This week will see the release of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the eighth main console release in the popular Assassins’ Creed video game franchise. Right about the same time we get the release of Assassin’s Creed: Trial By Fire, Titan Comics’ next installment of their companion series to the video games. The comic is written by Anthony Del Coy and Connor McCreery, with artwork by Neil Edwards. What’s different about this book? Well, in similar fashion to the announced protagonists of the upcoming Syndicate, it will feature female characters in larger leading roles than previous installments.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid any contact with the AC franchise up until now here’s a quick rundown: for centuries a secret war, waged between the Brotherhood of Assassins and the Templars, has been driving the forces of history forward, and now in contemporary times technology allows people to relive the lives of their ancestors through a simulation in order to discover lost secrets, usually relating to some power source left behind by an even more ancient lost civilization.
The videogame series was told through the experiences of Desmond Miles and his various ancestors through the Crusades, the Renaissance, and the American Revolution. Since then the video games have existed tangentially to that original cast of characters, but one complaint that saw some heat with the release of the last main console title, Assassin’s Creed Unity, was the lack of any female protagonists. Nearly all the Assassins were men, and all the main characters that the player got to take control of were men. There were female characters, but they were usually either love interests or supporting characters for the male protagonists.
Now, there were a few exceptions to this. Assassin’s Creed Liberation focused on a Creole woman in 18th century New Orleans, but that game was only released on the handheld PlayStation Vita, and wouldn’t see a console release until Sony packaged it with Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag in what was called “Assassin’s Creed the Americas Collection.”
Now, however, that seems to be about to change. Syndicate will allow the player to act as one of a pair of twins — one male, one female — as they traverse the streets of a steampunk-style Victorian London. We’ll have to wait and see whether the entire game can be played as a woman. But in the meanwhile we can jump into Assassin’s Creed: Trial By Fire, the tale of Charlotte De La Cruz, an idealistic social firecracker who, through the aid of the Brotherhood, is sent back into the memories of her ancestors to discover the secrets that the Templars are trying to uncover.
Titan Comic’s initial run of the AC franchise focused on side stories for Desmond and company; namely, “hey, whatever happened between those two scene transitions when the characters are just traveling from place to place?” It eventually stemmed off from the main AC storyline and began to focus more on side characters established as allies of Desmond. This comic, however, seems to have very little to do with regards to the other plot apart from the presence of a few minor characters that bring Charlotte into the ranks of the Brotherhood.
The main character conflict of Trial By Fire is Charlotte’s struggle to sympathize with people whom she ideologically disagrees with. We see her early on snapping in the middle of a job interview because of what she sees as apparent nepotism. She’s a forward-thinking progressive person and can’t stand it when others don’t share her passion or zeal for social change. So when she is sent back into the memories of her ancestor, a yet-to-be named man in the middle of the Salem Witchcraft Trials who is ambivalent to the plight of the accused victims, her every instinct is to act in defense of the weak and helpless, but she is forced to watch as her ancestor stands idly by and lets the injustice happen before her. Now she’ll have to live through the actions of someone who she finds abhorrent.
AC has always pushed the boundaries of anti-heroism in its protagonists. The stories play the long game, suggesting that occasionally someone must die for the greater good, and the question is not whether one person or another should die but rather how to achieve the best solution with as few deaths as possible; the plot of the games indicating that eliminating a few corrupt persons will reduce the number of deaths and injustices, but others must be left alone for the time being until it is their time to feel the edge of the assassin’s blade. The immersion of the player’s experience never allowed for that moral ambiguity to really be felt before, since the player always was given the task of killing a person, and if you didn’t the game couldn’t go forward. What is the point of questioning the morality of those decisions if there is only one possible way for the game to progress?
But with the medium of comic books the characters are able to discuss the morality and make different decisions that don’t require a person to kill another, and the audience experience doesn’t really change that much. We get a different story, to be sure, but we are never trapped by an inability to advance in the story if we don’t like the decisions.
This actually allows the storytellers to give us more conflict between the various viewpoints of the different characters involved. If we don’t like one character all that much we can emotionally distance ourselves from them by virtue of the fact that we don’t have to actively engage with them. This is usually a hindrance when it comes to video game adaptations, but in a series like AC it becomes a strength.
Part 1 of Trial by Fire is a good start to this new chapter in the AC franchise. The characters are likable and energetic, the action and development is well paced, both in the present and the past, and the artwork is really good. I refrain from calling the art “great”, as there’s something about Neil Edwards’ work that kind of bugs me. He’s great with drawing realistic bodies and action scenes, but he has this weird thing about faces where their expressions don’t always seem appropriate; not that they’re expressionless or dull, but there’s something off in them, usually in the eye or mouth department. He tends to draw mouths very small sometimes, and in some instances the intensity of the eyes doesn’t match the rest of the face. And sometimes the backgrounds blend together in a marsh of weird shapes and colors. But that’s all pretty nit-picky, and like I said the action, the main draw of AC, is really well done.
I recommend picking up a copy of Trial By Fire, keep your eyes open for Part 2, and go back and check out Titan Comic’s previous AC titles; you’ll get filled in on a few of the minor characters like Xavier and Galina. If you’re a fan of AC you’ll like these books; they don’t detract from the games and help to fill in the gaps of the different histories and plotlines of the epic story. If you’re not a fan of the games, don’t worry, Trial by Fire gives a pretty good summary of the games’ conceit and background, explaining the basic rules already established. If you get a kick out of this, maybe you’ll like the games too. Give it a shot.