The Beautiful Legends of Assassin's Creed: Odyssey

Friday 15 May 2020

Regular readers of this blog may find it strange that I decided to write about a game of the Assassin's Creed saga, mainly because it is a series I have never mentioned before anywhere here and its gameplay style is quite different from that of the games I usually play and am interested in. Of course I was familiar with the series since a very long time now, but although I own two more of its games (Brotherhood and Revelations) I never got down to play either of them (just a tiny bit of Brotherhood; a brief segment from the beginning). Games that involve complicated combat where you have to combine skills and perform them while fighting are not so much my style; I prefer yielding a handgun or a revolver and shooting mercilessly at the enemy, be it human or zombie. Regardless I managed to learn a few cool moves in Odyssey, and it made my gaming life so much easier in my replays of the game. Above all though I am thankful for stealth; fortunately the Assassin's Creed games rely a lot on it. In Odyssey at least there are almost always alternative stealthy ways to clear or pass a section; I managed to weaken whole forts while nearly exclusively defeating the enemies with stealth kills, and go through enemy-packed areas by moving around silently without anyone taking notice.

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey is a player-friendly game which gives you the option to focus on the aspect that you wish, choosing between difficulty levels that  highlight different sides of it. So for my first run I chose the mode which allows you to enjoy the story without worrying too much about the enemies. This of course does not mean that the gameplay is a walk in the park this way; the bosses are still a pain, the elite enemies are still bugging the hell out of you, certain missions are still playing with your nervous system. Some mini bosses are so frustrating that you will maybe find yourself wishing you never accepted their respective missions. But overall everything becomes quite easier to go through than in the more demanding levels, especially as you level up and upgrade your inventory, offering you the chance to move on with the plot faster. Even so, it took me ten days to complete only the main story and a few important quests when playing the game for the first time.

I knew Odyssey was going to be an amazing game, after seeing a few clips and knowing that its main plot was taking place in Ancient Greece. And this was the reason why I wanted so eagerly to play it. As it turned out, not only was not I wrong, but the game even surpassed my expectations. The main story is incredible, the graphics are stunningly beautiful, the characters are magnificent and inspiring. Odyssey is one of those games that actually never end. Pretty much like the latest Tomb Raider games, you can finish the main story and then still be able to roam around every single mountain top, valley, city or lake looking for treasures and all sorts of stuff. Odyssey is even more of this kind, as it continuously offers new quests so that you can practically gather money as reward and keep on levelling up. And if you love complex combat, you have the chance to practice even more as your character becomes stronger and try out those cool, complicated moves.

The main characters are Alexios and Kassandra, two siblings of Spartan origin, grandchildren of the great Leonidas, who get separated after a tragic event in their early childhood, and whose fate is both tragic and glorious. You can pick either of them as your playable protagonist, and whoever you choose to play with, will be the older sibling, having their own respective flashback scenes and childhood memories. I always play with Alexios, so he is going to be my canon protagonist in this article as well. Alexios as the protagonist is a mercenary of Spartan descent with royal and divine heritage, and Kassandra as the antagonist plays a crucial (and dramatic, depending on your choices) role in the story from a point and on, after we discover that she has been brainwashed almost beyond cure by a dangerous Cult whose members offered her shelter as a baby but then trained her to become a human lethal weapon, turning her against her own bloodline. The father, Nikolaos, almost blindly loyal to Spartan laws and honor, played a crucial part in the events that caused the tragedy of his family. The mother, Myrrine, sought her fate elsewhere and found a new destination, in an attempt to put the past behind her. A cunning but good-hearted man, Markos, took little Alexios under his wing and raised him the best way he could, to grow into a brave and strong-willed young man who trained to become a mercenary. Alexios had an eagle, Ikaros, as a companion since he was very little, and now uses the bird always as a helper to scout the places he has to explore; this is how he got the title of the Eagle Bearer. He has his own special and literal bird's eye view. The family's paths are doomed to cross again, but whether this is for the best or not, depends on your choices and how you decide to guide your hero.

For me, Alexios is perfect for the part of the good lead protagonist; he is proud, imposingly handsome, with something genuinely candid and pure about him even when he becomes cocky or too daring. I like to cast Kassandra as the evil sibling, because she may be fine as the main, good heroine, but as a villain, she is compelling. She is an extremely fearsome, terrifying, lethal and blood-thirsty killing machine, highly intelligent but brainwashed to the point where she becomes marginally paranoid with a god syndrome, and all this is intensified even more when you get the bad endings - plus certain dramatic segments become even more chilling with her as the villain. Evil Kassandra feels as if, deep down, knows very well what is going on around her and is conscious of how scary and threatening she can be. Whereas Alexios as the antagonist comes off as an angry misguided boy who may lose his temper all of a sudden even without an obvious reason. For others, it may be the other way around. I guess it comes down to how players view their heroes, and in the end of day, this is how RPG games like Odyssey are supposed to work - and this is exactly their greatest charm.

The story takes place during the Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece and, apart from the main plot, there are numerous missions and side-missions, mandatory and optional conquest battles, riddles, puzzles, mysterious quests and prolific questlines. As part of the main game, there are two additional long plotlines complementary to the core story - one where you can hunt and kill the members of the Cult who are responsible for the separation (and potential demise) of your family, and one where you find a truth about your past and subsequently discover the key to Atlantis. The latter is actually a path that unlocks Fate of Atlantis, an extra three-episode story. The game features the player choice system - for the first time, if I am not mistaken, in an Assassin's Creed game, opening up different conclusions and endings to both the main story and some of the side quests, depending on your decisions. The game alone comes with nine (!) different endings, and some of them depend on choices you may have made as early as in the second chapter of the story.

Odyssey pays tribute to the beautiful landscapes of Greece, the forests, shorelines, blue skies and crystal waters, the sun-bathed islands of the Aegean, the misty valleys of Peloponnese, the mystical mountains of the central mainland. Wandering along the vast and adventure-filled environments is accompanied by beautiful music, and there is something to spot and something to look for in almost every nook and cranny. I recall bumping onto a fight between a bear and a wolf on a completely isolated hill in a dense forest while making my way on horseback from Lokris to Malis. Or a group of soldiers in the course of a bloody battle on a lone road in a stranded countryside. The Aipeia port at the very south of Peloponnese, drowned in mist, dark and ominous, prepares the ground as you make your way to the nearly fatal battle of Pylos. And the stunning Aegean islands, that look like they come out of a fairy tale, set the mood for the mesmerizing adventures that you are about to live there. Some are dramatic, some are funny, others are full of passion and love, some are mysterious, others are chilling and compelling.

But apart from its stunning visual beauty, the game highlights the power of the spirit of Ancient Greece, as one of the most crucial strategic plans towards the finale is shown to be conceived by philosophers, playwrights, historians and scientists. Alexios (or Kassandra, if you play as her) can also romance other people, in all combinations and possibilities, depending on how spicy and varied you want your story (and your character) to be. And it is interesting how the people involved in these seemingly random romance stories, sometimes may have some indirect connection to the main hero that is only revealed once you decide to flirt with them and thus get to know them better. Lykaon, the young doctor that you meet in Delphi, turns out to be the grandson of the Oracle who caused your family's tragedy, albeit against her will. And Thaletas, the proud young Spartan polemarch with whom you can have one of the deepest and most powerful romances on the Silver Islands, is the grandson of one of the 300 soldiers who fought in Thermopylai under the command of Leonidas, the hero's grandfather.

Myths are dominant, but there is also much realism and emotion. You can explore the numerous subplots in whichever order you want, as the side-missions are always available as soon as they become active, although some of them expire after a certain amount of hours has passed; but those are just complementary for gaining XP, money and items and I think they do appear again after a while. There is night and day alteration and weather changes, but you can shift to the time that you want by sitting down and meditating at any point. The game features the fast travel system, which allows you to visit any area whenever you wish, as long as it is unlocked and synchronized. That said, the synchronization process offers some panoramic views that are breathtaking, to say the least. You can travel all over Greece whichever way you want, plus early on you become commander of a cool ship, which also serves as a safe haven. The naval battles that you fight on it are fantastic, and the sea looks amazing, especially whenever there is a storm. Those waves are seriously savage.

Several historical figures, like Perikles, Aspasia, Herodotos, Socrates, Hippokrates, Phidias, Alkibiades, Kleon, share an important part in the development of the plot. Alexios gets to know them, become friends or enemies with them, help them with tasks and they will offer their assistance in return. We also have the chance to fight legendary creatures, like the Medusa and the Minotaur, all connected with amazing storylines leading to them, and in the DLC we get to see mythical heroes like Persephone, Hades, Adonis, Poseidon, Perseus, Achilles and Agamemnon. The most prominent though is the Spartan general Brasidas, whose portrayal is one of the most fascinating, respectful and brilliant ones that have ever been made of a real person in a work of fiction. You can take my word on this, because it is my heritage, so trust me, I would be very judgy if it was otherwise. Brasidas makes the most epic entrance in the story, in an unforgettable battle scene that looks like choreography, and, with his godlike physical presence and natural charm, easily becomes the unofficial star of the game.

His storyline runs through most of the main plot and a good deal of the Underworld episode from the DLC, and his character affects the course of events and the main hero's evolution in more than one ways. His relationship with the lead character, if you take the right decisions, is a beautiful, deeply touching tale of everlasting loyalty, caring love and precious friendship. If you play as Alexios, like I did, you will also get that extra spicy bromance. In fact it is worth playing with Alexios if only to watch his intense bromance with Brasidas bloom progressively as the story proceeds. Brasidas is a charismatic general who has a very pivotal role in the story, becoming Alexios's strongest ally and most trusted friend and war partner, which instantly makes him Kassandra's worst enemy and red rag. On two occasions, Kassandra attacks him directly with extreme violence during decisive battles of critical importance, specifically aiming to get him out of the way with a clearly personal motive, and not only because certain members of the Cult want him dead. The writers of the game's story have done a great job in perfectly blending historical facts and fiction, with fiction adding those details that spice things up while at the same time respecting history. Historical events like the accusation of the Spartan king Pausanias of treason or the death of Brasidas in Amphipolis are cleverly linked to the lethal underground activities of the Cult. Similarly, the story highlights the difference between the way Spartans and Athenians viewed war: there are two optional tasks that the main hero can carry, assigned to him or her by an Athenian and a Spartan general. It is interesting to notice how, when you meet them, the Athenian Demosthenes appears as a lover of intellect and arts, who resorts to battle because he knows there is no other solution and he happens to be skilled with a sword; while the Spartan Lysander is openly aggressive and bloodthirsty. Brasidas is an exception though, resorting to violence only when every other option has failed, and although he is a great warrior, relies much more on his brain.

The Fate of Atlantis is divided in three episodes with the first taking place in Elysium where Alexios, besides his main goal, which is to find and enter the Underworld, meets Adonis and accepts to help him organize a revolution against Perspehone's reign. Persephone has created an idyllic Paradise, but what she does is keep people imprisoned there in order to maintain her illusion of power, desperately wanting to make Adonis love her. Adonis wants to escape and go find his true love who once was Aphrodite, but in the process things take a twist and nothing remains the same, both for him and Alexios (aka, love is in the air). In the second episode, Alexios arrives in the Underworld where he is called to face ghosts from the past, related to good memories as well as unhappy ones, and he comes face to face with Hades and his weird tricks. In the last episode, he unlocks Atlantis and learns that he is doomed to decide upon its fate. The episodes are very distinctive; Elysium is full of colors, flowers and mythical aura, the Underworld is a dim, stagnant place with a still, gloomy sun, and Atlantis is a realm of harmony and bliss. It is interesting, however, how the Underworld feels far more friendly, because it is exactly what it seems; while Elysium and Atlantis hide so much darkness and corruption below their sunny surface.

Persephone and Hades are by far my favorite villains, from both the main game and the DLC. There is something tragic about Persephone's spite, caused by her unrequited love for Adonis, that made me feel compassion for her, not to mention the absolute cuteness that is her war provisions, which are stacks of flowers. And there are times where the otherwise terrifying Hades, pale, cold and imposing, appears as a lonely, desperate man who is unable to handle eternity on his own, so he somehow has to entertain this endlessness, even if this means he has no second thoughts about tormenting the residents of his realm. Regardless, you may notice that he does feel sympathy and tenderness towards them, albeit he admittedly shows it in a rather peculiar way, seeing how he treats Brasidas and Alexios - well, at least before he gets furious at the latter and unleashes his plutonic rage on him.

In the progression of the main story, we learn at some point that Nikolaos is not Alexios's real father, so our brave hero starts a quest to find his roots (this is not directly connected to the core plotline, and you can go for that long mission even after the end). Certain locations that you visit during said quest, in connection to specific myths related to those places and the fact that the protagonist and the antagonist are brother and sister, warriors with divine heritage, made me form a certain theory, which felt very logical and obvious at the time, but was rebutted when the actual revelation happened. I felt slightly disappointed for a moment, despite the fact that the real father was the legendary Pythagoras himself, I confess that. But after completing the main story and having a more all-round impression, I partly changed my mind. Because the developers did something ingenious, they connected the roots of civilization to volcanic energy and mathematics. I love how they depicted the volcanic islands as forges of the world and sacred, isolated places that continuously give life to everything by just being there as constant sources of energy and power. 

Where the game loses a bit is in the present day segments. I know this is how all the games in the Assassin's Creed series work - there is a modern day story and a story from the past that at some point connect. I can't speak for the previous games, but in Odyssey the modern day parts are generally bland - to put it gently; the action is dull, flat and inconsistent and Lyla, the playable character, is so boring and unlikable it hurts. The part she is supposed to have in the story is anything but convincing and she looks and acts like a decal. Although even a decal is definitely much more lively. In short, Lyla is a modern day Assassin and she was apparently chosen by the Isu (the ancient civilization that holds the secrets to the creation of the subsequent word, which is a constant in the Assassin's Creed saga) to inherit an important artifact that Alexios (or Kassandra) owns as its keeper after a certain point. Sounds promising enough, and indeed it had all the potential, but it is far from being so, mainly because the supposed heir is so godawful. Lyla is tedious, sluggish, unoriginal, silly, lifeless, and the list could go on forever. It is impossible to believe that of all Assassins, she was the one chosen to be the Heir of Memories, as is her (definitely not deserving) title. I guess the Isu were drunk while picking the next keeper of the artifact. Or Alexios got impatient and demanded a quick replacement otherwise he would bring havoc, so the Isu panicked and picked the first random person that they found. These are the only two legit reasons that I accept for having Lyla "inherit" the artifact.

Well maybe all this wouldn't have felt so bad if the main story wasn't so terrific. The (thankfully very few and rather brief) parts where the plot switches to modern day feel like crashing on rocks after an amazing ride. Or, you know those stand-alone carousel-like devices where you put a coin in and they start swinging while playing a song. Sometimes, the device breaks or something goes wrong and the music suddenly falls short and distorts before fading away bluntly. This is how it feels every time that you are forced to part with Alexios (or Kassandra) and bear with Lyla for a few torturing minutes. I wish in New Game Plus there was an option to skip the modern day segments altogether and just enjoy the fantastic Odyssey story as a standalone adventure. It is so cruel having to go through the punishment that is Lyla's part every time that you want to unlock the Atlantis episodes. And it's a shame because some parts are really nice (like exploring the tombs to find the three symbols), but they are ruined because you have to bear with Lyla running around like a poor excuse for a poor man's Lara Croft; not to mention the way her arms are hanging from her shoulders like convicts and the impossible boulder-like stomping sound of her footsteps. Even the Monger has more charm. The good thing, however, about this kind of games, is that they leave you free to focus on those elements of the plot that interest you mostly. So I completely eliminated from my mind all the present day babble and just kept the amazing story of the past. To put it plainly, for me Lyla's segments don't even exist. Every time that I have to go through them in a playthrough, I quick-pass the dialogues and skip the cutscenes pushing those buttons in rage. I wish there was a way to have the terrifying Medusa turn Lyla into stone once and for all, like she does with poor Bryce in one of the most emotional questlines of the game. Or even better: bring Bryce back to life and petrify Lyla instead. Bryce is adorable and it is so sad to see her die like this. On the other hand, it won't make any difference at all if Lyla suddenly becomes a rock. She may even get a bit more interesting.

That said, Bryce's appearance is rather short but it is among the most memorable ones. The end of her tragic story affects Alexios very much, as he can be seen silently mourning for her death. She is one of those characters with whom he could have gotten along really well; it is not random that later on during a short quest he refers to her as his friend, even though she is already gone and he didn't have the chance to get to know her better. But he obviously felt compassion for her and her lost love, and her story touched him deeply. Despite his tough line of work, which often requires from him to be merciless, he has this pure, charming personality which makes him instantly likeable and this is why he is able to form strong and lasting friendships, like with Brasidas; or Barnabas, the captain of the ship he commands, and Herodotos, the famed historian.

The devil is in the details, though; having a good character as a base doesn't mean that your hero will lack natural human weaknesses or even traits that are not so positive. The choices system allows you to determine those distinct characteristics that will highlight your hero's goodness or a little evilness that they may hide within. So my Alexios is mostly kind, brave and good-hearted, but he is also manipulative, vindictive and intimidating. He is a loyal friend and supports his buddies unconditionally, but hates persistent people, flattery and whimpering. Growing up on his own made him a bit heartless at times, and he even chooses friendship over family on a certain given occasion. Even so, I didn't expect to get a bad ending, and it was a bit shocking when I watched it kicking in. This made my Alexios even more angry and he became marginally ruthless, not being afraid to speak the truth even if it would hurt others, or threaten people (and ghosts) to protect his loved ones. He is of course a gay icon because I never miss the chance for fan service and eye candy when its offered so generously; he is occasionally horny, has a thing for handsome guys, flirts with them and seduces them on any given occasion, and he comes as close to finding true love as possible (because generally the game has a tendency to condemn your love affairs to doom). My version of his love story with Thaletas on the Silver Islands is one of the most romantic and sweet I have ever watched on screen. 

The choices and consequences system works pretty well overall, although a few inconsistencies may appear. But unless it's something game-breaking, it doesn't really matter much. What matters is that the writers have payed attention to detail concerning the possible decisions and outcomes, and many times seemingly obvious choices may not lead to a desired conclusion. The most critical choices, that have to do with the outcome of the main story, run throughout the progression of the plot, so you have to be very cautious about what you say to certain people and how you react, because you may trigger very unpleasant situations. Sometimes you may need to resort to extreme means to achieve your goal. For instance, if you want to ensure that Thaletas will keep you in his heart as the love of his life, with the promise to meet again someday when the war is over, you have to be cruel enough and make Kyra, your competition, fall to her death and then lie to him about it. It is not pleasant, because Kyra is one of the strongest and most interesting female characters in the game but, like Alexios says to Bryce, "love might be the end of us all; but it's a price worth paying". Well in this case someone else pays the price and meets her end. My Alexios was so evil that he slyly befriended her from the start and she was so naive that she thought he was flirting with her, while in reality he was preparing the ground for her elimination. Then he did everything to make her look bad while everyone thought that he was the epitomy of honesty and innocence. Poor Kyra shouldn't have messed with a warhorse like Alexios. When she is out of the picture, Alexios will sail Thaletas to Sparta on his ship (not shown, but mentioned) so chances are the two of them can be together at some point in the future. And if the tragic news of Kyra's death do reach him at some point, a long time will have passed, so there is no way he can accuse Alexios of anything, so they will be free to enjoy their love without obstacles. As you see, even as a good hero you can be quite Machiavellian. Evil Kassandra would have been so proud of her brother.

Similarly, you have to be careful with how you treat Brasidas, because he is a man who counts loyalty and trust very much, which means that if you make him a promise that you won't keep, he will hold it against you. As this may happen more than once, you shouldn't take it lightly. The best you can do is listen to him carefully always from the moment that you meet him, do what he says and keep your promises to him, and he will be your soulmate to eternity (literally). Otherwise he may pull a Daniel Diaz, minus the tornado. It is interesting that when prompted to choose between his plan and that of Myrrine on a specific occasion, you may be tricked to follow the mother's plan so as to show your support to her, but Brasidas will not like it (Myrrine, on the other hand, will never get angry at you for not following her plan); not only he will be disappointed in you for not listening to him (and as it turns out, his plan is not only the wisest but also the most favorable for you), but the next time you meet him he will be heartbreakingly unhappy (to the point where I paused the game and desperately checked to see if I had a savegame before that misfortune happened, and finding none, I swore I would always obey him in my subsequent playthroughs, which I did) and, to add insult to injury, as if this isn't a stab in your heart already, when you reunite with him in the Underworld, he will be cold and bitter towards you at the start, and you will have to win him all over again. In fact dealing with Brasidas is more complicated even than attempting to bring your brainwashed evil sibling back to reason.

I confess that the more I play the game the more I am convinced that the writers of the story maybe wanted to make Brasidas one more romance option for the lead character, but decided against it for historical reasons. They did it with Alkibiades, but then Alkibiades was notorious for his promiscuous lifestyle. Regardless, Brasidas has such an uncanny chemistry with Alexios (and from what I've seen, same goes with Kassandra to a degree) that most of the times when they are together, it makes you feel it's the only thing missing. At some critical point in the Elysium episode of Fate of Atlantis, Persephone, in an attempt to weaken the power of the rebels around her, tries to convince Alexios to kill Leonidas, whom he had previously recruited for Adonis's cause. She sentimentally blackmails him, promising that if he does kill Leonidas, in return she will bring any of his departed beloved (sic) back to life. Your choices then are any of your family members that may have died in the main story, which is expected; Phoibe, a little girl who was your friend in Kephallonia, also expected, since she was like a kid sister for the main hero, therefore family as well; and Brasidas, which is quite strange: of course he was your dear friend, but Persephone seems to imply that Alexios considers him family, or maybe something more? Of course Persephone will never keep her promise, but the phraseology used in the respective dialogues has some interesting semiology. Even if you choose Brasidas, Persephone keeps referring to your "beloved dead", as if she knows something that we don't. I guess she does, indeed, because she's a goddess after all; and a rather smart one, for that matter. I plead guilty of always choosing Brasidas, even if I have the chance to pick a family member. I did so the first time and I keep doing it, although I know he won't be revived. But he and Alexios look so happy whenever they see each other, exchanging such smitten looks of admiration and adoration, that even the thought of the two of them reuniting is worth the while. At least it helps make up for the lack of the romance part. Interestingly enough, Thaletas looks like a young Brasidas, and maybe this isn't exactly random.

Another fascinating aspect of the game is how it brings together ancient greek legends and connects them with each other, as well as with historical data. The myths of the Medusa, the Cyclops, the Minotaur and the Sphinx awaken gradually during their respective quests which, in turn, cross paths with the myth of Atlantis. After sealing Atlantis, Alexios confesses to Herodotos that this mythical place actually exists. Herodotos is fascinated, but Alexios warns him to never mention the discovery of Atlantis to anyone, much to the historian's dismay. Which is some sort of easter egg, as we know from the stories of the real-life Herodotos, who did include Atlantis in his narrations.

But the presence of myths never ceases to be. During a secondary questline tasked by Daphne, a huntress who belongs to a cult protected by the goddess Artemis and lives on a solitary mountain top in Phokis, Alexios has to hunt down and kill several legendary beasts, some of which come straight from the mythic circle of Herakles. It is an optional mission, but notably one of the most difficult and challenging, as some of those creatures are extremely tough to kill. Following the steps of the legendary hero, Alexios must travel across Greece to locate the beasts and fight with them so as to bring their pelts back to Daphne, at the same time paying tribute to Herakles and his Labours.

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