Assassin's Creed Valhalla Accessibility
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is a good game in itself, but it feels as if accessibility was dumped and feels like a rushed and unoptimized accessibility experience.
Score4.6 out of 10
Valhalla, the place a Viking goes should they die in battle, to sit and feast as they wait for Ragnarok. But in Ubisoft’s latest Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, even though I continued to die over and over in battle, I never felt worthy of Valhalla. Instead, I probably deserve my afterlife spent in Helheim because of the number of times I “died” inside trying to understand the game.
But despite struggling with the game, I was at least able to travel back in time to an England in which we had Four Kingdoms and a time where we didn’t wash our feet as much. And while the world looks gorgeous, and the story takes a nice turn back into becoming a game about being an assassin, we’re not here to touch on those, but instead how accessible the game is for those that are Deaf/Hard of Hearing. And given how the past two games in the series have gone above and beyond, I went into this new iteration with high hopes.
As with Ubisoft games now, the game starts with options for accessibility before you reach the menu. First up is the option to enable menu narration. Then you get to adjust some content options for blood, dismemberment, and other gross things. There are options for controls, icon sizes, text size, and basic subtitles and closed captions alongside a few others.
Obviously, navigating to the actual options menu will open up a much more diverse range of customization, with Ubisoft offering players a good level of customization. There’s a mixture of presets as well as sliders so you can cater elements specifically. Want a HUD background at 30%? Go for it.
One of the first things I want to touch on is the subtitles, my favorite topic, and one with a lot of unpacking to do. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the presentation of dialogue from the previous two games is heavily present and actually builds on them by a lot. You can change how they’re presented with far greater customization, such as adjusting the size, enabling speaker names, and choosing how dark the background is with a slider.
What’s more, is that subtitle options —and other customizable elements— offer a preview screen to the right-hand side, allowing you to see exactly what the differences between each option look like in comparison with one another. This was massively helpful, but the next step would now be allowing players to see a “live preview” so they can see each option coming together to show exactly how the subtitles will look with all changes applied rather than separately.
But the huge improvement to their visual presentation was let down by the bugs of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and what felt like unfinished optimization. Characters would sometimes continue speaking with subtitles struggling to follow. Sometimes small spoken quips —such as a one or two word reply— felt too quick to read, and sometimes the subtitles didn’t appear at all during gameplay scenes. But this could be down to a bug, and I can forgive that part of conversations would rarely be unsubtitled.
But what was frustrating for me, was the issue that spans across Assassin’s Creed Origins, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey as well. Subtitles that don’t even exist for when the protagonist is talking to the player about important information. As you wander the world, Eivor will speak about whether the water you’re in is dangerously cold, they’ll mention something about the raven, they’ll mention something about the area not being safe, they’ll say things while onboard the boat, but these are never subtitled. So imagine my surprise when I couldn’t hear Evior telling me an area was unsafe and then stumbling on an enemy camp.
There are also some moments in which Odin and even a weird ethereal voice would speak out to Eivor, but I have absolutely no idea what they’ve said or if it’s at all relevant to the story. Although in saying that they appeared after finishing missions, so I’m sure they’re somewhat relevant.
I won’t lie, I did expect these lines of dialogue to have subtitles unaccounted for due to the last two games, but a part of me had hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with it in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Especially seeing as how much more prominent and recurring these moments are in the game. It just left me feeling incredibly let down and isolated from the information.
An interesting feature that makes it debut in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the ability to amplify dialogue. As it suggests, you can amplify the dialogue, but only for gameplay audio. Cutscenes seemed to still keep audio at a set level, and with an empowering musical score and atmospheric gushes of sound overlapping dialogue, this wasn’t ideal. If it does only work in gameplay then I feel as if the feature should work across the board. Nevertheless, I was elated to see such a feature existing at all, and it’s one I’ve wanted to see in games for a while now.
Sticking with audio, the representation of sound was incredibly disappointing. Closed Captions can be enabled and will show on-screen text for sound effects in what would have been good had Ubisoft taken cues from Watch Dogs Legion and Far Cry: New Dawn. But instead, Valhalla feels as if these audio cues were rushed and feel incredibly pointless.
I cannot tell you how many times I let out an exasperated sigh when these captions continually informed me of nearby fire crackling. In fact, they’d also tell me there were 2 nearby fires crackling. Multiple times! The captions felt immensely underused, and while I wanted to turn them off, I kept them on in hopes of them becoming more informational.
That never happened. Wolves would howl, no captions. Explosions would…explode, no captions. Enemies would yell as they charge off-screen, no captions. It reached the point that even though the captions were enabled and appearing for pointless reasons, I had mentally erased their apperance from existence. That shouldn’t happen, captions should help in telling the story, indicating key sounds that are beneficial to you. Instead I’d get a quick mention of an arrow flying past and that would be it.
What’s more, while the captions indicate the direction of the audio, you can’t actually change the positioning of the captions. As you can see in the image above, the captions for the fire crackling are centered and above the subtitles. Resulting in a messy UI. In Watch Dogs Legion, these were aligned to the right and while out of sight they were still noticeable, and Valhalla should have utilized them in the same way.
One of the main positives that come from the captions is that they help in locating nearby wealth. Wealth is scattered across the world, and indicated by golden icons, but they also make a sound…apparently I can’t really hear that. The captions will inform you of nearby wealth ringing out, and when used with Odin’s Sight —a feature I’ll touch on shortly— you’ll also be able to locate wealth that’s further away.
Getting into how visually engaging the game is, this is where Assassin’s Creed Valhalla takes a massive hit. Let’s start with Odin’s Sight. This is a scan feature you can enable that sends out a blueish sonar that shows the location of nearby enemies, wealth, allies, and quest items. While sometimes it can be easy to see these highlighted glimmers, sometimes they do appear as hard to see glimmers depending on the time of day due to the awful contrast.
I’d say that enemies were the easiest to see out of all of the indicators, and sometimes felt like I had to use Odin’s Sight numerous time while facing different directions to truly understand my surroundings. Thankfully the feature can be used as much as you like, but I’d have preferred to have kept my view as it was until I moved again, just so I wasn’t continually pressing the button.
A compass at the top of the screen should ideally help me in wandering the world, but really the game has a strong focus on condensing everything to icons. Trying to locate shops, for example, required trying to see between a bunch of glowing dots representing different things miles away from where you are. And a lot of missions require you to search areas for your objective, removing the objective marker.
This is where the game tries to force the raven feature on you, in a similar way to the previous games. Ubisoft’s choice to replace a minimap with an overhead bird you can control is very prominent in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. You’ll have to use the raven to see the area you’re meant to be searching lit up. While that’s a feature I’m not fond of, I don’t mind it. What I do mind is that Ubisoft has removed the ability to tag enemies.
Ubisoft’s Lead Quest Designer, Phillipe Bergeron is to thank for this barrier being reintroduced. Speaking to IGN, the ability to tag enemies with the bird was a “tactic that Bergeron described as an almost “press this button to win” kind of scenario.” This is incredibly disheartening to know, and now we’re forced to use a visually unpleasant Odin’s Sight in which everything is overly stylized, and blurry, and hard to make out in cluttered environments especially.
So now, flying above the area and trying to see enemies against the dull hues of the English countryside feels like Ubisoft has decided to reintroduce a barrier that they had previously, and successfully removed in the last two games. But because of someone’s idea that it was seen in a similar vein as “cheating”, the game now becomes an uncomfortable experience for me. Thank you.
The other “benefit” of using a bird was that it was supposed to make scouting ahead for nearby supplies, or creatures an easier feat. But for some reason, Ubisoft has decided to turn these icons into white diamonds that only reveal what they are once you hover your reticle over them. But if you move to another diamond, the previous diamond closes up again, leaving you with a sea of white diamonds as you can see in the example above.
And even when you reach a synchronization point, the understanding of your surroundings just feels like an absolute mess. After several hours of playing the game, I’ve come to know the color representations, but I still feel massively overwhelmed by how much condensed information is on display. Just check out this shot below of me on an synchronisation point.
Phew. And breathe.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla doesn’t stop there though.
Understanding what you’re meant to do for an objective isn’t always as simple as you’d expect. I’ve been stuck on a mission that requires finding a crypt, but my raven isn’t helping at all, the three characters with me refuse to move from beyond the bridge, and if I physically search the area I think the crypt is, there’s a level 90 knight that seems to want to kill me for reasons unknown. So I’m stuck.
There are also moments in which random actions can take place in the world. Toward the start of the game, 3 children were pretending to raid a “camp”. I spoke to them, which activated them running to a horse, 2 jumped on the horse, the other kid hung around by my ankles. I tried attacking their horse thinking it was stuck, nothing. I got on my horse, and the third kid jumped on with me, but there was no progression. I spent ages trying to get the kids to move, until finally noticing some training dummies I could attack. In doing that, the activity started playing out as planned.
And that’s still not all. Around the world, others would ask me to do tasks for them, and there would be notes I’d discover that would tell me of hidden treasures or creatures nearby. But instead of these tasks being saved to the quest area, they’d either be hidden in my inventory bag, or not even saved anywhere that I can see.
Going more into the controller vibration and visual cues side of combat, attacks you can counter are yellow, but attacks you can’t counter are a similar yellow…with red smoke. I struggled to differentiate the two, especially seeing as the reaction time window is incredibly short, and if you press the button to counter too early Eivor seems to give up on life. And sometimes, raids would last an awkwardly long time because I’d struggle to find the last enemy, even with Odin’s Sight. One raid lasted forever because the enemy was stuck behind a bloody pot and none of my teams AI was smart enough to find him, and I couldn’t see the red glimmer due to the sunset.
When using stealth, you’ll find the usual cues such as enemy bars filling up as they notice you. The sparkly blue shimmer that wraps around you as you become undetected, and when trying to perform an assassination on some enemies, you’ll get a timed prompt to successfully land a stabby stab. Mini-games such as getting wasted on alcohol also require timed and multiple inputs but there are options to change these.
Controller vibration cues are also present, but feel forgettable and more so focused on immersions. Letting you feel what I assume if your heartbeat when drawing a bow, feeling the thump of a fall, and the impact of a devastating strike to your skull. It would have been nice to have vibration cues indicate how close you are to particular types of wealth, or rumble if you locate your target by looking at them.
Honestly, it feels as if Ubisoft has focused far more on giving players a more in-depth RPG experience, giving as minimal information as it could to cater to just how massive the games have become on a content scale. But in doing so, it has introduced or even reintroduced numerous barriers that make Assassin’s Creed Valhalla one of the worse games from Ubisoft in recent years for Deaf/Hard of Hearing accessibility. This is incredibly surprising to write seeing as its recent games have been incredibly accessible and improved upon.
This isn’t to say that what’s offered isn’t good. The trouble is that it just hasn’t been implemented in an accessible way. The subtitle presentation and customization for dialogue are amazing to see, just let down by bugs and frequent absence. Odin’s Sight works nicely but feels overly stylized. The raven is just a waste of a feature now, with cluttered icons, and the inability to tag enemies makes me want to just draw my bow and shoot it out of the sky.
One of my worries is that the accessibility efforts were put in so late. When Ubisoft Forward took place in July, we were only given access to Watch Dogs Legion, and then in September, Immortals Fenyx Rising. Steve Saylor was invited in October to try Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, but there wasn’t a lot of accessibility options in the preview stage, with him saying the game is “two steps forward, one step back.”
So what could have been fixed to make this game feel more comfortable for me? The compass could have easily made use of the space above to include text detailing icons. Closed Captions could have been aligned to the sides and include useful information. Combat could have wider windows for countering. And I’d have liked a more intuitive system for tracking missions and side-quests. Oh, and bring back enemy tagging for the raven.
It’s such a shame that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla seems to focus on divulging the player in its gorgeous world at the cost of removing information that would be beneficial to understanding your areas. It almost feels as if accessibility was either forgotten about during development or was a burden and dumped in, in what feels like a rushed and unoptimized accessibility experience. Of course, this may not be the case, but it’s how it feels to me when I play it, feeling lost, confused, and lacking any sense of enjoyment.
A review copy of Assassin's Creed Valhalla was provided by the developer / publisher.