The first Assassin’s Creed was already an enormous game. And yet, every sequel since has set out to top the previous entry, adding even more gadgets to play with, even bigger cities to explore, and even taller things to jump from into even softer bales of hay. This “the same but more” approach to sequel design served Ubisoft well for years, but it just isn’t sustainable. It’s already giving diminishing returns. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity got a critical thrashing across the board, and an abundance of bloat kept Rogue from being a real gem.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is an Assassin’s Creed from bizarro world. The first entry in a trilogy of side stories developed by Climax Studios, Chronicles takes the Assassin’s Creed formula and strips it until almost nothing remains. The lovingly recreated historical locations, the dense lore, and the entire third dimension have been given a temporary hiatus. Even the assassins’ signature wrist-mounted retractable blades are nowhere to be found. What remains after everything else has been cut away, though, is a tight, clever platformer that lasts exactly as long as it needs to and remains creative throughout.
Chronicles’ streamlining of the Assassin’s Creed experience begins with its story. You play Shao Jun, one of the last surviving Chinese Assassins, on her quest to kill a bunch of Templars and recover an artifact called “the box.” What is the box? What does it contain, and why do the Templars want it? I don’t really care, and luckily, neither does Chronicles. This running plot is never resolved, presumably so it can be picked up in the next installment. I interpreted the story’s blandness as implicit permission to ignore it, just like the Chronicles chooses to ignore the convoluted Assassin’s Creed mythology. There is no mention of a First Civilization or Pieces Of Eden; no Animus and no Abstergo. Chronicles is all Shao Jun all the time, and it’s better for it.
Another Assassin’s Creed mainstay that’s been excised is the historically accurate open worlds. Chronicles still visits some of China’s most recognizable UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but it focuses on tight levels within its locales instead of just dumping you in a sprawling recreation and giving you a list of chores and baubles to collect. Freed from the task of reproducing Ming-era Beijing with exacting realism, Chronicles indulges in a stylized aesthetic modeled after Chinese ink wash painting. It looks terrific, and it’ll be exciting to see how the next two installments—set in 19th century India and early 20th century Russia—will take visual cues from their settings.
Each of Chronicles’ 12 levels is structured as a series of self-contained stealth puzzles that add new wrinkles as they progress, like caged birds that squawk if you move past them too quickly or guards with lanterns who can see into your hiding places. By the end of a given level, there are usually around a dozen gimmicks that need to be juggled. And unlike previous series stars who carried around entire arsenals, Shao Jun has just a sword and four tools that need to be used in creative ways to avoid getting spotted.
Should you get caught, Chronicles won’t tut-tut you for being the kind of assassin who would do something as gauche as actually killing someone. Completing a challenge in Chronicles will earn you a rank in one of three categories: Shadow for stealth purists, Assassin for silent killers, and Brawler for those who charge screaming into an area and clobber everyone in sight. Shadows still earn the most points to spend on upgrades, but if you want to cave everyone’s head in without bothering to be sneaky about it, Chronicles will at least acknowledge when you’ve done that especially well.
The most interesting thing about Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China is that it helps to highlight what is at the heart of this ever-expanding series and what it can do without. Some of those answers were always going to be obvious—you couldn’t very well have an Assassin’s Creed game without hay bales to hide in—but some of them are surprising. I never found myself wishing that I had every cubic centimeter of Beijing to explore, and I never missed checking in on the series’ vague cyberpunk future. So far, Climax Studios seems to remember what Ubisoft has long since forgotten: Assassin’s Creed isn’t about captaining a ship or poaching animals or curating an art gallery. It’s about wearing a hood and assassinating people.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China
Developers: Climax Studios, Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4