To die with an ax in hand is a glorious death, or so the Vikings in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. You’ll have that ax with you in the afterlife, on Odin’s great hall and on the fields of an everlasting battle.
So much of pop-culture Viking history centers around battles and raiding, and so does Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, but as the title suggests, the more important part is in what comes after, the mythology of death.
This is also a complex saga of friendship, honor, and gods that the Norse people believed in. These are what life in Valhalla is ruled by, all at once by ax and by fate. It’s a world largely seen through the eyes of Eivor, a stoic Norse warrior (or drengr, as the Vikings would say), who acts as the protagonist in Ubisoft’s latest historical, open-world game.
Valhalla is a long, sprawling saga of a game, one that blends myth and reality in a world that’s rich with mystery.
The backdrop to Eivor’s personal complexities is the Viking expansion into England, as she and her brother break off from their father’s rule to invest in a new land. This, of course, is where a lot of the killing comes in; the expansion into England is complicated by a largely intolerant group of Anglo-Saxons that controls much of the area. But this area of England, now called Raventhorpe, is also a lush world of wildlife, stunning scenery, and a growing community knotted by complicated relationships.
Eivor’s story begins with an early memory: At a celebration with her family and another Viking clan in Norway, Eivor’s father Varin asks her to present a gift to King Styrbjörn, a symbol of allyships between their separate clans. It’s at this time that another clan, led by Kjotve the Cruel, attacks. The battle ensues before Kjotve offers Varin a second option: for Varin to give his life so the rest of the clan could live. Eivor’s mother, Rosta, protests, willing Varin to fight, but he chooses to die — and Kjotve kills them both, and the battle continues.
Eivor escapes with Styrbjörn’s son, Sigurd, but Eivor is followed by this event for the rest of her life. Her father’s choice is deemed a cowardly move by many, including Eivor; other characters continually insist that her father died without honor. As if it were a betrayal. It’s after this point that the player is asked to choose who to play, before the animus glitches out and Eivor and Sigurd (now her brother by adoption) return as adults journeying off to England with a new, mysterious friend who is part of a hidden order.
Like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey before it, Valhalla lets the player choose between a male or female character, but there’s a third option: Let the Animus choose. Whatever you choose, you’ll play as Eivor — just with changes in how she’s presented and the pronouns used. I chose the female Eivor, though letting the Animus choose is a weird option, where the game will decide at different points to switch between the two versions. This happens for mysterious reasons that are explained by the modern-world framing device, which is a confusing storyline about how modern-day people access historical memories from people of the past. It’s a spinoff of the larger story that’s present throughout the franchise’s history, a battle between Templars and Assassins — two powerful organizations that control large parts of the world — both of which have different visions of how the world should work.
To me, the modern-day framing is confusing and I like to ignore it. Moving between those two worlds has always been jarring, so there was no way I was going to let any part of that — the Animus — chose my character for me.
Ubisoft has said that both genders are considered “canon” for the game, because of the choice option. But because there is really no difference between the options — aside from looks and voice — it feels hollow, especially given reports of how female Assassin’s Creed characters have routinely been sidelined as main protagonists. The perception from Ubisoft’s executives in the past, according to a Bloomberg report, was that “female protagonists wouldn’t sell” — something indicative of a larger sexist culture at the company. It’s worth noting, too, that Valhalla’s development occurred during a tumultuous time for the global company, as dozens of people have accused staff members at Ubisoft, including some of its high-profile employees, of sexual misconduct and sexual assault, including accusations against former Valhalla creative director Ashraf Ismail. In June, Ubisoft began an internal investigation into allegations of deceptive infidelity on the part of Ismail, and in August, Ismail was fired.
It’s impossible for me to play this video game, let alone review it, without considering the environment and company culture at Ubisoft, especially given how Ubisoft has apparently perceived its female characters, a perception that goes back far into the franchise’s history. For instance, in 2014, former Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio notoriously told Polygon that an Assassin’s Creed game couldn’t have a playable female assassin because “it was really a lot of extra production work.” And so when I think about Valhalla and its character options, I wonder how much of this “both genders are canon” thing plays into the history of women in Assassin’s Creed.
It feels complicated to grapple with, especially since I love how Eivor is portrayed in Valhalla. The way she struggles with her family history and her own destiny is fascinating, and her relationships mirror that complexity. She’s contemplative, cunning, and viciously defends her clans; she’s a true drengr. And that’s interesting in itself, because drengr is a gendered term, typically used to describe a “bold, valiant, worthy man,” according to Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson’s An Icelandic-English Dictionary
I like that this title is applied to her throughout the story without care for gender. It presents her not as an “exceptional” female character, but an exceptional character — almost an idyllic world where sexism is not as ingrained as it is in ours. Even as much as I like this characterization of Eivor’s power, I wonder if it’s less of a statement and more a result of the gender option, and how the story doesn’t change between the two.
Either way, I like Eivor — especially because her role is one that’s rooted, too, in actual history. Some scholars of early northern European history suggest that, in this culture, gender was seen as more complex than the male/female binary: “Is this a culture in which ‘sex’ per se is irrelevant and ‘gender’ is everything?” medieval studies scholar Carol J. Clover asked in Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe. “Or is it a culture that simply does not make a clear distinction but holds what we imagine to be two as one and the same thing?”
The battle begins
Valhalla is securely a role-playing game with a stealth influence, instead of the other way around. It allows the player to enact both large-scale battles and quick assassinations while hidden within a crowd. The Vikings, too, introduce their own expression of stealth in their raids, where narrow longships sneak up to encampments to attack without warning. Eivor has an assassin’s blade, a gift given to her from Sigurd. Hers, though, is not hidden — she wears it atop her cloak, because she wants her foes to see their fates in her weapon.
And oh, the foes she has. Though some Danes, as the Saxons call them, live in peace with the Saxons, there’s a lot of turmoil, and the core gameplay loop of Valhalla has Eivor “pacifying” different regions in England. Each of these different regions is presented as its own little saga, a contained package of storylines that (sometimes) end with an allyship in hand.
These quests are quite varied, with a bunch of different activities to partake in. Combat design allows the player to choose a methodology in their attack. For instance, I’m more of a brute-force kind of player, one who always announces a raid before bursting through a monastery’s doors. Stealth plays a role occasionally and when necessary, but most of the time, the game lets me play how I prefer: I’d rather cause chaos and deal with it than spend time planning out an attack. The beauty of it is that there are options, as is natural with an open-world game like this.
Most of the time, quests involve doing a favor for someone in charge of any given region — whether that’s driving off Saxon invaders or releasing captured fighters. It sometimes means helping people that Eivor doesn’t quite like, a sacrifice in gaining security for the Raven Clan. There are choices to be made throughout these different regions, and though the regions are like contained sagas, the choices do overlap.
Valhalla isn’t a game that presents a particularly nuanced system for choices, though. This is still a case of whether you want to be a dick or be nice. (Eivor’s choices always feel like they’re guided by a sense of honor, whether that’s good or bad.) I found, though, that sometimes the simplest decisions made me feel most conflicted, like whether I should let a shitty dude hold his ax while he’s dying.
Completing these objectives is how the storyline moves forward, but it’s also a way for Eivor to earn skill points and level up. With each power level, new parts of Valhalla’s ridiculous skill tree open up. Frankly, the full tree is overwhelming, and I started out just by clicking random things because I simply couldn’t make a choice. The good news is that once I got used to the game and its systems, I felt more confident going back and wiping my skill tree clean to tailor it more to my play style. Because the world is open, there’s essentially nothing stopping me from heading to an endgame-leveled region and trying to take something on. Will I succeed? Absolutely not. But can I try? Valhalla lets me.
Like Polygon’s Simone de Rochefort wrote in her Valhalla preview earlier in the year, the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been tangled up with religion since the beginning. But more recently, Assassin’s Creed Origins and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey have started incorporating myth and more varied ancient beliefs into the story. Myth is once again central to Valhalla, and myth and reality in the game are closely intertwined. So much so that the boundary between them barely exists.
Odin, Frejya, and Valhalla are just as real to Eivor as is God to the monks whose monasteries the Vikings ransack. You can see this throughout the world, whether it’s in the otherworldly quests or the more mundane ones.
One of my favorite regions was one in which Eivor joined a community celebrating Samhain, a Pagan harvest’s end festival that likely influenced our modern conception of Halloween. Residents of a large settlement that’s split in the middle by a small river have decorated it all with turnips and lanterns. They give Eivor a costume to wear, the traditional Mari Lwyd costume with an animal’s skull, and tell her to knock on doors reciting poems for treats. It’s a night of mischief and celebration, which is a nice break from the violence of Viking life. (Of course, that all changes come the next morning.)
There’s a real joy in watching this stoic, serious woman gallop around town like a kid would — incessantly giddy about what she’s collected. Despite how frankly goofy it is, it humanizes Eivor and fleshes out the world she lives in.
The Samhain festival is more grounded than some of the other mythological questlines, where the boundaries between the worlds of humans and of gods are more complicated than in previous games in the series. Though the gameplay in Valhalla certainly feels familiar, the aggressive blur between reality and fantasy is a fascinating exploration of Norse mythology and belief. It’s something that’s always felt present in the franchise, but it’s more fully realized in Valhalla. In some ways, I wish Valhalla focused more on the mythology and belief systems at play in the game, and less on the “pacification” of England.
The Norse community becoming enmeshed into English land is a key part to the story of the Viking expansion of England — which makes it a key part of the story for Eivor and her brother Sigurd. But that’s at the expense of pushing away the narrative of Eivor and Sigurd’s weird relationship to themselves and to myth, in favor of conquering castles and ruins. I understand the desire to make an open-world game, one that’s long and immersive and in a world that feels like you could live in it forever. I like that there’s a lot to do. But there were large swaths of time where I simply forgot about Sigurd and my clan as I went off in search of monasteries to raid for silver.
Valhalla’s most intriguing story is one about faith, honor, and family, but it’s buried inside this massive, massive world stuffed with combat and side quests. That balance is not always ideal, but I’m glad, at least, that it forces me to spend more time seeking out interesting things in the game’s world.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will be released Nov. 10 on PlayStation 4, Stadia, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X, and on Nov. 12 for PlayStation 5.