Book Review: Assassin’s Creed: The Ankh of Isis Trilogy

Assassin’s Creed: The Ankh of Isis Trilogy
Publisher: Titan Books
Cost: $24.99 (MSRP)/$14.97(Amazon.com)
Page Count: 144 Pages
Release Date: 11/5/13
Get it Here: Amazon.com

You’d think that an Assassin’s Creed comic series would be something Ubisoft would push to bring out in the US as quickly as possible, but such is not the case. In France and Canada, Ubisoft has released a series of four Assassin’s Creed comics, starting in 2009 through 2012, but we’re only getting the comics fairly recently here. The series as it exists has been released abroad in four volumes, which has been condensed to two for its US release, the first of which, Assassin’s Creed: The Ankh of Isis Trilogy, contains the first three chapters in the series, while the fourth, Assassin’s Creed 4: Hawk, is a standalone release of the fourth book. While this release came out in the US last year, we’ve been provided a review copy of it here along with Hawk for our perusal, in part due to the release of Assassin’s Creed IV. While I can’t, at this time comment on the game in any measurable fashion, having read The Ankh of Isis Trilogy, I can safely say that this is something that could have stayed untranslated for US audiences. While it’s very pretty, and may ultimately lead to an interesting tale somewhere down the line with expected series protagonist Hawk, the actual tale told in this trilogy is, unfortunately, not so good.

The story is told across three books, which break down as follows:

Book 1: Desmond – The first comic in the series, this one makes the effort to fill in some of the blanks surrounding the first game while sowing the seeds for later stories. Most of the comic is devoted to establishing the events of Assassin’s Creed, including fleshing out Desmond’s abduction and escape, as well as summing up the Altair storyline for those who might somehow be unfamiliar. We also spend some time on Subject 16, Clay Kaczmarek, as the beginning of the story sees him escape from Templar custody before returning to the Assassin’s and causing problems, which leads almost directly into Desmond’s introduction to Ezio and the plot of Assassin’s Creed 2 The other major point of the story here is to introduce the Assassin Aquilus as a lead-in for later comics, though his part here is relegated to a couple pages before we dive into the first game/second game breakdown. Much of the first comic revolves around world building and introducing the principles for those who (somehow) have no idea who anyone is going in, as well as slightly fleshing out the parts of the story the game doesn’t show us, which works well enough for what it is.

Book 2: Aquilus – The second comic begins with a brief flashback to Desmond’s life as the child of a desert wanderer of some sort, as a means of introducing a running theme for the comic about eagles and vultures, before wrapping up the Assassin’s Creed 2 plotline and tying off the loose ends from the last comic. From here the plot splits off into two separate storylines, as Desmond dives into the memories of his previously established ancestor Aquilus and his time as an Assassin, while in the present he and his team are attacked by Templars only to discover they have a traitor in their group. The Aquilus storyline revolves around an artifact of Eden dubbed the Ankh of Isis, which becomes Aquilus’ responsibility after the death (and subsequent avenging) of his father, and establishes the capabilities of the artifact in the process. The present day story is interesting in that it pays off a neat thematic concept that the first two games didn’t touch (IE that Altair and Ezio are both names that mean “eagle” or something similar) and develops the Lucy/Desmond relationship a bit, while also allowing Desmond to slowly develop into the Assassin he’s supposed to be. This book, if anything, gives the impression that the writers are coming into their own, developing a story that isn’t just the sum of someone else’s work, and while the plot essentially acts to tie together the events of Assassin’s Creed 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, it does its own thing with that concept that works okay.

Book 3: Accipiter – The final chapter in the Ankh of Isis series, this book sets the scene for the comics to become their own entity through telling two tales at once: the tale of Desmond, as he plays out the rest of the story of Aquilus, and the tale of Jonathan Hawk, an Assassin who takes on the role of Accipiter, Aqulius’ cousin. The majority of the comic is devoted to the telling of the tale of Aquilus and Accipiter as they ultimately deal with the repercussions of Aquilus’ actions, as well as the final fate of the Ankh. There is an interesting aside in the middle that gives more life to Desmond, both giving him more fleshing out as the Assassin fully formed, as well as developing the Desmond/Lucy relationship (more so than the games even) which is entertaining for those who were hoping for such things from the actual games. The story also makes the smart decision to transition the tales away from Desmond and onto Hawk, as this gives the comics the ability to stand on their own without having to deal with potential continuity issues from the games. As the final page implies that Hawk will be heading to Egypt from here, this can only be of benefit to the comics, as it allows the story to progress in an entirely different direction and, hopefully, explore ideas and lands the games have never touched.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this collection. The artwork is very well done, featuring solid character art and nice coloring, and in battle scenes especially the artwork stands out. As noted in the descriptions, the stories told here do a few things very well all in all. Desmond is given the opportunity to be “The Assassin” as his character arc implied he would be, and it’s nice to see the character get these sorts of moments, if only in a “what could have been” moment before it was rushed to completion in the third game. It’s also cute to see the Desmond and Lucy romantic subplot play out more here, especially since it didn’t develop so much before its abrupt end, and it was nice to see these little moments sprinkled throughout the story. Finally, once the Aquilus storyline gets going, while it’s a bit on the short side, it’s an interesting enough self-contained Assassin storyline that gives us something new in the history of the Assassins in general and Desmond’s lineage in specific. Not every story in Desmond’s history needs to be significant or heavily impact the fate of the world, and it’s nice to see some solid historical fiction that fleshes out the order and Desmond’s history in an environment we’ve not experienced before.

Well, it would be if there was any possibility that this might matter in the core continuity, anyway.

That’s the big problem with the Ankh of Isis trilogy in general, and this comic series in specific: it has some serious continuity issues. Now, to be completely fair, the comics came out around the time the games launched in France and Canada, meaning that the comic writers had about as much idea what direction the story was going in as the game writers did. Holding them accountable to changes in the plot after the fact is unfair in that regard, so one can hardly blame the writers for the continuity issues here. However, that doesn’t make the comics any less difficult to work with. Subject 16 is represented as an unstable, escaped Assassin who feels he’s better than Desmond in the comics, which is impossible because he committed suicide in captivity before the start of the first game and only exists in the Animus at this point. The scene of Desmond’s childhood in the second book is virtually impossible given that Desmond grew up on a compound in South Dakota, which has no deserts, not to mention the fact that Desmond’s dad looks nothing like he does in the game. The comics play Lucy completely straight, playing her as an Assassin through and through, even in instances where she absolutely should not be doing this thing, which is disconcerting in retrospect. It also bears noting that the end of the third book implies that the characters have resolved their time in Monteriggioni without incident and will be moving on to Egypt, which (for those who played Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood) is absolutely not the case; while seeing how the fourth book handles this may help somewhat, it’s still disconcerting as it stands.

Even without the continuity issues, the plot is a bit disjointed, behaving as if it has a lot of different things to tell the reader and it’s not sure what it wants to get across first. The first book spends two pages on Subject 16, jumps to four pages on Aquilus, then jumps headlong into a whole lot of Abstergo viability discussions before moving right into Desmond’s storyline, for more bouncing between Desmond, Lucy, Altair, and Abstergo agents. The second book is no better, bouncing between Desmond and Aquilus frequently and often with little warning, and by the third book, with bounces between Desmond, Aquilus, Accipiter and Hawk, you’re often just hoping that the frequent perspective changes go somewhere. Now, this would be fine if the book had a point to offer up here, but again, due to the changes in continuity from one book to the next, that’s not the case. Clay’s brief introduction and reappearance in the first book, totaling five pages, ends with Lucy basically kicking him out of the book altogether and, honestly, has no obvious point to its existence in the first place. There’s no real reason for him to even be here, let alone to the extent that he is, which makes one wonder why they even bothered. Other characters who mean nothing to the plot appear and disappear pages later, never to be seen or spoken of again, and the fact that the first book spends its time recapping the first game seems silly given that the target market for the book is fans of the game series. Even the eagle/vulture bit in the second book, while cute based on the subtext of the names of the protagonists (which the third game deviated from sadly), seems like kind of a throwaway “Aha!” moment more than anything amazing, mostly because the character it refers to was introduced that very chapter, so fans will have a good idea where this is going.

Oh, and the whole plot of the trilogy of comics falls on its face in the end, which is probably the biggest problem of all here. The Ankh of Isis is explained, in detail, as having two major powers: the ability to heal the injured and temporarily resurrect the dead, and the ability to record messages for others to witness, ALA R2-D2 in Star Wars. The characters put a great deal of effort into finding it and the second and third chapters revolve around it and its capabilities. Fine enough, but the plot of the books doesn’t do anything with it, treating it like a pointless MacGuffin/false Checkov’s Gun. The healing/resurrection part of the device is never used in the books once, despite there being several opportunities to show what it can do, and the message part of the device amounts to telling the characters about another artifact that they can’t even get to, and since we’re heading to Egypt with Hawk in the next book, will never be important anyway. The characters literally wasted three chapters of the story looking for an artifact that basically told them “Sorry, you wasted your time,” which is not a particularly economical use of the reader’s time, all things considered.

Assassin’s Creed: The Ankh of Isis Trilogy is ultimately the sort of thing that’s meant entirely for diehard franchise fans and basically nobody else. While the art is pretty and some of the plot elements are fun and interesting, the continuity is messed up all over the place, the whole purpose is ultimately to pass the comic torch to the Hawk character, and the story that’s told here amounts to being told “sorry for wasting your time,” after three chapters of buildup. The build toward setting up Hawk as the main character is a good thing, in that it allows the comics to tell their own story instead of hoping the game plotline doesn’t mess up their story along the way, and Hawk seems like an interesting enough protagonist to carry the series in Desmond’s absence at least. The cover price of $25 is a bit too high to recommend it to anyone who isn’t a diehard franchise fan, sadly, though the $15 price on Amazon makes it a little easier to justify. If you really love the series, or happen to find it on the cheap, The Ankh of Isis Trilogy is an attractively drawn graphic novel that has some nice moments and tells an Assassin story that has some enjoyable moments, to be sure. At its full price, however, only the most devoted fans should give this a look, as for anyone else, it’s a high price for a low payoff. Here’s hoping Hawk has a better run in his first adventure.

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