Sometimes you don’t realize you miss something until it’s gone.
The Assassin’s Creed series has a notoriously goofy sci-fi framing story. It bends history to allow its protagonists to be the guiding hand/blade beyond all major events. From Ezio Auditore thwarting the Borgias and murdering their patriarch to Conner-Ratonhnhaké:ton sparking virtually all of the events in the American Revolution. It’s silly. I make fun of it. But it’s somehow charming and absorbing. Chronicles dispenses with the sci fi portion and barely interacts with the history, instead opting for the most phoned in revenge story of all time. Meet Shao-Jun, our nearly entirely character-less main character, as she mumblemumble loses a magic box and mumblemumble must avenge her brothers and mumblemumblemumble-walking away from the TV now…
Assassin’s Creed’s most valuable and absorbing element is its ability to take you back to another time period, to gorgeously render the Holy Land of the crusades era, the rooftops of Renaissance Italy, or the cerulean waters of the Caribbean’s golden age of piracy. This is more or less impossible to achieve in 2d. Chronicles is pretty and nicely stylized, but it doesn’t feel much like China in the way the 3d games feel like their respective places. It’s an extra shame that the main series has devolved into Things White People Did, so more interesting and varying locales — Chronicles is set to be three games: China, India, and Russia — are shunted to 2d sidestories.
So all and all, this game does not feel like Assassin’s Creed. It’s a fun little timewaster though.
Shao-Jun moves across a 2d plane, with depth. She can run (or swing, with a blade attached to an elastic rope that would be swell to use in 3 dimensions…) into the background or foreground, occasionally several levels deep. Enemies patrol these areas; they have a field of vision displayed on the screen (seen in my screenshot above). If Shao wanders into these fields, the enemies spot her, call reinforcements and charge. Unlike the whirling dervish protagonists of the main series, this hero is extremely vulnerable and easy to kill. Open combat is always a last resort.
The game grades you on how you manage each segment of a level. It splits it up into Shadow (don’t get seen), Assassin (kill everyone without being seen), and Brawler (kill everyone in open combat and don’t get hit). Then there is Gold-Silver-Bronze for each of those types. Unfortunately, not all play styles are treated equally. Shadow means more points than Assassin which means more points than Brawler. It’s strange because Brawler is actually the most difficult and Assassin is the most fun. So if you’re chasing a high score, which you ought to be in this type of game, you have to ignore a large swathe of Shao-Jun’s abilities and learn how to navigate the entire game without ever being seen. It’s satisfying when you nail it, especially with enemy-dense later levels that require some real thought, but I do wish all styles were equally valued.
The game has the good sense to mix it up a bit — some levels dispense with the stealth and turn into a mad dash where you must outrun snaking tendrils of flames, and explosions, and in the most memorable and history-evoking, a Mongol attack on The Great Wall. They’re reminiscent-but-not-quite-as-good as the runner levels in Rayman Legends/Origins. In addition, Chronicles is short and does not overstay its welcome, with repetition or its somewhat shoddy controls. Just enough to get me to pick up Chronicles: India when it arrives.