Assassin’s Creed Valhalla — Cognitive Accessibility Impressions

I spent a half-hour diving into freezing water searching aimlessly for a woman’s comb so that I could sleep with her. Don’t judge me. The heart wants what it wants. After nearly freezing to death and running out of rations to keep myself alive, I gave up. The woman clearly didn’t care that much about her comb with her only hint being, “It must be somewhere here.” One of the other suitors that joined the search can have her.

After that adventure, I spent three hours looking for a boat, chatting back and forth with Ben in our staff Discord because the only guidance offered by the game was “to the east” and “look in the swamp.” I went east, I scoured the foggy swamp looking for the damn boat, I found nothing. The only way I was able to finish the quest was by guessing. Three days later, I realized that Ben and I were talking about two entirely different boat-in-a-swamp quests. That is how vague the navigation help is in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.

I play Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on Exploration mode and absolutely loved it. The guidance offered in Odyssey was just the right amount of helpful without telling me exactly where to go. And if I needed to be told exactly where to go? I could just switch to Guided mode. Wayfinding in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels like trying to drive on an interstate trip without Google Maps, just hoping that I’m heading in the right direction and that I’m on the right freeway.

Seemingly everything that made Odyssey one of the most approachable, enjoyable games for me, not just from the Assassin’s Creed series but of all games, has been stripped from Valhalla. Where Odyssey allowed me to design just the right experience for my needs and enjoyment, Valhalla is a chore that leaves me feeling bad about myself. 

Wayfinding isn’t the only thing that is made unnecessarily difficult in Valhalla. Armor and weapons have been entirely redesigned in the most confusing of manners. I’ve been wearing the same armor for 17 hours of game time because even though I’ve collected plenty of other pieces, there’s no incentive to swap because the armor you collect doesn’t match your power level and still needs to be fully upgraded with resources. 

Illustrating the blue ring surrounding a large area in which you must search for the quest progression point in Assassin's Creed Valhalla.

And your raven? He’s been stripped of all utility as well. In Odyssey and Origins, your trusty bird used to help you find enemies and locations. He would even tag them for you. In Valhalla, all your raven offers is confirmation of what you probably already know—go that way-ish and hope you find what you’re looking for. While Odin’s Sight does offer some of the former utility that your bird friend used to, it fades after a while, so if you rely on it, you’re left constantly pressing the right stick to keep enemies and collectible locations glowing.

Developers removed the helpful abilities from your raven, stating that they felt it made the game “press this button to win.” I can’t help but think of the Soulsborne discourse when reading that and it certainly feels like the very antithesis of creating an inclusive experience for all players. Let me decide how to best play the game so that I can actually have fun no matter how tired I am or how much brain fog I’m dealing with that day.

Also new and to the detriment of cognitive accessibility is the elimination of side quests. They have been replaced with world events (glowing blue dots on your map) and as with everything else, offer absolutely nothing in the form of guidance. Players are left entirely to their own devices to figure out what will fulfill the event requirements and where to do it. My diving in the freezing lake I noted in the first paragraph? I don’t even know if that’s where the comb was and there’s no way for me to find out unless I spend hours aimlessly searching. 

Female Eivor holding a cat that is nuzzling her in Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
If not for the pet-able cats, I would feel like an absolute monster of a Viking with no redeeming qualities.

Valhalla is the first Assassin’s Creed title in a long time that leaves me feeling bad. Not just about myself and my abilities, but about what you’re asked to do in the game, which feeds the utter exhaustion of playing. I realize that the whole Viking part of playing as a Viking is raids and such. Maybe it’s what a year 2020 has been or maybe it’s the story paired with how many barriers I’m facing in this game, but I just can’t enjoy raiding for the sake of raiding. I don’t want to ravage entire villages and towns, burn down the homes of farmers for no reason other than I’m a Viking and I want stuff.

Where my actions in past AC titles left me wanting more and feeling like I was serving the greater good of the fictional game people, in Valhalla, I’m doing everything but raids and quests because they just feel mean. I find that I’m only able to play for a few minutes at a time because trying to make any kind of progress is just too mentally taxing. I feel like I’m playing a Souls game but instead of impossibly hard combat, I’m met with impossibly hard progression.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels like a case study in people developers believing that accessibility lies solely in providing options. Let players have huge subtitles, give them menu narration, and scalable map icons, and you’ve created an accessible game, right? Wrong. An accessible game must be crafted as an accessible experience, with thoughtful attention given to UX and UI. I can’t help but feel that the “accessibility” of Valhalla is more of a last-minute band-aid than a truly inclusive game and it’s the first Assassin’s Creed game since the original Assassin’s Creed that I don’t see myself finishing.

A review copy of Assassin's Creed Valhalla was provided by the developer / publisher.

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Courtney Craven

Co-founder and EIC of Can I Play That?, captioner of many things, occasional writer of fiction. Any pronouns. courtney@caniplaythat.com

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