Assassin’s Creed Shadows director addresses dual protagonists, setting, more

Brad Norton
Assassin's Creed Shadows cinematic

Assassin’s Creed Shadows is a wildly ambitious project with its dual protagonists, diverse gameplay styles, a narrative spanning multiple years across distinct regions, a full seasonal cycle, and plenty more nuance in between. It’s no small undertaking. To learn how Ubisoft even begins approaching a project of this magnitude, I sat down with the game’s director Charles Benoit to understand the herculean effort.

When Assassin’s Creed first rose to prominence, the games weren’t necessarily known for being enormous timesinks. Sure, you could get a few dozen hours out of each installment, but things changed with the pivot to more action-oriented gameplay. Now, more recent entries can easily ask you to pump 60 hours in to even reach the credits, let alone see and do everything else.

They’ve become gigantic in scope and Shadows looks to be another step further in that direction. Not only is the story an epic tale in its own right, following the rise and fall of daimyō Oda Nobunaga over a number of years, but in adding a second protagonist to the mix, Ubisoft has effectively doubled the experiences on offer.

One serves as a more brutish style assassin, ensuring more recent fans of the series feel right at home with their action-packed gameplay, while the other is more elusive, remaining undetected and striking at the opportune moment, much like in the earlier iterations of Assassin’s Creed. Blending both together in a Japan on the verge of upheaval, it’s safe to say devs had to juggle an extraordinary number of plates to make it all click.

In speaking with Shadows’ director Charles Benoit, we gleaned some insight as to how Ubisoft picks its battles, why now was the “perfect” time for a Feudal Japan story, and how the bold step of incorporating two protagonists keeps everyone on their toes.

AC Shadows gameplay
Assassin’s Creed Shadows is a wondrous celebration of AC’s past and present, set amid an epochal juncture in Japanese history.

The mystery of Yasuke is “perfect” for Assassin’s Creed

Ignoring the foolish controversy and focusing on what we actually know to be true, Yasuke was a prominent figure in Japan for at least a few years. Having arrived alongside Jesuit missionaries in 1579, it didn’t take long for the tall, dark-skinned man to turn heads. Locals had never seen anyone quite like Yasuke.

Over the coming years, he’d separate from the Jesuits, taking up residence with Lord Oda Nobunaga, one of the most powerful men in the world at that point in time. However, what happened before his arrival and what happened after the demise of his leader, all remains a bit murky. Details begin to taper off after 1581, leaving plenty of gaps for imaginative storytellers to fill.

It’s for this reason Ubisoft decided to make Yasuke one of the two protagonists, the first in AC history to be based on a real historical figure. The gaps in knowledge lend themselves wonderfully to the writer’s imagination.

“[It’s] exactly why we picked this character, Benoit explained. “We know just a few things. We get to learn how this guy came to Japan and why, why Nobunaga was so interested. We know Nobunaga gave him a house, which means he was high in the social class, so that’s super interesting. The blanks we don’t know, it’s just perfect for the story we’re getting to tell.”

Assassin's Creed Shadows gameplay
Yasuke turns heads wherever he goes. Japanese locals have never quite seen anyone like him.

As any experienced Assassin’s Creed fan knows all too well, while the games take place at epochal moments in time, portraying history’s most iconic figures, Ubisoft is never afraid to veer off the rails a little and get adventurous.

If you’re here for a completely accurate retelling of the events of Iga’s demise, Nobunaga’s phasing out of the Shogun, and his eventual betrayal, you’ve come to the wrong place. While certain elements of the real story will no doubt be represented, devs are ready to take some creative liberties once again with Shadows, and thanks to Yasuke’s mysterious background, they’re well within their right to do just that.

“The fact Yasuke, we know just a few things and we can fill the blanks, it’s one of the reasons we wanted to use this character. We don’t want to stick as much as possible to true historical fact, but to give more leeway for us to tell the story we wanted to tell. It’s an Assassin’s Creed, there’s always something we want to tell about the Brotherhood.”

Naoe’s fictional yet grounded entry into Feudal Japan

On the other side of the coin, Naoe enters Shadows as a fictional character. Unlike Yasuke, Naoe is a completely original character from the minds of Ubisoft’s devs. However, that’s not to say she has no place among the real-world events.

Grounding her to some degree, Naoe is the fictional daughter of Fujibiyashi Nagato, a very real figure in Japanese history, having led a batch of ninjas during the turbulent 16th century.

Naoe in Assassin's Creed Shadows
While a fictional character, Naoe is presented as the daughter of a very real Japanese icon.

This dichotomy, put simply, is “perfect” for the type of story Ubisoft is hoping to tell in the new Assassin’s Creed title. Having these two polar opposites coming together gives “leeway” for the writers to push their story in any direction without having to constantly check the facts to make sure they’re mirroring the complete recorded history.

Separated to begin with, Benoit detailed how players will need to get familiar with both protagonists before the events of 1579-1581 truly get underway. But what exactly brings them together? Why do they align their efforts when they’re committed to different causes? It’s this narrative freedom that looks set to take newcomers to Japanese history and scholars alike on an exhilarating ride.

Expanding the scope of Shadows with two protagonists

After a few hours of getting to know both Yasuke and Naoe, the choice is ultimately yours on who you’d like to continue playing as. While freely able to swap between the two while not locked in a mission, you may quickly favor one or the other, depending on your favorite flavor of Assassin.

Prefer the stealthy, more tactical approach? Naoe is the one for you. Rather make a scene and intimidate your foes with incomprehensible strength? Yasuke is the hulking samurai for the job. The former all but representing the classic style, the latter reflecting more contemporary iterations.

Curiously, I wondered if it was possible for a player to exclusively focus on one or the other through an entire playthrough. While technically, it’s not feasible as some missions force you to control the other character, other missions involve teaming up and swapping on a dime. But having a ‘main,’ so to speak, is something the devs are acutely aware of. They just don’t expect anyone to be all too interested when both protagonists are equally skilled in their respective disciplines.

“At first you need to play a bit of both, learn who they are and why they are aligned. Then you can play both, or just one or the other. It’s your choice,” Benoit assured.

“It could happen, but the way we made them, it’s not that they can’t do one or the other’s gameplay, it’s just that they are super competitive in one of their fields. If you want to fight with Naoe, it’s possible. If you want to stealth with Yasuke, it’s possible, Certainly people will have a preferred character, but I feel they will want to switch.”

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.

Sweeting the deal, I was able to confirm just how the game’s progression systems work. If you’ve just spent 15 hours straight with Yasuke, does that leave Naoe in the dust, severely under-levelled, underequipped, and unprepared for what comes next? Not at all. Thankfully, devs have ensured progression carries across both protagonists where it makes sense.

On the surface level, progression is mostly related to the weapons you take into battle. As the two characters wield different types of weapons, they have their own unique skill trees to progress. But as you advance with either character, all experience is shared across both.

For instance, let’s say during your 15-hour run with Yasuke you level up enough to have five skill points at the ready. Yasuke is able to invest those skill points into his giant melee weapons, unlocking new proficiencies as a result.

But swap over to Naoe for a moment, and you’ll be pleased to know she also has five skill points waiting to be used. So no matter how you play, there will never be a point where one “feels dragged behind the other.”

Not to mention, loot is also shared across both protagonists, so Yasuke can find new gear for Naoe while out adventuring, and vice versa. “So if you play 10 hours with one, there’s a lot of new stuff to play around with when you swap to the other,” Benoit explained.

New technologies turn the tide

Clearing up a few outlying details, I also questioned the game’s director on how big a role firearms might play in Shadows. We know for certain they were pivotal in Japan’s war at the time, as Portuguese traders introduced the devastating weapons to help shift momentum in the ongoing conflict.

As it turns out, firearms are indeed a core part of Shadows but do temper your expectations. While Yasuke can wield a gun, of sorts, the very first version, known then as the arquebus, is far from an ideal piece of kit.

One lethal shot is all you get before having to stop what you’re doing and reload the old-fashioned way. Though the same can be said for enemies wielding guns too. Avoid their first shot and you might be able to close the distance without a threat.

Beyond firearms, it’s also documented how Nobunaga invested much of his wealth in some of the world’s first ironclad ships. The first of their kind to grace Japanese shores, their stature dazzled the locals while their near-impenetrable hull struck fear in any who dared to challenge them.

Not only that, but we know thanks to the Jesuit missionaries and the Portuguese traders, just how vital transportation across oceans was back then. You wouldn’t be crazy to think perhaps we set sail once again in another Assassin’s Creed title, though Benoit confirmed that’s not the case here.

“We have a ship you can see, you can go on the ship, we also have a ship that goes around in the country because a lot of trades were done. You can use this ship to travel. But the fact our map is really centered on land and mountains, it didn’t make sense to focus on this big, open sea area. We really focused on land.”

So while some of these historically accurate ships will indeed be present, don’t expect to be singing any form of sea shanty and engaging in piracy this time around.

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