Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India Review
Assassin's Creed is one of my favorite franchises of all time, and when I heard they'd be offering a 2.5D spin-off, I was excited. However, I have never managed to get involved in any of them until now, so forgive me if I can't compare the latest entry to Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China. This new one takes you to India (not my favorite locale but it's relatively well-drawn and nicely designed) and despite my love of this gameplay style, I have to admit that developer Climax Studios didn't do much with it. And unfortunately, the narrative and characters are paper-thin at best, and as you progress, it becomes abundantly clear that not enough effort or resources have been dedicated to the promising Chronicles games. Still kinda fun, though.
I've heard the previous jaunt in China wasn't especially visually attractive and although I'm not especially impressed with India, it does have a distinct flair. The only problem is that in the back of my head, I'm thinking of the insane amount of detail in the main-line AC productions. I know I shouldn't be making that comparison - it's not really fair - but hey, even this spin-off holds the same IP name, right? There are simply too many underwhelming areas here, even if I liked some of the bright, even garish, backdrops. Thankfully, the animations are smooth and the special effects are slick and nicely implemented, which ratchets up the graphical appeal meter. All in all, though, this is just one of those "meh" presentations that could've been a lot better.
The sound falls a little flat due to comically bad voice performances and a soundtrack that does little to draw you into the experience. Again, this is decidedly at odds with the main games in the series, all of which excel in the areas of voice acting and score. And it's not like the soundtrack is poor, it's just that it's merely average and devoid of emotion or inspiration. This lacking can be found in the relatively uninteresting graphics as well; it's like "underwhelming" is a central theme. Still, the production values remain pretty high throughout and the combat and general gameplay effects are given multiple opportunities to shine. I only wish the developers viewed this as a solid foundation as opposed to finalized and appealing consumer product.
The India adventure takes place a good three centuries after the events in China, and the Templars and Assassins are searching for a mysterious artifact. If that sounds familiar to you, you're not alone. It's not uncommon for these rival groups to be pursuing the same goal or item; typically, the Assassins want to keep something crazy powerful out of the power-hungry hands of the Templars. That's basically the core of this story, as both sides are going after the legendary Koh-I-Noor diamond. The bad news is that the narrative doesn't really develop beyond that and the plot basically only exists to funnel the gameplay down a predictable path. Couple this with mediocre voice performances and mostly faceless or one-dimensional characters, and you end up with - yep, you guessed it - and unremarkable and ultimately underwhelming story.
What I really like is the blending of standard AC gameplay and old-fashioned Prince of Persia goodness. I love the latter series as well and I thought I'd take to the combination of platforming, action and puzzles like a happy fish to water. And at first, I was pretty happy; there's a seamless fluidity to every movement that's very reminiscent of the primary Assassin's Creed titles, and it's actually not a simplified approach. In fact, there are separate commands for the likes of jumping and sliding, which is of course more akin to old-school platformers. Toss in the strategy and tact required to see you through tough areas successfully, and I figured I was in for a wonderfully entertaining experience, sans an absorbing narrative. Problem is, things just sorta fell apart.
But let me give you a little basic info: You are the strong, clever rogue called Arbaaz, who is a paper-thin protagonist who has a problem with authority and isn't fazed by much. You must climb, duck, hide, and ultimately infiltrate and overpower the enemy, moving through a welcoming 2.5D playground. The best part of the game, by a long shot, is the first hour, where your hopes rise quickly. This is precisely what happened to me; it started off feeling like a perfect hybrid of Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia and ended up feeling like one giant missed opportunity. This game could've been so good, had the developers done a better job with the overarching design and pacing. It starts on such a high note and there are glimpses of greatness, but it's like the adventure was destined to fall short.
You can opt for a full-on stealth approach or adopt the action route, if you so choose. I always go stealthy and although the mechanics feel decent, and I liked some of the more diverse missions. Unfortunately, they're interrupted by forced segments where I have to clear a room of enemies in a certain amount of time, or an ill-conceived climbing sequence. On top of which, while the base controls are fine, Arbaaz's attacks almost feel as if they're pushing through a giant bowl of molasses. Why does it take so damn long to simply unsheathe my sword? And what's the deal with the stealth takedown icon failing to pop up in certain situations? I don't feel as well-equipped as I should to deal with the challenges and the game isn't always responsive enough. These are two serious problems that could've been easily avoided with a bit more QA time.
I must admit, however, there were stretches of time where I enjoyed myself. During these stretches, the gameplay blend clicked and I took advantage of the occasionally immersive environment. There was enough to think about with decent enough execution that I was able to disregard the drawbacks. And for some players, I'm willing to bet they might be able to ignore those flaws even longer, especially if they appreciate the backdrop and make a concerted effort to be a stealth king. There are still healthy rewards for the diligent, after all. Even so, it's hard to stay in that positive zone with the AI falters (outdated enemy intelligence results in stupid search patterns), and I've always loathed any time-sensitive segments in games that are supposed to be centered around stealth. It doesn't help that these sequences are hardly forgiving and often boring and contrived in nature.
It's the parkour gameplay that shines brightest and you wish there was a lot more of it. If they could've enhanced these sequences in regards to length and frequency, and offered better pacing - rather than significantly jarring transitions between the different gameplay styles - than the result would've been much more attractive. Then you have to consider the lack of an interesting or even defined story, which leaves you slashing guards and finding collectibles hour after hour. I understand that this is a spin-off, of course, but you still have to pay proper homage to the IP in question. You also have to strive for quality, regardless of your budget or time constraints (and I imagine the developers may have had issues with both, given this inconsistent presentation).
In the end, Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India is a perfect example of "woulda, coulda, shoulda." There are so many highlights glinting out from this pile of mediocrity; if only the developers could've tied them all together, then we'd be treated to a more vivid and consistent display. But serious drawbacks like poor storytelling and acting, questionable AI and gameplay responsiveness, and a definite lack of pacing drag the whole production down. If they're going to do another one of these games in the future, I would hope the creators would learn from their mistakes and take the next few steps. Because honestly, these spin-offs could be downright fantastic given the great premise and hybrid adventure. You just have to step up your game (pun intended).
The Good: Some striking visual appeal. Great combination of parkour, combat and puzzle gameplay. Mostly solid and reliable control. Can be very fun when everything clicks as it should. The stealthy will still be rewarded.
The Bad: Boring soundtrack and comically bad voice acting. The story is one-dimensional and at times, nonexistent. Mediocre AI. Pacing seems way off throughout.
The Ugly: "It always drives me nuts when a game falls so far shy of its obvious potential."
1/13/2016 Ben Dutka