Assassin’s Creed is a massive series with main entries released almost every year. The formula has been tweaked and adjusted with every release, but people generally know what they’re getting when they play one of these games. After Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag — my personal favorite and least favorite entries in the series, respectively — last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins represented the biggest shift for the series. Ubisoft dabbled with RPG mechanics in previous entries, but Origins was their first real attempt to turn the franchise into an action RPG. Unfortunately, the effort felt half-hearted to me: Origins’ RPG mechanics were more of a window dressing than something built from the ground up, and the story had significant problems that were only somewhat salvaged by its strong protagonist. It was a good Assassin’s Creed game, but it came off as a flawed RPG.
One year later, the series travels to ancient Greece with the appropriately named Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. While its implementation of RPG mechanics is still far from perfect, Odyssey does represent a more serious effort to transition the series between genres, and I have to say that if this is the direction Assassin’s Creed is headed in the future, I’m on board for more.
Odyssey is set during the Peloponnesian War between militaristic Sparta and hegemonic Athens. You play as either Alexios or Kassandra, making Odyssey the first mainline entry in the series to let you play as a woman throughout the entire game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose to play as Kassandra, and I found her to be a remarkably strong and charismatic lead, in large part thanks to the excellent performance by Melissanthi Mahut. For the purposes of this review, I will refer to the protagonist as Kassandra, but regardless of who you play as, you will experience a story with humble beginnings that sprawls out into an epic adventure as you traverse the vast lands (and waters) of Greece.
The main story consists of several plot threads that you can eventually pursue at your leisure. By far the longest and most complicated of these threads is a highly personal quest that sees Kassandra attempting to find her long lost family. Another plot thread involves hunting down the members of a dangerous cult that seeks to control Greece, and the third relates to the First Civilization, an extinct precursor race whose artifacts form the basis of many conflicts. I greatly appreciated how Odyssey presents these different plot threads as related and yet independent, particularly the cultist thread. My biggest issue with Origins was how the main story was basically centered around a Kill Bill-style hitlist: the repetitive pattern of “learn who your target is, then kill them” got pretty tiring. Odyssey wisely presents you with the option to hunt these dastardly cultists without having it bog down the entire narrative. And when a cultist does appear in Kassandra’s personal quest, it tends to feel more natural than Origins’ “Death List Five.”
Overall, the plot is quite enjoyable. I’m not sure if I’d call it the best Assassin’s Creed story, but it’s definitely a contender and feels far more developed and well executed than Origins’ horribly paced yarn. There are a few sequences that feel a bit like filler, and the resolution of each major plot thread is somewhat abrupt, so Odyssey isn’t completely devoid of pacing problems; it simply manages to handle them with more grace than its predecessor.
Outside of the main story, you also come across many side quests you can undertake to gain experience and flesh out the world. Some of these quests are randomly generated and entirely forgettable — useful only for leveling up — but the rest are by and large quite good. You meet interesting and even kooky characters, and many sidequests link together to create mini-arcs in the various regions you’ll travel to. The stories told in these quests can be interesting, but the tasks they put before you can be repetitious: infiltrate this camp/ruin/fort, kill this bad guy, retrieve this important object or person, etc. It’s ultimately par for the course in an Assassin’s Creed game, but I found that it didn’t bother me too much because I enjoyed exploring the world and interacting with quest givers.
A big factor in my enjoyment of Odyssey’s quests is the new dialogue system. For the very first time in the series, you have (some) control over what your character says and does in cutscenes. It’s not as deep as the dialogue systems in, say, BioWare RPGs, but it’s definitely modeled to give you a similar experience, right down to the inclusion of icons that indicate the tone or intent of a response. Even the romances feel like shallower versions of what BioWare typically offers in its RPGs, though to give Ubisoft some credit, there are a lot of people you can woo, and you can woo them regardless of which protagonist you choose to play as. Your choices can affect how characters react to you or how quests end, and even though far-reaching consequences of these decisions are generally limited to Kassandra’s personal quest, the inclusion of this system goes a long way to making your odyssey actually feel like…well, your odyssey.
When words fail and you’re forced to fight, you’ll have to rely on your trusty weapons, armor, and skills to prevail. Combat is all about watching your enemy and reacting accordingly. Parrying normal attacks and dodging when an enemy glows red are the keys to victory, but you also have a host of both passive and active skills you can utilize to turn the tide in your favor. Each skill belongs to one of three trees that correspond to your damage stats (Hunter, Warrior, and Assassin), and you can only equip a limited number of active skills at one time, so the abilities you choose to take will affect your playstyle; you can re-equip skills and even respec skill points at any time, though, so experimenting with different builds is painless. Weapons and armor also come with perks that boost your damage in one or more of these three damage areas, so what you choose to wear will change how effective you are at ranged attacks, open conflict, and assassinations.
This division of stats means that you can play around with different skills and equipment to either specialize in one type of damage or be a jack of all trades. The game desperately needs the ability to save gear sets, though, as well as a glamor option for when you really like the way a piece looks but don’t want to sacrifice stats. This happens often because Odyssey inundates you with gear, a lot of which you won’t end up using. You can of course sell or break down unwanted pieces for materials, which is nice, but the end result of having so much gear thrown at you is that you spend a lot of time in menus. And they can be slow. It’s especially frustrating when you run out of arrows in the middle of combat because instead of crafting them on the spot, you have to go into another menu. Having said all that, combat is still pretty fun. Skills are satisfying and can become devastatingly powerful with the right builds. Fights against groups of enemies can get a little frustrating, particularly when you throw mercenaries into the mix, but they can also be quite exhilarating.
Related to combat is a new system in Odyssey called Conquest Battles. Almost every region in the game is controlled by either Athens or Sparta, and your actions can weaken the grip each city-state has on their neighboring lands. Do enough damage, and you can undertake a Conquest Battle that pits you and your chosen side against an army of opposing soldiers. These massive battles are impressive to look at and can net you some good rewards, but they ultimately serve no other purpose. Regions will shift back and forth on their own, even if you’ve conquered them in the past, and outside of some quests/cultists that require you to engage with this system, you can entirely ignore it to no ill effect. Which makes sense to a certain extent, since the game doesn’t let you change the outcome of the war (spoiler: Sparta wins). But since it doesn’t affect anything outside of which city-state’s soldiers patrol the area, it feels a little pointless.
Thankfully, the scale and splendor of Odyssey’s world make up for some of its duller gameplay moments. The map is utterly gigantic, and locations are vibrant and varied. From mountain peaks to golden forests and sandy island beaches, there’s a lot to see in the land of ancient Greece; it was a particularly special experience for me because my father’s family hailed from the Greek islands. In the game, you can travel across the Aegean Sea on board your trusty ship, the Adrestia. I grew to hate ship traversal and combat in Black Flag, but strangely enough, I quite enjoyed it in Odyssey. It helps that you have nearly the entire mainland of Greece to explore in addition to the Aegean Sea, and combat mechanics have been streamlined — in part due to the more limited technology of the time period.
With such a huge world filled with so many small parts, issues are bound to creep up. Most noticeable to me were loading issues. Traveling across large portions of the map would occasionally freeze the game while assets loaded in. Most cutscenes were preceded by a black screen for at least a few seconds, which, needless to say, became tiresome. Characters sometimes glitched, lighting in cutscenes was a little wonky from time to time, and there were occasions when Kassandra just did not want to move where I wanted her to go. None of this is particularly strange or unexpected for an open-world game, of course, though your mileage may vary as to how much these little quibbles bother you.
Finally, a brief word about sound. Voice acting is mostly strong all around, with Kassandra stealing the show in my opinion, but there are some side characters whose performances sound exaggerated or otherwise off. I sadly found the music to be by and large forgettable outside of the main vocal theme and a fantastic remix of Ezio’s Family. This is quite puzzling because the music is composed by The Flight, who previously worked alongside Joris de Man on the soundtrack for Horizon Zero Dawn, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I suppose in this particular case, the music just didn’t grab me.
I’ll fully admit that I wasn’t originally sold on Assassin’s Creed becoming an RPG. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted the series to become an RPG, and Origins didn’t really change my mind. Odyssey is the sophomore effort the series needed to convince me that it can and should become an RPG. It’s not perfect, but the bones are good, and if Ubisoft continues to walk the series down this path, the future of Assassin’s Creed is bright.