Assassin’s Creed Shadows is actually two games competing for your affections

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Assassin’s Creed has been threatening to go to Japan for so long that I think the idea has lost its thunder, but I’ll admit to a squee of enthusiasm, during our first look at Assassin’s Creed Shadows, when deuteragonist Naoe grappled onto the ceiling to allow a castle guard to pass innocently beneath. I was similarly tickled by the sight of her breathing through a bamboo pipe while swimming underwater, and I emitted a gentle hum of approval, like a smartphone switching on for the very first time, when she impaled a silhouette through a paper door. Respectable shinobing, for sure. Papa Tenchu would be proud.


Naoe is apparently the smallest and therefore least conspicuous assassin ever to grace Ubisoft’s venerable open world series. What’s more, she’s the first who can go prone and crawl – a tactic that has somehow eluded later generations of killer, possibly because they’ve got so many spring-loaded contraptions attached to their belts that they are no longer capable of lying down.


Young shinobi Naoe making her way through a castle at night in Assassin's Creed Shadows
Image credit: Ubisoft


Naoe excels at wearing the titular shadows, which shift about a lot more than in previous Creeds, thanks to a day-night cycle and new seasonal weather system. She can throw shuriken to extinguish lanterns, and cast wires to dash from roof to roof or, as the case may be, roof to neck. But she’s just as happy in a brawl, overwhelming enemy samurai with kicks and stabs or wrapping them in the chains of her kusarigama. Her major weakness is that she doesn’t have a block: you’ll have to parry blows or combos instead to open foes up for a riposte.


Blocking is the province of Naoe’s friend Yasuke, a huge warrior who has rustled the jimmies of the crypto-racist “historical accuracy” crowd for being a Black man in Japan, despite Ubisoft basing his story on a real-life historical figure. Where Naoe is an all-rounder with a stealth focus, Yasuke is a one-trick-pony whose one trick is hitting things with a club the size of a pony. He doesn’t wear the shadows. He stamps through them smashing the furniture, shooting people with his arquebus or (at his most restrained) slicing them up with a katana. He’s Alexios/Kassandra from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, but specced exclusively for melee, with no parkouring abilities. He’s the bulging heart of a combat system which reminds me a fair bit of For Honor in terms of the camera positioning and the rhythm of deflections and counters.


You can switch between Naoe and Yasuke while exploring and before taking on missions, though I’m not sure you can do it whenever you wish. In the case of a castle infiltration (the game’s late 19th century Sengoku period setting was apparently ‘the golden age of castles’), this essentially gives you the choice of two games within the game, one a moderately technical corridor hack-and-slash in which you follow a critical path from gate to gate, the other a vertical sandbox in which you dance all over that critical path, bypassing knots of resistance and testing out different routes toward the wily daimyo at the castle’s summit. Each character also, of course, gets their own equipment progression and skills – Yasuke’s include quickdraw strikes and ground pounds, while Naoe can chiffonade a target’s armour in slow motion.


While not without precedent, it’s a starker-than-usual solution for Assassin’s Creed’s historic difficulty reconciling its stealth and combat elements. It seems to work well, partly because both characters look well-developed enough to carry the game by themselves, and partly because they offer parallel perspectives on the same level design, which are pleasing to consider. It could easily be the basis for an asymmetrical PvP game of the Spies vs Mercs variety – I’m sure Ubisoft Quebec have given the idea some thought.

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I’m also keen on the game’s newly tumultuous weather and lighting systems and how they might alter the odds mid-mission, though I haven’t really seen them in action. And I like Shadows’s slightly looser approach to quest design. Rather than a waypoint, the game sometimes gives you a list of broad hints about a target or objective’s location rather than aiming you at them, with further clues gathered by eavesdropping on townsfolk and the like. Assassin’s Creed has done that kind of thing before, but given the expense of blockbuster games and the attention deficits of players with smartphones always ready to hand, it’s probably never been under greater pressure to avoid such moments of uncertainty. I like that the developers are clinging onto the idea that assassination should require you to actively look for somebody.


What don’t I like? Well, there’s nothing massively novel going on here, the change of setting aside: it’s another rearranging of the pieces and a repainting of the fittings. A shocking turn of events for a blockbuster sequel, I know. I also have misgivings about the progression system, though that’s mostly a hangover from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey – I’ve yet to lay my beady eyes on an upgrade screen, or get a sense of how much levelling might break up your exploration of the world.


Young shinobi Naoe standing on a snowy precipice looking at a castle in Assassin's Creed Shadows
Image credit: Ubisoft


Above all, I’m not especially bowled over by the plot and dialogue, which appears to be the usual Templar-vs-Assassin malarkey and features such po-faced chuunibyou clangers as “I won’t be alone – it’ll be me and the shadows”. But I’m cautiously interested to discover what Ubisoft do with Yasuke, given the predictable reception from certain quarters of the internet, and the difficulty of portraying racism within the game without giving that reception additional oxygen. In the game’s account of his origins, he’s a former slave, brought to Japan by Jesuit sailors, who caught the eye of the warlord Oda Nobunaga.

Naoe, meanwhile, is the fictional daughter of the legendary ninja master Fujibayashi Nagato, and is trying to fulfil ‘an impossible promise’ to her family. She’s the less intriguing piece of writing, but with her bamboo pipes and chain scythes, she’s nonetheless the character I expect to spend most time with when Assassin’s Creed Shadows launches on November 15th 2024. Assassin’s Creed but set in late Sengoku Japan, eh? They might just pull it off.


The flurry of summer games events are now underway! Hit up our Summer Game Fest 2024 hub and our Day Of The Devs roundup for all the news worth caring about from the shows so far.

 

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