It took 13 years and a flurry of episodes for the series Assassin's Creed to finally deign to return to the Middle Ages. Valhalla, its new opus, takes us back to the early years of the golden age of the Vikings and has therefore chosen to chart its own course compared to its two predecessors, Origins and Odyssey.
A colony to manage, infiltration based on hiding in the crowd, the more advanced use of environmental enigmas, all grafted to the modern Action-RPG approach of the franchise: anxious to offer a "best-of" approach to the series, has Assassin's Creed Valhalla succeeded in its bet?
Before we get started, a quick note on the options for the beginning of the game: Assassin's Creed Valhalla has a few good ideas on this point, offering a better customization of the experience: it is possible, for example, to separately set the difficulty of combat, exploration (offering more or less indications) and infiltration (determining the ability of the enemies to detect you).
It is also possible to choose the gender of our hero or heroine, who will keep the name Eivor no matter what happens, a third option letting the game choose for you: in concrete terms, in this case you will play the female version of Eivor, except for a single, very precise narrative arc.
Finally, the accessibility options have been extended, offering more latitude in subtitles or command settings than in the past.
Eivor is a warrior from a Norwegian clan called Ravens. But Eivor, as weary as his fellow men of the bitter cold of his native land, has chosen to travel to England in the hope of finding more hospitable lands there.
A starting point that lays the foundations for a more serious and down-to-earth scenario than that of his predecessor.
Under the pretext of developing his colony and obtaining the favours of the local rulers, Eivor will travel to different regions and kingdoms, each one being the pretext for a unique narrative arc centred around characters as varied as they are interesting.
This system has the merit of giving you a bit of freedom in the sequence of missions, which can also have an influence on the characters you meet in certain sequences, and on some of the narrative arc endings, which may prove to be richer in twists and turns than you might have imagined.
Despite a somewhat inconsistent ending, the adventure proves to be sufficiently copious and pleasurable to offer an immersive and successful representation of late 9th century England.
One of the main regrets is the still timid presence of the present narrative arc, which has the merit of offering a little more audacity and winks in its current approach, but still lacks a hint of clarity for players less familiar with this part of the series.
Returning to the colony, it is not a simple scripting tool, but a real gameplay tool: you have to manage it by spending goods recovered during your raids and your exploration of the country to unlock new buildings.
While some are more basic (increasing stats bonuses when you trigger a banquet, making a new shop available), others can be the source of new quests that bring a little life to the colony's community.
The most interesting thing is that this colony brings real moments of transition between two narrative arcs while perfectly integrating into the rhythm of the plot, even offering some rather amusing bonus ideas: a conflict to be resolved between two inhabitants, a potential relationship with one of its occupants...
More generally, Valhalla has a quality that was not necessarily expected, that of breaking the boundary between main and secondary content.
The quest diary never overflows, since most side quests are small, short events that will not distract you from your main objective, but will offer an interlude of a few minutes on your journey, without necessarily proving to be futile or forgettable.
The exploration surely adopts the best model of the whole series not only by this approach to events, but also by a map that is more airy and interesting to walk through, without forgetting to be rich in quality panoramas.
The question marks and places of interest to "clean up" are replaced here by a multitude of small coloured dots appearing as you explore the premises: blue means a mystery, which can be a jumble of mini-quest annexes, a cairn to mount, a stone circle whose secret must be discovered, or a less benevolent encounter that will lead to a boss fight that is generally difficult to forget.
Yellow means wealth to be recovered, and white means an artefact that will enrich your collection or that of the whimsical Roman object collector in your colony.
We won't go so far as to mention all the possible activities, as Valhalla is full of them, but there are also mini-games such as Flyting - a sort of verbal joust based on rhythm and rhyme - and Orlog - based on dice and a system of tokens - which will brighten up your games if you want to take a step back from the battlefield, and members of the order of the elders to hunt down, a very nice idea from Odyssey that we're happy to see here.
As mentioned earlier, the progress of the colony also depends on another activity offered in the open world: raids.
This is simply a place (usually a monastery) that can be plundered to recover resources that cannot be found elsewhere, but which are essential to build new buildings in your hamlet.
For this occasion, you will necessarily have to call on members of your clan since the chests in question and some of the doors of the place cannot open on their own, so don't hope to end these sequences discreetly, brutality is essential in this situation.
A point that may seem regrettable given the freedom generally allowed by the series, but which finds its meaning in the coherence of the sequences in question and does not in any way prevent you from favoring infiltration the rest of the time.
Valhalla wants to be more "role-playing" in its approach, which can be felt not only in these raids, but also in the collection and opening of safes, since many of them are not as easily accessible as in the past.
It is not uncommon to have to find a key, a difficult path, a wall to destroy or a board to break to access these precious relics.
The more your game progresses, the more these mechanics will add up, going so far as to offer small environmental puzzles that are certainly quite accessible, but relevant enough to make collecting treasure pleasant and credible.
Very generous in its proposal, Valhalla manages to offer a copious, interesting and even more varied annex content than that of its two predecessors.
Travel is a small bonus, since despite the absence of real sea passages, you do have a longship that you can use at your leisure to navigate the rivers of England.
It is not accompanied by naval battles, which are absent from this episode, but it does have an important use in your epic as it carries up to 8 members of your clan whom you can call for help if you need it, as long as you are close to a water point that can accommodate your boat.
For the more earthbound among you, Ubisoft Montreal has had the rich idea of taking care of the rest of its gameplay as well, trying to offer a mix between the approaches of the first episodes of the saga and its recent opus.
Thus, the Secret Blade once again makes it possible to assassinate any enemy in a single blow, but its effectiveness still depends on your statistics and the enemy's power.
For the toughest of them, you will also have to succeed in a skill mini-game based on timing, the difficulty of which depends on the effectiveness of the blow. A good choice, which brings a crucial element of the series to the forefront while fitting it into the current Action-RPG system.
Add to this the return of an approach also reminiscent of the beginnings of the franchise: during several narrative arcs, you will be led to infiltrate the towns using a cape and hood to blend in with a group of monks on a nearby bench or to pretend to engage in a local activity.
A detail that will delight fans of the saga, all the more so as it is integrated with a lot of common sense and moderation, offering diversity in gameplay possibilities while proving suitable for sequences set in cities hostile to what locals call the Danes.
For combat, Valhalla takes the Odyssey model for sensations and grip, but adapts it to its progression.
Skills are now found on the field or obtained via side events or even quests, while you can regularly earn new skill points to spend in a huge talent tree taking the form of linked constellations, a distant visual cousin to the fire-drenched spherical system of Final Fantasy X.
Not really ergonomic at first glance, this one however has the merit of being well built by forcing you to go through certain paths on your way to guarantee a minimum of balance in the construction of your character.
Less free than Odyssey's, it offers however enough possibilities to define a minimum style of our character.
As far as equipment is concerned, Valhalla has the good idea to abandon the constant loot of his predecessors to concentrate on the possibilities of improving armour and weapons: by using materials that are generally under good guard in the open world, you will be able to improve the scarcity of the equipment concerned, which increases the ceiling level of the weapon in question, each level being climbed with more easily accessible materials (leather, iron ore).
Most equipment has the good idea to change its appearance with each upgrade, offering a constant visual renewal that brings more credibility to the game world.
It is also possible to choose freely which equipment to carry in each hand, which gives rise to several types of combos: double axe, axe and shield, flail and dagger, even... double shield for the most original of you.
If each combo proves to be perfectly playable, the main weapon is still the trigger engine of most of the proposed animations and the result is therefore a little less flashy than expected, but the freedom offered by this system is more than enough to appreciate it, especially as the fights have lost nothing of their quality and dynamism.
The types of enemies are moreover much more varied, despite an AI with sometimes very strange behaviors that sometimes spoil the immersion.
On the other hand, our main regret lies in the finish moves, which offer a real effort of direction and prove to be as bloody as they are successful, but unfortunately have the bad idea of not putting the camera back exactly where you had placed it before.
It may seem like a detail, but in a more subdued setting or surrounded by a crowd of enemies, it is precisely the kind of detail that can save you from taking a hit because of the second lost by systematically replacing the camera after each finish.
A last word on a few details that would not necessarily have their place elsewhere.
Well executed as a whole, Valhalla doesn't escape some pitfalls of the series, with first of all many bugs.
While we haven't encountered any bugs blocking or requiring the console to be restarted, these unfortunately prove to be too recurrent and we'll have to wait for a few updates to enjoy a version with a more correct finish: we'll note regular problems with pathfinding, quest scripts that have difficulty being triggered, and collision bugs as well.
Nothing serious, but put end-to-end, these bugs can still annoy and spoil the immersion of the whole.
On PS4 and Xbox One, we can also regret that the title seems a little more cramped. If it proves to be visually beautiful and rather stable in terms of framerate, it's especially the very long loading times that can be a problem, especially since micro loading times also occur from time to time when a part of the map is not yet loaded or when you are going to talk directly with a merchant shortly after a quick trip.
A problem that also hinders the fluidity of the realization during several sequences between cutscenes and gameplay, and breaks the rhythm of the whole.
However, Ubisoft Montréal's great effort on this point is to be commended, since in addition to a very nice introductory shot, we find other kinematics or camera effects that go beyond the simple field/counter-field frame and bring a little more life to the whole.
The assassinations of members of the order of the elders can also be accompanied by a finish move showing the path of the secret blade through the body, and the more realistic style of combos and combat skills is very often accompanied by a few camera changes that are certainly not always happy, but which have the merit of constantly renewing the impression of dynamism in your confrontations.
A definite step in the right direction, which we hope to see even more sustained with the arrival of a new generation of machines. Perhaps as soon as the next episode?
The gamble seemed risky, but it paid off. Assassin's Creed Valhalla offers an astonishing mix of all the formulas of the saga, managing to juggle between phases of wild raids on the one hand and infiltration into the heart of the crowd on the other, without one of its subsystems really seeming to suffer from this multifaceted approach.
A fine feat that is accompanied by an adventure rich in exciting sub-stories, furthermore carried by immersive and particularly well-integrated exploration and progression systems.
On the other hand, beyond the untimely loadings on the current console generation, the title lacks finishing touches and accumulates small bugs (pathfinding, script, collisions) that are never really problematic, but which can momentarily take you out of the experience due to their recurrence and that we hope to see disappear or at least reduce with the next updates.