As a game originally inspired by Prince of Persia, the Assassin's Creed series might be coming full circle with Assassin's Creed Chronicles, a series of 2.5D platforming action games that tell tales that aren't necessarily related to the ongoing storyline of the main series. Chronicles: China has greater depth than similar side-scrollers that have appeared on mobile--and I mean that literally, along with an art style that gives it a unique personality of its own. While it suffers from a few quirks, it is a remarkable experience that livens up the series.
End of an Era
The first adventure takes us to 1526 China, where players relive the memories of Shao Jun, the last living member of the Chinese Brotherhood. It's a time of great turmoil, as the Ming Dynasty starts to crumble and the Templar gain control of the country through a puppet emperor. She's on a quest for vengeance and to help the downtrodden people of China... but mostly vengeance.
Made to look like a living painting, the art style of AC Chronicles is nothing short of stunning. Perhaps climbing up structures in the Forbidden City or running across the Great Wall of China might be more impressive as a full 3D game, but Chronicles does an excellent job representing the historic period in 2.5D. That extra half dimension means a lot, because the map may rotate as Shao Jun climbs alongside buildings. Or she might run along a path that takes her deeper into the background or foreground of the level. Getting through a level involves a lot more than just going from left to right like traditional side scrolling adventure games.
The Knife in the Shadow
While it's called Assassin's Creed, this adventure is essentially a stealth game. It doesn't dock any points for killing guards, and will reward you for taking them out without being detected, but greater rewards are given for killing only the intended targets. To this end, Shao Jun comes equipped with a number of different tools, such as a rope dart for climbing up onto ceilings, or firecrackers to temporarily stun guards. She also has a number of skills that will help her move from cover to cover without being detected.
Players can see the sight lines of all the patrolling guards. Getting through is a matter of leaping, running, and climbing without being seen. Here is where the limitations of the platforming game start to show. You can't always find a place to hide a body, and you can't drop them into water or toss them off a wall like you can in the main series. Invisible walls often keep you from stashing your handiwork. Fortunately, you can leave a body out in the open so long it's just outside of the remaining guards' sight range.
That's not to say that players can't fight should the need arise, since she carries a sword for that purpose. The problem is, Chronicles has a terrible combat system. Shao Jun can parry attacks, then follow-up with strikes, but it isn't very responsive. It's alright for taking on one guard, but you might as well restart from a checkpoint when two or more come after you. One of the least entertaining parts of the game comes when you're forced into one-on-one combat with a boss character. While the lackluster combat system might seem unfair, Chronicles works best as a stealth game. Slipping past guards is like a big puzzle, and there are multiple ways to solve it. Whether it involves silently killing everyone in your path or sneaking past them is up to you.
Even as the threats start to escalate, and guards wizen up enough to start checking ceilings and ledges for your presence, the challenge never seems to be too overwhelming. However, I did run into a few frustrating bugs and quirks. In one instance, a guard with acute senses was able to detect my movements, even though I was well out of his range. One scene has you running for your life while an entire city burns down around you, yet a group of guards would rather stand around and fight you than run for their lives.
Despite its issues, Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China is one of the most entertaining experiences I've had from the series in a while. I wasn't a big fan of last year's releases of Rogue and Unity, which both look a lot better than they play. It's nice to take a break from the increasingly convoluted plot of the main storyline with a straightforward tale of revenge set in a historic corner of the world that often doesn't get a lot of attention in Western video games. This might not be the Assassin's Creed players asked for, but it's one that I'm thankful to have.
This review is based on a PC code. Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China is available in digitally for $9.99. The game is rated T.