REVIEW: “Assassin’s Creed” takes a beautiful side-trip to China

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After years of giant blockbusters where players roam across intricately detailed historical cities, the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise has decided to go bite-size. The new “Assassin’s Creed Chronicles” sub-series filters the familiar look and style into a linear action game. “Chronicles” is booked for three installments; the first of which, set in 16th century China, is available now.

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China” puts players in the role of Shao Jun, a newly trained assassin on a mission of vengeance against the Eight Tigers cabal that eliminated her order. Chasing a barely-explained plot MacGuffin, Shao Jun must sneak through temples, fortresses and seaside villages on her path to killing the Tigers and releasing their grip on China.

What sets “Chronicles” apart from the main “Creed” games is the side-view gameplay. Consider it a world constructed more like “Super Mario Bros” than the usual “Assassin’s Creed” go-anywhere-in-3D model. While Shao Jun’s world may be limited, the game moves mountains to still feel like “Assassin’s Creed.” Shao Jun can hide in haybales, sense enemy locations, and perform the series’ famous “leap of faith” high dives.

China” is determined to make you master a stealthy approach. Particularly in the game’s beginning levels, blindy charging through is more likely to end in failure than success. The enemies in this game are fond of “one hit kills,” giving you no leeway to fumble through an encounter. The better way to go is be sneaky and smart. Once the Tiger soldiers see you, it’s probably too late to salvage your run.

This leads to frustrating do-overs, but by the game’s finale, you will earn enough upgrades to make combat more palatable. However, “China” never veers far away from dropping you into increasingly dangerous areas and expecting you to tiptoe to the finish line.

In addition to being able to hide behind pillars and stuff dead soldiers into closets, Shao Jun has a bag of tricks to distract or lure enemies. This suite reveals the true meat of the game, as you figure out exactly how to navigate through hallways and garden paths teeming with soldiers on patrol. “China” is much more of a puzzle game than it wants to admit.

China” can be completed in a few sittings, but it is certainly satisfying time spent, thanks to the brainteaser-esque atmosphere and the gorgeous art design that makes the entire game look like an ink-and-wash painting. Given the budget price, and the promise that this is the first portion of a planned trilogy of “Chronicles” games, the relatively quick play time is understandable. After completing the game, additional difficulty modes are unlocked to keep the game going.

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China” is an unexpectedly low-fi version of the famed franchise, but still a solid addition to the line. Maybe by the time the third game releases, Shao Jun’s MacGuffin will be sensibly massaged into the “Assassin’s Creed” mythos.

This review is based on product supplied by Ubisoft. Image courtesy Ubisoft. “Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China” is a downloadable title available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.