Assassin's Creed Odyssey Acts Like An RPG, But It Doesn't Go Far Enough

The other day, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey hit me with a real slobberknocker: It told me that a family I’d decided to save from impending slaughter earlier in the game was carrying a disease that ended up spreading to a whole island. My character, Kassandra, was immediately distraught. “We can go back anytime you want,” another character on my ship said in a conciliatory tone.

So I went back. Nothing happened.

Don’t get me wrong: things were different on the island, but only marginally so. There were a handful of sick people lying around, and a distinctly plague-y fog stank up portions of the place. I felt bad, so I scampered around searching for new quests that’d allow me to mop up my mess, turn back the tide on all the misery a little, or at least get the plague myself.

But I found nothing. Just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I searched Google, then the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey subreddit. One person who claimed to have been playing for more than 50 hours said that they had not seen any new quests ever pop up, and others agreed.

Let me delve a little deeper into why this is a problem.

In most other circumstances, this would be an interesting consequence to a player’s actions. During the early-game quest that led to this moment, the dude who was about to slice this innocent family to innocent ribbons explicitly told me that killing them was the only way to contain a plague.

I probably would’ve just let it happen if a) the family hadn’t been close friends with an orphan Kassandra had befriended, and b) the dude didn’t seem like a total jerk.

In the grand scheme of things, though, I guess I fucked up: I made a short-sighted decision that may have sunk an entire island. I’m glad the game didn’t give me a glorified “undo” button after that.

But here’s the thing: This island was the first one in the game. Kassandra’s home. The people she presumably cared about more than anybody in the world lived here. Markos, the bumbling schemer who basically adopted a young Kassandra after her father left her for dead.

Phoibe, the orphaned girl Kassandra mentored, and the first character you meet after the game starts. When I went back to the starting area, I couldn’t talk to either of them, nor the other characters I’d met while questing around the island at the beginning of the game.

Most other games have taught me that, if a key character says, “Hey, a thing of near-apocalyptic significance happened in the starter area, and you can go back any time,” there’ll be important stuff to do there.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gave me a dead end. At that point, I could only ascertain that Kassandra didn’t care all that much about where she came from—that she wasn’t the proto-assassin with a heart of gold I took her to be.

This wasn’t the first time I’d felt a pang of uncertainty about my conception of Kassandra. I’ve felt more of them every time Odyssey’s narrative has tripped over a tangled, knotting mass of open-world systems. Most memorably, there was the bit where the game introduced its mercenary system, which populates the world with roving mercenaries just like Kassandra.

A Spartan ally had hired Kassandra to figure out who dispatched a Spartan caravan and stole its supplies, which ultimately led her to a cave full of displaced Athenian civilians who claimed that a mercenary had done the dirty work and then told them where to find the food.

So this mercenary was working for the enemy, but he had what seemed to be a noble streak to him.

Odyssey’s mercenary system is pretty blatantly inspired by Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system, which generates orcs with strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and personalities that evolve in reaction to your victories and defeats (and when you drop beehives on them).

My encounter with this first mercenary, I figured, would produce a moment like that—especially given that he demonstrably had at least some shred of virtue in him.

So I crept up on him and quietly knocked off about half his health bar. At this point, I had a decision to make: I could either finish him off or knock him unconscious.

I accidentally did the former.

Distraught, I fled into the reassuring arms of my old pal Google to see if I’d missed anything. Nope. This character, it turned out, wasn’t even important. Beyond the quest and the little two-sentence description he got in the mercenary menu, he was nobody.

I reloaded my save and tried knocking him out just to be certain. All that changed is that, after I KO-ed him, I could “recruit” him to join my ship crew instead of killing him. That did, I’ll admit, assuage my guilty conscience a little bit, but it didn’t serve as any sort of pay-off for all that setup.

The mercenary system, then, is like the nemesis system if its personality was entirely told and barely shown—little more than a list of predictable strengths and weaknesses and a justification for beefed-up enemies occasionally trying to hunt you down. They spice things up, sure, but they don’t make me care. And again, given how that whole quest played out, I’m forced to wonder if Kassandra really cares, either.

The kill-or-KO dichotomy is the cherry atop that half-melted sundae. Most quests Kassandra gets sent on involve killing in some way or another. Usually, they involve killing people. Guards, bandits, Athenians, Spartans—it doesn’t particularly matter, given how interchangeable the game’s factions are.

Technically, Kassandra can KO anybody she fights or sneaks up on, but the game doesn’t acknowledge it in any way that reflects on Kassandra as a character. If you KO enemies, you just get another resource: potential ship lieutenants. They offer different stats, but are otherwise interchangeable.

So you may as well play as an unrepentant murderer, which you absolutely will if you opt to mostly kill your way through the game’s 70-plus hours. There are so many people to kill - I’m only 15 hours in and have probably killed at least 400 by this point - and in many cases Kassandra cheerily returns to quest-givers like she’s just bought them milk from the grocery store and helped a puppy with a sprained ankle cross the street along the way.

It’s resulted in an experience that’s felt almost unbearably dissonant to me. Either I accept that this game world just doesn’t react to a lot of things it feels like it should be reacting to, or I view Kassandra as some kind of distant, cold-blooded psychopath who only pretends like she cares sometimes—which I don’t think is what the game’s creators were going for.

However, in a world where constantly warring yet interchangeable factions drive everything and you get to decide if people become corpses or currency, it’s alarmingly plausible.

It’s not hard to see, at least in part, where this dissonance comes from. Odyssey is a dissonant game, its DNA composed partially of systems from story-driven RPGs like The Witcher 3 and partially of the Assassin’s Creed series’ action-and-stealth legacy,with ideas from games like Shadow of Mordor sprinkled on top for good measure.

It’s so close to being an RPG that it creates RPG-worthy expectations, but it’s never quite able to go all the way. It’s trying to do a whole, whole lot, but it needs to be an Assassin’s Creed game first and foremost, even if - as Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra pointed out in her review of Odyssey - that’s come to mean less than it used to over time.

Given the preposterous scale of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and the teetering stack of open-world systems its narrative needs to support, I don’t think there’d realistically have been a way to make a game with the reactivity I’m asking for here. My real issue is that scale of this magnitude takes a toll, and it can leave even the biggest, most detailed worlds feeling hollow.

Moment-to-moment, I’ve been enjoying my time with Odyssey a lot, but I’m not at all attached to it. I imagine I’ll get bored and quit in the near future, and when I do, I doubt I’ll look back.


Comments

    Sounds to me like actions have consequences and just like in the real world there are things that will always be out of your reach. After all the progressive articles on the internet spouting how power fantasies are misogynistic it is funny to see an article by one of the culprits whinging the game doesn't let him play out his power fantasy.

      As someone who has decried excess politics in articles here before, raising politics yourself on an article that doesn't have any seems inconsistent at best.

        Ok troll I'll bite. What about my observation was wrong?

          Dude I admit I usually lean towards some of your comments, but I don’t think “power fantasy” really applies here.

          If anything this article is more so contradictory in that loads of people complain that choice doesn’t matter in games if you can go back and fix it with a quest, but that’s about it. I think it’s a petty quibble at best, but not inherently dishonest. And I say that as somebody who generally finds Grayson’s articles terrible screeds at the best of times.

            The article reads to me much more as a comment on lack of consequence, not anything power related. It's not a complaint I agree with either way because aside from Kephalonia being an outlier, a lot of other places around the game world do respond to decisions you've made.

            I also don't share Grayson's view that 'how far' Odyssey went in RPG elements was 'not far enough' - I think they balanced an action adventure game with overarching narrative quite well, all things considered. Origins and Odyssey have been leagues better than their predecessors.

            You're probably right. I guess given the author's history the way I interpret power fantasy is he is disappointed Kassandra has her own predefined personality so his actions don't have the affect on her he would like. She isn't a doll for him to have complete control over.

          I didn't say anything about whether your comment was right or wrong, I commented on the inconsistency of intentionally raising a political point on an article that had nothing political in it when you've mentioned disliking politics in articles here before. It just seems odd.

            So nothing to actually add to the conversation just targeting me to get your jollies. Fair enough.

              Edit moderation for the win.

              I've said my piece on the content of the article, but it doesn't really diminish from this point. Why raise politics in an article that had none if you don't like politics in articles? Is it politics at all you dislike, or just politics you don't agree with?

    I find the setting & story compelling, but it's some details like this & the average-at-best dialogue that make Odyssey fall short of The Witcher 3 or Horizon Zero Dawn high-watermark for me... which is a shame, as I feel it has that kind of promise.

    Last edited 25/10/18 2:37 pm

    Yeah I completely ignored my gut feeling to save the poor family because of how the whole exchange was framed.

    Yes the priest came off as a jerk and yeah the family pled enough to illicit my help in normal circumstances, but when it was time to ask questions and make decisions, it was hard to ignore the narrative elephant in the room waiting to leap up and slap me in the face with the catch 22 regardless of choice.
    (It didn't help that the family would often end their pleas by saying stuff like "we aren't even that sick!")

    I ended up googling it and letting the family die but the priest and his flunkies were still there so I attacked and killed them afterward.
    I figured if I couldn't intervene then we all had to pay the due for our choices.

      I actually came at this quest from the opposite direction, so I had no lead-in. I walked into town and the priests were literally there and attacked me immediately. I didn't even see the family until afterwards, as they ran up the road opposite where I'd come in.

    "It told me that a family I’d decided to save from impending slaughter earlier in the game was carrying a disease that ended up spreading to a whole island." - Hearing this makes me so damn happy. I let the family be slaughtered, and later on got rejected by the Oracle when asking for info due to "letting the blood of an innocent family be spilled".

    Looks like I did actually make the correct decission!

    [Spoilers]
    I've found that the role playing and story telling in the game even within the main narrative to be off-kilter in a fair few places. The most notable was when I made a decision to public execute a cultist (by having him stabbed to death by a bevy of courtesans - it was a fun little scene) and that decision later rebounded on me when another guy didn't believe that I'd be merciful because of that act - even though I'd gone to the trouble of saving his family from the cultists and he was in a radically different situation - diametrically opposed, even. This struck me as a forced story beat at best - aping consequences for decisions only in a way that was far too binary to be realistic.

    This gets worse when it comes to story arcs that aren't a part of the main narrative. Some are pretty good - both the fake minotaur and the real minotaur questlines are pretty great - but most are completely linear. Added to that nearly all of the cultists are without effect, which was very disappointing, even the leaders were as inconsequential as their cronies. I haven't finished massacring the cult but I'm hoping that the Ghost at least proves to be more interesting - especially with who I'm fairly certain she is (P's wife is my guess, for the record, though it could also be the Delphi playing at being a victim).

    For the record, I did the "right thing" and let the priest kill them. You don't mess around with the plague.

      His mistress, not wife, but yes you're correct about the Ghost. And I agree about it being slightly off-kilter, like they haven't quite considered all outcomes (when they're the ones who created them!). One example was the quest for the key to get at "Medusa". The Daughters of Artemis held the key, and since I'd completed a quest chain previously I was appointed their leader and basically handed the key. Yet when the quest-giver asked if I had hurt any of the Daughters acquiring the key, my only options were to lie and say I killed them all, or tell her I sneaked past them all. Instead of "I'm actually their boss so it's cool".
      Still, I've enjoyed the game. Alexios is hilarious as the protagonist - mine rides around on a magical pink-horned unicorn and fucks anything on two legs but somehow it just works!

    You are quite literally an ancient time terrorist/saboteur mercenary that start wars and switches sides depending on who pays better.

    I thought that was easy to follow after the prologue. Playing as the protagonist with any sort of honor doesn't really fit the game, at this point I am finding Cassandra more fitting to the Templars than the Assassins.

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