Editor’s Note – This review was written by Mia Violet, a colleague with years of experience writing about comics. You can find more of her work at @OhMiaGod on Twitter.
I like Assassin’s Creed. The 9 year old video game series now has over 15 different entries, with a busy storyline and gameplay that’s often accused of dancing into awkwardly repetitive territory. With fairly forgettable spinoffs and recent entries suffering from rushed development cycles, Ubisoft’s series has seen better days. Yet despite its flaws, I always find myself going back to the timehopping franchise. There’s something dependably appealing about its free roaming gameplay, even if it’s ongoing plot of a secret war between Assassins and Templars has perhaps begun to run out of steam.
So with the story arguably one of the wobbliest elements of A ssassin’s Creed, I was cautious
Could writers Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, with artist Neil Edwards, still craft a compelling comic with the convoluted source material? As it turns out, yes, actually.
Trial By Fire ( hereby referred to as TBF) opens with a frantic Wild West set piece, establishing right away that this story is going to do more than retread familiar ground. Unfortunately, our time with this setting is tragically brief, as the story pops over to modern day to introduce us to Charlotte De La Cruz, a kindhearted but broke bank teller. Before long her mundane life is stabbed to smithereens and, surprise surprise, she’s got to pop into an Animus machine to explore the life of her ancestor.
It’s a little tired that after starting with an acrobatic cowgirl sharpshooter, the ancestor assassin who we spend the most time with turns out to be a surly white dude. Thomas Stoddard is as stern faced as he is stereotypical, with his uncaring attitude and grumpy dedication to sticking to the rules. The setting is at least somewhat more compelling, with Stoddard stomping around Salem, during the time of its infamous witch trials in 1692. Although the witch trials themselves only play a small role in the plot, history buffs will get a kick out of the extra details from the time period. For instance, William Stoughton, known for being one of the most cruel and zealous magistrates in Salem, is dropped into the plot as one of the central villains.
Once things get rolling, we spend the bulk of our time with Stoddard and the rest back with Charlotte in modern day, as she tries to keep a mismatched band of contemporary Assassins from bickering with each other. Her ancestor has information which is vital to the group, meaning Charlotte has to spend as much time in the Animus as possible, if she wants to help her new allies. Back in the past, Stoddard meets up with one of his Assassin colleagues, as they begin their investigation into the town’s suspicious leadership. From there onwards the story is a fairly simple, albeit enjoyable, romp about cackling Templars up to no good and the Assassins who want to shove small blades in them.
The Pieces of Eden subplot from the video games resurfaces here, with another mysterious and magical artefact serving as the McGuffin. There is at least a little unexpected twist to it, which I won’t spoil here, but primarily the Piece of Eden serves as an excuse for the opposing cast members to violently clash.
Speaking of the violence, TBF can be surprisingly brutal. Expect to see knives jammed through faces and frequent bloodsplatter as plenty of scuffles break out. True to the source material, plenty of unnamed henchmen are butchered and otherwise beaten by our acrobatic protagonists. Thankfully, Edwards’ artwork makes these fight scenes fairly nice to look at, with detailed characters and dynamic action. Likewise the scenery is equally impressive. There’s a touch of bleak detail to everything here, with Salem’s streets looking especially grim and filthy. The modern day is contrasted with smoother shapes and lighter tones, but still maintains the grimey look of a modern day city.
Edwards was given quite the challenge, having to render three completely different time periods in a single volume, but he handles it perfectly. Meanwhile, Ivan Nunes’ colour work ensures that the present and past segments are subtly distinct without causing any inconsistency in style, bringing everything to life with sharp but grounded colours.
One interesting tidbit is that the comic takes a little time to explain desynchronisation, which is code for the video game’s Game Over screen. It’s also established how much control modern day descendants like Charlotte have over their genetic flashbacks, something the video games are often a little vague on. It’s quick details like these which throw bonus goodies to the fans, without alienating anyone who can’t tell their Animus from their Abstergo. In fact, when it comes to the story, T BF strikes a commendable balance between being a faithful tiein and still an accessible standalone comic book. Inuniverse terms are kept light and the focus on the conflict between heroic Assassins and scheming Templars means it’s easy to follow who you’re supposed to be rooting for.
The comic moves at a good pace throughout and before things become too repetitive, it waves Salem farewell and freeruns back to modern day for the final chapter. However, being volume 1 of an ongoing series, it of course closes out with an open ending, but there’s still enough of a conclusion for this installment to feel like a complete package on its own.
All in all, T BF is a decent opening volume, earning the relatively rare achievement of a well received video game tiein. If you’ve stuck with A ssassin’s Creed this long, then you’re going to gobble this up. For better or worse, it’s more of the same. Basically it’s the plot of your average Assassin’s Creed game, condensed into 5 issues, without the extra fluff and feather collecting. If you’re someone who long wandered off from the franchise, then T BF doesn’t do anything too daring to woo you back, the story is entertaining and the art is good but neither are exceptional.
Ultimately, no matter your affinity and familiarity with the Assassins’ earlier exploits, there’s a straightforward but enjoyable set of issues here. Just like the video game franchise, it does nothing audacious or exceptional compared to its peers, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a look.