Even though there may not be a ‘mainline’ Assassin’s Creed released this year (rumour has it the series is taking a break), 2016 will still see a couple of games featuring white-hooded maniacs stabbing every Templar in sight. The side-scrolling Chronicles spin-offs continue this month with Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India, and will conclude with Russia in February.
For those who played the first title, China, much about India will be familiar. It takes the same 2D-plains-with-added-depth (sometimes you run/zipline “into” or “out” of the screen to continue the level on a new layer) approach, and retains a lot of the same focus on pure stealth. Just as in the prior game, maximum rewards are gained by moving through the entire mission unseen, killing nobody.
There’s also an expansion in the number of timed, platform-centric levels, which now constitute around half of India’s ten main campaign missions (in China there were just a couple of this sort). India also adds a handful of timed ‘challenge’ rooms, which are similar in nature to the campaign’s precision platforming sections.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India is set in 1841, amidst a war between the Sikh and British Empires. This time, you’re playing as Arbaaz Mir, father of Jayadeep Mir (‘Henry Green’ in Syndicate). The main narrative is about as slight as it was in China, centering around a mysterious artifact box (what else?) and an expensive diamond. Thanks to these intensely generic mcguffins, Mir has plenty of excuses to infiltrate fortresses, explore precursor dig sites, and escape imprisonment.
Arbaaz has a slightly different equipment set to China’s Shao Jun. Her entertainingly brutal boot-blades are gone, but Chakrams can be lobbed instead of throwing knives. The subtle twist with these is that they can ricochet off walls, allowing a few trick-shot style scenarios where it’s necessary to bounce them into a rope or some-such obstacle. This puzzle crops up two or three times and, in classic Assassin’s Creed style, tends to be accompanied by a big tooltip reminder that your Chakrams can be bounced off things.
Otherwise, smoke bombs, throwable noise-makers, and the basic whistle all return. Later on (as in China), Arbaaz is able to charge up a ‘Helix bar’ with collectible orbs, and make use of blending (invisibility when stood still) as well as rapid, semi-invisible dashes between hiding spots. He can also subdue foes in a non-lethal manner, which seemed (oddly) to be beyond Shao Jun’s abilities.
The changes between installments, then, are fairly minor. Along the lines of flavour-based tweaks (the Chakrams) or small mechanical alterations (non-lethal takedowns). This means Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India has pretty similar high and low points as its predecessor.
It has the same slightly strange inverse difficulty curve. Unseen stealth is pushed as the one true path, and this approach gets progressively easier if Arbaaz persists with getting high mission scores (tied, predominantly, to not getting seen and not killing guards). The equipment rewards for doing this (more smoke bombs, moving quicker while crouching) eventually trivialise the stealth routes. At the start, though, it can be a slog. The game wants you to pay your stealth dues before it’ll give you a major hand, which ends up feeling a little backward.
Admittedly, the progression system does kind of loop around on itself once you finish the game and unlock the more difficult (barely any health for Arbaaz, more observant enemies) ‘Plus Hard’ mode. But then it falls into almost the same pattern; dishing out higher scores, so you can unlock even more equipment and make things easier again.
Attempting to muddle through the game with full-on violence might appear to be a viable option, but it really isn’t. A lot of enemies carry firearms and getting spotted often results in large numbers of reinforcements being called to the scene. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India has a full combat system, but you’ll (ideally) barely be using it. Until you run into the mandatory boss fight that forces you to relearn all the fancy combat moves you studiously hadn’t been using, that is.
India’s main problem, though, is the same thing that afflicted China. The harder stealth segments demand a fairly diverse series of control inputs to pull off the necessary moves, and the game’s canned animations often feel too sluggish and imprecise for this to work reliably. Your brain will map out a perfect, tight plan (use whistle as distraction, vault through window before guard returns, crouch-sneak to overhead bars, grapple up to them, jump across, drop down and so on), but the character weight and little pauses between actions can make it a chore to execute without getting ‘ahead’ of the control inputs.
In short, getting Arbaaz to do what you want him to can sometimes feel like a lot more effort than it should. This kind of 2D stealth game is crying out for smooth, fluid control, and the Assassin’s Creed Chronicles series just hasn’t quite got it right.
Where India does improve over China is in the increased number of pursuit/dash type platforming levels. The controls can still be an issue in these, but many of them play more like deliberate, rhythmic sequences (slightly more suited to the delayed input style). It also just feels a whole lot more assassin-like to be sliding beneath guards and giving them a cheerful stab of greeting, rather than repeating (and repeating and repeating) a single stealth section because a heavy touch accidentally moved Arbaaz into a sliver of a guard’s vision cone. Or their erratic “I’m searching for somebody” actions just happened to catch you in a passing sweep this time.
Level distribution and pacing is more mature than in the previous game as well. India knows when to break up a protracted sequence of puzzle-stealth levels with some timed platform hopping.
When things do actually click together (and they will, some of the time), you can see what Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India is going for. It’s a very rewarding feeling to slip by several guards unseen, or to dash through a cavern of collapsing platforms in just shy of five minutes. The art style is reliably lush – perhaps better looking than China in places – and, particularly in between-mission cut-scenes, has plenty of visual flair. Colourful plumes of blood make some of Arbaaz’s kills look more like public performance art than vicious slayings.
There’s been a little bit of movement towards catering to PC players too, because in-game keys can actually be rebound this time. Keyboard and mouse does little-to-nothing for resolving the feel of the controls (and a gamepad is definitely still recommended), but being able to change the troubling default layout is at least a step up from China.
With much tighter, more fluid control and a more concise direction for the difficulty/progression curve, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles could be a neat little 2D puzzle-stealth-platform series. Like China before it India gets quite a bit right, and clearly looks the part, but the intended stealth actions often feel far too heavy, stiff and frustrating.