Assassin’s Creed Shadows uses dual protagonists to merge both styles of AC games

Brad Norton
Assassin's Creed Shadows cinematic

Assassin’s Creed Shadows feels like a culmination of a series sixteen years in the making. Blending together the best of its old and new eras, this year’s entry pays homage to the original, stealth-oriented AC titles while merging with the more recent action-oriented installments in a seamless package, all bundled together in a brutally glorious rendition of Feudal Japan.

Beginning a 45-minute demonstration of Assassin’s Creed Shadows, developers showed us a few minutes of Yasuke in action. After a quick scuffle with some lower-level thugs and one particular samurai of note, the intention — or at least what I perceive to be the intention — of the very project, began to crystalize.

Before the demo proceeded, Shadows offered the player a choice. Continue as Yasuke or swap to Naoe. It’s in this option, in these two characters, where the game’s true purpose shined through. While not explicitly stated, it’s quite clear these dual protagonists represent, to some degree, the distinct eras in AC’s history.

Naoe is a stealthy assassin who sticks to the shadows, taking out targets without raising the alarm, and representing the original style of AC game. A figure that would no doubt make Ezio proud. Then there’s Yasuke, a towering samurai, charging his way through crowds of enemies, swinging his melee weapons with lethal intent no matter how many others it may alert. He’s a more modern counterpart, representing AC’s pivot to action-oriented gameplay.

Together they’re electric, but apart, they give players autonomy. Which version of AC would you like to play at this moment? Freely able to swap between the two on the fly, the choice is entirely yours, and Shadows is all greater for it.

Assassin's Creed Shadows gameplay
Shadows encourages you to frequently swap between both styles of play with both protagonists always just a button press away.

Different styles, different strategies, different AC

Throughout the behind-closed-doors hands-off demo Dexerto was invited to, I got to see the same mission played three times. The end goal was to assassinate a target, though the way in which said target was revealed felt entirely unique for this entry in the AC series.

Where in previous iterations, Ubisoft would hold the player’s hand, guiding them directly to where they’re supposed to be, Shadows takes a back seat in that regard. To find the target, you’re left with a trail of clues. It’s your job to piece them together and discover the path forward. There don’t seem to be any clear objective markers pointing you toward the target. Instead, you have to do the leg work and get the lay of the land.

In this particular instance, it was revealed the target took shelter in a nearby castle, defended by dozens of skilled samurai. By eavesdropping on some conversations, we found that the soon-to-be-assassinated liked to go for some nightly strolls.

From those details, you’re able to put together a game plan: barge in as Yasuke, letting the target know well in advance he’s in danger; wait for nightfall and stick to the darkness as Naoe, dealing a lethal blow without any of their security wise to it; or maybe you’d prefer a mix of the above. We saw this one encounter play out in three vastly different ways, showcasing how Shadows is a real evolution on the formula, not just another iteration building on the last, but rather a proper leap forward.

Assassin's Creed Shadows gameplay
Naoe is a master of stealth, making Ezio proud with her silent but deadly approach.

Yasuke – A real historical figure packing a real punch

In one of the options, we saw Yasuke go in guns blazing, technically. While Yasuke does indeed carry a firearm of sorts, at this point in time — with the arquebus only just making an impact in Japan — gunplay isn’t necessarily the wisest option. While we saw one devastating shot damn near decapitate its victim, don’t expect to be firing off multiple rounds in quick succession.

With multiple heavy melee weapons equipped, along with some hefty samurai armor to boot, Yasuke stormed his way through the castle’s defenses, clearing wave after wave, sometimes striking multiple foes at once with cleaving blows. Before long, Yasuke made his way to the target, took him out with no hesitation, and that was that.

It’s an exhilarating style of play and lends itself to more recent entries in the AC franchise, but it’s far from the only option.

Yasuke combat in Assassin's Creed Shadows
Yasuke is a sight to behold on the battlefield.

Naoe – Striking from the shadows

In another take on the mission, we saw Naoe take center stage. Timing her approach at the dead of night, Naoe leaped from rooftop to rooftop, analyzing each section of the castle and its surroundings before making her next move.

With a handy grapple hook of sorts, Naoe is an expert in swift traversal, unlike Yasuke who’s a bit too big to be sneakily leaping overhead.

Diving down from above, Naoe can perform all sorts of assassinations that fans of the franchise are sure to feel right at home with. Sticking to the darkness is your best bet too, and thankfully, Naoe has many ways to manipulate the environment.

In one well-lit hallway, throwing a Kunai at some lamps extinguished their flame and painted the area in darkness. Dimming the light helps keep Naoe undetected. Not only that but sightlines are extremely important too, as going prone on one side of a roof may keep you hidden when the suspense ramps up.

In another moment, Naoe dove underwater, picking out a handy bamboo stick to poke above the surface, letting her breath for as long as you’d like to scout out your surroundings. Stealth is well and truly a core pillar here once again and it looks to be a delightful option.

Assassin's Creed Shadows gameplay
Breathing underwater is one of the more creative ways we’ve ever seen to hunt down a target.

What’s important to note, however, is these distinct playstyles are indeed just that — options. Technically, Naoe can go in with an aggressive style and Yasuke can try to stay off the beaten path and sneak his way in. Though as you might expect, they’re not particularly strong at playing to the other’s strengths, it can be done.

As we saw in the third and final version of the demo, Naoe is no slouch with hand-to-hand combat, Wielding a Meteor Hammer with a scythe attached, the protagonist was able to slice through not just enemies in her path, but even the environment, chopping down trees on her way to chopping the head off the main target.

A sprawling, lively depiction of Japan at war

Spanning across multiple years, make no mistake about it, Shadows is set to be an enormous game. While we saw just a quick vertical slice played out in a few different ways, the scope of the experience beyond that one section appears staggering.

Beginning in 1579, we pick up with Yasuke as he arrives in Japan alongside Jesuit missionaries. The first character in AC history to reflect a real historical figure, we follow Yasuke’s journey from humble servant to beloved samurai under Oda Nobunaga’s command. We know for certain Yasuke doesn’t even meet his future leader until 1581, and filling in the blanks that follow, we know Yasuke’s tale spans even further beyond.

On the other hand, Naoe’s origins are a little unclear, but we know she’s the fictional daughter of Fujibayashi Nagato, the former leader of the Iga ninjas. At some point in her dealings with Nobunaga’s ‘unifying’ efforts, Naoe stumbled into Yasuke, and together, the two pair up to change the course of history.

That brief description alone barely scratches the surface of what Shadows looks to entail. A narrative spanning multiple years, gameplay stretching across multiple distinct regions in Japan, systems designed to reward all different playstyles, you really could go on.

It’s an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking and should Ubisoft execute on its vision, it’ll scratch the itch for AC fans old and new alike, making it the perfect step forward for the iconic franchise.

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