written by Kate Danvers
My Summer Vacation to the Isle of Lesbos:
Around my one hundredth hour of playtime, when I romanced the pirate who helped my mother when she was on the run from a cult, I realized I’d had about six romantic partners throughout the course of the game. My whirlwind lesbian sex tour of the Greek isles had turned the social structure of Ancient Greece into Six Degrees of Sappho.
Welcome to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.
SPOILER WARNINGS ARE IN EFFECT
Odyssey is installment number “oh god who’s still counting” in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series, and after settings like the Crusades-era Holy Land, the Italian Renaissance, Colonial America, and Ptolemaic Egypt, someone threw a dart at a history book and came up with Ancient Greece. Set in 431 B.C., Odyssey tells the story of a Spartan mercenary on a quest for money, revenge, and family. You’ll sail around the isles slaying cultists, fighting for either Sparta or Athens, and discovering a heroic destiny. But before all of that, you get to pick your protagonist! After experimenting with two protagonists in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, this game lets you choose from the outset whether you want to play as Alexios or Kassandra.
The correct choice is Kassandra.
I mostly jest, as the story and gameplay are identical regardless of who you pick, but there are reasons why I think Kassandra is a better choice, and I’ll get into that when I discuss the story. Character background, dialogue options, and yes, romantic options remain the same whether you’re playing Kassandra or Alexios. Since they’re reading from the same script, there’s no real difference in personality between the two based solely on their words, but the tone and inflection the voice actors use for those lines can differ greatly. I didn’t play as Alexios, but from the gameplay I watched, he seems a bit gruffer and more stern while Kassandra is more cheeky and sarcastic.
If you’re a veteran of the series, the gameplay won’t be too different from what you’ve played before. The combat system is a lot like Assassin’s Creed: Origins, while the stealth sections are largely untouched from the past several games. Skill trees are set up to let you pick a preferred play style, and you can reset your skills at any time for a fee (the in-game currency drachma), which is immensely helpful in the early game as you figure out what skills work better than others. By late game you’ll have leveled up enough to put skill points in everything you need. Around level 40 I was choosing miscellaneous skills I don’t think I even used for the rest of the game.
You have three tree choices – Hunter, Warrior, and Assassin. It might just be my play style, but I found all of my points going to Warrior and Assassin, as Hunter focuses on the less-useful bow. I tried to use the bow early on, thinking I was just doing it wrong, but its limited range meant I couldn’t just hide on a ledge and pick off enemies in a fort. Not that I could have done that with unlimited range since enemies always seemed to know which direction an arrow had been fired from and my hiding spot would be found out within seconds, forcing me into melee combat which I hadn’t put any skill points in.
The melee combat is good. There are heavy and light attacks and heavy and light weapons. I mostly stuck with swords, but there are also daggers, heavy blades, heavy blunt weapons, polearms, and staves. Attacks feel weighty, like you’re doing a lot of damage even if you’re not. My only real complaint with that is that enemies can attack you mid-combo without parrying, but you don’t get to do that. If you’re hit, you flop backwards like a rag doll and either have to wait until the enemy pauses or roll out of the way. Parry moves can leave your enemy open to a few attacks, but don’t get comfortable wailing on an enemy because no matter how many bashes to the head with a mace they take, they can still hit you back.
Weapons and armor can also be engraved, which you can use to either improve your stats or, later in the game, add fire and poison to your weapons. That can also be done with skills, but I found it more useful to put poison on one weapon, fire on the other, and save my melee skill quick menu for more fun things like the Spartan Kick ability. Not that you really need kicks to knock enemies back. Sometimes the last strike of a standard melee combo will launch enemies through the air, and on more than one occasion my strikes set an enemy on fire, launched him into the air, and as he sailed about thirty feet away I heard him scream “I’m on fucking fire!!” Inconvenient, since sometimes the body would go over a cliff and I’d have to climb down for loot, but hilarious.
The other two major sections of gameplay are stealthing and sailing. Stealth/assassination can help to clear out enemy strongholds without accruing a bounty and drawing the wrath of other mercenaries. I’m a fan of stealth games, so clearing out an entire fort save for one guy who can’t figure out where all of his friends went entertains me. The sailing is…all right? I’ll say it’s weaker than it was in Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag since arrows and spears are poor substitutes for cannons. The saving grace of sailing is the catchy sea shanties that no one understands. You can customize your ship, including the crew, and get an all-female crew which changes the voices. I’m sort of partial to the song with the lyrics that loosely translate to “step on me, Aphrodite”. No, really. My crew is surrounded by water but remain ever thirsty.
The story of Alexios/Kassandra is a tragic one. Early on you learn that as a child, they watched a cult throw their baby sibling off a cliff while their father Nikolaos stood by and did nothing and their mother wept. The protagonist attempted to stop this, but ended up knocking a priest off the same cliff, for which they were sentenced to death on the spot, and their father had to carry out the deed himself. The protagonist survived their fall and grew up on a distant island where they became a mercenary. This isn’t specific to either character. If you play as Alexios, he’s a toddler and Kassandra is the baby thrown from the cliff. If you play as Kassandra, she’s a toddler and baby Alexios is thrown from the cliff.
The official novelization of the game has Kassandra as the canon protagonist, but there are other reasons why I prefer her. The story appears at first to be your typical “avenge my dead family” plot, but the twists it takes deviate away from many of those tropes early on. Depending on your choices in the game (and there are many), it can take a very personal and emotional turn that I think works better without the usual grizzled male protagonist. In fact, scenes between the protagonist and their mother read as though they were written for a mother and daughter.
Apart from that, Kassandra is just a fun character. She’s atypical for a female video game protagonist in that she’s tall, muscular, and covered in scars. There are no bits of dialogue about how odd it is to see a female mercenary – in fact, Kassandra isn’t the only woman in that profession in the game. She’s not even the biggest, as a couple of lady mercenaries I came across had about a foot of height on her and looked like someone strapped armor to She-Hulk. Very weirdly, soldiers and bandits whom I cut down don’t comment on how women aren’t physically built for combat. It’s almost like no one outside of a small section of the gaming community cares. Also, Spartan women had more freedoms than women of other cultures, were kept as physically fit as boys in their youth through regular exercise, and it’s not that far of a stretch to say that a Spartan girl cast out of their society at a young age and growing up as an orphan would become a mercenary to survive.
Plus, if you’re going to whine about historical accuracy in a series where the second installment had a final boss fist fight with Pope Alexander VI in the vault of an ancient precursor civilization, well…
Now let’s talk about those juicy social interactions. There are two other firsts for the series – dialogue choices and romance options. Since the game’s narrative follows people in the present day reliving the memories of the past through a machine that accesses genetic memory and provides the explanation for the “game” mechanics, you were reliving set “historical” events. Choices were limited to what weapons, armor, upgrades, and side quests you pursued, with the canon answer always being “all of them.” The explanation for Odyssey’s choice system is the memories are sort of fragmented, but whatever you choose is probably how it all went down. It’s not anything groundbreaking for gaming, since most of the choices boil down to whether you want to shake someone down for money when saving them from bandits or doing it out of the kindness of your heart. However, there are key choices in the game which can affect the story. Early on, I chose to let someone live rather than kill them and they factored into the story many hours later, affecting the ending. Since I only explored one set of choices in my playthrough, I can’t be sure how much of a butterfly effect the major decisions cause, but the results aren’t always immediate. You could face consequences for your actions some twenty or thirty hours later.
Romance options are not that consequential, though. In fact, who I romanced only mattered up to the “fade to black” makeout scenes. I want to preface this part by saying I enjoyed the romance options immensely, but probably for all of the wrong reasons. Like I said before, your character choice doesn’t change much of anything, so you can romance the same people whether you play as Kassandra or Alexios. Given that option, I made Kassandra a lesbian by taking the romance dialogue option with female characters only. I took it a step further and chose the flirt option (indicated by a heart) every time it came up. This usually made Kassandra sound, in the parlance of my people, “horny on main”. While talking to one of the game’s first love interests, I was able to steer the conversation toward sex with nearly every response. I ask for sex, she says she can’t right now because her father is sick and she has to go get his medicine. I ask if we can have sex after I get the medicine for her, she says sure. I get the medicine but come back to find her being attacked, then I clunkily say I’ll protect her from harm and ask if she wants to take me inside and show me a little pain. It just goes on like that. It’s hilariously bad and awkward flirting and I love every minute of it.
The game’s biggest faults come in its monetization system. Not content with the $60 starting price of their game, Ubisoft had to have five other editions of the game, each with their own assortment of extras, the season pass, preorder bonuses, tie-in promotions, retailer-specific tie-in promotions, and in-game microtransactions. The microtransactions are the most egregious, since the game originally found every excuse it could to make you grind experience, resources, and drachma. Ubisoft “helps” by offering a $10 permanent experience boost, a $10 permanent drachma boost, and several resource packs. In the early game, I found myself having to do more side quests and bonus objectives than I had to in any other game in the series just to keep up with the level requirement needed to continue the story.
Leveling is only part of it, though. You also have to upgrade gear – mostly the Legendary gear, as it’s really the only thing worth upgrading. As you level, the drachma cost and number of resources needed to upgrade your gear and your ship greatly increases. The game throws plenty of gear at you, but it might not have the stats you want, so you’re forced to upgrade what you have. Unwanted gear can be sold for drachma or broken down for scrap, but you need at least ten to twenty throwaway pieces of gear to upgrade just one thing. Then there’s a mercenary/bounty system that makes you either fight mercenaries, kill bounty sponsors, or pay off your bounty. That’s fine until you come across a mercenary who’s fifteen levels higher than you stalking the area you’re in. There’s no brute-forcing your way through enemies that are more than two levels above you. So more often than not you’re paying off your bounty – another drachma sink. Golly, it’s almost as if these systems are in play to make the in-game real money store page look more enticing.
It would be irresponsible of me not to mention that in recent patches, Ubisoft has adjusted the experience system and lowered the cost and resources you need to upgrade, making it all much easier, but I believe in reviewing the game as it was at launch, not the current version they’ve patched to fix their mistakes now that they’ve had a month to make money off of microtransactions. I refused to pay any more than the upfront price of the game though, and it left me with a feeling of accomplishment, but also a feeling like I was flipping the bird at Ubisoft by not playing the game the way they wanted me to play it. I felt like I was having fun in spite of them, and if that’s the attitude they’re engendering in their players, then…what are you doing, Ubisoft?
Overall, the annoyances with the company’s rampant greed could not break me. I love this game. I loved every minute. I put in over 120 hours so far and I’ll probably put in another thirty finishing side quests and achievements. Then I’ll play through it again. I find myself taking screenshots every time I play just because of how gorgeous the environment is. Kassandra is an absolute treat as a character, and maybe one of my favorite Assassin’s Creed protagonists so far. I want to explore every inch of the world just to hear what she’s going to say next. I see a massive statue on an island across the ocean from where I’m standing and I want to go there. There’s just so many things to see and people to do!
That may have come out wrong.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is available on PC, PS4 and XBox One.
Follow Kate on Twitter at @WearyKatie.