Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China was originally meant to be an extra in the Season Pass for Assassin's Creed Unity. In fact, when it was first announced, you couldn't play the game at all without the Season Pass. When Unity hit some rocky shores, plans changed.
Chronicles developer Climax Studio expanded the downloadable offering into a trilogy. China is the first of three games focusing on assassins from Ubisoft's expanded universe: Shao Jun from the Embers animated film takes the first slot, followed by Arbaaz Mir from the Brahman graphic novel, and Nikolai Orelov from The Chain and The Fall graphic novels.
Since this is the beginning of modest trilogy now, it's worth asking of Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China is a great first step. The answer: not quite. It's good, but it's lacking in depth.
As I wrote in my 2014 recap for the series, I've been drawn to Assassin's Creed for the narrative, not just the gameplay. The Animus-powered near-future framing sequence allows the series to explore the lives of Assassins and Templars across history. There's so many interesting eras to draw from and I've found that the smaller games and DLC offerings, like Liberation, Freedom Cry, and Rogue, tend to do more with their respective stories despite their smaller budgets. I was hoping that Chronicles would offer a renewed chance to explore the lives of these three established assassins and perhaps introduce them to people who haven't explored the expanded Assassin's Creed universe.
Unfortunately, Chronicles: China's plot is paper-thin. There's no insight in Shao Jun. Her motivations are based around revenge, as she's the last assassin in the Chinese Brotherhood. The levels are story-light and the cutscenes in-between are merely there to show you how Shao Jun got to the next level. Chronicles: China is Shao Jun sneaking and murdering her way from one end of China to the next. This is a missed opportunity, one I hope Ubisoft and Climax rectify with the Indian and Russian outings.
That means Chronicles: China has to rely on its gameplay to carry you through. Here, the series is on more solid footing. Chronicles: China plays a lot like Mark of the Ninja, a 2012 release from Klei Entertainment. It sticks close to the same 2D sneaking gameplay, with cover, vision cones, and sound bubbles allowing you to make your way through enemy forces.
Shao Jun has a retractable Assassin blade, sword, and rope dart as her basic weapons, with throwing knives, noise darts, and firecrackers providing distraction options. Each level is laid out like a puzzle, with various guards, cover, and other obstacles in your way. Like Mark of the Ninja, dogs can immediately see you within their sphere of scent and birds will cry out if you run past them. It's a matter of using cover - waist high walls, dark doorways, background shrubbery, and more - to move through areas unnoticed.
Ghosting through an area and passing one of the invisible checkpoints awards you with the Shadow (Gold) grade, which comes with the most points. You can also assassinate enemies from cover and hide their bodies, which marks the welcome return of the mechanic after its omission in Unity. Choosing this method of progress through an area will give you the Assassin (Silver) grade. If you're more direct, Shao Jun can dodge melee and ranged attacks, vault over foes, and dispatch them with her sword. Being this forceful rewards you with the Brawler (Bronze) grade, which is the lowest available. At the end of each level, your various medals are tallied up and you're given an overall score. The higher the score, the more likely you are to unlock new moves, increased health, faster kills, and larger ammo storage.
With all of the options available to you, Chronicles: China is very easy. Guards will be alerted if you stray within their vision cone or you're too loud, but you have a few seconds before full alert status and their memories are rather short. Like Unity, if you move from the ghostly Last Known Position indicator, guards will stop looking for you after a while. Talking guards can't even see you at all. Reinforcements are a tricky problem if you're too loud and visible, but once you master the rhythm of combat, that's not much of an issue either. The challenge in Chronicles: China is pretty much up to hitting those Shadow grades consistently in each area. I think Ubisoft and Climax realized this was an issue because the game also has Hard and Hard Plus modes available.
One place Chronicles: China surpasses its spiritual predecessor is in the levels. Shao Jun's world is in 2.5D, meaning you'll be moving in and out of the background and foreground, with different parts of the levels existing on different planes. In fact, the levels themselves are pretty big and finishing secondary objectives usually requires going off the beaten path and exploring a bit. The level design's ability to move from plane-to-plane allows for a sense of visual depth the game wouldn't have otherwise and Climax puts it to good use.
The game is also rather pretty. The levels and the cutscenes are presented in an art style that recalls Chinese calligraphy and oil painting. The effect looks amazing in the cutscenes. It could be pushed a bit farther in the game itself, but even there some of the regions there are worth seeing. Chronicles: India and Chronicles: Russia are meant to draw for the aesthetics of their specific periods as well, so I'd call the visual leanings a win for the series so far.
When I finished up Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China, I put down the controller and I was satisfied, but I didn't really feel the need to jump back in and play more. What's here is a good start, a base for the Chronicles series to build on, but it feels like more is needed (see the aside above). The stealth gameplay is well-done, but once you figure it out, everything else is just permutations on the same problems. Overall Chronicles: China just feels like there's a slightly bigger, more in-depth game lurking inside. If you like Assassin's Creed, need more Mark of the Ninja, or want to feel hints of the old Prince of Persia games, pick up Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China. Just set your expectations accordingly.
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China features some great stealth gameplay reminiscent of Klei Entertainment's Mark of the Ninja. Unfortunately, the mechanics lack more depth and grow tired by time you reach the end of your quest. Ubisoft also misses the opportunity to tell a bigger story. Worth playing, but Shao Jun deserves better.