It's been a rocky road for Ubisoft lately, with the publisher on the receiving end of bad press for the likes of Watch Dogs and Assassin's Creed Unity. It may be time for a bit of stability, then, and that's where Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China comes into the equation. A 2.5D adventure full to the brim with typical franchise trademarks, it's just about everything that you'd expect a scaled down Assassin's Creed game to be.
Unfortunately, that's really the title's biggest problem: it's tediously predictable. Chronicles never surprises, never raises the stakes, and certainly never tries to forge its own path. If we asked you to imagine Ubisoft's assassin simulator as a side scroller, this is precisely what you'd come up with, and while there's nothing strictly wrong with that, it just goes to show how by-the-numbers Assassin's Creed's formula has become, when even its spin-off games have us rolling our eyes as we jump into a cart of hay or stab yet another faceless guard in the back.
However, despite its predictability, this stealth-'em-up is a fundamentally solid release in almost every department. Whisking you away to China with an attractive ink-splattered art style and some oriental flair, the game presents itself well, with still image cutscenes laying out the plot between levels. Indeed, unlike regular sandbox Assassin's Creed games, Chronicles has you navigate relatively linear environments, albeit in full franchise fashion, with parkour running, jumping, and climbing all playing a part.
From start to finish, it's clear that the release has been created with care and attention, as aside from its inability to surprise, it's hard to pick out any flaws in the gameplay department. Movement is fast and fluid, combat is simple yet feels quite refined, and the level design is thoughtfully crafted. The story, meanwhile, is generally the same sort of fluff that we've come to expect from the property, although it does manage to set the tone reasonably well, if nothing else.
You play as Shao Jun, a female Assassin who's out for revenge against a particular group of Templar baddies. More invested fans of the series will know her from the animated Assassin's Creed: Embers movie, but to say that her character gets any sort of development here would be overselling things. Obvious moody mutterings and bland dialogue is the order of the day, and the supporting cast are equally banal, with the bad guys spouting typically evil nonsense and your allies dealing out vague bits of exposition. Needless to say, if you're here for an engaging narrative, you're going to be disappointed – but at least there's no modern day drivel to contend with.
Fortunately, you likely won't care that the narrative's so thin when you're sprinting and leaping around each area. Being set on a 2.5D plane, navigation is easy, and the controls feel spot on as you shimmy around corners, hop from platform-to-platform, and make use of various tools to work around obstacles. As mentioned, proceedings are mostly linear, barring some small instances of backtracking, and this results in progression that hinges on your ability to read and overcome each trial.
Essentially, this means that most of the gameplay revolves around working out the best way through a number of patrolling guards. Each one has a set patrol route, but they'll alter their behaviour depending on your actions. For example, if a grunt spots the corpse of a comrade, they'll raise the alarm, and start pacing around with a little more caution, checking designated hiding areas and sometimes leaving their prescribed posts. Things can be enjoyably dynamic as a result, and planning the perfect way to bypass your enemies and then executing it is understandably satisfying.
Of course, you're also given several tools to help you on your quest, from firecrackers to throwing knives and sound darts to a simple whistle. Although you're always working towards the same goal of moving from point A to point B, there's often a decent amount of viable ways to handle each scenario. Distraction is usually the safest bet when it comes to thinning the ranks without causing a ruckus, but you're only given a set amount of items to use, which you'll have to refill at chests or containers dotted around the maps. As such, you'll want to try and make it through each location as efficiently as possible, but as always, your Assassin's a dab hand at surviving when it comes to crossing swords with your foes.
If you're spotted and it's impossible to leg it in the opposite direction, combat becomes your only means of success. It's a simple system that works well within the confines of the smaller release, but as with everything else, it houses all of the expected mechanics of the main series. Your attacks come in two flavours – light and heavy – while the circle button acts as a parry, which can be followed by a quick tap of X to roll over your enemy. At first, combat can seem somewhat brutal, as just one accurate sword swing from an aggressor will be enough to kill Shao Jun, but with a little practice and a bit more health, you'll begin to appreciate how well put together it actually is.
Since you're moving on a linear plane, positioning is key when going up against more than one foe, and you'll definitely have to keep on your toes when there's a ranged attacker nearby. What's quite funny, however, is that you're able to dodge incoming projectiles if you hit circle at the right time – a mechanic that, by all means, should have been incorporated into the main series a long time ago, given how annoyingly accurate gun-toting enemies can be. In any case, fighting your way through a level can be fun, and checkpoints tend to be reasonable, so you shouldn't encounter too much frustration if you're cut down to size.
The title doesn't really want you to run around causing chaos, though, as evidenced by its scoring system. After making your way past any number of guards, a points tally will flash up in the bottom right of the screen, awarding you with a bronze, silver, or gold ranking. Ghosting through the area without killing or alerting a soul will net you the biggest scores, and this unsurprisingly gives the whole game some replayability, as you attempt to discover the best possible routes through each chapter.
The upgrade system, too, is tied into the scoring. For example, you may unlock an extra bar of health if you gain a rather meagre 600 points, while further incentives are in place to tempt you into bettering your score, like the ability to carry more items or improve your ever-important eagle vision, which can be used to see the movement patterns of your enemies. It's an interesting and streamlined way of developing Shao Jun, but admittedly, it can be frustrating when you're just one hundred points or so from the desired upgrade's threshold – especially after spending a good half hour repeating the same stage in order to try and reach it. In that sense, a more standard unlock system might have been more appropriate, allowing you to purchase upgrades with your earned points, but having said that, there really aren't that many rewards to get your hands on anyway.
Finally, if you didn't already know, this title's the first in the Chronicles trilogy, with later instalments guiding us through India and Russia. However, it's not entirely clear how this somewhat episodic formula will work, given that Shao Jun's journey feels complete on its own, at least in terms of gameplay progression. As such, we're just hoping that the three adventures won't simply be a palette swap with a few new tools and characters to play with in each.
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China is an absolutely solid spin-off in almost every way. Traversal is fluid and fun, combat is enjoyably simple, and the level design is often lovingly crafted, but it never comes close to stepping out of its comfort zone and trying something remotely memorable. Even outside of Ubisoft's main series, the confining walls of Assassin's Creed remain recognisable and reliable, but they're in increasingly desperate need of a new lick of paint.