Walk softly and carry a big freakin' axe.
One sure sign that a particular subsection of culture has become popular is the emergence of a dedicated convention, and lately I've been seeing more and more Viking cons. Add that to the plethora of Viking movies and TV shows, and it becomes obvious that Norse mythology is an emerging trend. Viking-themed video games certainly aren't new, but few of them delve into the Viking mythos like the action-adventure Jotun: Valhalla Edition.
Unlike most Viking-themed entertainment, this game's storyline doesn't follow Vikings as they mercilessly invade and pillage foreign settlements. Instead, it centers on a mighty female warrior named Thora. After suffering a dishonorable death, the armor-clad Viking sets out with the lofty goal of proving herself worthy to the gods. This is accomplished by using the ethereal hub known as Ginnungagap to explore a wide variety of ethereal worlds and defeat each one's gigantic boss, known as Jotun. After each level is cleared, Thora reveals portions of her own story as well as various aspects of Norse mythology.
It's hard not to be impressed with the visuals because they resemble old-school cartoons that were meticulously drawn by hand. Thora, the cute but mighty Viking, is clad in fur clothing and metal armor, and she carries a huge axe that's almost as tall as she is. Most impressive, however, are the titanic Jotun themselves. They tower over Thora and use a vast array of impressive-looking special powers that range from shooting out huge vines to spawning dwarf warriors to spewing icy breath.
Each area that players visit has its own distinct style that sets it apart from the rest, but sadly, they are all underutilized. Sure, there are simplistic puzzles to solve, as well as health upgrades and a few other items to find, but they're mostly filled with empty space. In addition, there is very little to interact with, which makes every level seem like little more than a long path to each Jotun boss. After the first couple of levels, I grew weary of needless exploring and started making a beeline for the end of each area.
Similar to the minimalist level design, combat also seems like a missed opportunity. Thora is limited to a light attack, a heavy attack, a defensive roll, and god powers. Fighting enemies is reminiscent of action games in the '90s where the same two attacks are repeated over and over with a few dodges and random magic thrown in. Small touches like the ability to charge the heavy attack to do more damage and emerging from a roll straight into an attack adds some variety, but combat still becomes repetitive very quickly.
That said, fighting the Jotun is a bit more entertaining and much more difficult. Similar to older arcade games, combat boils down to memorizing each Jotun's attack patterns and then rolling in to land some attacks before rushing away to safety. These fights can be extremely punishing, and sometimes it seems like some fights are cursed by the gods because I'm doing everything right yet Thora still ends up six feet under. Fighting the Jotun isn't as punishing as the bosses in the Dark Souls series, but most players will require multiple tries to defeat each boss.
This game was originally released on the PC last year, and the console version has added content in the form of Valhalla mode. This boss rush mode eschews the adventure aspect in favor of more difficult Jotun battles, and players have access to maximum health and all god powers for each battle. This is a welcome feature for people who don't particularly enjoy the adventure aspect (like me). The real fun comes from the trophy list, which tasks players with completing battles under certain conditions like using time limits, using no god powers or taking minimal damage. Completionists will love this feature as it will give them extra challenges that make them feel all warm and fuzz inside upon completion.
Jotun: Valhalla Edition is a throwback to retro gaming in terms of both art style and gameplay. While the minimalist design manages to offer quite a bit of variety, the lack of combat and exploration options becomes evident rather quickly. Still, anyone interested in Norse mythology mixed with retro gaming and old-school art design will enjoy Thora's ascent into Valhalla.