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Assassin’s Creed Shadows is great, when you’re an assassin

Assassin’s Creed Shadows shines when you’re playing as Naoe, a Shinobi, yet Yasuke’s gameplay feels like Ghosts of Tsushima but worse.

A Japanese woman wearing a hooded black robe with a wooden armlet holding a katana behind her back on a red background with black Japanese writing

Assassin’s Creed Shadows is the Assassin’s Creed game we’ve been dreaming of. For more years than I can count, players have been asking for a Japanese-set version of Ubisoft’s flagship open-world series, desperate to take to tiled Pagoda rooftops and brutally murder enemies from above. Shadows delivers that in droves with female protagonist Naoe, the Shinobi whose vengeful path will leave a trail of bodies in its wake. When it comes to Yasuke the samurai, however, it feels like Ubisoft has just made its own, rustier version of Sucker Punch’s 2020 epic, Ghost of Tsushima.

During an exclusive presentation at Summer Game Fest, the Ubisoft team walks us through one of Assassin’s Creed Shadows’ target elimination missions. The gentleman whose throat we’re supposed to spill all over the floor is Lord Hayashi, a magistrate who has been terrorizing the local villagers. Every mission in the latest iteration of the open-world game series is playable as either Naoe or Yasuke, with the same freedom to switch between them that we saw back in Syndicate. They each have two very different playstyles, with Naoe’s flexibility effectively offering a third jack-of-all-trades option, too.

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We begin our journey as Naoe and instantly take to the rooftops. She nimbly ascends the rope of her grappling hook, darting from building to building, and silently takes down her foes using the tried and tested mechanics that make the older games so special. As she weaves her way through the palace, currently shrouded in darkness (the game has a day/night cycle, as well as dynamic weather), she encounters an innocent maid just before reaching her next target.

While in the more recent games you’d have to assassinate her or risk her screaming alerting everyone nearby, Naoe grabs her, pulls her back into a nearby room, and leaves her unconscious. While that feels like a mechanic every Assassin’s Creed game should have – and indeed was included in older games like Syndicate and Odyssey – more recent entries like Valhalla rely on fistfights to knock NPCs out. Given Naoe’s skillset aligns more with Ezio’s than Eivor’s, it’s a small yet welcome addition.

Maid now dispatched, Hayashi is in our sights. Naoe drops to the ground, slowly crawling into the nearby ornamental pond. A moment later, a tiny reed pops up above the surface to allow her to breathe – a fun little animation that causes a ripple of laughter within the audience. But, within seconds, Hayashi is dead, splattering the now black and white screen with torrents of bright red blood. It’s certainly on the more violent side, but I absolutely love it.

A woman wearing a black hooded robe with a katana on her back looks down at a guard standing next to a fire, a prompt telling her to assassinate him

Speaking of violence, on our next run the team takes a far more aggressive approach as Naoe, utilizing her trusty kusarigama, or chain sickle. The weapon is a far-reaching, jugular-slitting AoE menace, and looks like it’ll be a lot of fun. During a fight sequence where several guards rush her, Naoe knocks them away, deterring them from getting any closer. Given she is relatively squishy by comparison to Yasuke, the kusarigama’s disengage potential synergizes perfectly with her assassin-focused skillset. While she leaves a lot more bodies in her wake, the mission ends once more: Lord Hayashi is dead, and his minions are stunned into silence.

Naoe is the perfect throwback to the likes of Altair and Ezio. She’s quick, nimble, and deadly, but doesn’t go down without a fight. She’s the assassin I’ve been missing in games like Valhalla, which threw out the stealth-centric archetype for the more typical RPG bruiser. While I know I’ll be lurking in the shadows instead of rushing into the fray head-on, her combat is fluid, dynamic, and all-around impressive. She looks like she’ll genuinely be fun to play – and I think a lot of people will think so, too. So where, I ask, does that leave Yasuke?

A large samurai warrior fights with another armorless man in a dirt area with cherry blossoms behind him

Yasuke has become the poster child for Assassin’s Creed Shadows. He’s a fascinating historical figure in his own right, and Ubisoft’s interpretation of him very much embodies the Eivor-style fighter that the Assassin’s Creed games have refined over recent years. With Naoe representing a return to the ‘good old days’ via a flexible, stealthy, high damage, high mobility kit, though, I question whether or not Shadows will do Yasuke justice.

We return to Lord Hayashi’s castle, this time illuminated by the scorching rays of the Japanese sun. Where Naoe chooses to avoid the guard blocking entry, Yasuke goes full throttle, attacking with slow, precise strikes (although, somehow, the NPC doesn’t notice him draw his katana, and appears surprised when he’s eventually cut down).

As Naoe we viewed Hayashi’s domain from the skies, but as Yasuke we tear a path straight through it – he’s not a climber but instead can break through walls. I notice that the enemies lack any convincing facial expressions, and advance towards you staring creepily into the abyss. The aforementioned maid is the same, and even Hayashi seems to struggle to show any emotion when he’s being brutally murdered, this time by Yasuke’s blade.

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The issue I have is that Yasuke’s combat feels like a somewhat feeble attempt to emulate Ghost of Tsushima, amplified by the game’s overarching lack of characterization and immersion. Where Ghost of Tsushima perfectly embodies those violent yet graceful bursts of motion you’d expect from the best samurai movies, Yasuke feels a little stuttery, as do his opponents.

By comparison to Naoe, who can flex between hyper-stealth or picking the odd brawl and scooting back to safety, Yasuke feels entirely one-dimensional. It’s run at things, hit them hard, destroy walls, and repeat. There’s no scope for stealth; there is only fighting. That’s perfect if you’re a fan of the newer Assassin’s Creed games, but for me, it lacks the dynamism and excitement of Naoe’s kit.

An African man wearing Japanese samurai armor rushes towards a man in a Japanese setting

Atmospherically, everything feels like a budget Ghost of Tsushima. Naoe’s voice actor doesn’t seem particularly enthralled by, well, anything, and voice lines like ‘Fujioka must be the samurai Yasuke took out’ feel jarring against the traditional Japanese setting.

If Ubisoft had pushed its Japanese Assassin’s Creed out before Ghosts of Tsushima (and even Rise of the Ronin), I think Assassin’s Creed Shadows would have been in a better spot. Now, it feels half-baked and a lot less exciting, with one combat path that feels almost like a bad emulation of what Sucker Punch has already perfected. It looks like Ubisoft may have, quite simply, missed the boat with this one.

And it’s a real shame. Transparently: I’ve never quite been able to get on with the newer Assassin’s Creed games. Valhalla was missing the ‘assassin’ part for me, and Mirage, while it had an interesting setting, was a pale imitation of what had come before. Given the temporal placement and Naoe’s throwback playstyle, Shadows is the first Assassin’s Creed game I’ve wanted to play in years, but I’m just not convinced.

An image of a dark corridor lined with Assassin's Creed: Shadows flags

It’s worth noting that everything I’ve seen is still in development, and it’s only one mission of many. When the Assassin’s Creed Shadows release date rolls around, I expect we’ll see a lot more variety in quest types, and hopefully some better facial animations and general improvements.

With two interesting characters and the setting we’ve all been dreaming of, Assassin’s Creed Shadows could still prove me wrong. It does, however, need a good amount of polish if it’s going to ever escape Ghost of Tsushima’s shadow.