Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

The first hour or so

Set around the start of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC), Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey offers an interesting take on ancient Greece.

Josho Brouwers

Publisher Ubisoft is known for a number of large franchises. I’ve previously played their Stone Age-inspired entry in the Far Cry franchise, subtitled Primal, and wrote about it extensively. Recently, they released another entry in their Assassin’s Creed series. Subtitled Odyssey, it’s set in 431 BC, at the very start of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Naturally, this meant that I had to play it, and write and talk about it.

The Assassin’s Creed are ostensibly about a millenia-old struggle between the Assassins (the goodies) and the Templars (the baddies). Each time focuses on a particular time period, which, in the context of the game, is generated from “genetic memories”. To be honest, the story is mostly guff, and I have to admit that I never cared enough about the story to actually play an entire game in this series – and I’ve played a lot of them! – all the way through to the finish.

The important thing is that the game presents itself as essentially a playground with a historical theme. Any errors or inaccuracies can be chalked up to the simulation malfunctioning or an attempt to fill the blanks as best as possible. Likewise, any seemingly supernatural abilities can be attributed to the simulation, too. For example, in Odyssey, you have a pet eagle that you can send out to tag enemies and points of interest as if it were a drone fitted with a camera.

Odyssey is the culmination of literally years of back-to-back releases of Assassin’s Creed games. This entry is an open world role-playing game set in Greece. But this virtual version of Greece isn’t, of course, a fully-realized recreation. It’s an abridged version of this geographic area. Like a theme park, everything that’s worth seeing is in close proximity to one another, and sailing by ship from the island of Cephalonia (where you start your adventure) to the next major city, Megara, takes what seems to be mere minutes.

In other words, you shouldn’t approach Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey expecting it to be historically accurate in every detail. But the developers have touted their research into Classical Greece, and since this game will be a major way through which a general audience will be introduced to this period, it deserves a closer look. In this and following articles, as well as companion videos that I hope to do when time permits, I’ll write and talk about what the developers got right and wrong, and what seems authentic or not.

The Battle at Thermopylae

The game opens during the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), and gives you control of none other than Leonidas, king of the Spartans. Within the context of the game, Leonidas is the owner of a spear that is your character’s secondary weapon and which plays a key role in the game’s plot. He is also the grandfather of the game’s protagonist (the player character).

Aside from its connection to the main plot, this opening really serves two main purposes. Firstly, it’s intended as a brief tutorial for the player, with emphasis on how to move around and fight, since you’ll be doing a lot of that in the game. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s a sequence that clearly draws a lot of inspiration from the movie 300 (2006): visually, it looks similar, and one of your special attacks is a kick that is clearly a reference to Leonidas’ kicking a Persian messenger down a well in the film.

A lot of popular culture focuses on Greek mythology, even if only obliquely. This includes TV shows like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) and moves like Troy (2004) and Clash of the Titans (2010). When it comes to ancient Greek history, there’s not nearly as much available in the popular imagination, except stuff like Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). There’s even less that’s set during what is commonly regarded – rightly or wrongly – as the heyday of ancient Greek culture, the fifth century BC.

It’s clear from the opening sequence that the developers watched the movie 300 (2004) a lot. The Spartans all seem to wear muscled cuirasses, whereas linen corslets would have been more likely. Leonidas also wears a red cloak, which is fixed through some sort of weird device to his left breast. The Spartans also have lambdas on their shields, which is anachronistic.

One exception is the movie 300, based on the comic book by Frank Miller. This was a huge success, while also based on an actual event that took place in 480 BC. In other words, if you want a quick and easy way to introduce players to Classical Greece, you could do worse than start off with a battle that they’re likely to have heard about thanks to 300. And who wouldn’t want to control a very Gerard Butler-esque Leonidas?

Unfortunately, this opening sequence doesn’t just reference 300: large parts of it feel copied directly from the movie, including the opening battle’s look and feel, complete with some slow-motion action at the start. Unlike the movie, though, Leonidas throws his shield at a Persian before you get control of the character: in Odyssey, you never use a shield. While one may object to this on the grounds that Greek melee fighters generally always have a shield, I can imagine situations – outside of massive battles! – where a shield could be an encumbrance.

Some errors from 300 are copied by Odyssey. The Spartan shields bear the letter lambda (a reference to Laconia, the region dominate by Sparta), but as I’ve explained earlier, such national symbols weren’t depicted on shields until maybe fifty years or so after the Battle of Thermopylae. Likewise, the Spartans probably didn’t wear red cloaks, but rather red tunics (Xen. Spartan Constitution 11.3), although Xenophon isn’t very clear in this instance.

Getting up close and personal with Leonidas. Bronze forearm guards are known from Greece, but they were only worn on the right arm (the left being protected by the large shield), and they were, to judge from the evidence, rare rather than ubiquitous.

As far as the rest of the equipment is concerned, the Spartans seem to have a predilection for bronze muscled cuirasses, but this is unlikely: in this period, they probably wore either bronze, bell-shaped cuirasses or, more likely, linen corslets. Likewise, the leather (?) pteryges (strips) dangling from the waist are, as far as I’m aware, a Hollywood invention. The linen corslet usually features pteryges cut from the corslet itself; in the seventh and sixth centuries, some warriors also used bronze belly plates to protect their abdomen (e.g. Eero Jarva’s Archaiologia on Archaic Greek Body Armour (1995)).

When it comes to the Persian troops, the developers seem to have been content to stick to fantasy, with leather body-armour and pointy, apparently metal helmets. The “boss” character fought by Leonidas towards the end of the sequence seemingly borrowed wholesale from 300, face mask and all. This is a pity: while we don’t know as much about the Persian army as we do the Greek, we do know enough to create some reasonably accurate reconstructions (as an introduction, read Nicholas Sekunda’s 1992-book, The Persian Army, 560-330 BC).

Alexios or Kassandra?

After the opening sequence there’s a scene set in the present (?) day, where an archaeologist has retrieved the fabled “Spear of Leonidas” and is using DNA recovered from it to somehow access the “genetic memories” of one of his descendants. This is where you, the player, get to chose which of Leonidas’ two grandchildren you want to control: Alexios or Kassandra. Which sibling you choose affects, as far as I know, only one major change, by swapping the siblings’ roles in the game’s story. Your character will be a mercenary regardless of which option you pick.

I elected to play as Kassandra. Some people on the internet, as is their wont, have complained loudly about the inclusion of a female main character – a mercenary, at that – in what they say was a male-dominated world. But this ignores two important aspects: (1) nearly all of our ancient sources, including those about women, are written entirely by privileged men, and; (2) women had numerous important roles in ancient Greek society.

Among the upper echelons of society in particular, women effectively ran the household. Among less affluent families, women often worked alongside men: for example, it’s generally accepted that wives would help out their husbands in pottery workshops, and among independent farmers (smallholders), women similarly could be expected to work alongside men. Women also fed and took care of garrisons of warriors.

Kassandra says “Malaka!” a lot. Malaka is a modern Greek curse word, used like you would “asshole” in modern English. It can be used to call someone names, but it’s also used to joke around with people you know well. If you step off the plane in Greece, it’s likely to be one of the first words you’ll here. Curiously, in the game, Kassandra also uses it as an expletive analogous to English “son of a bitch!”

Ancient Greek women also served as priestesses to female deities. Indeed, some of the most powerful of the Olympian gods were female. Athena, for example, was venerated throughout Greece as the goddess of wisdom, as well as of warcraft. As Athena Polias, she was specifically venerated as the protector of cities. In this, she contrasts directly with Ares, the god of strife and bloodlust, who’s often referred to as the destroyer of cities. Lest we forget, both of them are children of Zeus. But whereas Athena was the apple of her father’s eye, Zeus told Ares to his face that he hated him the most of all the gods on Olympus (Hom. Il. 5.890–891).

Certainly, when it came to war, only men were expected to fight. But we nevertheless do hear about women who took to the field themselves. Their number include Tomyris of the Massagetae, Mania of Dardanus, Telesilla of Argos, and perhaps most famously, thanks no doubt to 300: Rise of an Empire (2014), Artemisia of Halicarnassus. But perhaps the key figure that the developers of Odyssey drew inspiration from for Kassandra was the mythical heroine Atalanta, who was unrivalled when it came to running and the hunt.

Finally, the kerfuffle online about Kassandra reminded me of an earlier discussion about the casting of a black actor to play Achilles in the TV series Troy: Fall of a City. The important thing to remember here is that, like Troy: Fall of a City, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is a product made today for a modern, twenty-first-century audience. Our current society is – or at least should be – inclusive and diverse, and contemporary popular media should be as inclusive and as diverse as its intended audience.

Welcome to Cephalonia

After you’ve picked either Alexios or Kassandra, the game proper starts with a beautiful view of the island of Cephalonia, as the camera follows an eagle soaring through the air. You end up at the player character’s house. Overall, I like the look of the buildings in the game, though I’m not completely sure there were as many houses with flat roofs (including the player characters’s house) as Odyssey seems to suggest. Houses with thatched and tiled roofs were probably more common.

Kassandra is called out by some henchmen who work for a bandit referred to as the Cyclops, on account of his only having one eye. They refer to Kassandra as a misthios. This struck me as pretty weird, since Kassandra is female and should therefore be called a misthia. Furthermore, when calling someone, one wouldn’t use the nominative case, but rather the vocative. Anyway, I digress.

Phoebe, a young friend of Kassandra’s, and the hero’s pet eagle. In the game, you can use the eagle like a modern drone, to get a literal bird’s eye view of a place and to tag enemies. It’s not very realistic, but then again, this is a game, after all!

To get back to misthios, it’s an ancient Greek word denoting a wage earner or paid labourer, related to misthos (wage). In the game, it’s treated as a synonym for mercenary. But misthios is a very general term applied to anyone working for someone else in exchange for pay; the more common ancient Greek word to denote a mercenary is actually misthophoros (plural misthophoroi).

As you wander the villages and towns, you’ll hear background characters talk in a foreign language. They’re actually speaking modern Greek. Modern Greek is grammatically a little simpler than ancient Greek, and obviously it features many words to describe concepts completely unfamiliar to the ancient Greeks. But what’s especially noteworthy is that modern Greek sounds very different from ancient: the Greek letter beta is pronounced in ancient Greek as a B, but as a V in modern Greek. Likewise, the combination -oi (as in dromoi) is pronounced as “oy” in ancient Greek and “ee” (as in leeway) in modern Greek.

As an aside, in the game, drachmae (Latinized version of ancient drachmai, plural of drachma) is pronounced as drakmee”. The latter is the modern Greek pronunciation for singular drachmê (the name of the currency used in Greece before they switched to the Euro). The plural would be be drachmes in modern Greek, pronounced “drakhmess”. It sounds strange to me to have the people in the game pronounce drachmae (in the subtitles) as singular (and modern) drachmê.

The road leading up to Kassandra’s house is marked by his battlefield trophy. It’s a little strange to see this here. Such trophies were erected on battlefields from the early fifth century BC onwards to mark a victory. They consisted of a wooden cross, to which weapons and armour were fixed. You’ll encounter a lot of these trophies in the game as you travel from place to place.

In any event, after you’ve dealt with the Cyclops’s henchmen, you’re told to meet up with a man called Markos. “Markos” isn’t an ancient Greek name at all: it’s the Greek equivalent of Latin Marcus (and didn’t become a common Greek name until after the rise of Christianity). In any case, Markos is the man who raised you after you washed ashore on the beach of Cephalonia twenty or so years ago (we’ll deal with the backstory in a forthcoming article).

You’ll head to Markos’s vineyard (which he paid for using money borrowed from the Cyclops), and he sends you out on your first few missions on Cephalonia. He also gives you a horse to allow you to traverse distances more quickly. Later, you’ll learn how to unlock fast travel points to instantaneously teleport from one place to another.

The adventure begins

The island of Cephalonia serves as essentially a large tutorial space; a playground for you to get a handle on the controls and some of the key systems of the game. You’ll spend a few hours here getting a handle on stealth, combat, character interaction, and so on.

Something that deserves mention is that there are two main modes to play the game: guided or exploration. Guided mode gives you lots of hints, map markers, and directions. Exploration mode still features some of these elements, but leave more for you to discover. A character will explain that something has happened south of this-or-that landmark. Exploration mode, as the game explains, is the intended way to play the game, and I would encourage you to follow that advice, as it makes the experience more immersive.

There’s plenty more to write about when it comes to Odyssey; the foregoing barely scratches the surface. Over the next few weeks, expect further articles about the game and its historical aspects. I think it’ll be a fun adventure to take on together.