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Assassins’ Creed Shadows Finally Gives the Series What It Needs: A New Idea

Double trouble.

Assassin's Creed Shadows
Ubisoft

In 2017, Assassin’s Creed went through a radical shift with the release of Origins, transforming the tried-and-true formula into a new RPG-heavy approach. Since then, that formula has been rinsed and repeated with Odyssey and Valhalla, but it finally feels like the series is ready to break new ground again. Assassin’s Creed Shadows takes players to Feudal Japan, a setting fans have been desperate to visit for over a decade. But more than that, Shadows' dual-protagonist approach already looks like a brilliant change that can breathe new life into a series that desperately needs it.

At Summer Game Fest, Inverse had the chance to see a guided demo of Shadows, with nearly an hour of gameplay highlighting the two protagonists: the towering samurai Yasuke and the lithe shinobi Naoe. The demo was just a small snippet of the game, but the incredible variety between these two characters, mixed with a gorgeous and fascinating setting, give me hope that Shadows is trying something different. Coming off Valhalla, I still have reservations about the series at large focusing too much on the open world and suffering from bloat because of it, but Shadows feels like a step in the right direction — a great idea that, hopefully, has the execution to back it up.

You can tackle most missions as either Yasuke or Naoe, which drastically changes how things play out.

Ubisoft

The guided demo revolved around assassinating a corrupt daimyo whose equally corrupt samurai keep the people under heel. Of course, getting to the daimyo was no easy task. He was tucked in the safe clutches of a nearby castle, with countless guards.

But this is where Shadows’ unique protagonist approach comes in. As with many missions in the game, you can complete it as either Naoe or Yasuke. These two characters have tremendously different gameplay styles, with Yasuke leaning more into the heavy hand-to-hand combat of recent games, while Naor employs stealth, which looks drastically improved.

We saw three different playthroughs of the same mission, with each feeling wildly different based on the character chosen, and the approach.

Yasuke is a towering man who uses brute strength to completely overwhelm enemies. He’s equipped with a katana and club weapon called a Tetsubo. What’s really fascinating about Yasuke is that he doesn’t have the same agility as Naoe and apparently can’t even climb because of his bulky armor. On the other hand, he can completely smash through closed doors.

Yasuke’s path had him marching right up through the castle gates, mercilessly slaughtering anyone who stood in his path. Shadows' combat is interesting to see play out — a mix of classic Assassin’s Creed and the systems of the newer RPG games.

Yasuke combat is all about brute force, but still requires methodical precision and parries, making it feel drastically different from the last three games.

Ubisoft

It’s not quite as hack and slash and loose as Valhalla, focusing more on parries, reading enemy attacks, and taking advantage of staggers or armor breaks. The skill system introduced in Origins is still there, but the general flow and speed of combat feel heavily reminiscent of the earlier games, like Brotherhood or Black Flag.

As Yasuke methodically cut his way through to the castle he finally reached a grand room with a garden out the back, where the daimyo waited. With a shout Yasuke charged through the room, breaking nearly a half dozen doors before plunging his sword into a guard’s gut. His approach was bloody and brutal, completely relying on your combat and fueling skills.

That's a stark contrast to Naoe, the shinobi (or ninja), who can certainly fight in a brawl but is much more well equipped for stealth. In fact, that’s the one area that surprised me the most about Shadows: The stealth genuinely looks great and on the level of something like Splinter Cell.

Naoe has a variety of tools, including kunai and a chained sickle called a Kusarigama. This weapon can be used to grapple enemies for a ranged assassination, or as the perfect crowd control option if you’re caught.

But Naoe had far more at her command than weapons. You can smash lights to distract enemies, hide in the shadows cast by the moonlight, and use a grappling hook to cling to the ceiling and avoid a guard’s sight.

Naoe is the stealth-focused character, but new weapons and abilities, like going prone, make this stealth already feel a cut above most of the series.

Ubisoft

The most impressive section of the demo was when Naoe reached the garden, having successfully snuck past all the guards. Unlike past games, Nao can go completely prone. Using this ability, she slinked into the tiny pond the daimyo was standing by. If she stops in the pond for too long, Naoe pulls out a reed and breathes through it. But using the prime ability, the assassin was able to slink through the water and land a deadly blow, before pulling off a breakneck escape.

There was so much variety crammed into the singular mission we saw it’s astounding, and having two wildly different gameplay approaches could really help shake things up for the series.

By far my biggest problem with Valhalla was that it was simply too bloated, too much content that had you doing the exact same thing for dozens of hours on end.

After seeing Shadows in action I’m genuinely hopeful that being able to lean into both protagonists will help give the game more mechanical variety, shaking the formula up and not making players get in a monotonous cycle.

At the same time, all of what Assassin's Creed does well is still present in Shadows. The game’s rendition of Feudal era Japan looks stunning and richly detailed, with a real emphasis on depicting the areas you visit as bustling hubs of activity. The game also emphasizes exploration and discovery, taking away quest markers in favor of organic exploration.

Shadows doesn’t always spell out your objective, making you explore to uncover objectives, along with a new spy network feature that can help narrow things down.

Ubisoft

That being said, there are still some big questions on my mind that I need answered, especially coming off of Valhalla, an entry that I completely didn’t gel with.

With Yasuke’s limited traversal options, I wonder how the open world elements and exploration will work. I also hope both characters have their own specific mission, with hand-designed elements tailored to their play style.

Ubisoft has said Shadows’ world is closer to the size of Origins, and I sincerely hope that is true. I’d love to see a more focused story, with side content that weaves into that. With each game since Origins side activities have felt more and more like checklists, and I hope Shadows can fix that.

The most important takeaway here, however, is that Assassin's Creed is genuinely trying something new. It feels like a fresh idea, an experimental central pillar the entire game builds itself around. Shadows had incredible potential, and a chance to refine the series forever. Now we’ll just need to see if it all comes together right.

Assassin’s Creed Shadows launches on November 12 for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.

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