Deaf / HoH Game Review – Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Set in the fictional version of the Viking invasion of Britiain, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is an epic Viking adventure full of rich stories and gameplay. But is it accessible for d/Deaf and HoH players?
A man in the center wearing viking amor with furs and a long beard, holding an axe. To his left, a blue setting of viking ships sailing into battle and to his right, a red setting of vikings fights british soliders.

Review copy provided by Ubisoft.

Introduction

Who is ready for some Viking adventures? Set in 873 AD, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is an action role-playing game that takes place in a fictional version of the Viking invasion of Britain. Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is the twelfth major installment of the Assassin’s Creed series where we follow our protagonist, a Viking raider, exploring the open world, engaging in quests, and climbing their way to victory. The game not only has the classic Assassin’s Creed elements, such as the iconic stealth/parkour mechanics, eagle vision, and naval ship combat, but it also introduces some new features such as settlements. And though the game is structured around several main story quests, players can write their own Viking saga, as each decision can shift the story and branch into varying missions and multiple endings. The game is set to release on November 10, 2020.

But though this sounds epic, is the game accessible to d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers?

Ever since Ubisoft announced their initiative of Bringing Accessibility to the Viking Epic back in October, I was curious to give this game a try. In just two years, Ubisoft’s accessibility options have come a long way from their previous Assassin’s Creed installment, as seen in Hyper Scape and more recently, in Watch Dogs: Legion. I was very excited to see what else Ubisoft has in store for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) accessibility in 2020.

And let’s just say, I’ve taken a little bit of a “viking” to this game’s accessibility.

A viking woman standing on the right, wearing green armor and brown furs, with a crow sitting on her shoulder. Green forest and ruins can be seen behind her, with burning smoke in the distance.

This review will mainly focus on DHH accessibility and will not only provide design feedback, but also assist gamers with disabilities in deciding if this a game for them.

Settings

Ubisoft typically provides settings in two forms. The first is the initial suggestions, whereas the second is the complete list of a menu options. Therefore, this section is broken into two parts.

Initial menu adjustments

Upon launching the game, a prompt requests players to adjust certain settings that are pre-determined by internal Ubisoft members.

The very first setting is the menu navigation, where players are asked whether or not they would like text narration across the game menus. To me, this is a great practice, as it enables and empowers those with visual-related disabilities. To learn more about the Blind and Low Vision accessibility for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, I suggest readers check out our Blind and Low Vision Game Reviews

Menu narration, supports a text narrtion feature across the game menu pages. you can enable it and tweak its parameters in the options at any time.

From here, we dive into image calibration options. Most notably, players can adjust brightness and contrast, as well as enable certain Colorblind Modes—all of which are beneficial to those with visual and cognitive related disabilities.

Next, the game provides the gameplay and controls settings, where players can adjust sensitive content (i.e. blood effects, nudity, etc.) and controls. To learn more about controls, check out our Mobility Game Reviews.

Gameplay and controls, which includes sensitive content and controls options.

The next section is where we start to see some DHH accessibility features, as it includes optional adjustments for the interface and sound. For the interface, players can change the language, text size (which affects the HUD and settings), in-game icon size, menu navigation, and voice language. 

Personally, I am very happy that players can adjust the text and in-game icon sizes for the entire game. As someone who cannot hear, I highly rely on visual information during my gameplay. By adjusting the sizes to meet my needs, I can better process visual information and therefore, remain immersed and fully informed. This is an accessibility trend of 2020, and I really hope that other developers come across these settings and begin to integrate them into their games as well.

In-game icon size, which adjusts the size of world map icons from small to medium to large. An example is shown on the right side.

Most notably, players can adjust the subtitles and closed captions under the sound options. Players choose the language and from there, can toggle subtitle display and closed captions. I would like to note that subtitle display is automatically enabled in this game, which is consistent with research collected by Ubisoft, which shows that 95% of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey players kept subtitles on. And as a deaf gamer, I am pleased to see that subtitles are not only benefiting DHH accessibility, but are serving a universal purpose that benefits almost all players.

But what is the difference between subtitles and closed captions? Under the initial settings, subtitles pertain to spoken dialogue, such as conversations in cinematics, whereas closed-captions is described as “useful if you need some additional notification for different in-game actions.” In the below image, we observe an example of the closed captions in action:

Interface and Sound, where closed captions are selected. On the right, an example of a closed caption is displayed, which has a directional indicator to show where the sound is coming from.

Once we finish the suggested settings, players land in the main menu, which allows them to start a new game, select the options menu, quit to desktop, and more. 

First let’s unpack the initial menu adjustments that are suggested by Ubisoft. On one hand, it is very satisfying to see accessibility naturally integrated into the initial menu, whether it be vision, hearing, or cognitive related.

On the other hand, it was unusual that players are not able to immediately interact with volume adjustments, such as the master, music, and sound effects volumes. As someone who is deaf, I highly rely on volume settings. It would have been nice to see this as a suggested setting, but I could still adjust the volume before I started the gameplay.

Lastly, I wish we could fine-tune subtitles in the initial settings. For those with hearing, cognitive, vision disabilities, it is almost always necessary to adjust subtitles, whether it is to make them larger or contrast better through a backdrop. So though we are prompted to toggle the subtitles, it does not have that full accessibility impact. Still, it’s nice to see subtitles as an option when I first open the game, so in this regard, I am nitpicking (which, in my opinion, is always a good sign).

A glance at the rest of the options

Within the entire options, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla offers seven separate menus for players to peruse and adjust to meet their needs. The menus include screen, graphics, controls, gameplay, interface, sound, and 3rd party.

The first among DHH accessibility features can be found under the interface tab, where players can adjust text size and in-game icon size. Though players are already requested to review these HUD features, it’s always nice to see that we can go back and make changes.

Additionally, the HUD background can be adjusted through a slider, which makes the HUD contrast better with the overall gameplay.

Interface menu, where plays can adjust general settings, WUD world, and quests. The HUD background is selected, which enables additional backgrounds for HUD elements and tweak their opacity. It will help if you have issues with seeing semi-transparent images. An example is shown, where the HUD on the center top has a block background to improve contrast.

As someone who is deaf and heavily relies on the HUD for information processing, I immediately turned on the HUD background, as when I make decisions in my game, I never want to miss a single cue. This is another “new-ish” trend, mostly seen in 2020. Again, I would love for Ubisoft and other studios to continue to add options to adjust the HUD to better contrast with gameplay

From here, players can explore the sound options, where general sound can be adjusted (i.e. volume for music, sound effects, etc.). Most notably, there is an option titled “Dialogue Boost,” which increases the volume of all spoken dialogue. This is incredibly helpful for DHH gamers, as for those of us with some amount of hearing, it is incredibly difficult to fully process sound and spoken language. 

Additionally, players can adjust music frequency, meaning that we can reduce the frequency of when music plays through the game. This is the first time I have explicitly seen this as an option, so I was very, very excited to give it a try.

For most games, I will turn off music and increase the volume for spoken dialogue. However, I experimented in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and found that decreased music frequency and boosting dialogue gave me a fully immersive, deaf gaming experience. I am very happy to say that Ubisoft’s experimentation with dialogue boost and music frequency has paid off for DHH gamers!

Sound options, where players can adjust the general settings and subtitles/closed captions. Dialogue boost is currently selected.

The audio menu includes a way for users to really fine-tune the subtitles and closed captions. As previously mentioned, subtitles create text for all spoken dialogue and closed-captions are described as “useful if you need some additional notification for different in-game actions.”

Within this menu though, we can also adjust the size of captions/subtitles, from small to medium to large. When selecting the size, the right-hand side shows a sample of what the text size differences look like. This is an excellent practice, and something I actually recently criticized Ubisoft for not including in their game from last month, Watch Dogs: Legion. But here, we see a beautiful example of how the text will look, fully informing us of which options are most suitable for our individual needs.

Size is currently selected, where users can change text size from small to medium to large. Examples are shown on the right hand side.

The one awkward thing is that players are unable to separately adjust the subtitles size from the closed captions size, as text size simultaneously affects both categories.

I highly suggest that developers and designers distinguish the two in terms of text size as I find that, though I like to keep a medium size for the subtitles, medium is actually a bit too large for the closed captions. As a result, the closed captions ever-so-slightly obstruct the player’s third-person view—a risk Ubisoft must take to ensure closed captions are within center vision.

A solution would be if players can separately adjust the closed caption sizes, as with two closed captions already begin to obstruct the vision, and I can imagine this will become a lot worse as there are more than two sound effects happening on screen that requires a list of closed captions.

From here, we can adjust the background using a slider from 0-100%. This is again a great practice, as it allows users to really fine-tune the opacity to make the text as legible as possible for them, while also not interfering with the overall gameplay. I am particularly happy that Ubisoft opted to use a slider this time, rather than the three option system they used for other 2020 games such as Hyper Scape. A slider can let gamers with disabilities modify and tweak the subtitle settings to optimize accessibility and individual needs, thus empowering more disabled gamers.

The only issue I have is that the subtitles background does not include a sample image on the right-hand side of the option, so it is difficult to tell the difference between 40% and 60% opacity if we do not have concrete examples.

Lastly, players can toggle the speaker’s name in the subtitles from on to off. This is a great practice as for DHH gamers, knowing the speaker’s name is absolutely critical for equal access. However, for someone who may have a language or auditory processing issue, it’s not necessarily an issue to identify the speaker, but rather understand the words being said. In this case, the more options, the better!

Overall, I am genuinely pleased with the settings, both in the initial menu adjustments and the rest of the options menu. It is interesting to see that this game does not include an explicit accessibility menu, however for DHH gamers, this does not cause any issues. Ubisoft once again does a great job!

Gameplay

Once the settings are ready, our epic adventures can begin. The moment the player selects a new game, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla prompts players to select multiple different types of difficulties. That’s right, multiple.

For example, the first is the exploration difficulty, with the options being adventurer, explorer (default), and pathfinder. Adventurer is described as using “more icons” that will help players move toward rewards and objectives, whereas pathfinder uses very minimal HUD and world map information.

Exploration difficulty menu, where players can select one of three settings. The right hand side shows an explanation of each setting.

From here, we can select four different combat difficulties, titled Skald (easy), Vikingr (default), Berserk (Hard) and Drengr (Very Hard). And oh man, do I love the names of each of these settings. I’m a complete sucker for thematic difficulty titles.

Combat difficulty menu, where players can select one of four settings. The right hand side shows an explanation of each setting.

The easiest mode is described as for those who “prefer a good narrative experience…enemy damage output and resistances are reduced” whereas the hardest difficulty is described as an “intense combat experience.” Luckily, we can adjust the combat difficulty at any point in the game, which of course is a wonderful accessibility practice, as it’s impossible to say if the combat will be too easy or too hard until we play some of the game. 

Players can also adjust stealth difficulty which, as a deaf gamer, I was immediately very interested in.

Stealth difficulty menu, where players can select one of three settings. The right hand side shows an explanation of each setting.

Stealth is an iconic mechanic of the Assassin’s Creed series, but has always been something I struggled with. Being deaf, it can be a tad bit harder to have full knowledge of my surroundings, and though this title includes closed captions for sound effects around my character, historically I have been a critical failure at stealth because I wouldn’t realize there is an enemy until it is too late. 

The stealth difficulty options are apprentice (easy), assassin (default), and master assassin (hard). Each difficulty adjusts the guards’ perception, whether to make the game a less challenging experience or enhanced realism. Since this game includes closed captions, I decided to give the default setting a try and figured that worst case, I can revert to the apprentice setting. 

Once these settings are adjusted, players dive into the fictional Viking world of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.

First impression and some immediate concerns

My first DHH observation is that the subtitles have great line breaks and speaker labels. Thanks to the subtitles, I feel completely immersed in the story’s narrative and was about to easily follow the dialogue with no difficulty.

However, some immediate concerns rapidly arose as I continued my gameplay.

A man looking down as a small boy in a dimly lit room. subtitles are clear and contract well with the background, stating Varin (in yellow): And you holt it out like this and look him in the eyes and you say, "Styrbjorn King."

At first, I noticed that some of the subtitles were a bit choppy as they appeared on my screen (i.e. lack of subtitle transitions). There was one moment in the opening scene where a few subtitles flashed on my screen and I was completely unable to read them.

I also began to notice that not all of the dialogue around me was subtitled during the opening sequence. I was left worrying whether or not I was missing any crucial information. In fact, I suppose I am still worried that I missed something important! Who knows? It wasn’t subtitled.

And as I progressed through the opening sequence, where we control a younger version of our character, circumstances worsened, as the speech slowly became out of sync with the speaker’s mouths and the subtitles.

It got so bad that at one point, I restarted my game twice and repaired the file. Even after taking active measures, the problems persist, which is very concerning as I have never had previous issues with Ubisoft’s titles and my computer easily meets the game’s minimum requirements. 

Captions and speech eventually became so rapidly out of sync, I was tempted to quit the game right there.

One theory is that when I turned on the subtitles and closed captions, the game seemed to start staggering. I tried turning everything off, and the gameplay ran a little more smoothly, which leads me to think that the accessibility options are taking up too many resources. I have never ran into this issue before, but have heard of other gamers with disabilities who ran into similar issues (typically using some more heavy-duty options like STT/TTS).

A man looking off to the right in a dimly lit room, which is decorated in party decor. Varin (in yellow): So, did you see our king?

Either way, to say that my initial experience in the opening scenes was frustrating would be a complete understatement. I ended up reaching out to Ubisoft to see if there was anyway to solve this issue and asked if perhaps I could try a PS4 version. Should I find that my experience improves, I will be sure to update readers.

But in the meantime, even if your PC meets the minimum requirements, deaf gamers beware! Because subtitles and closed captions may very well fall out of sync for you. And trust me, it’s not fun.

Still, I felt optimistic that this may be a sole issue with the opening sequences, and continued the gameplay’s onboarding experience.

Onboarding and continued gameplay

Once I got full control of our main protagonist and was able to explore the world of Assassin’s Creed, the synchronization of the subtitles and closed captions slightly improved, which is a good sign, as it meant that I would be able to continue my gameplay with a little less frustration.

The very first thing I noticed was the closed captions. In the game, the closed captions are slightly off-center of the players vision. This is a huge improvement from Ubisoft’s title from last month, Watch Dogs: Legion, where the closed captions are placed to the bottom right-hand side of the screen and had very little impact during active gameplay since the words are placed in the mid to far peripheral vision. 

In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, designers placed captions in a much more impactful location towards the center of the screen, where DHH gamers can easily read the closed captions as they actively engage in combat and sail their Viking warships. Plus, thanks to the directionality, I never felt like I was lost in my gameplay.

Seeing this improvement between the titles, which are roughly one month apart from one another, tells me that Ubisoft is actively trying to improve their games for DHH players. And I can say that their hard work is paying off, as the closed captions made the gameplay significantly better for me. Here is a comparison of Watch Dogs: Legion to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla:

The user is hiding behind a pew and shooting an enemy soldier. cc read that there is a bullet impact on the enemy soldier and a pistol shot from the user. The user is taking damage from their left side, as displayed through a red arc around the crosshair, also known as a directional damage indicator.
A woman standing on the top of a mountain looking off an ocean. Two closed captions are displayed in the center, wealth tinkling pointing north, and wealth tinkling pointing south.

When considering the subtitles during active gameplay, I was surprised to find that some dialogue was not subtitled. For example, as I approached my first round of enemies, the protagonist whispers to herself something along the lines of “I need to be quiet… don’t want to alert these people.” However, this was sadly not included in the subtitles, nor somehow incorporated in the closed captions.

I was pretty bummed out to see this, as I love relying on my character’s commentary to gain context to my situation.

A male viking raising his axe to strike his enemy head-on.

The next DHH feature that is very beneficial is Odin’s Sight, which also enhances the gameplay for those with cognitive, vision, and motor disabilities. Essentially, Odin’s Sight is a scan ability that identifies nearby loot and enemies with the use of audio and visual cues. When closed captions are turned on, audio is captioned as well. Finally, no more loud enemies taking me randomly by surprise!

Gameplay capture, where the player is using Odin's Vision. The screen has a blue hue, indicating that the vision is in use. The user can see a red figure ahead, that is highlighted by the vision. Some captions are also shown.

We can also use Odin’s Sight to tag enemies, where an outline of an enemy will occur. Though at a glance, this may only seem beneficial for vision and cognitive disabilities, but it also highly benefits gamers with hearing loss, as we can tag our enemies and constantly stay informed of their location as we explore the nearby forests and encampments. We are never shocked when an enemy loudly moves locations. 

After Odin's Vision is done, enemies remain with an outline of red, which is visible behind the rock.

In summary, Odin’s Sight is an incredible, built-in accessibility feature that reaches a wide-range of people with disabilities. I hope that Ubisoft will continue to use this as a staple for future, related titles. Because not only does it have an awesome name, but it’s also extremely helpful for anyone.

Final Thoughts

So how accessible is the new Assassin’s Creed game to DHH players?

Well, the subtitles and corresponding subtitle adjustments are clean, and I was very happy to see closed captions having a large impact on in-game immersion for DHH gamers—especially as the closed captions are strategically and cleverly placed right within the center of the player’s vision. I was also very impressed by the game’s HUD and integration of Odin’s Sight, as well as the extensive volume features which all very rapidly enhance DHH experiences.

The character is crouched and observing an outlined enemy in the background, with two closed captions displayed.

However, some major points are docked due to the abnormal initial gameplay, where subtitles either became out of sync or did not appear at all. More so, there is a little bit of room for improvement for specific fine-tune adjustments, such as distinguishing text sizes for subtitles vs. closed captions.

Still, was the game fun? Yes! It is a beautifully crafted Viking universe that has epic combat, sick stealth/parkour mechanics, great storytelling, and an overall extremely immersive experience.

A man and woman sitting by the side of a lake on a dock, playing dice and drinking beer.

However, though it was a step forward in some aspects of accessibility, in other ways, it felt like we have taken a very small step backwards.

Still, I am sure that with a few adjustments and patches, this game will have a lot of potential for DHH gamers. Ubisoft has all the tools, but they just need to make sure they are all working. And I very much look forward to the day I can experience Assassin’s Creed Valhalla in it’s fullest potential.

Note: Score is set until the game receives future patches to address performance issues and current user experience design. Subject to change.

Deaf / HoH Game Review – Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Overall Score - 5.2

5.2