The Assassin’s Creed franchise treats gameplay a little like it treats history. It staggers around drunkenly between one era and another, choosing say, the American Revolution one year or the Peloponnesian War in another. Similarly, it wanders between gameplay tropes. Is it a stealth game? An open world action-RPG? Who the hell knows? And frankly, if it works, who the hell cares?
It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s spectacular. The previous installment in the series, 2018’s Odyssey, used Ancient Greece as its playground. Despite something like 95 percent of the locations being sloppy clones of one another and combat being kludgier than a stone badger, Odyssey succeeded in being a good game through setting and character. Classical Greece has plenty of notable figures to geek out on — the noise I made upon meeting Herodotus could probably be used to blackmail me.
Valhalla’s setting is nowhere near as charming. It’s set during the Viking invasions of England, a period of history which isn’t particularly well-known today. This means there are fewer fun meetings with famous historical figures*: you’re not going to find folks like Socrates or Brasidas roaming the Danelaw. On the other hand, the game itself absolutely rules.
*There are fun meetings with some non-historic figures, but I’m not going to spoil that surprise.
While Odyssey’s open world was formulaic and repetitive, Valhalla has clearly taken cues from exactly the right places. The whole world feels like Breath of the Wild, inviting exploration and rewarding you with little vignettes. What’s in that ruined church? Might be a nun who wants to kill me. Might be a man who wants me to join his fight club. Between your map and the overarching plotlines for each region, you’re given just enough of a push into the world to have a good time.
The paring down of formal quests in favor of smaller events really benefits the pick-up-and-run-around style of play that I enjoyed with BotW. The combat is also much improved. I like playing mostly with stealth, raining arrows from the shadows, but sometimes the game wants me to lead a screaming warband into a fortress, and that turns out to be a lot of fun as well. Valhalla handles variety as well as would be reasonable to expect.
Oh, and there’s Cody Bellinger. That’s not me making a strained metaphor or weird reference — Los Angeles Dodger and recent World Series winner Cody Bellinger is in this game as a character you actually get to talk to and hang out with:
Having a star baseball player appear as ‘Otta Sluggasson’ in one of the aforementioned vignettes is weirdly relevant to the vibe of Valhalla. On the one hand, the Viking invasions were a grim time, and sometimes the game does grim things. There are only so many nice things one can do with a battleaxe. But those gritty moments are counterbalanced by Valhalla’s complete refusal to take itself seriously. Instead of a depressing retelling of a land under assault (with you as one of the feared invaders), Valhalla is … fun?
Somehow this doesn’t cause the whiplash it ought to. Perhaps that’s because colonizing England, the home of the world’s arch-colonists, is an inherently goofy thing to be doing. My ancestors hail from Dublin and Guangzhou; one imagines they would find the chance to run around the English countryside wielding a great big axe and screaming ‘HOW THE TABLES HAVE TURNED!’ at some cowering assholes to be a little bit cathartic.
If that sounds cathartic to you as well, give Valhalla a go. Otta Sluggasson is waiting. And since you ask, he lives across the lake from Wenlocan Abbey, in eastern Shiropscire.