I’ve been attempting to play Valhalla for a while now, but two sputtering starts felt like maybe this isn’t the game for me. However, at the start of January I felt really needy for a game, and my go to games that I play when I feel a real need to play just weren’t as comfortable as they used to be, so I made a third attempt to stick with the game and this time I have stuck it out. At the time of writing this I’m at 70 hours and counting.
The reasons I had a hard time with Valhalla are not story based. So far it’s an okay game, although it isn’t reaching the heights of Origins and Odyssey for me. I would also say that way too much focus is put on drinking and alcohol, although I’m aware that the Nordic countries are kind of known for it. Anyway. My issues with Valhalla are UX related.
Very few things in Valhalla have improved from Origins and Odyssey. In Odyssey the improvements were obvious from the predecessor Origins. I haven’t played any other games in the series (if you don’t count an aborted attempt at trying the first game), mainly because I don’t enjoy playing male characters, especially not male characters without much character. I felt that Bayek took a step away from the typical gruff hero with stubble and a stoic attitude. Bayek smiles. He shows emotions. He’s relatable. Still, Bayek and Galahad from The Order 1886 are the only male characters I have played and enjoyed. My point is that I don’t have any other comparisons for the Assassin’s Creed series.
In Valhalla the only real improvement that I saw when I started playing is that the containers that are looted change state. That’s it. On the other hand, you have to smash ore deposits to get at the iron ore from previously just getting to loot them. So why am I being so grumpy about Valhalla? Primarily I think it’s because Odyssey did such a good job on so many areas, and Valhalla feels like a step back. Let’s do this review in some sort of order, though, and maybe I can communicate why I have these opinions.
In both Odyssey and Origins, the first part of the game is contained and pretty railroaded without feeling contained and railroaded.
In Origins I am immediately placed in a combat situation and learn the combat basics. I learn how to use attack, block, heavy attack etc, and the game does not progress until I’ve shown that I can perform these actions. Why is this good? Because even if I as a player may feel that I can handle the game, most of the time I can’t. If I dive into the game without being shown how to play it, my enjoyment might increase at the start, but once it gets more difficult, I might not be able to play it anymore, or at least not as efficiently as I have done previously.
In addition to the combat tutorials in this clip, the game goes on to introduce exploration and movement in a similar way.
Odyssey does a similar thing. Right off the bat, the player is tossed into battle, playing Leonidas at the gates of Thermopylae. The second combat introduces Kassandra/ Alexios to two thugs and repeats the hints shown earlier. It’s not only a good introduction to the game, it also sets the tone for the narrative.
The combat tutorial is also repeated once Kassandra/ Alexios is introduced, and in the same way presented with exploration and movement. (Unfortunately I had a mishap when capturing and Kassandra’s model didn’t show up for some reason.)
Both Origins and Odyssey gradually introduce features as the game progresses and it feels well paced. At the same time, I as a player am able to mess around in the open world, but even that has restrictions. Bayek is stuck in Siwa and Kassandra on Kephallonia until they’re ready to move on.
Valhalla misses out on those more restricted teaching opportunities. While the starting area is still very limited, I can move in any direction and do pretty much anything and the tutorials are somewhat limited.
While people who have played Assassin’s Creed games before might recognize how combat works, this is still something of a gamble. In general, both Siwa and Kephallonia feels more like structured starting areas than Rygjafylke’s starting map. While this freedom might feel gratifying, it also has it’s share of drawbacks. In addition, players who have played an Assassin’s Creed game before might get confused from all the changes that have been made in Valhalla. I know I did.
I felt that few of the concepts in Valhalla were properly introduced, and if I wasn’t such a completionist I might have missed them. In addition, I had to look some of them up to understand them.
Leap of Faith, which is a pretty basic and well recognized ability, wasn’t introduced until I had arrived in Ravensthorphe, and Ravensthorpe didn’t occur to me until I was 10 hours into the game. And yes, before you ask, I did have incidents with fall damage before that.
While some concepts are well introduced, such as the settlements, it feels less streamlined and more disjointed than earlier games. Probably because the level of complexity has increased drastically, and because of the changes made to the systems and UIs supporting them.
My aversion to change…
Part of why I’m not super fond of the changes made to the systems and gameplay in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is simply a human thing. Us humans don’t like things when they change. It’s built into us. There’s even a bias (which I can’t recall the name of right now) that exists based on our aversion to change.
Taking that into account there are however additions to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla that doesn’t make much sense to me, unless I start reasoning not as a player but as a game developer who wants players to experience all the content.
Skills are pretty much useless
First off, the skills system has gone from one screen with total oversight to a screen where skills are gradually unlocked as the player progresses. Level has been removed, and instead the player has Power, which works pretty much like player level but not quite. The lack of oversight means several things. My first thought when opening the skills screen was “oh, I’m not allowed to pick warrior skills”, based on the fact that those icons use red as base colour. Of course I figured out that that was not the case, that red is just a colour in this context, but there was still a moment of confusion when I had to figure that out. As a UX designer, it’s my job to reduce those moments of confusion. I would have advised against using red as an icon colour.
Secondly, the skills system is severely nerfed. I get minute additions to damage resistance, attack strength, health etc, but leveling up in Valhalla feels meaningless to me as a player. My special powers are now called abilities and contained in books that are scattered across the world, and if I don’t read up on which book is in what monastery or military camp, I might get (and will get) abilities that are completely useless from my preferred gameplay perspective.
I get why this has been added. Probably to get players to explore, but the trade off is that I’m now lacking the ability to plan ahead for myself. There are no clues in the world to guide me to the abilities I want, not until I upgrade my settlement to include a cartographer, but the game won’t even tell me that this is coming so I can’t plan for that either. I’ll just have to play and hope that I get an ability that I want and can use.
Skills seem pointless, as I said earlier, and in addition, the skill tree that used to be contained in one screen with a clear overview – once again, it supported my aspirational gameplay – is now spread out over a massive skill tree that I suspect is supposed to imitate constellations. It gives me no overview whatsoever, and no ability to plan ahead. To be honest, I just click in skills and hope I’m getting it right, but again, I don’t feel there’s a valid strategy element to my playing anymore. I’ve been deprived of my agency over Eivor’s development. I can only hope I run into the next ability I want or that the next skill I add will help me, but as previously stated, the skills are no longer visibly (or emotionally) affecting my gameplay, so I have no idea.
Add to the already massive and impossible to get an overview of skill system that it affects your equipment as well, and you have a perfect storm of – to my mind – “what the heck were they thinking”.
I honestly do not understand what this brings to my enjoyment of the game, because to me, this is not enjoyable. If I felt I had some oversight, maybe. But skills are not only spread out over a huge area, they are also hidden until unlocked by purchase. This gives me no way to gracefully build my character.
The items being geared towards skills – sure, but again, how do I know when I get to unlock it? And where can I see what impact my skill selection has? And why should I care?
In addition, there also seems to be a focus on bear and raven armour. I am focusing on wolf stuff, and so far I have one armour set that is wolf leaning. I have at this point played 70+ hours. I have several sets for raven and bear, including tons of weapons, but only one for wolf. The wolf weapons are also scarce, especially the types of weapons that I want, which is the predator bow and an axe and shield. In general it seems as if the ranged skills don’t include the predator bow, just the hunter and the light bow, which is also not exactly something I would have expected.
Odin’s sight nerfed the bird
One of the things I thoroughly enjoy in Odyssey and Origins is to spy on a camp, mark my targets with my bird and then spend a lot of time sneaking and knocking NPCs out, putting them in piles in haystacks and setting traps at bonfires. This gameplay is essentially gone. As far as I know, I can no longer do any of the planning with the bird, and the bird does not gain skills anymore. This means that another aspect of strategy and tactics that I enjoyed has been removed from the game. I get a similar effect with the Odin’s sight, but it is not even half as efficient as planning a raid with the bird.
Odin’s sight also doesn’t really do what I need it to do, so again, I’ve lost the oversight I had in previous games.
I suspect I understand why this change has been made as well. I think the change comes from wanting to support the raid gameplay. If I as a player can sneak through every location and assassinate my way to victory (which I can’t anyway, because some chests require two people to open), the raid gameplay would be no use.
For me, the trade off is not what I would have wanted or expected, as all out combat – which everything turns so easily into – is not my preferred way of playing.
Mysteries, artifacts and wealth
The information relating to each settlement or military base is gone. This is another change that I as a completionist isn’t very fond of. In addition, the map won’t zoom in close enough to give me all the information I need now that the icons for chests, resources etc are gone. I get little yellow dots instead.
I do like the fact that each little encounter (mysteries) have a purpose now. It’s a good way to motivate (primarily completionist like me) to deal with everyday quests in the world.
But the mysteries are sometimes hard to solve. Who knew you had to make a leaf fall to complete a world event? Those kinds of mysteries are frustrating, and the most egregious part is that there are no clues, no help. Finding an arm ring? Sure. Taking a beating and then beating back? No, not really. Setting fire to a silo to stop two brothers from arguing? Not on your life. I had to look most of these up in order to not combust out of frustration.
To be honest some of them are also quite juvenile in tenor as well. Get a woman viper eggs so that she can fart? It’s not my kind of humour, and honestly it just makes me exasperated and bored with the game.
I’ve killed more than one order member without being aware of that this is what I’m doing. I don’t particularly care about the Order or what they’re up to. partly because their not really relevant to me in the game, not like the Order is in Origins where they literally were the reason Bayek’s son died or in Odyssey where they have a massive impact on the entire game. Granted, I’ve “only” played for 70+ hours and precious little of that is story, but one would assume that killing order members would be something I would care about.
I do not.
All the fucking whistling!
Anywhere I see people in Valhalla my automatic response is to turn off audio. The only exception is military bases and monasteries.
I don’t think I’ve been in any settlement where I haven’t had to turn off the audio due to all the fucking whistling. Someone thought that that was great ambience and added it just about everywhere, and as an individual suffering from misophonia, I have only one thing to say. Go to hell. This is outright torture for me.
I know, I know. Poor audio designers they probably don’t know about misophonia or that certain sounds can actually induce rage, anxiety or high levels of irritation. If you haven’t guessed it yet, whistling is one of my triggers and it happens to be the worst one. In other words, every time I get close to an NPC in Valhalla, in order to not experience rage or anxiety or irritation, I mute my TV. I want to stress that this is not something that I can just turn off. My body does this on it’s own. I can’t control it, and it’s not just “oh, I’m annoyed now”. This is full on fight or flight. I always carry noise cancelling headphones when I’m out among people, but mostly I just avoid people. Origins and Odyssey had similar problems, but they were limited to the blacksmith. How do I know this? Because I always muted the game when going to the blacksmith.
Give me a beautiful man for fucks sake!
As far as I can judge, most of the romance in Valhalla, the involved ones, are focused on women NPCs. It’s pretty obvious this is a game by men for men. Okay. Fine. But PLEASE, why do developers not spend at least some time on making the man romances fun, interesting, and please, please, please, pretty?
All the dudes I can romance look like haystacks and while haystacks have their charms, please give me a Brasidas or a Leofrith. This is a power fantasy, and Eivor deserves a Leofrith. That’s all I’m saying.
In general, a lot of the added systems in Valhalla are decent, but they add complexity and length to an already exhaustingly long game. Are all of these systems necessary? Possibly not. Do they bring anything to the game? Maybe. I’ve “only” played for 70 hours and so far they’ve only brought more to dos to my already very long to do list. My focus is more often than not to complete bits of the main arcs, finish up an area (and by finish for Valhalla this means completing every mystery, finding every artifact and picking up all the wealth).
I don’t think Valhalla is bad per se, but I think I would have been more forgiving had it not been associated with Assassin’s Creed.
I also feel that some choices made are detrimental to the game. The way skills and abilities are handled in particular.
I don’t have the energy to understand either of these systems and they offer way too few real rewards to engage with them. I’m not even engaging with the abilities system because I’m not properly introduced to any of them, and I’m so far managing fine without them. In Origins and Odyssey I used them constantly. In Valhalla, they offer way too few rewards to engage with them. As previously stated, strategy and tactics went out the window and instead I have guesswork.
Progression in general is an issue in Valhalla. As a completionist I’m gaining power and “powering out” of the areas I’m in pretty quickly. At the same time, I’m prevented from progression when it comes to upgrading gear and armour. Fabric is a resource I didn’t have access to until I played the DLC content, and fabric rules my rations and quiver, same thing with nickel ingots to upgrade gear. From my perspective it looks like the abundance of material in the DLCs are a fix for the base game, which is painfully uneven.
If I can pick one way to summarize all this is it would be that the game is out of sync. The various progression systems limp unevenly along with the narrative and some aspects seem to be created for a game that is either much shorter than Valhalla, or much longer, depending on what aspect you’re looking at.
It also has too many progression systems to keep track of. There’s the settlement, there are the Jomsvikingar, there are the trade routes and influence aspects of Dublin and the rest of Ireland, alliances with other kingdoms, there’s the equipment, there’s the county or kingdom progression with mysteries, artifacts and wealth, there’s the order, there’s Eivor’s abilities and the skills and the quests and the daily trades, and all the individual establishments in the settlement…
What happens to the player experience when you overload the player? It stops being fun and starts being a chore. I think Valhalla would have gained from paring down and simplifying. The effort needed to keep track of everything in the game is monumental, and to be honest it distracts from the story and the main gameplay.
While Origins and Odyssey suffer from the same issues of pure size of the game, the progression path in both games is clearer and more focused.
Valhalla actually suffers from the same issues that Mass Effect Andromeda suffers from. A lack of focus. But Valhalla is even worse than Andromeda, and that’s saying something. The production values in Valhalla are higher, but the experience is more scattered.
Believe it or not, I’m not trying to tear Valhalla down. It’s a beautiful game, much in the same way many of Ubisoft’s games are absolutely stunning, but it does have problems and part of my skill set is understanding exactly what those problems are. I should also add that this is a very subjective review. It’s possible that other players get enjoyment out of what I consider issues, but I would have to run user tests for that.
Valhalla is not a bad game. It has it’s moments, but UI design and UX design for this game does not live up to the standards set by Origins and Odyssey.
I do have good things to say about Valhalla, but I’ll let them stew somewhat longer and return with further updates concerning this game and how I have experienced it.