The concept of taking the Assassin's Creed franchise into a 2.5D game world is certainly an interesting proposition. Many were wondering how Ubisoft and Climax Studios would go about getting the free-running elements of the main franchise into a side-scroller whilst keeping an element of freedom about the proceedings.
The good news is that with Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China, a lot of the potential pitfalls of re-imagining a series as part of a new genre have been avoided. We won't spoil the surprisingly straightforward story for the super-hardcore fans of the franchise other than to say that you play the entire game as Shao Jun, the last remaining Assassin of the Chinese Brotherhood. The general goal of each level is either to escape from peril or to assassinate a major target. Standing in the way of all that are maps full of enemy soldiers, hiding spots, levers, Animus shards, scrolls, and – of course – tons of opportunities to take on some parkour.
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China's main focus is on stealth, but it allows you to play in other ways. Instantly, this puts it ahead of other titles that force you to use stealth, making you restart levels the second you're spotted. Each level has a maximum score that can be attained, and you rack up points by taking on sections of levels as stealthily as possible. The game judges your style based on the type of actions you use as you make your way through the level, and how well you perform those actions. Play a level without shedding any needless blood and without being seen at all, and you'll pick up the top score and a "Shadow Gold" rating. Play in the same way but escape after being spotted once or twice, and you might pick up a "Shadow Silver" for your efforts. Stay out of combat situations but take down more enemies than you need to and you'll be classed as "Assassin" (again, with a gold, silver, or bronze rating), while getting involved in straight-up sword fights will have you marked as a gold, silver, or bronze "Brawler", which will get you the lowest possible range of scores.
As we say, this means that in order to reach the maximum possible score for a level, you need to avoid detection and that can be done in a number of ways. There are stacks of ways to hide, from hanging off a ledge to avoid the gaze of an enemy, to sidling up next to a pillar, to climbing up to the ceiling using your rope dart and waiting there until any potential enemies have wandered off. To help clear a path, you have access to a variety of different tactics aside from hiding, too. Firecrackers, throwing knives, noise darts, and the ability to whistle are all on hand and each of these will cause a different result, so choosing the right one to use at the right time is absolutely imperative. A firecracker to the head will stun a guard for a short amount of time for example, but if you take that action and another guard is too close, they'll come running to find out what the commotion is and get a clear view of you.
Should that happen, you'll find that any guards in the area will run to your location to take you out with whatever weapons they have to hand. You can fight back using counters, blocks, and two types of attacks and while some of it looks very slick, the combat is instantly recognisable as being from an Assassin's Creed game. The timings that you have to use are practically identical to the main series, although the enemies are much tougher than the ones you'll find wandering the streets of Paris. Pretty much to the point that if you've alerted three or four enemies at one time, you'll likely be a goner if you decide to fight as opposed to running away, unless you get very lucky. A dodge control allows you to bend and flip out of the path of bullets and throwing stars, and this can prove to be invaluable since enemies can take each other out. There's little as satisfying in gaming as blocking a strike and acrobatically rolling up and over a foe's shoulder just as a friendly bullet hits him, only for you to land and then lean back to avoid a second bullet that finishes him off.
But we will reiterate that combat really isn't the focus. It is available, but the goal is always to avoid killing everything and to only take down specific targets as dictated by the game. The puzzle of exactly how to progress while remaining undetected is what will keep players coming back until they've achieved the maximum score on each level. They'll want to get the top scores too, since high scores unlock new abilities and power ups which can be carried over into the "New Game Plus" mode which unlocks once you've completed the story for the first time. Sometimes you can beat a section just by finding a hiding spot and then waiting. Sometimes you'll need to throw a noise dart one way, a firecracker another, and then use your Helix Dash to magically (and invisibly) avoid a third enemy as you sprint between two hiding places. Then you need to plan your way through the next section.
The stealth challenge is a steep one later on. At no point is Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China even remotely difficult to simply beat. If you wander through the levels, killing everything that moves, assassinating the bosses with one button press, and not caring about your score, you'll be done with it very quickly indeed. However, in the beginning, Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China pretty much telegraphs everything that you need to do in order to stay out of sight and to reach the goal, one way or another. But once you've been let off your leash, you'll need to use all of your creativity and skill to get the job done. The puzzles would be easier if enemies always reacted to certain things in a way that makes sense. There are times when you can fire a noise dart to the right of two enemies, only to see one of them decide to look away from the noise and directly at you for a second or two before investigating. That second or two is enough to count against you and threaten your Shadow Gold rating, as you've technically been seen.
A couple of breaks from the stealth puzzle action are on hand in the form of levels that take place against the clock. These see you racing away from a quickly-spreading fire, with no penalty being given for taking out any enemies that get in your way. These levels – as bizarre as it sounds – sometimes feel a little like the music levels that were dotted around Rayman Legends, with the added depth of the parkour challenge and being able to change planes, stepping into and out of the screen as needed. There's no Eye of The Tiger being played on kazoo as a backdrop of course, but the way in which set pieces appear to ramp up the excitement feels very similar. They really work, too. The final one of these chase levels is utterly thrilling, with death seemingly only a half-step away for the entirety of its duration.
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China does fall short in some areas. Sometimes traversal – as with the game's combat – feels like it has some of the same issues that the main franchise has. There are times where you'll leap to your death because the game will allow you to jump towards nothing. Sometimes, you'll fall into water or down a chasm and you'll just be reset close to your last checkpoint. At other times, you'll continue falling until you hit the ground and die. There are also times when you'll jump across a chasm with distance to spare, only for the game to decide that Jun should catch the ledge and then hop backwards a bit and let go, causing her to fall to her death. Fortunately, with each level being broken down into sections for scoring purposes, the checkpointing system is somewhat generous. In fact, if you're trying to beat a level with all Shadow Gold ratings and you're seen by an enemy, you can pause and hit the "Restart Checkpoint" option to go back and try it again and at most, you'll lose a minute's worth of progress.
Some things have been attempted but then underused. A fantastic effect where you climb around the edge of the building and the game's perspective spins through 90 degrees – similar to how things work in Fez - appears to only be used once in total, when there are plenty of other sections that definitely could have benefited from its use. There are a couple of spots where your view is hindered, when it wouldn't have been if the camera was behind the main character. Rather than getting that perspective-spinning effect though, you just have to struggle through. Also of note is that the game seems to have something of a strange framerate at times. You want it to be running at a solid 60fps, but there are a fair few occurrences – generally when scrolling is going on – when it appears to be noticeably lower than that. It isn't bad enough to be a deal breaker, ladies, but it would have been nice to have seen the whole thing running at a tight 60 all the way through.
Some will find that the game lacks content, given that the only mode on offer is the story and once you complete it, you're left with doing the whole thing identically again in New Game Plus, or taking on a slightly more difficult challenge in New Game Plus Hard mode. Your mileage will vary. The game has clearly been designed with the idea of getting you to perfect each level, similar to how players try to get three stars in every level of Angry Birds. If that sort of playing style doesn't float your boat, this can be something of a brief experience. Even the six available unlocks, only two of which are usable in game and that are purchased with Uplay points, will likely be affordable by most players before they've even started. With that said, even if you don't go back and play through the game two or three times to collect all the scrolls or Animus fragments, what is here is definitely fun, and bodes well for the two other titles in the Chronicles series that have already been announced.
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China is a fun and enjoyable game that does the franchise justice while taking it into another genre. There are some truly fantastic ideas here, some super-smooth parkour, brain-tingling puzzle challenges and occasional flashes of brilliance when it's time to get down and dirty in combat. Some ideas haven't been explored as thoroughly as we'd have liked, and there are a few rough spots, though. We're looking forward to the next installment.