The latest instalment of the Assassin's Creed series chronicles the exploits of concubine-turned-assassin Shao Jun in China.
Unlike previous editions, Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China chooses to take on a unique 2.5D perspective rather than a full 3D perspective. Where traditional platformers allow only movement on two dimensions, this game allows you to cross over between background and foreground planes at certain points, via wooden beams or conveniently placed tightropes.
This also allows Shao Jun to hide from marauding guards using alcoves in the background, or conceal bodies in foliage.
As is to be expected from an Assassin's Creed game, there is a heavy emphasis on stealth, rather than combat.
This is evident in the scoring system, which rates players based on how stealthily they complete portions of the game. Sneaking past guards completely undetected gets Shao Jun a gold Shadow rating, while disposing of them quietly nets her a silver Assassin rating.
Raising the alarm, however, results in a bronze Butcher rating and a meagre number of points.
Getting Shadow ratings is really no more complex than memorising the guards' patrol patterns and whistling to get a guard's attention, but the thrill of sneaking successfully through guard-infested areas is nothing short of exhilarating.
This pacifist approach is a shame, though, because Shao Jun's use of "toe blades" instead of a traditional wrist blade results in some truly spectacular assassination animation.
Other tools in her arsenal include firecrackers for disorienting guards and a "rope dart" to help her traverse long distances.
But for all the smoothness of its stealth gameplay, what truly holds this game back is its poor combat controls, which cannot be re-mapped. On the PC, moving and blocking enemy attacks at the same time require some frustrating keyboard acrobatics.
This is particularly infuriating when the character is detected by multiple guards - as Shao Jun can take only a few hits, it is simply faster to die and restart the section than attempt to fight and suffer carpal tunnel syndrome in the process.
Other gripes concern particular levels that involve Shao Jun running away from a wall of fire, essentially turning the game into a side-scrolling game like Temple Run. Irregular checkpoint placements and unforgiving timings for jumps and dodging make such levels far more maddening than they ought to be.
For its price, Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China is a decent enough game, and long-time fans should enjoy seeing Shao Jun finally getting a game to herself. But awkward controls and questionable design choices stop it from achieving greatness.
This article was first published on June 17, 2015.
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