The question here is whether Liberation is – as suggested – a true Assassin’s Creed experience on a handheld. From DS to smartphone, the series’ portable spin-offs to date have failed to capture the essence of the console games, but as new protagonist Aveline de Grandpré shimmies up to the top of a spire and gazes out over a hazy New Orleans sunrise, that familiar eagle cry the backing to her first descent into a hay bale, it’s evident this is the closest the small screen has got to matching the widescreen scope for which the franchise is famed.
As with Uncharted: Golden Abyss, however, it loses something in the transition. Visually speaking, it’s a little unhewn; disappointingly so given Vita’s capabilities, not least because it doesn’t seem to have improved the console versions’ framerate. Break into a sprint and the game struggles to match stride with Aveline. But fidelity has taken a backseat to some attractive lighting and environmental colour, while the protagonist in particular is very well animated. Locations are smaller and denser than the console game, but equally varied in look and feel: Aveline’s journey takes her from the tumbledown tenements of her home town to murky marshlands linked by networks of logs and trees, while later you’ll cross the border to the verdant Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Once you’re accustomed to its minor shortcomings, this is a handsome game.
Like Sony Bend, Ubisoft Sofia can’t resist making use of Vita’s feature set, though touch controls here are mostly restricted to occasional gimmicks. Running finger and thumb across front and back panels rips open a sealed envelope, while swiping downwards allows you to pilfer items from unsuspecting passersby. Chain kills – earned from silent and airborne assassinations – briefly pause the action, allowing you to touch-tag several enemies, a single button press enough to send Aveline into an elaborate kill sequence, which would be gratifying if you felt a little more responsible for it.
Combat is simplistic enough without having to resort to touchscreen tactics, with enemies both short in number and weak of constitution. Still, it’s more interactive than the infrequent alligator encounters in the bayou, a single-button QTE allowing Aveline to dodge and wrestle the predator’s jaws shut before jabbing a blade into its skull.
Yet for the most part you’ll be able to keep your distance. While Connor’s console quest frequently requires him to get his tomahawk bloody, Liberation is more focused on the art of the assassin, not least because remaining undetected is more often a requirement than an option. A blowpipe can make things a little too easy, not least when you buy a larger pouch to stockpile more poison, but it’s bracing to return to a more stealth-led approach.
To which end, Aveline can adopt a trio of guises: the Lady persona is unable to climb, but can charm and bribe her way past patrols; the slave can blend easily with other labourers; and the assassin raises the attention of guards but is the most efficient combatant. Renovating dressing chambers lets you swap between the three at will, but there’s rarely need to: you’re usually given the best outfit for the job as each mission begins.
Liberation’s narrative is rather picaresque, while the less said about its asynchronous multiplayer mode, the better. Yet it avoids the console game’s occasional longueurs to offer something altogether more compact and focused. It may not be a true Assassin’s Creed experience on a handheld, then, but this sensibly streamlined game is a fine companion piece.