Returning to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s vast world can feel daunting after months away. Even with dozens of hours of completing the story and side exploration and pillaging under my belt, there was still so much to be done. But fear not: you should feel no need to complete it all before jumping into Wrath of the Druids, the new expansion that brings Eivor to the rolling hills of Ireland, because its content available early in the campaign and is worth putting ahead of most of the other sidequests that fill out the world. The adventuring and combat is more of the same for the most part, but its new twisting tale of politics and mysticism really stands out among the best storytelling in the series and the Druids themselves are stand-out enemies.
You know you’re headed for a new DLC area when a new guest suspiciously arrives at the docks of Ravensthorpe with summons from a cousin who – though he’s never been mentioned before this moment – has managed to become king of one of the various warring territories of Ireland and is in desperate need of help. Eivor doesn’t need much convincing after possible trade routes and riches for her clan are mentioned, but I wish more time was spent making this feel smoothly integrated as a necessary next step, rather than an obvious way to access a new area added after the fact.
Touring through Ireland itself is beautiful. It’s not obvious immediately upon arrival, but after riding through the countryside over emerald hills and long sheer cliff faces, the mix of rocky hillside and colorful plains stand out starkly from England and Norway. It’s also somber and creepy at times, with many of the boggy swamps looking right out of an otherworldly fairy tale. Postcard-worthy standing stones and castles overlooking oceans add that signature stalwart ruggedness that tourists have come to identify as part of the landscape’s charm.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Ireland’s%20boggy%20swamps%20look%20right%20out%20of%20an%20otherworldly%20fairy%20tale.”]However, the great majority of Wrath of the Druids’ quests follow a pattern that’s rigidly similar to those in vanilla Valhalla (and most open-world action games): go find this place, take a thing from that place, and/or kill everyone in that place. I didn’t expect Ubisoft to reinvent the huge game it created just for its DLC, but the main story quest of Wrath of the Druids leans too heavily on recycled conquest and exploration activities we saw too much of in the main game already, and the gameplay variety suffers as a result.
Royal Demands, a new quest type, feels like an active step backwards from Valhalla. Simple tasks, like clearing outposts and stealing requested items, are assigned to Eivor anonymously via messages left at pigeon coops that dot the land. Completing these helps your allies gain influence in Ireland’s four regions, which opens up quests and rewards you with building resources. So they’re important… and yet, they never feel like more than simple busywork, so I never looked forward to actually doing them.
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The story, on the other hand, felt consistently engaging throughout the around 10 hours it took to see the end. The political tension of Ireland’s High King Flann’s attempt to unify the country is interlaced with the cultural boiling point that the several religious factions have come to. Cousin Baird’s kingship under Flann is in constant danger, thanks to personal and professional missteps between the two. Flann’s bard, Ciara, lives in service of the new Christian monarchy, but was raised a druid and struggles to balance the weight of both worlds. Strong and charming voice performances paired with solid character arcs full of twists and consequences all help make the story’s heavy tone more approachable. In the background, Wrath of the Druids breaks down the nuances of Christianity’s slow assimilation of the region, and depicts the desperate acts that the indigenous pagan people resort to when faced with the potential extinction of their ways. More so than any time in the original story, the existential dread of the conquered people felt relatable and palatable.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20Children%20of%20Danu%20represent%20this%20expansion%E2%80%99s%20most%20significant%20actual%20improvement%20over%20Valhalla.”]As you get to the heart of this matter you learn that a radicalized group of druids, The Children of Danu, have committed themselves to preserving the old ways through violence, manipulation, and deceit – and they represent this expansion’s most significant actual improvement over Valhalla. Mechanically, they’re simply another Order of The Ancients: a list of names to investigate, hunt down, and kill. The revitalizing twist on the concept, though, is that Wrath of the Druids makes the investigation, tracking, and assassination of these targets a far greater focus than the main campaign, in that many of the later quests require you to actively engage with the system to progress to important story events. You actually have to pay attention to the notes you gather about targets and follow their trails to the locations you deduce from them. The whole experience is better for it.
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Druids that serve the The Children make combat a bit more interesting, to say the least. Thanks to their hallucinogenic gas, Evior believes they have magical powers, and so for all intents and purposes they do. In these cases, perception is reality – they dart around the screen at lightspeed, throwing all manner of fire and poison at you. These are a type of encounter we never saw elsewhere in Valhalla, and it’s refreshing and exciting to face a new class of foe. Some optional enemies feel challenging as well, like the pair of drengr minibosses lurking in the countryside. But outside of that, most of the run-of-the-mill slaughter feels unsatisfyingly samey next to an already massive game full of those fights.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=A%20few%20pieces%20of%20armor%20do%20look%20particularly%20badass.”]As you’d expect from any Assassin’s Creed expansion, Wrath of the Druids contains a handful of new armor sets and weapons to find, creatures to hunt, and combat challenges to face as optional side missions. I didn’t find any gear worth swapping my loadout for, but a few pieces of armor did look particularly badass. Some of the combat challenges, like the Trials of the Morrigan, serve as another opportunity to experience more of the cool and trippy (but all too rare) druid combat. The most elaborate and useful addition to the selection of side missions, though, involves establishing trade posts across Ireland. Each post passively generates a type of new resource like honey or clothing that can be used to trade for gear and renown at the overseas trading HQ. Like many of Valhalla’s side activities (raids, treasure hunting, etc) the mileage you get from it is directly related to how valuable you find the completionist pursuit of making sure everything that can be yours, is yours.
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Source: IGN Video Games All