Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China is a game bursting at the seams with story, but not in a good way.
Chronicles: China is a small game relative to its franchise counterparts. It's a 2D side-scroller, not an open world adventure, and priced at only $10, it presents itself as an even smaller package than its downloadable peers (China takes a lot of inspiration from Mark of the Ninja and that game is $15). Naturally, changes must be made to the typical Assassin's Creed formula to fit it into this very different package, and China succeeds in this regarding its mechanics and systems (mainly by mimicking the mechanics and systems from the aforementioned Mark of the Ninja).
Yet, its narrative remains a sprawling adventure, an excuse to travel from historical locale to historical locale. It's a narrative uniquely unsuited to the 2D side-scroller genre, and it's interesting to watch the game bend over backwards as it tries to shove as much plot as it can between levels. China is an unfinished product, but only from a story standpoint. Its gameplay systems and art and level design are all quite well-done, but it's clear that they were the priority. The story remains an outline that never got revised.
The story of China tries to structure itself like a typical Assassin's Creed game. Normally this means there’s an extended introduction to introduce us to the protagonist. Think back to Ezio carrying crates for his mother in Assassin's Creed 2, or playing as a child as Conner in Assassin's Creed 3, or stealing an Assassin's identity in Black Flag, or crashing your girlfriend's posh birthday party in Unity. These are low-stakes scenes that exist to establish character, which is important because we'll be spending a lot of time with this Assassin.
Then there’s a sprawling story that takes said character to various historical locations at various historical times. Part action game and part historical tourism, the world is just as much a hero in these games as the Assassin.
This is what China wants to be, but not what it is. Since China is a far shorter and smaller game, time is of the essence, and those kinds of slow scenes of character development are deemed less important to the overall package. There’s no level dedicated to introducing us to Shao Jun, there’s not even a level dedicated to introducing the story.
The game opens with an info dump summarizing the first third of its story. The Assassin Brotherhood in China was wiped out. Two years later, Shao Jun returns for revenge, she allows herself to be captured to get close to her targets, and to insure she's not killed on the spot, she brings a special alien artifact given to her by the franchise's favorite Assassin, Ezio Auditore.
In three paragraphs of text, we skim over the inciting incident of this narrative, the catalyst for all of Shao Jun’s character development, her entire training, and even get a cameo by Ezio. These are easily the most important parts of the story as they provide the introductions of and motivations of its characters. We don’t get to see the destruction of the Brotherhood, so the loss doesn’t feel personal and we don’t feel culpable. We don’t get to see Shao Jun prepare and plan for this likely suicidal attack, robbing her of her most important character moments, turning her into a cipher, an empty shell of a woman with no actual personality.
These moments are skipped not because they're difficult to express in 2D (hell, Mark of the Ninja has a similar premise, and it opens with the attack on our clan, which we then fail to stop, making us partly responsible, motivating us for revenge), but more likely, it was a result of editing for cost and content instead of editing for story.This isn’t inherently a bad thing -- a story can be altered to fit the changing scope of a game -- but this never happened for China. The gameplay of China starts in the middle, but the story starts at the beginning. The game then relies on a series of Cliffs Notes to summarize plot and character motivation.
This lack of a beginning detracts from the middle and end that we actually play. The game dumps its exposition and then moves on as if it has accomplished its job, so that all the subsequent Cliffs Notes simply focus on your assassination target -- who he is, what he does, and how he’s related to the Templars. This creates a solid hierarchy of information, but at the cost of more character development. All I really need to know is that these guys are Templars, the additional information is unnecessary for a game of this size -- or at least unnecessary in the summary before a level (it would work great as part of a collectible that fleshes out the villain).
China feels like it was written and developed by two separate groups, who then came together in the end to try and force their disparate pieces into an awkward union. To save costs and time, the game skips over the most important part of its story and then spends too much focus on your assassination targets instead of on your Assassin. China has impressive ambitions, but those ambitions need to be scaled back to fit the reality of the situation. As it is, China wants so desperately to be big that it forgets that it’s small.