Last week, I finished the review for Assassin's Creed Odyssey and then packed my bags to go on a trip. I had some issues with the game, but largely I felt the improvements to the formula over Origins allowed it to keep pace with its predecessor. The trick with reviews and the following discussion is I don't generally talk with other reviewers about their thoughts and I've usually moved onto the next game; I tend to not be a part of the conversation surrounding a game. So I was surprised to find the conversation drifting towards Assassin's Creed Odyssey being "grindy".
Let's get the first part of this argument out of the way. Microtransactions like experience boosts shouldn't have been included in Assassin's Creed Odyssey. I'm mostly ambivalent on cosmetic microtransactions, but I understand those who are not. If your umbrage is towards the existence of microtransactions, by all means continue on. (I find that most fans' caring about microtransations changes in proximity to their favorite games, but that's neither here nor there.) For most of our review period, the in-game store wasn't active, so microtransactions weren't available. The game simply had to be played on its own merits.
Given that, I found a leveling experience that was largely the same as Assassin's Creed Origins. Which is to say the experience gain and jump from level to level felt the same. Odyssey is built on the core of Origins, so that's to be expected. Where things have changed is in presentation and overall sources of experience.
First, on the presentation side. Ubisoft Quebec definitely looked towards games like The Witcher 3, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age for the overall composition of Odyssey. While the main quest is to be expected from Assassin's Creed, a mixture of historical tourism and First Civilization nonsense, the side quests are where the presentation has improved. These are listed as Character and World quests in your quest log, stemming either from a known historical figure or non-player character, or rooted in the lore of particular location.
Character and World quests in Odyssey involve some of the most intriguing choices and moments in the game. Do you spare a family from the purge of a plague-ridden village, or let them free? What about the continuous discussions and examples of ethics and morality with Sokrates? Is it better to kill a slaver in a public forum, or assassinate them away from prying eyes? Should you tell a little girl that her friends aren't real? These quests aren't a part of the main quest, listed as Odyssey quests in your quest log, but I'd argue they're the meat of what Assassin's Creed Odyssey is. It's like playing Mass Effect 2 without doing the squad loyalty quests, which were some of the best missions in that title.
Second, in terms of the overall sources of experience. As I noted before, there are the Odyssey quests of the main story, while Character and World quests fill in the rest of the Greece. Below that are Bounties and Contracts, which are acquired from message boards in each town and seem to be randomly generated. Bounties are single-target missions, either requiring you to deliver an item or kill a target. Contracts are general missions that have you killing X number of targets; you're meant to grab all of these and just complete them naturally as you're doing other stuff.
You can take all of the Bounties and Contracts on a message board, but they will come back eventually. (I'm not sure of the mechanic behind the refresh.) They're additional sources of experience you can choose to play or ignore. I stopped picking up Bounties, and just stuck with Contracts, which worked largely like achievements in some other games.
Then there are Conquest Battles, a new feature for Odyssey. These place you in the middle of huge battles between Athens and Sparta over territory all around Odyssey. They're some of the best content in terms of experience to time spent, but overall I found I didn't enjoy the system because there was no meta-game it was feeding into. So after doing it once or twice, I gave up on Conquest Battles and never did another one. At the end, Odyssey's sources of experience are largely the same ones from Origins: killing enemies, finding and clearing out locations, and tackling forts.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey throws a lot of experience your way. There's so much that you can literally not engage with whole systems and be perfectly fine. Upon reading the "grindy" articles, I was mystified. I generally had the opposite problem with Odyssey; after a certain point, I found myself consistently overleveled in new regions. And this is after I had to start skipping Character and World quest towards the latter end of the review period in order to finish the critical path.
Level scaling means the lowest content was always two levels behind me, but that's still enough to make many encounters much easier. Level scaling seems to be a result of a complaint lodged at Origins (Citation 1, Citation 2, and Citation 3), in that you could overlevel while regions would remain in their same level range, turning you into a whirlwind of murder. Ubisoft Montreal later added a level scaling option to Origins to alleviate the issue. I find the level scaling window in Odyssey is a bit too stringent, and I'd personally increase window to 3 or 4 levels. This would allow players who like overleveling to feel like they could go back and roflstomp certain regions, without letting them get too far away.
My overall point is if you engage with Assassin's Creed Odyssey, there is no grind. If you at least do the Odyssey, Character, and World quests, leveling is not a problem. I've jumped back into the game a second time—Alexios was good, Kassandra is my jerk play—and I'm still having no problem. If you don't want to engage with what Assassin's Creed Odyssey is, a full-on role-playing game at this point, then yes, it'll be a grind for you. I'm sympathetic to those that miss the old style of Assassin's Creed, when it was a largely linear open-world adventure, but that's a subject for another article. (That I'm also writing.)
Anything is a grind if you don't want to do it. The other odyssey, Super Mario Odyssey, stuck in my craw a few times because I didn't feel like finding the requisite 2-3 moons needed to progress to the next level. Octopath Traveler has level requirements for the chapters of each character's story, but as far as I've gotten, I wouldn't call that a grind with the exception for working towards chapters for characters I didn't really like. I've been told that grinding in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 isn't a problem if you sleep at inns and do the side quests. (*ahem*) Monster Hunter: World would occasionally test my patience when I was trying to build a certain set of armor.
By and large, I wouldn't call any of those games grindy and Assassin's Creed Odyssey isn't any worse than them, either. Perhaps it's because I've played a number of massively-multiplayer games where grind is a real thing. The last triple-A game I could call grindy is Middle-earth: Shadow of War, whose endgame Shadow Wars mode had me just walk away from the game completely.
If the threshold of "grindy" is "I just don't feel like doing this," then there are a ton of grindy games out there. I'm all for more options, and if Ubisoft patches in a way remove levels and scaling, I'm glad folks will have that choice. But at some point, you need to engage with the game as it is. You're going to hunt the same monster again in Monster Hunter: World. You'll need to search for that last moon in Super Mario Odyssey. Nier: Automata wants you to play through it multiple times. And you'll probably want to help Hippokrates in Assassin's Creed Odyssey; that's the game. If you don't want to play with those mechanics, that's perfectly fine, but that isn't necessarily a problem with the game itself. It's just not your jam, and you're probably better off with another game.