Geek Preview: ‘Assassin’s Creed Shadows’ Brings Versatile Combat To Serve The Light In Feudal Japan

The Assassin’s Creed series has worked in the shadows to serve the light through the annals of history, undergoing a few identity changes in the process. Evolving from stealth-based gameplay, it took to the high seas, went to Victorian England with dual protagonists, offered the choice of either a male or female protagonist, deployed straightforward, gladiator-style combat, and most recently, revisited its sneak-and-kill roots, drawing things to a full circle.

Geek Preview: Assassin's Creed Shadows

The next entry in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed Shadows, is set to bring a couple of firsts into the mix. For starters, it will breathe life into the highly-requested setting of feudal Japan, welcoming the debut of various elements like dynamic weather, as well as the ability to go prone and extinguish torches for hiding spots. 

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Similar to Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Ubisoft’s upcoming features two protagonists of different personalities but unlike it, players can switch between them at will, since they aren’t tied down to character-specific missions as often. Whether by intent or not, the system appears to be an extension of its London-set counterpart – and it’s all the better for it, with the middle ground lending a highly versatile touch to the experience. 

Or so goes the first impression, at least. Held a few days before Ubisoft Forward 2024, an exclusive hands-off preview unveiled a fresh look at gameplay, featuring female shinobi lead Naoe and Yasuke, the samurai of historical legend, in action. Set in 16th-century Japan amid the formation of new coalitions and corruptive foreign influences towards the path to unification, the upcoming title sees the pair starting out as enemies who will eventually side with each other. 

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The one-hour playthrough takes place at a point where mutual trust between the two has been established and struck up a partnership of sorts. Yasuke, on horseback, arrives in Fukuchiyama, which paints a beautiful picture of cherry blossoms, field workers, and a bustling town, but is quickly requested for his services to assassinate a corrupt official called Fujioka Jiro. Not many clues are given, however, and players will have to do some intelligence gathering on their own to reveal more about the situation at hand – part of an improved system to increase immersion with less guidance and map reliance. 

With a giant club in hand, Yasuke enters combat and dodges the first attack from his opponent. Both dodging and parrying are a core part of his kit, but it’s his raw brute strength that drives his attacking style, landing one bone-crushing hit after another. Even through the lens of a spectator, there’s evident weight behind his strikes, and if a clean slice is preferred, Assassin’s Creed Shadows lets players switch to a katana mid-battle. 

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It’s no less brutal, though. Where the club proves effective for bashing heads in, the latter delivers a swift beheading, so expect a bloodbath where Yasuke and Naoe go. There are also weapon abilities that can be used in a pinch, each with its own animation and  – the samurai’s club, for instance, creates an area-of-effect seismic blast when slammed into the ground. 

In contrast, Naoe sticks to the shadows. A master of stealth, deception and infiltration, the nimble shinobi arrives to save her partner from a straggler, burying the series’ signature hidden blade in the enemy’s body. The choice to choose between her and Yasuke pops up after an introduction to the spy system (there isn’t much information about it, but it presumably deploys a scout to an area of interest in a way that’s similar to the old eagle scouting feature), offering some welcome player agenda.

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Choosing the trusty samurai reveals another weapon in his arsenal for ranged attacks: an arquebus rifle. While there’s universal equipment in Assassin’s Creed Shadows, some gear and gadgets are limited to each character, which introduces a fair bit of variety into gameplay. In the same vein, Yasuke is able to charge through doors and destroy them, further reinforcing his aggressive play style. 

Naoe can’t do any of those, but compensates for it with a diverse skill kit. Despite being the smallest assassin in the franchise to date, she packs a lethal punch with Eagle Vision, a series staple, a grappling hook, and the prone ability. As longtime fans would know, Eagle Vision allows players to scan their surroundings, whereas the newly-introduced prone mechanic makes it possible to crawl through grass and dive into water. A fun little note here – when Naoe stops swimming, she can breathe underwater through a pipe. 

The grappling hook easily has the most versatile use case, as it can be used for traversal, non-lethal takedowns, and mid-air assassinations. Environmental design now plays into the world, so Naoe can snuff out sources of light to cause a distraction and sneak past the enemy. Or execute a silent takedown, depending on how one plays.

Because the shinobi is a whirlwind of speed in fights, it’s possible to mix both stealth and aggressive styles with her in Assassin’s Creed Shadows. Her kicks and punches may not hit as hard as Yasuke, but the blistering speed sets up a rush of combo attacks that looks (and hopefully feels) satisfying to execute. Naoe’s kusarigama, or chain-sickle, also makes it easy to close the gap between her and the enemy, with her shurikens offering ranged offense. 

The freedom to combine different weapons, abilities, and attacking flair brings more combat flexibility to the table, which should be nifty for individuals who don’t subscribe to or lean towards one fixed play style. Upon defeating major targets, the game visuals will bleed into a stylish black-and-white aesthetic that’s reminiscent of Ghost of Tsushima’s Kurosawa Mode, bearing strokes of a more dynamic presentation. 

Of course, new experiences await outside of combat. The dynamic weather system played out well during the hands-off preview, showcasing the natural transition from a sunny day to gloomy clouds over a reasonable time frame. While it wasn’t shown, Ubisoft has shared that NPC behaviour changes with the seasons, with enemies searching bushes in summer and staying near fires in winter, creating new path alternatives. Likewise, each season affects gameplay differently – winter, for example, blocks access to pools and ponds with frozen water, whereas falling icicles can reveal the player’s position. 

Without a shot at gameplay, it’s difficult to determine just how much of the visual experience translates into the hands-on experience. From the look of things, however, Assassin’s Creed Shadows seems to be doing everything right for now, freshening up a beloved formula with versatility, variety, and an oft-requested setting. Now, the ball’s in Ubisoft’s court.  

Assassin’s Creed Shadows slices its way to PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Amazon Luna and Apple Silicon on 15 November