When Ubisoft debuted their alternative take on the Assassin's Creed world with Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China back in 2015, announcing that it was the first of a three-part trilogy, there was hope in our hearts. Hope that starting from the promising base that the first title provided, the development team would listen to criticisms put forward by gamers and improve upon the formula. Then, we hoped, they'd do it again for the third game, creating a trifecta of games that crescendoed in quality until we reached gaming nirvana.
What's actually happened, is that the best game was released first (review), followed by the slightly less fun Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India (review), and then Assassin's Creed Chronicles: Russia, which seems to be hellbent on throwing the concept of "fun" out of the nearest window. Though it would probably get caught doing it and have to start again from the last checkpoint.
Without beating around the bush, this Russian sojourn's main problem is the sheer number of shackles that are placed on the way that you approach each level. One of the more beautiful parts of the first game was that you could take your time and try to find a solution that worked for you. You might have to rethink your initial idea if something unexpected happened, but you'd still have the tools and skills available to improvise and try to pick up that elusive "Shadow Gold" rating, which is awarded for getting through a section undetected. In Russia, that is pretty much never how things go down. The game frequently ensures that you only have one way of obtaining that top rating and in far too many cases, only have one real solution outside of the perfect run anyway. Of course, this problem is only exacerbated by the sheer number of times that the game will adjudge you to have failed entirely, forcing you back to the last checkpoint. A lot of levels have detection restrictions on them – especially later on in the game – which means the whole scoring system goes out of the window. We fail to see the point in having Silver and Bronze ratings available for only being detected once or twice, when the game fails you if someone so much as happens to catch a glimpse of you out of the corner of their eye.
The insta-fails don't stop with detections, either. A number of the more high-action levels – well, all of them, in fact – feature penalties for not knowing exactly what to do in a game that very rarely tells you exactly what it wants you to do. Stood atop a tram, you may have to duck under a bridge, then another, then grab a ladder on the next bridge, run across, and leap back over the other edge so you land back on the tram roof. The ladder is red - an indicator that you have to climb it - but you'll fail if you so much as take an extra step for the jump, don't run toward the front of the tram before you get to the ladder, watch as the game engine decides that the character needs to refuse to respond to your input, causing you to take an extra split second to let go of that ladder in time, or…well…any other thing that the game thinks constitutes a lack of skill.
The simple fact is that in more than one spot, you can attempt something and fail, then do the exact same thing and succeed. The final level – where you're on the run from a tank – feels more like a round of Trials Fusion than anything else. You run, try to climb a ladder, and die. You restart, try to climb the ladder, and die. You restart again, jump just half a step earlier so that you're a little further up the ladder, and succeed. It's a constant exercise in trial and error that removes all semblance of high action from proceedings. A section where you need to run across three platforms and leap to grab an overhang whilst being shot at, saw us fail and restart at least three dozen times. The only way to do it correctly is to run over the first platform, jump the second, then jump the third, even though running across all three gets you to the same point at very much the same time. For reference, the target time for that particular level is six and a half minutes. It took us an hour and a half, simply because even if you do manage to read the game's mind and get things exactly right, it might just decide that a collapsing platform is going to give way a second earlier than it has in every other attempt so far and kill you off that way.
But it isn't all bad. Far from it. The base game is the same as it was the last two times around, with a couple of nice pieces of new invention. The electric winch that Nikolai carries allows you to use it to pull handles and send electrical charges through it. So, you can electrify a pool of water and kill off enemies, or take out the lights and shorten your opposition's vision cones, for example. You only actually need to use the electrical water trick once during a full run through the game, so there's a missed trick. Telephones also come into play, allowing you to stand in a room and distract an opponent in a different room by making their phone ring so that they go to answer it. These are really nice options that would allow for diverse approaches to completing levels, was it not for the aforementioned restrictions and some of the layouts requiring that you absolutely have to do things in a specific order.
Nikolai can't use "Helix" abilities seen in the earlier titles, such as blend, blade, and dash. However, for a decent portion of the game, you'll play as Anastasia. Without giving away too much of the story, you end up switching between the two characters at specific points, with Anastasia being the more agile of the two. She can use all of the Helix skills, but doesn't have any other tools or utilities, barring the basic rope dart. This means that you have to think slightly differently about the way in which you get past the multitude of guards. It would be an intriguing proposition that harked back to China, but once again, the limitations of the level design found here generally stop that from being the case.
Everything else is as it always was. The Challenge Rooms feature from India make a return and the new rooms are a welcome might tougher than their counterparts from last time around. New Game Plus and New Game Plus Hard modes are also in place, which allow for you to run back through the game using any abilities that you've picked up. It's most unlikely that you'll want to head in for a second go round though, unless you absolutely must get all of the achievements.
Assassin's Creed Chronicles features a generally solid game engine, nice storyline, and is for all intents and purposes a decent proposition. However, it's constantly prevented from shining by some dire level design and so many instant deaths that if you counted them, would probably see you reaching triple digits by the time you complete the game for the first time. There's some enjoyment to be had here, but it's frequently punctuated by massive bouts of frustration. If you want to try the series, you should grab China, since it remains the best of the three.