Think of an RPG. Any RPG. Doesn’t matter if it was made in the West or Japan. Now that you’ve visualized one, what stands out the most about that game? Okay, besides the characters or the plot, it’s the environment, right? When it comes to role-playing games, one of the most crucial aspects of each one is that its developers strive to refine its immersion. Considering the core philosophy behind an RPG is that you’re, well, playing a role. It only stands to reason that the world you’re exploring feels as engaging as humanly possible. The very best worlds in RPGs are the ones that truly feel lived in and are home to a breadth of unique characters that each do their part in passively making the location feel that much more alive. Granted, not every RPG world needs to be the very best to be admirable. After all, locales like Midgar and The Citadel only come around every once in a generation. The point still stands, though: quality RPGs demand quality worlds.
Odyssey Vs. Valhalla
The Assassin’s Creed series has built a reputation of featuring some truly impressive worlds, especially when viewed in the context of them being historical playgrounds. The various teams at Ubisoft that work on these titles pride themselves on how these worlds are conjured up through a combination of thorough research, consultation with historians, and even full-blown trips to the location in question. The end result of all this work has lead to some truly meticulous recreations of many iconic historical locations and time periods. Whether you’re climbing the ornate architecture of Renaissance era Italy or walking through the rustic, well-trodden streets of Colonial America, it’s pretty clear that immersion has always played a pivotal role in the series since day one.
The latest installment in the series, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, found itself at an interesting crossroads upon release. It was the official follow-up to 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which chose to double-down on many of the RPG systems that were introduced into its predecessor, Assassin’s Creed Origins. This lead to a game that, as ambitious as it was, tended to feel very bloated and aimless in what it wanted to accomplish. Immersion-wise, it still delivered on that detailed world, but it missed the mark when it came to its characters and quests, which I feel is an underappreciated element that contributes to a game’s immersion. Many of Odyssey‘s quests seemed to only exist to toss the player a chunk of EXP and maybe a cool piece of gear. With a few notable exceptions, I didn’t leave most quests feeling like I got a more tangible feel for the world or its inhabitants.
Initially, I was fearful that Valhalla would triple-down on everything I wasn’t keen on in Odyssey, all for the sake of building a world that looked massive but felt hollow. But those lingering anxieties of mine quickly vanished when I began playing and wound up stumbling upon a man sleepwalking onto a zipline and waking up partway through his trip, where he began screaming the rest of the way down.
This was what the game called a world event, and they make Valhalla‘s world a joy to remember.
How Valhalla Creates a Quality Environment
What’s a little strange about Valhalla, at least from what I’ve played so far, is that there aren’t very many actual side quests to be found. Instead, these world events take their place, serving as bite-sized glimpses into the daily lives of the game’s many NPCs. Part of what makes them so much more satisfying when compared to a side quest, at least for me, lies in how organically they’re embedded into the world. They appear on the map as blue dots, which the game lists under the vague category of “Mysteries”. You’ll never know what or who you’ll encounter until you approach one and watch it unravel right in front of you.
Like traditional RPG side quests, world events will grant the player a hearty chunk of EXP and sometimes a trinket for their troubles, but I rarely find myself doing these for the rewards. When it comes to world events, I may stay for the experience, but I’m mostly there for the stories. A personal favourite of mine involves a lonesome monk that swears to be so devoted to his newfound faith that he no longer sees any value in his personal possessions. Once you talk to him, he invites Eivor (your character) to rummage through his stuff, slaughter his livestock and even set fire to his entire house once you’re done pillaging. He’ll even egg you on as you start laying waste to it all, desperate to prove how none of it means anything to him. This all culminates in a conclusion that I dare not spoil, even if it doesn’t affect the game’s main plot.
Even though I’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to these narrative nuggets, I could easily go into detail on most of them. They’re just so instantly memorable, which is due to the dev team’s decision to focus on creating unique stories and characters over churning out opportunities for players to grind for EXP. The landscape of Valhalla‘s world that the game has painted for me is far more vivid as a result. I found myself getting invested in this recreation of an ancient Europe far faster than I expected, which made me want to seek out even more of these events. It’s a virtuous cycle!
I could go on and on about these little vignettes. The one where a woman hides her comb and promises a reward to the desperate man that finds it? A classic! The one where Eivor challenges the Anglo-Saxon version of Saitama from One-Punch Man? Another great one! Otta Sluggasson, anyone? That’s another favourite. If any of these descriptions piqued your curiosity, you should definitely give Assassin’s Creed Valhalla a go. This organic take on side missions makes it stand out among the pack and sets a firm standard for other RPGs to build upon and I really hope the teams behind these games don’t drop it. There’s a lot of room for expansion and improvement to go around, here. Like maybe some cool gear for some of them? I mean, they’re not why I’m doing them, but it’d still be nice.
Looking for more RPG content? Why not check out empathetic heroes in role playing games?
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