Read: Prince of Persia DS.
I don’t know if any of you Nintendo-philes have played Assassin’s Creed on PS3 or Xbox 360, but it kicks a lot of ass. You explore an enormous, gorgeous, open world while sneaking through big crowds, hiding from guards, researching marks, and assassinating dudes by stabbing their kidneys in the middle of the street. You then escape to the rooftops, performing acrobatic leaps that would put an Olympic athlete to shame. Bringing such an experience to the DS is a tall order, but the folks at GameLoft worked within the limitations of the DS hardware and have, for the most part, succeeded. While there are definitely flaws here and there, Assassin’s Creed: Altair’s Chronicles is a fun platforming romp that is more Prince of Persia than Assassin’s Creed.
Chronicles is supposedly a prequel to the console game, although it plays out more like a sidestory. You know how Majora’s Mask doesn’t really feel like a sequel to Ocarina of Time, even though it technically is? There’s a similar feeling here, but that isn’t a negative. White-clothed assassin Altair is out to find the Chalice, an item of great power that could unite the warring factions of the Middle East. En route, Altair faces love and betrayal, old friends and new enemies and…aw, I’m just kidding! The entire game is Altair looking for the Chalice. And even though it’s a prequel, it doesn’t have the lead-in to the console game that one would expect. Despite the fact that the story is wafer-thin, the path to the Chalice is an engaging one.
The gameplay is Prince of Persia, quite frankly; Chronicles is a straight left-to-right side scroller. However, there are some interesting stealth missions late in the game, requiring you to perform unique tasks such as sabotaging enemy encampments while dressed as one of their own. The collection aspect of the console game is boiled down to finding blue orbs which can be used to increase your health or upgrade your sword’s strength.
Most of Altair’s moveset revolves around leaping from rooftop to rooftop, wall-jumping, and balancing on beams. The movement system is handled very fluidly, as you’re really just pressing B and R to move across the cityscapes. The A button interacts with objects, such as breaking pots or moving crates (yes, there are crate puzzles). There are a few instances in which rolling (L Button) is required. Movement between ladders and other objects can be problematic, as Altair can’t seem to jump away from a ladder towards a platform. He’ll look there, but he won’t jump there.
Where the game’s controls truly fall flat, however, is during combat. Part of the problem is that you just can’t avoid the guards. In the console game, if you walk and don’t cause trouble, guards won’t attack you—you’re just another citizen. In the DS version, guards come flying out of nowhere with your death at the top of their to-do list. The combat itself is shallow (press Y or X! Button mash, kids!), hit detection is questionable, and the counterattacks (which sound cool in theory) don’t work on high-level enemies (they simply counter your counterattack). Enemies routinely break your blocks, too, leading to more frantic button-mashing.
Altair eventually acquires new weapons, but few are really effective (bombs are great, but you only get five). There are a few enemy encounters that require you to use specific button inputs to damage your opponent (similar to God of War), and while these are fun they are few and far between. Otherwise, your opponents will throw cheap unblockable moves your way, archers will skewer you from afar, and you’ll curse your puny sword. You will come to dislike the combat, but there’s usually no way to avoid it.
Thankfully, the smooth platforming makes up for it. Checkpoints are generally well-spaced out and you’ll know what to do next time should you die. There isn’t much in the way of exploration, but an omnipresent green arrow tells you where to go. This is helpful because the game’s look and fixed camera often results in your next destination being just off-screen. The platforming isn’t perfect; Altair tends to slip forward a bit when he jumps, which in later levels may cause your untimely demise. Furthermore, getting Altair in position for an interaction (like pulling a lever) is tedious because he’s got to be
The DS’ touch screen comes into play during two minigames. The first is a pickpocket game in which you drag a key out from the back of somebody’s money bag while avoiding the other things in the bag. The other game is a pseudo-rhythm game that has you tapping certain dots on your enemy’s body to “torture” them into giving up information. Both of these games are simplistic but fun, and serve to mix the gameplay up a bit. Otherwise, the lower screen displays a mini-map and your weapon inventory, and tapping a weapon icon will equip it.
The game looks fantastic, with everything rendered in full 3D. Character models are basic but well-animated, and parts of the environments even feature special effects. One memorable scene involves throwing torches into tar pits, and watching the tar (and the guards standing in it) light aflame. The draw distance is very impressive, especially in later levels. Character animations occasionally skip around in corners, but while noticeable, it’s a minor flaw. Chronicles’ gorgeous graphics come with the caveat of unusually long load times for a DS game, often forcing you to sit through loading that rivals that of its console counterpart; fortunately, all loading taking place between levels so gameplay is never interrupted.
There are only two or three musical scores which repeat endlessly during each level, meaning that the sound gets tiring after a while. You will learn to hate the “alert” music, which eventually caused me to turn the volume down.
Overall, Altair’s Chronicles is a fun platformer that ends up feeling more like Prince of Persia DS than Assassin’s Creed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the DS could use more action games like this. Sadly, the adventure lasts about a weekend, and there are no real unlockables after beating the game aside from an extra difficulty mode. Still, Assassin’s Creed: Altair’s Chronicles is a very fun game if you can get past the muddled combat.