By William Haderlie / October 6th, 2016
|Title||Jotun: Valhalla Edition|
|Developer||Thunder Lotus Games|
|Publisher||Thunder Lotus Games|
|Release Date||September 9, 2016|
|Genre||Isometric Action Game|
|Age Rating||ESRB T for Teen|
I’ve mentioned it a few times before, when it’s come up in other games such as The Witcher 3, but I seriously love Norse mythology. So this game is basically cat nip for me already with its very premise. And the premise is simply to have an isometric action game, focused on epic boss fights, set in the world of that mythology. Because that idea is so simple (but brilliant), they were able to focus on the two things that matter most; making the battles fun and making the game beautiful.
The story is fairly simple. It’s told in a short CG scene at the beginning and then some dialogue told in flashbacks after you defeat each boss. But in its simplicity is a particular emotional resonance and a twist. The major twist is that this is a female Viking warrior. And that isn’t just an aesthetic choice; that vastly alters the story and trajectory of her life. As I’ve said in my discussion about sexism (or the lack thereof) in The Witcher 3, the Norse women had a lot more rights and liberties than women in pretty much any other part of the world at their time. But that did not mean they had all the same rights as men. And that is where the story kicks off, but not where she stops.
It’s not a spoiler to say that she dies, because that is the very opening of the game. And that forms the reason why she is combating all the Norse gods. She has been tasked with proving herself before them in order to get a chance to enact her revenge upon those who have wronged her. Not quite the Valhalla you may expect after dying as a Viking warrior. Instead of sitting back in a mead hall served by the Valkyrie, she is spending her afterlife fighting even more difficult battles than she fought in life. Because the story is pared down to its very basic elements with little exposition, it is even more important to have a solid foundation. They did a really good job with it, and it definitely rattled me emotionally. Almost more importantly, however, is that it also felt very accurate in its portrayal. Not just in the fact that it could have happened in a world where Norse mythology was true, but especially in that how it’s told fits in very well with the other stories we have from that world. It would not feel out of place in the Poetic Edda (a copy of which I have on my bookshelf).
The story of this game is not the only aspect that captures the feeling of the Viking world and lore. The art style feels almost like a picture book that you could make to teach all of their myths. The geometry of everything and the runes themselves are very much in line with all relics we have from that era. While we have very little written from that era, mostly just the tales that were finally written down in Iceland much after the fact, we do have a lot of old relic pottery, armor, and such. And even though Thunder Lotus Games is based in Canada, they were surprisingly in touch with that Norse feeling.
But all of this would be mostly educational if the game did not have good gameplay. Fortunately the game does have a really satisfying gameplay style. It is very simple, with only 4 buttons and the ability to switch your spells. Because she uses a large battleaxe, you really have to factor in her very slow swings. A Dark Souls vet should have no problem with this because depending on your weapon, the timing of your swings becomes very important. The normal swing is quite slow, but the heavy swing is extremely slow and can be held until you want to unleash it. But the heavy swing does so much more damage than the normal swing that you will want to become accustomed to using it. This also involves strategy because as massive as the bosses are, you will still miss with the heavy swing if you don’t watch their movement patterns. That being said, get used to the dodge because this game is not easy by any stretch of the imagination.
Depending on the stage, there is usually some simple fighting, but mostly it is exploration to enjoy the world and fill in some story while you search for your next rune and magic spell. That being said, it does do a decent job of teaching you a few important skills that you will need for fighting that area’s boss. Other than the first world, you will have two zones to explore and fight your way through, and two additional magic spells to find and learn how to use before you reach the next major boss. Because the game does not explicitly tell you a lot of things, and only relays them visually, it took me a little bit to realize how useful the artistic representations of the maps were. In addition to finding that rune and the magic spell, you can also find secrets within each stage, mostly golden apples which raise your health bar.
You can actually complete each stage by just finding the rune. You need to find the runes to open the door before each boss. But just rushing through to find that rune is not a very wise strategy when you are new to the game. The magic spells are hidden within the stage (other than the very first one), as are the health apples, and you can completely miss them. It’s fairly easy to defeat each stage without any of the upgrades, but when you reach the area boss you are going to hit a wall. Almost to the degree of Shadow of the Colossus, this game is entirely about its boss fights. But it was still pleasant to have the stages to give some exploration and more story.
That being said, the boss fights are where the game really shines. The bosses are bloody massive, as you can see in the above screen. And there tends to be a lot going on with several different mechanics that build upon each other. Usually these mechanics are hinted at in the two stages leading up to the boss in order to teach you the skills that you will need in the fight. Anyone who really knows Norse mythology will recognize these bosses, and they really match their fabled characteristics. It’s usually fairly obvious which boss you are heading toward, especially the Allfather, but that does not reduce the impact of the boss appearing and the fight beginning in earnest. All 6 bosses have a fairly significant health pool and they have multiple phases to them, so you can often spend more time on the boss fight than you did exploring the area before them.
Much like in the recently popular Souls games, the difficulty does add a really significant feeling of accomplishment when you succeed. So even if this game is a bit more difficult than a “casual” gamer might expect, I definitely support the developer’s choice with the challenge. But good luck getting all those trophies. The trophies for beating the 6 bosses are easy to get, but they are the only easy trophies. A little more difficult is finding all the hidden upgrades throughout every stage. But then you also have trophies for defeating the bosses in a certain time, defeating them a certain way, and also for taking no damage when defeating them. So I can’t imagine how long it would take me to Platinum this game, but the desire to try is definitely there.
New to the PlayStation 4 version of the game is the Valhalla mode. After you have beaten the game once you can unlock this new mode which allows you to engage in a boss rush. You gain an additional trophy for completing this new mode. Realistically I was not a huge fan of this addition, but I’ve never been all that big on boss rush modes. It is especially not that important for this game because the stages between the bosses are relatively short are quite lovely, and feature some pleasant short story exposition. The only real advantage to the boss rush mode is not having to search for each upgrade all over again. If you want to try for those extra boss trophies, you are still better off just going after them again from the afterworld map so you can just retry them after each time you make a mistake.
That being said, the mode does still work so I won’t knock it for being something that I didn’t need. The game itself is still a wonderful and tight experience. It is only about 4-5 hours long, and most of that is the 6 boss fights. The only real complaint I have about the game is that the controls didn’t feel as tight as I would like them to be for such a difficult experience. The voice talent was very well done and it was really great to have it not be English with some vaguely European accent, like many games do. The music was also surprisingly well done for such a small studio, and it definitely added to the feeling of an epic myth being played out on the screen. But there is no doubt that the star of the show is its art style. The game could have used a lot more exploration just to spend more time in this beautiful world and discover even more gods and monsters. So the news that the studio’s next game will be a “metroidvania” game has me really excited. But this game, for $14.99, is a very great experience for the price. Not only can I live out some of my Norse fantasies, but there is a solid boss destroying experience to be had as well. So it impressed me even beyond what I was expecting.
Review Copy Provided By The Developer
Isometric Action GameJotunJotun: Valhalla EditionPlayStation 4PSNSonyThunder Lotus Games