Among the many fantastic things Assassin’s Creed Odyssey achieves, one of its strongest and most lasting is establishing this world of Greece at the close of its golden age. The days that students, scholars, and millennia of humanity have studied, discussed, and drawn inspiration from are quickly fading, yet still just remain. And it is in this world, right at the close of Athens’ and Sparta’s epoch-making history that Odyssey immerses the player in.
It is both an inspired and obvious choice. Where else to drop players in and tell the kind of wide-reaching story Odyssey requires than during the Peloponnesian War? Yet, in choosing this time period, Odyssey also opens itself and its cast up to a more deeply felt story of the time and place than anything many of us could have imagined.
It’s this feeling of change rippling throughout the air that Odyssey leans into. The war is a brilliant backdrop for the larger disruption upending Ancient Greek culture as we and they know it. And what a war it is, the Peloponnesian War is an outsized event within the pantheon of Greek history. A history rife with larger than life figures and heroes and villains who would go on to form the foundation of so much of modern mythmaking and storytelling.
Yet, the real individuals of Ancient Greece have taken on an almost marble repose. The days of Socrates, Perikles, and more are so far removed, are such a foundational touchstone, along with Rome, for nearly all Western civilization, that their lives are hard to seperate out of the mists of the past, that their actual struggles, triumphs, failings, and real lives seem impossible to connect too.
An Assassin’s Creed game is by nature one draped in historical figures and featuring a retelling and immersion into our shared pasts. Yet, what Odyssey does is in creating real breathing fully complex 3D characters out of its cast, may well be one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in terms of both creating a living world replate with a great cast in a game, and also connecting us to legends and villains of our past and helping history come that much more alive.
This is showcased wondrously in all of the personal arcs of the various real world characters you meet throughout Odyssey. Bursting forth from the ancient stone statues of the past, these legends of classical Greece are brought to the fore and introduced in bright vibrant colors (the entire color palette and look of Odyssey is stunning and its own piece). Through highlights like anything involving Alkibiades, who always dances right next to the line with glee, to the brilliant and far more thoughtful arc and recurring appearances by Socrates, to finally the delightful humanization of Brasidas tragic story. Odyssey shines precisely because of connecting all of the tiny human pieces, both legends of the past and the random NPCs into the larger sorrow, magic, and wonder of Ancient Greece at this era defining turn.
Just as history blessed revolutionary America with an abundance of brilliant, ambitious, and history making individuals all at once, so too was this time and place, this golden age of Greece blessed with names and people all across its land who would change the world and rework how we thought.
Yet, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is nothing but a tragedy ultimately. Despite the best of what Kassandra does you can’t win, not really. You may stop Kleon, kill the traitor King of Sparta and save your brother, reuniting the family. Yet the war only pauses for you. It won’t be stopped in the end. This is the end of the classical age of Greece. Perikles still dies and Athens will fall. The game refuses to ever blink or look away from the tragedy of what we are witnessing. This is a civilization and a society the world was blessed to have before it tore itself apart. No kingdom in the west save for Rome will match its cultural and historical output for centuries. Perhaps longer. And Odyssey refuses to let us look away from the tragedy of its self destruction.
Every person that we will meet in Greece can just feel that something is changing, can sense that what collectively has been built is being put at a giant risk with this war to end the greek world. Even the giants of Greece can feel change in the air. Greece’s golden age is one that is so quick and short. Just a generation stands between the crisis of the Persian invasion and the crippling bloodshed of the Peloponesian war.
A single generation built this golden age and helped to lay the roots for the western world. Yet, just as in the myth of Icarus, perhaps they flew too close to the sun. Perhaps Athens and Sparta in all their glory thought they were all the true giants, stepping down from the clouds of Olympus itself. Just like Icarus the waves of the Aegean Sea were waiting below to swallow them whole.
This manifestation of the close of the classical age of Ancient Greece is shown wonderfully in the individual tale of Perikles.The esteemed leader, known as the “first citizen of Athens.” His influence and impact on Athenian culture was enormous, rebuilding Athens after the Persian invasion and establishing it as a home for the brightest minds. The role he had in Athens’ golden age of philosophy, medicine, theater, and democracy was so large it led to that time in history being dubbed the Age of Perikles.
Perikles’ greatest gift and legacy was building Athens into something unique and special amidst all the ancient world, a democratic society, a true forum for the citizens to gather and collectively decide how to govern themselves. Gifting and entrusting to the world and history the sacred idea that the ultimate source of power comes from the people themselves, that any leader ultimately derives their power from the consent of the governed.
By Odyssey though he finds this system under attack and, forced to defend it, he now reminds them that it isn’t guaranteed in perpetuity. That they must sacrifice for their city. That democracy, like any great love, was something that must be worked at and sacrificed for daily. Kleon stands in the wings stoking the worst fears and angers of Athens, yet Perikles still urged his countrymen to remember what they had been given, what others had bled and died for. He knew his time on the world’s stage was drawing ever closer to a close. Knew that Athens was at the moment not entirely of its own making. Knew that the legacy and gifts it had could just as easily be lost to time as treasured and emulated and so he desperately wanted to stir the next generation to protect what made Athens unique. His Funeral Oration is a deeply beautiful and stirring example of this.
In the end he achieved a mixed victory. Athens democracy would crumble and falter, barely outliving the generation to follow him. Kleon soared to power as a demagogue and the war would rage. Yet history remembered. The world never forgot, in the end he would be dubbed the Father of Democracy, in the end he would inspire the world.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is brilliant for its tragedy. It’s a sad game, a sad story really. One that would make the Odyssey it takes its name and inspiration from proud. Loss, grief, and unshakeable, unmistakable pain pervades Kassandra’s world and story. Perikles dies. Brasidas too. So too eventually Socrates, Aspasia, all those you encounter on your odyssey through Greece. Athens’ and Sparta’s great heroes extinguished. In both cases the larger generation will be burned out, ripped apart by this war. Even in the “good” ending, a trail of bodies of friends has been left behind, to say nothing of foes. Kassandra’s tale is great because it captures and taps into the horrors of the Peloponnesian war itself. Into any war.
And that is Odyssey’s triumph. To show you this world, this time, these people not as stone statues and ancient marble ruins but instead as the flawed, ambitious, brave, unsure, and messy people they were. As the world they defined comes under attack and frays at the edges. To gift us with the ability to question and debate with Socrates, to witness Hippocrates invent modern medicine before us and show us how he pieces his principles together. To gaze out at the starry skies above with Perikles and ponder the past and coming future. To be both fearful and hopeful. They are inspiring precisely because they are human and flawed.
The collapse and demise of Athens is sprinting towards them. Some, if not most, can feel or sense it. What they are unsure of though is if any of their work, any legacy will long endure. Philosophy, the study of history, the practice of medicine, theater, art, democracy. None of it was guaranteed to live long, to ever become the foundation of the modern world. They are terrified it won’t last. They are figuring everything out by the seat of their pants. These aren’t men dropped from the heavens. They are simply men. It is Odyssey’s greatest strength that it never forgets this. That it never defies them.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey takes place at the end of the golden age of Greece. It is a masterstroke of tragic storytelling. No matter what you do or what outcome you get, the heroes of its glory days still die. The war continues to rage and ravage the land for decades more, and Athens and Sparta exhaust themselves to near ruin in their futile and pointless feud.
Nothing Kassandra can do prevents this. At most she can simply offer a pause. A delaying tactic that gives her time to help the peoples of the Greek world as much as she can as things begin to crumble.
What we get in Odyssey then, is both a tragedy and a gift. A chance to step into the final halcyon days of Athens and Sparta in all their glory. Greece at its pinnacle. Perikles, Hippocrates, Socrates, and more in all their splendor and wonder. The Parthenon shining wondrously with the brightest minds gathered round. In Perikles, a leader the world won’t see for centuries more. In Socrates, a mind that still keeps us with questions. A moment captured in full autumnal glory.
You can see the end. The dark and brutal winter dawning just around the bend. So everything takes on an almost golden glow. This is the Greece we speak of still millennia later. The cradle and birthplace of so much of western civilization. And even as the cracks form and we see its fall tomorrow, it’s glorious to watch it unfold today. To witness Perikles stand before the Akropolis, see the Parthenon, and look out on Athens below and just dream of what Greece will be in the days to come. To hear the poets speak, to watch the gorgeous blue-streaked flags fly, and to see the great minds debate, question, spar, and ultimately strive to build a just and lasting society. They fail, but in their failure what an example they gave us.
Athens and Sparta fall. But their stories, their tales of heroes and villains, of the men and women who formed them, well they live on just as bright and luminous today. And crucially thanks to what Odyssey does, they live as people. Giving us a glimpse of the complex, messy, flawed, and brilliant individuals they were. An odyssey surely worth remembering.