Assassin's Creed Shadows preview: a bold, beautiful, and brutal journey across Feudal Japan

Assassin's Creed Shadows
(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Assassin's Creed Shadows is going to hit a lot of the right notes when it releases later this year on November 15, 2024. 

Having attended Ubisoft's behind-closed-doors preview event at Summer Game Fest 2024, we’ve seen more than enough to whet our appetite, and even more samurai and shinobi action can’t come soon enough.

I’ve had a glimpse of the setting and environments, as well as the combat styles and abilities of the two protagonists, and there’s now more details emerging from the shadows (pun very much intended).

In short, one of the most demanded settings for an Assassin’s Creed game is proving the perfect playground and the game’s two playable protagonists offer some of the best and most brutal combat we’ve experienced in a while. 

Double trouble

Assassin's Creed Shadows

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Shadows’ dual protagonists both possess that brutal combat - but deploy it in very distinct ways, which is a microcosm of the difference between the two characters generally. From the reveal trailer and information, we knew that the two playable protagonists would be different, but now I’ve seen exactly how different.

Naoe is a shinobi - and the smallest assassin to ever grace the series - who is extremely agile, skillful, and deadly. Combining swift and slick movement, as well as a dextrous application of her assassin’s skill and toolset means she specializes in bringing terror from the shadows. Equipped with the iconic hidden blade, Naoe also offers the more ‘traditional’ Assassin’s Creed playstyle.

Conversely, Yasuke is a giant of a man and a beast of a samurai. His enormous stature and use of heavier weapons make for more devastating front-on attacks; he offers a unique perspective, too, as an outsider in Japan caught up in its state of political turmoil and upheaval. Historically, Yasuke was one of Oda Nobunaga’s retainers, and it’ll be interesting to see how that aspect of him plays out in-game.

There’s a huge size difference between the two which helps to emphasize their differences but also specialties and skills - plus each character’s size is intrinsically linked to their combat. The Venn diagrams of the characters' fighting styles do not overlap much, and there’s a terrific sense of identity in each protagonist’s abilities.

Yasuke the samurai

Assassin's Creed Shadows

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Yasuke’s effect on people is immediately apparent when we see him walking through a town. Citizens quickly move out of his way with a mix of intimidation, fear, and respect. 

His combat and fighting ability is brutal and full of power; there’s no subtlety here. Attacks can quickly whittle down enemies’ health, and when guard or armor meters are depleted, attacks knock off an enemy’s armor and helmet with satisfying blows before heavy finisher attacks can make their heads explode - yes, really. 

There are some great skills on offer, with one example being Yasuke deploying his kanabō in a huge ground pound sending enemies and shockwaves flying, with another being a swift multi-enemy finisher with his katana. 

In terms of defense, there’s no shield here for deflecting attacks so relying on your armor and timing evasive maneuvers is key. Well-timed parries are also critical, allowing you to stagger enemies to open up opportunities for damage.

Naoe the shinobi

Assassin's Creed Shadows

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

We saw Naoe as a fully-fledged assassin in the demonstration mission. Her movement, agility, and traversal skills were immediately striking with some slick moves and new tricks in her repertoire. For instance, Naoe’s grappling hook is brilliant for moving between high spots. One particular move with the hook sees her scale the low part of a wall and throw up her grappling to a latch-on point in one smooth motion.

It’s also apparent that shadows are much more than just a name as there’s a dedicated visibility gauge that reacts according to where your character, Naoe in this instance, is in regards to shadows or light. It has a direct effect on whether or not you can be seen or not. Naoe can take matters into her own hands in this regard and throw shuriken to take out lights to create dark paths and routes to enemies.

Another boost to stealth movement when approaching targets is the ability to go fully prone. This not only helps you keep a low profile in grass but can also be taken into shallow water where Naoe then deploys a reed to breathe through. Elsewhere her skills and stature allow her to hide almost in plain sight, sticking to ceilings and light fittings like a spider right above enemies’ heads, letting them pass without incident. We also saw Naoe safely knocking out innocents as opposed to killing them, a mechanic that pleasantly reminded us of the Tenchu series.

Combine this agility with what looks like a slick and brutal assassin’s toolbox and the proposition is ever more delectable. Weapons such as shuriken and throwing knives are fun to pick enemies off at range, while the Kusarigama - a sickle on the end of a chain - looks fantastic too, usable for crowd control when up against multiple enemies, or to reach and take down enemies from a distance. 

Whether you’re playing and assassinating as either however, you’ll always get treated to excellent kill screens when taking down targets - the screen transforms into a stylish black and white aesthetic with just the red blood spatter of your foe providing the color, all in slow motion.

Fully synchronized beauty

Assassin's Creed Shadows

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

The window into the setting we saw during the preview was also exceptional and proves that Feudal Japan is the perfect backdrop for an Assassin’s Creed adventure. Set during the Azuchi-Momoyama period of the late 16th century, the level of internal pressure and political turmoil makes for an ideal setting for Assassin-snooping and Templar-nefariousness.

The open world on offer looks incredibly beautiful, capturing the landscape aesthetic of the time but offers an extra layer of dynamism with real weather systems and a cycle of all the seasons - both having a role to play in the story as well as how you approach missions and how enemies react. We were treated to one particular landscape reveal at the start of the demonstrated mission and it was breathtaking - trees in blossom, running water in streams, and a landscape vista including a fortress on the horizon.

When picking up quests from folks in towns, you only get broad clues and basic information - this bad man who works in this region often does bad things in this broad area. This evokes the investigation missions in Mirage and means you’re not spoon-fed quests and all the info at once, making missions that bit more satisfying to solve. 

The time is Naoe

Assassin's Creed Shadows

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

The setting and both characters will resonate with the fan base with each offering very particular style and approach. The amount of replayability that this opens up in missions looks good too, but the proof of that pudding will be in the stabbing. 

The choice is welcome however, and importantly, aside from a few key story beats that will need to be played as one or the other, players can swap between protagonists at their leisure and even play the game almost solely as one. 

Some cheesy dialogue from both protagonists aside, what I saw has me incredibly excited for Assassin’s Creed Shadows. It definitely looks like the wait for a Feudal Japan setting was worth it with its brutal combat, exquisite stealth and combat toolkits, and breathtaking setting. 

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Rob Dwiar
Managing Editor, TechRadar Gaming

Rob is the Managing Editor of TechRadar Gaming, a video games journalist, critic, editor, and writer, and has years of experience gained from multiple publications. Prior to being TechRadar Gaming's Managing Editor, he was TRG's Deputy Editor, and a longstanding member of GamesRadar+, being the Commissioning Editor for Hardware there for years, while also squeezing in a short stint as Gaming Editor at WePC just before joining TechRadar Gaming. He is also a freelance writer on tech, gaming hardware, video games, gardens, and landscapes and is crowdfunding a book on video game landscapes that you can back and pre-order now too.