Having skipped the previous two instalments of Ubisoft’s spin-off series, I found myself thrown in at the deep end when booting Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: Russia, the final part in a trilogy of games developed by Portsmouth-based Climax Studios. Although largely unfamiliar, it didn’t take long to get to grips with Chronicles’ two-dimensional take on the Assassin’s Creed formula. Its developer has clearly made an attempt to siphon the core essence of the mainline franchise, albeit without the same approach to gameplay.
Needless to say, Chronicles eschews an open world structure and rhythmic combat for its own web of mechanics, but the foundations remain. You will still be alternating between exploration, stealth, and hand-to-hand fighting while making use of several gadgets available to Russia’s lead protagonist, Nikolai Orelov.
As the biggest fans of the franchise will know, Orelov featured in his own three-part comic series way back in 2010, known as Assassin’s Creed: The Fall. This was then followed up by The Chain which concluded the character’s story arc two years later. Despite already having a stake in this universe, in Chronicles he comes across as generically brutish, having been roped into one last assignment by the brotherhood of assassins before he can flee the motherland for good.
We dub Nikolai as the lead protagonist because, from time to time, players will take up the role of another assassin, Anatasia Nikolaevna. Without giving too much away, she’s a Russian noble who is suddenly imbued with the power of an ancient assassin upon coming into contact with a precursor artefact. Her presence is hardly enthralling yet the occasional switching between two playable characters adds a little something to the overall package.
This is tied up rather nicely with an aesthetic that echoes the visual style of Sin City, with its abundant shades of red, white, and black. Environments are given some added dynamism with certain 3D elements which kick in whenever moving between planes or turning the corner of a building. Accompanying the visuals is a serviceable soundtrack, yet the voice acting on show is of poor to average quality. Although keen to see how Nikolai would fare in his final quest, the flat delivery of the character’s lines did little to stoke the flames of this temporary desire.
What brings the entire experience tumbling down, however, is gameplay. Nikolai is only able to take one hit before dying, making Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: Russia by far the most punishing title in the series to date. This level of challenge is amplified by the strict patrol routines that enemy guards follow, briskly snapping back and forth along a two-dimensional plane. Step into their line sight for more than a second and you may as well manually revert to the previous checkpoint.
Therefore, instead of feeling like an action platformer with an occasional focus on stealth, Russia quickly becoming more of a puzzle game that isolates this element of stealth. Throughout each of its linear memory sequences there are objects that can be used and manipulated in order to sneak past enemies and advance to the next area.
However, the enemy AI is programmed to leave no more than a couple of seconds for players to pass by without triggering an alarm. Sadly, this completely eradicates your capacity to experiment with tools and mechanics in a way that feels organic or rewarding. Instead, items such as the smoke bomb and Nikolai’s rifle feel like get out of jail free cards for when a particular section is simply too hard to overcome through conventional means.
As touched on before, both playable characters are incredibly fragile when compared to other assassins. This means that scrappy close quarters fighting is completely off the table, especially if tackling more than one opponent. All it takes is a well-placed bullet or swing of a club, and both of these are dished out liberally whenever an alarm is triggered.
The only real way to increase your chances is by gaining enough points to unlock upgrades, such as improved gadgets and increased health. These aren’t easy to attain, however, demanding that players ace an entire level while mastering one of the three assassin playstyles.
When an Assassin’s Creed game has you swearing under your breath more than Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls, you know that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Where difficulty can be used to make a game more addictive or rewarding, here it manages to sap every ounce of fun out of the experience. Factor in the copious amount of idle waiting the stealth genre entails and what you have is a frustrating game that besmirches one of the industry’s biggest franchises.
Version Tested: PS4