It's not surprising that the Nintendo DS iteration of Assassin's Creed doesn't feature the often-stunning, open-world exploration of its console counterparts. It does feature many of the same elements, however: An attractive visual style, some nice animation work, and decent sound effects that make the Middle Eastern cityscapes you explore feel alive with activity. Its fundamental design, however, bears a closer resemblance to another of Ubisoft's landmark properties: Prince of Persia. In Altair's Chronicles, you travel through 3D environments on a mostly linear path, avoiding traps, scaling walls, and occasionally beating up some bad guys in the process. When the game hits its stride, this makes for some fairly enjoyable entertainment. Unfortunately, clunky controls and an overall lack of refinement frequently conspire to sully the experience.
The sense of sci-fi wonder that permeated the console release is noticeably absent from this prequel. The story is a pure, straightforward chase-the-artifact adventure that wouldn't be out of place in a Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones title. Chronicles' holy grail is a mysterious chalice, and while it serves its purpose as a plot catalyst, there's nothing very interesting about Altair's tale. The narrative plays out via dialogue texts that convey just enough information to keep you up to speed, and is thus missing the metaphysical, morally ambiguous ramblings you may have expected. Altair is reduced to a generic hero in ancient garb, which may be fine for Assassin's Creed fans but won't be of much interest to those new to this game universe.
Yet in spite of its generic characters and wooden script, you'll still glimpse a little magic here and there, as fleeting as it can be. The art design is quite nice, featuring soft, earthy hues and some nice details in the architecture. Altair himself often moves gracefully, and the climbing and running animations are splendid. Others don't look nearly as good, and some jumps are missing transition animations completely, making it look like Altair is teleporting instead of leaping. On your travels you'll hear the commotion of crowds, the chirping of birds, and the snoring of sleeping guards, and while the same effects are replayed often, they still make the cities through which you travel feel organic. Combat noise gets to be grating over time, however, since you'll hear the same grunts over and over again. The Arabian-themed soundtrack is similarly repetitive, but still properly dramatic.
You'll spend the bulk of the game getting from point A to point B by jumping from rooftop to rooftop, climbing walls, and crossing beams. The clear-cut level designs keep platforming sequences from being overly challenging, though they occasionally require some light puzzle-solving (push a few boxes or pull a few levers) and trap navigation (look out--spinning blades!). They do suffer from some frequent annoyances, not the least of which is that you are often required to jump to a platform that you can't see. Altair also has an annoying tendency to slide forward a bit after landing his jump--sometimes slipping right off the platform and into death's cold embrace. Even worse, the camera will occasionally move to a position that doesn't even allow you to see Altair, forcing you into even more guesswork. As a rule, the platforming works, but the general fluidness of what you see onscreen is never matched by similarly slick controls.
Combat is often enjoyable, though it too suffers from some execution troubles. Your trusty sword will do the bulk of the work, and the X and Y buttons perform weak and strong attacks, respectively. You'll also pick up a number of other skills along the way that require you to block, then counter, in a manner similar to the counterattacks in the console version. You'll earn other weapons along the way, such as throwing daggers and bombs, but Altair's Chronicles rarely gives you a reason to opt for them, since mashing X and Y will usually get the job done without too much trouble. Beating up a few guards at once can be fun, particularly when the encounter occurs in the midst of trap sequences, but like the platforming, it feels looser than it should. The autotargeting doesn't seem to work well much of the time, so you'll waste time slashing at empty air--which in turn is made more frustrating by the fact that combo animations seem to take forever.
A few boss fights break up the pace, and they aren't bad, but they do serve to highlight some other control issues. Like with other key elements (picking up boxes, assassinating snoozing guards), you need to execute context-sensitive actions that require you to hit a particular button when you are in range of your target. All too often, however, you have to be in a peculiarly specific spot for this to work. Shuffling around just to push a crate is an annoyance, of course, but it's a mild one. Having to do the same "find the right position for the A button icon to appear" dance when fighting a boss, however, could lead to Altair's untimely death. And sometimes the game simply changes its mind and executes the standard move mapped to the button rather than the contextual move it's supposed to deliver. Even trying to switch weapons, which requires you to touch an icon on the touch screen, can be a royal pain, since your tap will often not register.
The touch screen's other main purpose is to display your minimap, though it does get some use in Altair's simple minigames. In some cases, you need to pickpocket your victims. This minigame requires you to scribble all over the screen to uncover all of the items your target is carrying in his satchel, and then carefully slide the needed object around the other items and out of the bag. The assassination minigame is supposed to approximate how Altair uses various pressure points to subdue his victims, and involves tapping various points as circles close in around them, somewhat in the manner of Elite Beat Agents. You won't be doing much of this, though it's just as well, considering that from a mechanical standpoint, these minigames are the least enjoyable aspect of Altair's Chronicles--a tacked-on way of giving the touch screen something to do.
You could finish Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles in around four hours, but even the promise of a harder difficulty level won't likely lure you back for a second play-through. It's hardly a bad game; in fact, the final hour mixes the various elements together nicely and hits a smooth stride as a result. Nevertheless, the game offers few surprises, and some sloppy execution problems get in the way far too often to make it outright recommendable.