Valhalla, releasing this holiday season on current and next-gen systems, puts you in the shoes of a viking raider named Eivor, who can be played as female or male. Your overall goal is to grow your viking clan and gain more power over the land. Taking place in the ninth century during the Viking Age, you explore both Norway and England. In my demo, I explored East Anglia, a large English kingdom.
The world is beautiful, filled with autumn colored trees, castle ruins, rivers and forests. The section I explored is sizable, with many small villages scattered throughout a spacious countryside, rolling plains in-between. The story spoke of a man named Oswald, a future king who hoped to unite a nation pulled apart by bloodshed, but he is presumed dead. Oswald was taken captive by the Rued clan, a Dane army gone rogue. Upon finding them, you discover Oswald is alive, and that his rescue is dependent on you.
The quest to find and safely extract Oswald from the enemy comes with challenges. I fought enemies at different encampments, the first reachable by water with my long-ship that can be summoned from specific shores around the world. One of the big changes to mission structure and combat is the addition of raids: Instead of fighting countless foes alone, you enter these battles with about 10 warriors by your side. I fought through military camps and later a large fortress called Burgh Castle, described as “impenetrable.”
The latter was especially fun, which began with a cool set piece of steering my long-ship through a foggy storm as lightning lit the sky and thunderous waves rocked the boat. Glowing arrows rained from above, attempting to set fire to my ship. To safely maneuver, it required carefully shielding from the arrows by “bracing” with the push of a button, similar to the command in naval battles of past Assassin’s Creed games. Once we entered the castle, an overwhelming number of enemies attacked me and my men. But there was strategy to be found in the chaos.
You can divide your time by killing enemies and helping your clan bash a battering ram into closed doors to reach new sections. I enjoyed this a lot, and it required some thinking on my feet. At one point, it was too dangerous to force the doors open when archers had us in their sights. So I moved to a new vantage point and took them out, and my warriors pushed their way through swiftly once the path was clear. This battle structure is a welcome addition, especially when the rest of the gameplay felt all too familiar.
Despite some new abilities I experimented with, some different enemy types — like berserkers who charge at you — and the welcome return of the stealth instakill, the majority of combat is just like its predecessor. Heavy and light attacks return. Heavy attacks can break a foe’s defenses, whereas light attacks are quicker but have less impact. Abilities return too, some of which can be used at range and others in close quarters. There were also few areas in the demo, at least via the main missions, that kept stealth a viable option.
Eight abilities can be equipped at once. I recognized some from Odyssey and Origins, like drenching my blade in poison to continuously damage an enemy for a period of time or raining down a volley of arrows. I enjoyed some new additions, like an arrow with a Svefnthorn symbol on it (from Norse mythology) which magically puts an enemy to sleep, as well as an ability that launches axes at a handful of enemies and knocks them back, acting as a great method of crowd control. Enemies may stagger to the ground after a well-placed hit; once grounded, you can finish them off with a brutal final move called a stomp, crushing their head to pieces in the soil. It’s a fun new finisher, but it doesn’t change anything dramatically.
Outside of main missions, there are several side activities. Two small missions I did involved helping villagers through problems, like finding a young boy’s lost cat. Of the few I tried, they came across more like fetch quests rather than substantial content. Luckily, there are many other avenues for fun on the side, including a platforming puzzle and flyting.
Flyting is akin to a rap battle in which you outwit your opponent in a war of words. It’s amusing: you select correct dialogue choices in an allotted time to put the other down while inflating Eivor’s ego. It’s reminiscent of the dialogue puzzles in “Life is Strange: Before The Storm” where you choose the best insulting response to “win” the conversation, except in this case, they rhyme.
Platforming puzzles can be found around the world as well, spotted by glimmering particles that signify the Animus (the machine used by modern day protagonist Layla Hassan to experience moments in history) glitching. Your character avatar changes; you’re no longer Eivor but Hassan. She speaks to someone named Rebecca, a name used for a fan-favorite, recurring character that appeared through different entries up until Syndicate. It was hard to tell through the short snippets of dialogue if it was really her, and Ubisoft refused to confirm.
For the puzzle, you hop from one platform to the next to reach the top. It reminded me somewhat of the first-person Desmond platforming sequences in “Assassin’s Creed Revelations," though these are done in third person. You hop from one hovering platform to another to reach the top, where you grab a “data packet” collectible and, in expected Assassin’s Creed fashion, are rewarded with more cryptic dialogue. Once complete, you switch back to Eivor. Just how deeply these moments dive into modern day lore is unknown, but I’m hoping to see more science fiction tie-ins like it.
My demo concluded with a wedding for Oswald, who is married to a viking woman. This final segment demonstrated some additional side activities, like a drinking mini-game involving quick-time events and keeping your balance to out-drink your foe, as well as a fun section where I had to shoot clay pots before a timer ran out. However, the most interesting bits during the wedding were less about the side activities, and more about choice and consequence. Like Odyssey, your choices, big and small, can matter.
A smaller decision I made involved romance. Like Kassandra and Alexios, the protagonists from Odyssey, you can have flings and sexual encounters with characters you meet on your journey. If you decide to sleep with a man named Broder, for example, you both speak briefly after the act. This can end respectfully, or less so, if you accidentally call him by his brother’s name when prompted by dialogue options.
Bigger decisions, on the other hand, can have more effect than mere dialogue. Killing Oswald’s captor (named Rued) back at the fortress would let the wedding continue peacefully. But in my case, I had let Rued go, and he showed up to disrupt the joyous event which launches me in a boss battle against him.
Valhalla has a lot to offer, but it feels like a game I’ve already played, swapping Ancient Egypt or Greece for the Viking Age. Raids, along with some new enemy types are fun, but are they enough to make Valhalla sing? Hard to say. We’ll find out later this year.