Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India Review

Exit quickly through the gift shop.

The Assassin’s Creed series endeavors to explore locales most other mainstream games don’t even mention. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India may not have the budget of its larger brethren to fully realize a city like Delhi, but it still displays an intense attention detail within its limited scope; it uses slides and storyboards to convey most of its tale, but the transitions blossom from the tapestries of floral Rangoli patterns. Much of the plot, which sees Indian assassin Arbaaz Mir rescue both the Koh-i-Noor (an enormous real-life diamond the game turns into a magical Piece of Eden) from the Templars. Not exactly a left turn for the series, but the undercurrents of Indian fairy tales and British imperialism make for great scenery. I mention “British imperialism” and “scenery” in the same sentence because that’s the kind of series this is.

India (as well as last year’s Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China) presents an even breezier version of cultural tourism than mainline Assassin’s Creed games do. The game maps the core elements of stealth, assassination, and climbing to a two-dimensional framework, and some of the game’s most interesting bits come from recognizing a verb or tool from the big-budget games. Rather than exploring an entire city, you run through ten right-to-left levels, but most of them allow you to approach situations from multiple angles, and a few levels have you chasing a target by climbing all the surrounding buildings without being seen -- something India pulls off better than any Assassin’s Creed game I can remember. You can take cover in nearby hiding spots (like the series’ omnipresent bales of hay), assassinate guards from ledges or overhangs, and use objects in the level (and your pocket) to lure guards away from their posts.

Most importantly, India builds on the lackluster China’s toolset; you can nonlethally subdue guards, kill two guards at once if they’re huddled up, and use smoke bombs to bypass crowded chokepoints. The climbing movement feels more natural, and I made leaps and diagonal climbs that I don’t think I would have made in China. The movement is still prone to mistakes due to how intricate the control scheme is, but as a whole, India plays better than China

India also introduces you to your tools more quickly, which alleviates the problem China had of being a long-winded tutorial without a substantial follow-up. It then uses the extra leeway to include a wider variety of setpieces, both intense and idyllic. You sneak past guards using the crowds at a flea market; you barrel past enemies fighting back against a siege, during which they’ll ignore any dead bodies they might encounter. These evoke the style of Assassin’s Creed more vividly than any fidelity of movement could, and they’re nice to see.

Screen from Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India would be very pretty indeed... if it were on the PlayStation 2.

The Assassin’s Creed DNA distinguishes India from other games of its ilk. But the comparison to the “core” games in the series ends up hurting the game as much as it helps. Even as the main Assassin’s Creed series struggled to find new ideas and mission designs after Assassin’s Creed II, it still offered unprecedented environmental freedom. India can’t be those games, it’s not aiming to, and that’s not necessarily a problem. Still, the comparison can sting; the more I tried to poke at India’s systems, the more I had to remind myself to reel in my expectations, knowing the game wasn’t going to be as expansive.

Contrast this with other recent simplifications of established franchises, such as last year’s wonderful Lara Croft GO. That game managed to distill every tool in Lara’s toolkit and turn it into a simple action. Even though all of her interactions in that game -- climbing, throwing spears, etc. -- were pared down, you could still recognize “hey, that’s just like Tomb Raider!” In that sense, it reminded me of early 3D polygons, where things like facial features and textures were simplified to such a degree that you could easily map the intended effect.

The Chronicles series dabbles in similar grounds, but, to stretch the analogy a bit further, India’s systems feel like PS2-era graphics: good enough, but filled with gaps.  India feels enough like Assassin’s Creed that you want to think you’re playing the real thing, but climbing ledges, walls, and platforms offers far less freedom, and where you can and cannot climb feels arbitrary. Conversely, In my six or seven hours with the game, I never got a good sense of when guards could spot me; the game often uses foreground and background planes to make levels more dense and guards usually don’t see between them. At one point, I got caught while climbing on a crate that I swore was a plane in front of where the guard should have been able to see. I suspect the systems are all consistent, but the game doesn’t display the nuances particularly well.

But that’s a minor problem compared to the way India pulled me in several directions at once. It offers a number of segments that were great the first time I saw them, but lost their luster the second time. It wants to be a hard-edged stealth game where satisfaction comes from mastery, and being noticed or killing guards knocks points of your score, which the game uses to dole out upgrades. Other times, I was pulled in one direction by levels where scoring was based purely on time, and in another by the intrinsic displeasure of getting caught by guards. This is partially due to my own perfectionist tendencies in games like this, but also because India’s combat is so clunky I wanted to avoid it at all costs.

Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India pushes for pacifism, except when it doesn't.

India also displays the same strange thematic inconsistencies of mainline Assassin’s Creed games, wherein clockwork systems clash with setpieces. The game pushed me to never kill anyone to get the best score, except in parts where I was explicitly told I had to kill a few guards to continue. If you do this and don’t get caught, you still get a gold “Shadow” award, as if you’d never killed anyone. Creating these exceptions reveals a sort of hypocritical attitude at the heart of my problems with the game. It says “Here are a number of rules you must follow, which we will see fit to ignore whenever it lets us do something cool.” It offered a number of tools and ways to interact with its systems, but manipulated them to avoid letting me get too carried away. The result of these conflicting ideologies was a lot of trial and error. Early on, it was because never wanted to get caught, which made for a fun additional challenge. Later, when getting caught became a mandatory game over, it was grueling.

I love the idea of spreading the cultural tourism of Assassin’s Creed to places and peoples that might not get a chance otherwise, and India does that well. It creates a sense of place and lets people from outside the Western sphere indulge in the series’ core fantasy. But I rubbed up against its limits far more often than I would have liked. The small improvements over China make it easier to recommend, but it’s still full of frustrating non-starters that detract from how great it could have been. So I guess it really is a lot like Assassin’s Creed.