Assassin's Creed Chronicles: Russia impressions

Ubisoft's trilogy of side-stories concludes with a whimper, or maybe some cursing

Let me tell you about my favorite part of the original Assassin’s Creed: escaping after a successful assassination. Once you’ve planned your careful approach and stealthily dispatched your target, all hell breaks loose, and any plan of egress is quickly forgotten in a mad dash across rooftops. 

As you attempt to shake your pursuers, maybe you blend with a crowd, hide down a well, or dive into a haystack. Maybe you’re forced to fend off three soldiers at once, using your sword and hidden blade to overcome desperate odds and buy yourself breathing room to vanish. 

In Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: Russia, if you’re spotted, someone will shoot you in the head within seconds.

I wanted to like ACC: Russia, I really did. I’ve a fondness for the Assassin’s Creed games that at times borders on apologism. (Can I explain how really underappreciated AC3 is? No? Another time, maybe.) I hadn’t played any of the other AC Chronicles entries, and after my experience with Russia, I’m not likely to.

ACC: Russia, like its two predecessors, is a 2.5D side-scrolling stealth game in the vein of Mark of the Ninja. You take on the role of Nikolai Orelov, a mustachioed Assassin who must pull off One Last Job in order to finance his family’s departure from Russia before the Bolsheviks muck everything up. 

Orelov has a handful of tools to distract and dispatch enemies, including the standard smoke bombs, an electrified winch, and a rifle. Unfortunately, in hand-to-hand combat, Orelov is the weakest Assassin the series has yet seen, meaning that if you don’t get the drop on your foes, your odds of survival are pretty grim. Balance Orelov’s frailty with the fact that the game entices you to sneak by enemies without harming them, and you have a recipe for frequent restarts. 

While the game’s checkpoints are relatively generous (at least half a dozen per level), you can expect to repeat any section that you find tricky a good number of times. Orelov is pretty sprightly, but the controls aren’t quite so tight that I didn’t have to curse him out for not doing what I meant him to do on a number of different occasions. 

Part of the frustration stems from the lack of avenues open to you as a player--despite the modest assortment of tools the game grants you, it frequently feels as though there is a “correct” way to proceed through a section. It feels like a punitive puzzle platformer: figure out what the game wants you to do, or get shot and try again after a 5-7 second loading screen. Mostly this involves a lot of trial and error. One begins to wonder what happened to the titular Creed: “Nothing is true” may still apply, but they seem to have chucked out “Everything is permitted.” 

There’s a certain breed of player who will really embrace this game’s demanding, even unforgiving difficulty, repeating each of the game’s levels until they achieve absolute mastery. For my part, it felt like a slog, and I barely felt compelled to complete the game, let alone go back for more. 

The game’s aesthetic is gritty and stylish, heavily favoring black, white, and red--the first level feels like playing through a Soviet propaganda poster. The two-dimensional movement with some Z-axis depth of field works really well until it doesn’t, like when you’re hanging outside of a window and you can’t see inside well enough to tell when emerging will mean you’ll be spotted (and, probably, shot in the head).

I might be inclined to forgive ACC: Russia its uneven and sometimes busted gameplay were it doing something interesting narratively, but despite an excellent choice of setting (the Bolshevik Revolution) and the inevitable inclusion of the murder of the Tsar, the story doesn’t amount to much. 

There are a few sections in which you play as Anastasia Romanova, who has a slightly different skillset than Orelov, and she’s given some truly execrable dialogue. “I am the blade in the shadows,” she intones as she murders a Bolshevik with a rope dart. “I walk in the darkness.” There’s a narrative explanation for why she might suddenly start talking like an Assassin, but there’s no explanation for the corny lines. Nor is there any explanation for why every pair of guards you stumble across is having one of the same two conversations!

There are aspects of the game to appreciate--the visual design, for one, and the occasional rush of adrenaline when the game does allow you to be slick and stealthy. But in a world where there exist more than a score of Assassin’s Creed titles, you have at least a dozen more fruitful opportunities to wield a hidden blade.