Assassin’s Creed Odyssey packs a lot of activities into its massive world, letting players wander to their heart’s content hunting down cultists or doing side-quests.
As a result, the game’s main story is split into multiple branches. Frustratingly, this structure makes some of the game’s best quests and most important story beats optional.
Odyssey approaches its narrative through three major branches. There is the Odyssey, nominally the game’s main story, which follows the protagonist’s search for answers about their family lineage. There is the hunt for the Cult of Kosmos, a massive side system that ties the game’s early political conspiracies into the the series’ larger conflicts. And there is the story of Layla Hassan and the First Civilisation, a meta-story that connects the events in ancient Greece to the modern world.
This last plot is particularly essential to rounding out the game’s narrative, and it hides some of the strangest and most daring experiences in the entire series. If you want, you can completely ignore it. That might be fine for fans who never liked the series’ framing—modern day characters use a science fiction device called the Animus to relive the memories of ancestors and other historical persons - but it’s a decision that risks leaving the game oddly incomplete for players who mistakenly believe their stories have ended after completing the Odyssey quests.
In my review, I said that Odyssey often seems embarrassed to be an Assassin’s Creed game. Even with though the game’s opening features Layla and the Animus, you could play 15 to 20 hours without ever encountering the real world plot again or stumbling into the game’s larger meta-story.
It’s only around two-thirds through the main plot that the player is given the option to learn the identity of Kassandra and Alexios’ father. It’s a plot point that is essential to the main character’s motivations—much of the main plot is about reuniting your family - but this revelation isn’t integrated into the story; it’s tucked on a small island that you don’t have to explore if you don’t want to.
Whereas earlier games weave more fantastical elements into their stories, Odyssey leaves a crucial plot point completely optional.
It’s to the game’s detriment, as pursuing this lead ultimately kicks off the game’s most interesting and experimental activities. The protagonist descends into an underwater chamber to find a doorway to the lost city of Atlantis, as well as their father: the famed mathematician Pythagoras. He has been kept alive thanks to a powerful staff created by the Isu, the mostly dead precursor civilisation that once ruled over humanity.
Their artifacts are major MacGuffins for the series. Assassin’s Creed 2’s Templars used the “Apple of Eden” to further their schemes. Most of Assassin’s Creed 3 focused on an effort to use Isu technology to prevent a major world-wide apocalypse. Black Flag’s plot revolved around the Observatory, an Isu facility that would allow the Templars to spy on anyone in the world.
These semi-mystical artifacts have been de-emphasised as the series has progressed, but sneaking them back into Odyssey’s plot helps ground the game within a larger series context. It gives Kassandra another task—locate artifacts to seal Atlantis away from the Cult of Kosmos—and brings Layla back into the story as she explores the ruins in the modern day.
Odyssey’s main plot draws Kassandra into a larger world of intrigue, but it never quite manages to tell a cohesive or complete story. This additional plot branch helps round out her character and provides a proper conclusion to her story.
There are four artifacts needed to seal Atlantis, and Kassandra’s journey to find them all solidifies her status as worthy explorer while bringing players into contact with some of the game’s most stunning set pieces. Each artifact is protected by a different mythological beast, with an associated side-quest dedicated to locating the Isu ruins where they lurk.
These creatures range from the riddle-spewing Sphinx to the mighty Minotaur, and each encounter has a mythical weight.
Trading riddles with the Sphinx or wandering into a field of Medusa-petrified corpses evokes the classic epics that give Odyssey its namesake. From Sisyphus shackling Thanatos to Odysseus’ meeting with the witch Circe, Greek storytelling is rife with the clashes of the human and the divine. Assassin’s Creed offers a science fiction explanation for these myths while still drawing on their ancient storytelling context.
Conversely, Odyssey’s systems, such as the battle-packed conquests and dangerous mercenary rankings, place the game’s story into a historical context. Players who miss Odyssey’s mythic elements in favour of its more historical ones will lose out on the game’s scope and sense of wonder.
These mythic sections also provide some of the game’s strongest mechanical challenges. Most of these encounters are fights that make the player reassess the tactics that have allowed them to succeed against mortal opponents. What do you do when faced with a giant cyclops or rampaging bull-man? Certainly not the same thing that you do when facing a mere Spartan soldier.
While a stubborn player might brute force their way through these encounters, canny players might change tactics and skill points. I didn’t often take advantage of Odyssey’s ability to reallocate skills, but I absolutely changed my build to focus on arrow damage once faced with the tower cyclops and its extremely shootable eyeball.
It’s not the most in-depth problem solving, but it helps to mechanically simulate the cunning we associate with Greek heroes.
Pursuing this questline is also absolutely essential for getting closure on Kassandra’s story. Collecting all of the artifacts allows Layla to unlock Atlantis in the modern day, revealing the city’s long-lived protector: the player character. Much as Pythagoras lived beyond his age thanks to the magical staff he owned, so does Kassandra or Alexios. They entrust the staff to Layla and seemingly die.
It’s a moment that completes both of the game’s two main stories and provides a strong connection from one timeline to another. It’s also one of the few times where the modern day and ancient Greece stories mingle, an allusion to the game’s overarching themes of legacy and lineage. Games like Assassin’s Creed 3 also had their two stories run in parallel to express questions of fatherhood and generational violence. Odyssey reclaims that storytelling legacy at the conclusion of this questline, setting the stage for larger adventures.
If you ignore these activities, you miss out on all of this, including the literal conclusion to the protagonist’s story and life.
In theory, the branching nature of Odyssey’s main story pillars allows players to engage with the content that they find most compelling. In practice, this dedication to player choice jumbles the game’s narrative. Not only does it affect the game’s pace—fracturing essential scenes from each other, with potentially dozen of filler hours in between - but it also risks leaving the story narratively and thematically incomplete for any player who decides they’ve had their fill of adventuring.
In a game full of intelligent systems and compelling character writing, it’s a decision that undermines an otherwise fantastic experience.