Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is not a subtle game. Ubisoft’s latest well-rendered history lesson, out now for basically every platform but the Switch, puts you in the shoes of a muscular Norse raider. You often wield weapons so large they’d make Cloud Strife blush. Stealth is almost always optional. Yes, Valhalla is as much a far cry from the original formula as ever—but that’s something you can semi-remedy. All you have to do is mess with the difficulty settings.
Difficulty in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla isn’t relegated to a singular, across-the-board slider. Rather, it’s adjustable across three categories: combat (in order, from easiest to hardest, Skald, Vikingr, Berserkr, and Drengr), stealth (Apprentice, Assassin, and Master Assassin), and exploration (Adventurer, Explorer, and Pathfinder). Over the weekend, I bumped combat up to Berserkr and kicked stealth down to Apprentice. The game has become far more enjoyable as a result.
Like Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey, territories in Valhalla are labeled with suggested levels. For instance, the game recommends you avoid Glowecestrescire until you’ve hit a power level of 220. You can technically head there while at a lower power level. You’ll just (probably) get destroyed. It’s an accommodating structure. Valhalla’s story is regionally fractured, with each territory featuring a self-contained, multi-quest narrative arc. Affixing power levels by location allows the game to usher you through these arcs in something resembling a cohesive order.
Halfway through the East Anglia arc (suggested power: 55), combat encounters became a breeze. When I moved on to Grantebridgescire (suggested power: 90), they remained relatively easy. I then unlocked the Heavy Dual Wield skill, which works exactly as advertised—allows you to dual-wield two two-handed weapons—and summarily eliminated all stakes from every battle, boss fights included. (Side note: If you haven’t already, unlock that skill. It’s in the Bear tree, all the way to the left.)
I’m now at a power level of 125, in Lunden (suggested power: 90), and am happy to report that combat is once again fair. Enemies no longer die in two hits. I’m more often on the brink of death, and have to make liberal use of rations. Running into a named, class-based enemy—the standard bearers, the yeomen, the pikemen, and so on—feels like running into a mini-boss. Fights have gravity again. A savvy move would be to avoid them when possible—or, more likely, to scope out situations and quietly thin the ranks before a full-on brawl ensues.
That’s key. See, stealth in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla isn’t so great. At the base difficulty, enemies spot you in moments. Life is far easier if you just tackle fights with guns (or, well, massive battleaxes) blazing. And there’s often no reason to sneak around anyway. Getting spotted usually doesn’t result in mission failure; instead, you’ll just kick off a fight, one that you’ll probably win no problem (at least on Vikingr difficulty).
By making stealth more forgiving, I’ve found that enemies take just a bit longer to detect me. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still spotted all the time. It just doesn’t happen right off the bat. This has allowed me the opportunity to slink around, scope enemies with magical X-ray vision, hide in tall grass, assassinate soldiers from hay bales, assassinate archers from platform edges, maybe snipe someone with a bow, all before scampering back to the tall grass. Then, when there are fewer enemies on the field, it’s safe to kick off a brawl without the risk of getting outnumbered. You know: good, old-fashioned Assassin’s Creed.
Between the lenient sneaking and the tougher combat, I seem to have stumbled upon an approximation of an older era of Assassin’s Creed games. Though the fundamental mechanics are of course different, playing Valhalla feels, to me, more along the lines of Brotherhood, Black Flag, or 2015’s terrific, yet oft-unconsidered, Syndicate. You were more fragile in those games than in the series’ RPG-heavy recent entries. More often than not, your best bet involved silently taking out as many foes as possible. For those itching to return to a more traditional Assassin’s Creed, messing with Valhalla’s difficult settings can get you closer to what you’re looking for.
Or you could just play through the old games again. They work on the new consoles via backward compatibility. Mostly.