When Assassins Creed Chronicles: China was announced last year as part of Unitys cancelled Season Pass, it looked like a pretty addition to the franchise but perhaps something that would sit better on mobiles than the intended PS4, Xbox One and PC. Side-scrolling 2.5D stabbing? Really? The AC universe is surely all about exploration and freedom? But, now part of a trilogy that also travels to both India and Russia, it transpires that this is a much more substantial affair than we thought. Going hands on with Chronicles: China and Chronicles: India proves that the series fits 2.5D like the arm of a certain Italian nobleman into a Da Vinci designed gauntlet.
Developed by Climax Studios in association with Ubisoft Montreal, the key pillars of the series havent been forgotten. The main focus is on stealthy super-sneaking, but the stylised environments are far more interactive than they first seem. Neither has all-out combat been forgotten, watercolour blood spatters spraying the screen during many a satisfying throwdown . Lets take a look at the ways Chronicles keeps to the Creed without that pesky half dimension. Because it does a very convincing job indeed.
Free run with us
Those familiar with the series will feel instantly at home with Chronicles control scheme. The ol free running sits happily on the right trigger while the left is on crouching and sliding duties. The flowing movement of the Brotherhood hasnt been forgotten here. Protagonist Shao Jun is nimble. Climbing between ledges before yanking an enemy off his feet with a rope dart is effortless and delightfully slick - wait, sick, that should be sick - experience. Sliding under timed doors is consustently fun, and theres a particularly nifty new slide-and-assassinate motion that looks more than a tad painful for everyone involved.
The side-scrolling action flows nicely into the series' existing play-style, and the lack of a third-dimension almost entirely eradicates any of awkward the Oh Arno/ Ezio/ Edward/ Altair climbing moments weve all encountered over the years. Shao Jun jumps neatly and happily in and out of windows, and she can leap between hiding spots with a simple tap of a button and slide of the analogue stick. Meanwhile in India, reminiscent of the Ezio trilogy, Arbaaz Mir takes on perilous environmental hazards as he leaps between stalactites crumbling under his weight.
Hay boy, hay girl
Yes, never fear, haystacks and haycarts clearly have their place in 16th century China too. Climax Studios has intently focussed on stealth - which makes complete sense for Chronicles more focused, side scrolling design - and that means plenty of hiding spots to pick off guards. Under ledges, inside shadowy doors, behind pillars, in the long grass like a Lost World velociraptor Shao Jun can make herself invisible in all of them and pick off enemies with a snap of the neck. Hiding bodies is essential too, and its in the little moments where you snatch a corpse just in time before plonking it into the shadows that the stealth shines.
Its also worth noting how satisfying it is to finally know exactly what guards can see too. Every enemy has an awareness cone, a simple beam of light that means you can stay just out of eyeline if you play your sneaking right. Carrying forward Assassins traditional colour coding, get spotted and this goes yellow before quickly turning red if you dont hot foot it out of sight.
Gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
Shao Jun redefines the idea of a hidden blade in one exceptionally delightful, not to mention nasty, move. Sneaking up behind an enemy until a skull indicates that an assassination can occur, she will shake a blade out of her boot and with a swift kick will embed it crunchily in her unsuspecting victims face. Nice. Meet the Footblade.
Jun is also armed to the teeth with a Jian sword, throwing daggers for snapping ropes - to drop items and distract guards - and an ultra-useful rope dart that can be used to gain access to the ceiling for Spiderman-style hunting of enemies. Jun also has a handful of firecrackers to throw in villainous faces as a distraction tool before creeping past undetected. In Chronicles: India, Arbaaz Mir has a different set of deadly toys including a traditional disc weapon known as a Chakram for throwing in the same manner as Juns daggers. In Russia, the less agile Orelov is armed with a rifle, which is certainly less stealthy but gets the job done when it comes to taking down foes.
The main focus for Chronicles might be on stealth, but that doesnt mean these Assassins cant murder folks hand to hand (blade to blade) like the best of them. Combat controls will be familiar to Creed aficionados but theyre not identical. None other than Ezio Auditore himself teaches Shao Jun to brawl in a handy White Room where you learn normal and heavy attacks, as well as how to dodge crossbow bolts, and a stylish leap over the heads of enemies.
The counter button must be pressed at the exact moment an enemy goes to strike, and combat overall keeps you more on your toes than ever before. The lack of that extra third dimension means it might look as though enemies are queueing up to strike, but Shao Juns overhead counter move is essential, and the relentlessness of enemies armed with crossbows makes for tough battles overall. Add in an exceptionally low health bar, soldiers armed with shields, and Reinforcement Zones where more guards will hurtle in from doorways, and sneaking in the shadows is far less stressful than a full-on brawl.
Even in 2.5D theres no escaping the rather useful second sight that travels down the Assassin lineage. Eagle Vision in Chronicles is handy not only for clearly identifying enemies - thatll be them in red as usual - but now has an essential indicator of enemy paths. Guards have set rotas and you can see their plans to make sure you map your movements accordingly. Enemies need to be predictable if youre aiming to get by undetected sneaking into a hiding place.
Chronicles will reward you with a stealth rating after each encounter, which adds up bonus unlocks at the end of each level. Setting off distractions - such as cutting the ropes of wind-chimes or throwing a dagger at a caged bird (to make it chirp, you animals!) - work as nice ways to keep enemies busy if you dont fancy getting blood on your footblade.
Into the Animus
Assassins lore hasnt been forgotten here. Despite no mention of the modern day aspect of the series, there are plenty of gentle reminders that youre still in Animus territory. Those glittering fragments hide in hard-to-reach places for the collect em all fans of the Brotherhood, and will unlock various pieces of Animus lore and juicy character information and history. Plus, in a nice touch and an attractive contrast with the 16th century art style, the awareness cone of enemies is represented by animus fragments.
And plot-wise, theres no escaping the fact that were in the delightfully ridiculous realm of Eden Apples and giant laser temples. Shao Jun is questing not only to avenge the death of her Brotherhood in China, but also to get back an Artifact taken from her, while a section I played of Chronicles: India is set in one of the Vaults of the First Civilisation.
Leap of faith
It was never going to be easy to transform the series into a side-scroller, but Chronicles currently seems to nail it. It not only manages to look like Ubisoft concept art come to life, but has managed to get in more than enough AC staples while making them feel entirely right in the new format. Sync points let you unlock extra items on the map - complete with an exclamation mark for your main mission - while Shao Juns leap of faith is complete with scattering birds.
This might be a 2D world in practical terms, but the camera glides smoothly around corners, adding new levels of perspective and extra depth as you swing or run cinematically between layers. Instead of the white of the original series, splashes of red show you where to go next, and theres a surprising amount of choice in the ways you can explore (highlighted spectacularly as I get lost exploring the Great Wall Of China). The Chronicles trilogy looks to play with the conventions of the Creed just enough, and with a beautiful fresh art style for each entry, its going to be interesting to see how that feeds into differing gameplay in the different locations. .