The first Assassinā€™s Creed was already an enormous game. And yet, every sequel since has set out to top the previous entry, adding even more gadgets to play with, even bigger cities to explore, and even taller things to jump from into even softer bales of hay. This ā€œthe same but moreā€ approach to sequel design served Ubisoft well for years, but it just isnā€™t sustainable. Itā€™s already giving diminishing returns. Last yearā€™s Assassinā€™s Creed Unity got a critical thrashing across the board, and an abundance of bloat kept Rogue from being a real gem.

Assassinā€™s Creed Chronicles: China is an Assassinā€™s Creed from bizarro world. The first entry in a trilogy of side stories developed by Climax Studios, Chronicles takes the Assassinā€™s Creed formula and strips it until almost nothing remains. The lovingly recreated historical locations, the dense lore, and the entire third dimension have been given a temporary hiatus. Even the assassinsā€™ signature wrist-mounted retractable blades are nowhere to be found. What remains after everything else has been cut away, though, is a tight, clever platformer that lasts exactly as long as it needs to and remains creative throughout.

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Chroniclesā€™ streamlining of the Assassinā€™s Creed experience begins with its story. You play Shao Jun, one of the last surviving Chinese Assassins, on her quest to kill a bunch of Templars and recover an artifact called ā€œthe box.ā€ What is the box? What does it contain, and why do the Templars want it? I donā€™t really care, and luckily, neither does Chronicles. This running plot is never resolved, presumably so it can be picked up in the next installment. I interpreted the storyā€™s blandness as implicit permission to ignore it, just like the Chronicles chooses to ignore the convoluted Assassinā€™s Creed mythology. There is no mention of a First Civilization or Pieces Of Eden; no Animus and no Abstergo. Chronicles is all Shao Jun all the time, and itā€™s better for it.

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Another Assassinā€™s Creed mainstay thatā€™s been excised is the historically accurate open worlds. Chronicles still visits some of Chinaā€™s most recognizable UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but it focuses on tight levels within its locales instead of just dumping you in a sprawling recreation and giving you a list of chores and baubles to collect. Freed from the task of reproducing Ming-era Beijing with exacting realism, Chronicles indulges in a stylized aesthetic modeled after Chinese ink wash painting. It looks terrific, and itā€™ll be exciting to see how the next two installmentsā€”set in 19th century India and early 20th century Russiaā€”will take visual cues from their settings.

Each of Chroniclesā€™ 12 levels is structured as a series of self-contained stealth puzzles that add new wrinkles as they progress, like caged birds that squawk if you move past them too quickly or guards with lanterns who can see into your hiding places. By the end of a given level, there are usually around a dozen gimmicks that need to be juggled. And unlike previous series stars who carried around entire arsenals, Shao Jun has just a sword and four tools that need to be used in creative ways to avoid getting spotted.

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Should you get caught, Chronicles wonā€™t tut-tut you for being the kind of assassin who would do something as gauche as actually killing someone. Completing a challenge in Chronicles will earn you a rank in one of three categories: Shadow for stealth purists, Assassin for silent killers, and Brawler for those who charge screaming into an area and clobber everyone in sight. Shadows still earn the most points to spend on upgrades, but if you want to cave everyoneā€™s head in without bothering to be sneaky about it, Chronicles will at least acknowledge when youā€™ve done that especially well.

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The most interesting thing about Assassinā€™s Creed Chronicles: China is that it helps to highlight what is at the heart of this ever-expanding series and what it can do without. Some of those answers were always going to be obviousā€”you couldnā€™t very well have an Assassinā€™s Creed game without hay bales to hide inā€”but some of them are surprising. I never found myself wishing that I had every cubic centimeter of Beijing to explore, and I never missed checking in on the seriesā€™ vague cyberpunk future. So far, Climax Studios seems to remember what Ubisoft has long since forgotten: Assassinā€™s Creed isnā€™t about captaining a ship or poaching animals or curating an art gallery. Itā€™s about wearing a hood and assassinating people.


Assassinā€™s Creed Chronicles: China
Developers: Climax Studios, Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Price: $10
Rating: T

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