China is the first in a series of three Chronicles games that aims to look at other Assassin’s in the Assassin’s Creed universe located in other countries around the world. China, as you’d expect, takes place in 16th century China during the downfall of the Ming Dynasty. Suffering a blow to their forces, the Chinese Brotherhood of Assassins have been thinned by a tyrannical emperor.
You play as Shao Jun, an Assassin who fled China to train under Ezio Auditore, before returning to China to reclaim it and restore the brotherhood. If Shao Jun sounds familiar, it’s because she appeared in the short film (Embers) that was released around the same time as Revelations back in 2011. If you haven’t seen the film previously, it’s definitely not worth stressing about as the backstory is minimally impactful to the events of Chronicles: China.And while there is definitely a story here, it really fails to resonate or draw in players. When you remove all the chaff, it’s really just the story of a seemingly outnumbered and outpowered Assassin triumphing over immeasurable odds against a powerful Templar-esque force. It’s simple, it’s been done to death before and it’s disappointingly one of the least interesting historical storylines in an Assassin’s Creed game yet.
For a platformer, you probably don’t need as much of a narrative push as other games, but given how interesting the storylines have been in previous Assassin’s Creed games it seems a shame to waste this time period and setting on such a ho-hum storyline.Visually speaking, Chronicles: China is a really mixed bag. On one hand, the game is clearly attempting to look like a watercolour painting in motion. On the other, the game somehow just misses the mark. Yes, it’s extremely stylised, but it doesn’t have the soul or proper feel of the look they’re going for. There are some nice touches here and there – vibrant reds in particular always standout against the relatively dull brown colours that permeate the environments.
It’s actually rather frustrating since there is obviously so much potential here – the world of Ming Dynasty China could look rather beautiful, but somehow the lack of detail makes everything look generic and lifeless.Similarly, the game opts for highly stylised cut scenes akin to a comic book to tell its story – but these are just as good as telling the story as reading through multiple codex entries on a static screen. The presentation isn’t bad, it just could be so much better and fails to reach its full potential.
Similar to previous Assassin’s Creed games, Chronicles: China eschews more traditional accents (or even, a different language) in favour of English accented voice. The result is something that feels much more inauthentic than it could be but at the same time probably would’ve felt just as inauthentic if Ubisoft vouched for “chinese” accents.Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China plays like a fairly typical 2D platforming game complete with mechanics that’d make any fan of the original Prince of Persia games grin with glee. But what Chronicles attempts to do is balance this pretty standard style of platforming with stealth elements that make it almost feel like it fits in as an Assassin’s Creed game. Shao herself can, for example, move in and out of area of the map to blend in or sneak past guards. It’s a simple change to the fairly conventional left-to-right formula but one that gives players more options.
But that being said, most of these options aren’t necessarily options. They really just feel like the one and only way that you can go. Chronicles: China places a very heavy emphasis on stealth, awarding maximum points and rewards if you manage to complete each area without being spotted or eliciting a battle with enemies. And you’ll not want to either, because if you do the combat system is pretty atrocious.While attempts have been made to bring a more traditional model of stealth into Chronicles: China, little to no attempts have been made to bring the smooth and free flowing combat of the series into the game. Combat is clumsy and cumbersome – and plays like, funnily enough, an old Prince of Persia game. Shao must block attacks and then hack for her life just to get past enemies.
When you’re not getting into battles (and I really, really recommend you don’t) Shao has some other interesting tools in her arsenal that help separate her from other Assassins. A nice tie to other games, she has the Rope Dart that Connor would go on to use in Assassin’s Creed III, and can use it to take down enemies stealthily off ledges. Similarly, she has a foot blade rather than a typical wrist blade, which makes for some showy but efficient stealth kills too.Not all tools are made to kill, however. During certain moments in the game, Shao can either whistle or throw firecrackers to distract guards without alerting them. Whistling is handled pretty well – with an adjustable circle appearing on-screen to signify which area the whistle will reach. Firecrackers are slightly less graceful, but still do the job.
And while you’ve got all these tools at your disposable – whether it be abilities Shao can carry herself or tools that she can use – there really isn’t a whole lot of variety in your actions. Unlike other Assassin’s Creed games Shao almost always has a single way to approach any given situation – to the point where each room feels like more of a puzzle to solve rather than a dynamic situation to sneak past. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but a distinction that needs to be highlighted.But the game sometimes feel too gamey for its own good. Whistling can be regularly abused to outsmart guards, who themselves don’t seem to be getting any smarter and will continually check an area being whistled at rather than learn and adapt. Others games would see guards eventually wise up to this behaviour, but Chronicles: China is happy to embrace these unapologetically “gamey” aspects, right down to the “cones of vision” all enemies have. Honestly, it makes the game feel like a cheap mobile spin-off rather than a well put together side story.
The game does attempt to shake things up with its escape sequences, which put more pressure on the player and requires them to run through an environment while taking down enemies stealthily. The pressure in these segments definitely makes it more exciting to play, and requires you to mesh movement with combat to emerge victorious, but right now the concept hasn’t quite reached it’s full potential.Of course, it wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without collectibles, and Chronicles: China has quite a few to find. Most of them are pretty useless beyond artificially extending the game, but most players will easily finish Shao’s journey within five to six hours. Upon completion, there is a Hard Plus mode that lets you attempt the game with a single point of health, but most of the skills you probably picked up in the main game will make you breeze through this mode anyway. It really feels like an afterthought.Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China could definitely be a better game, and it’s definitely setup all the foundations of one. But most of it’s concepts that it introduces fail to truly meet their full potential. The stealth is great but at the same time not dynamic or variable enough to be challenging. The story attempts to be interesting but boils down to typical Templars vs. Asssassins story arcs.
Heck, everything in Chronicles: China just feels like it’s almost there but just missed the mark. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a reasonably enjoyable platforming game with some light if not abusable stealth mechanics. But it should be so much more – it’s an Assassin’s Creed game (kind of) that’s set in China! Hopefully the developers will do more with the upcoming India and Russia instalments, because quite frankly it’s disappointing to see China wasted like this.
An interesting game, but one that is pretty happy to let you cruise through it rather than offer a real challenge.