be viewed as such.
You can use darts, throwing knives, and fire crackers to distract guards from a distance. The levels offer bonus objectives and there are collectibles to pick up and optional areas to explore. Most levels are slow paced, but a couple of times the scenario shifts to a chase scene or a locked area where guards need to be taken out.
One thing that didn't bother us too much, that may bother purist is how guards behave if you've attracted their attention or have been detected. They're simply not as diligent as they ought to be. Partly it's to do with the fact that enemies largely act on a 2D plane while you can move in a third dimension, but at times it feels like you're evading guards through exploits when it's really just a case of sticking to the rules.
For each section of each level you're graded. There are three categories - Shadow, Assassin and Brawler. Shadow scores you the most points and means you have to remain unseen and can't kill any of the guards. Assassin is about remaining unseen as well, but you can use deadly force. Brawler means you prefer a straight fight to sneaking around. Each style has its challenges, but for the most part Shadow is the most difficult to pull off.
Naturally there is a lot of replayability to be found in trying to perfect each level and shave seconds and minutes off your best times. The game also offers a new game plus and a new game plus hard mode once you've completed it on normal. Each level took us on average 15-20 minutes to complete on the first playthrough and with a dozen levels the game offers good value at just £7.99. Of course, if you happened to buy the Assassin's Creed: Unity season pass prior to it being scrapped you're getting the game at no extra charge.
At the end of the day Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China offers a refreshing spin on the Assassin's Creed concept. At times you're spoilt for choice with the numerous options at your disposal, but ultimately we never felt that urge to continue on and finish the game in one sitting.
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