Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China marks the first in a planned trilogy of 2.5D action-stealth platform titles that eschews the parkour-centric mechanics that have become the stock and trade of the franchise. Dropping half a dimension and re-focusing on stealth rather than free-roaming murder, the simple but elegant game play of China is a refreshing change from more recent entries.
Everything has been pared back for this latest entry in the Assassin's Creed series, from both a gameplay and story standpoint. You playing as Shao Jun, a concubine-turned-assassin, who is attempting to re-establish Chinese brotherhood by infiltrating and eliminating the local chapter of Templars, known as the Tigers. As far as plots go it’s a little thin and not given any real room to grow, but it is serviceable and the snippets of story that are revealed do hint at larger events without giving any real detail. However, these motion comic-like cinematics are beautiful to look at, and perfectly evoke the period portrayed with an traditionally elegant a painterly aesthetic.
The gameplay in China is streamlined and the game works all the better for it. Those familiar with the Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja will feel completely at home here, in fact you may just find it a little too familiar. Sure, the furniture has been replaced and there are new curtains in the windows, but there is no disguising that you’ve been here before.
At its core China is a puzzle platformer, where the puzzles are solved by slipping a blade under the ribcage of your target. Set on a 2D plane you control Shao Jun avoiding or dispatching any opposition you encounter. Stealth is key, and the element of surprise is vital to prevent discovery and possibly death. While Shao Jun is a formidable fighter the real satisfaction is in ghosting a level, either avoiding guards entirely or eliminating them from the shadows. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the far more combat-heavy focus found in the core titles.
Just like Mark of the Ninja, you have a variety of tools to help avoid detection. Noise darts, fireworks, and a whistle provide varied means of distracting or changing the focus of a nosey Tiger guard, allowing you to either avoid them or sneak up and kill undetected. Sadly the AI is more than a little daft at times, and guards are far too easily fooled. They are so dim-witted that they will not notice one the sudden disappearance of another guard in the same room. Basically if they didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.
This does make each level feel more like a puzzle to be solved, but it upsets the fantasy a bit. There is nothing new here, and Mark of the Ninja already did it better a few years ago. There are some new twists on things, such as the Eagle Vision skill used pan out the camera out so you can survey the level better and map guard movements, but it’s not enough.
The only real difference between the two games is that China includes a satisfying combat system. Should you be detected, or if you just want to be to take a more aggressive approach to each level, you can fight in the open. The combat system is fairly basic, but the animation is stunning and for the most part reactive, you do have to contend with the animation cycles, but it rarely causes an issue. Most importantly the combat provides moments of fluid badassery that even the fully 3D entries in the franchise so often fail to provide. Ironically, this is the standout feature in the game, but one that you feel disinclined to use as stealth and avoidance provide an overall far more rewarding and challenging experience.
Whether you ghost your way through the levels, or decide to eliminate each threat from the shadows, or even take a more direct approach and take on foes directly the game will assess just how effective you were. Awarding a Gold rating for the perfect execution in either Shadow, Assassin, or Brawler playstlyes. All three are equally viable, and it is entirely the player’s choice on which route to take.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is a satisfying if sadly unremarkable game. Its beautiful artstyle and animation help to give it some character, but those animations can make the controls feel a bit mushy at times, and there is a floaty element to the platforming that never feels quite right. Almost everything the game does has been done before, and done better.