Jotun : Valhalla Edition Review

Jotun : Valhalla Edition is a game where you play as Thora who has died an inglorious death and must impress the gods by defeating the massive Jotun so she shall be accepted into Valhalla. I’ve read quite a few reviews about how Jotun is one of those games that attempt to transcend beyond being “just a game” into a piece of art. Well, I happen to teach Fine Arts for K-12 and am the lead art teacher for twelve of our college-prep schools. Because of that, I will be treating this review a little bit differently than most. Time to give this review the good ol’ college try!

Most people assume that art is completely subjective but that is not totally correct. When you take a look at a work of art there are a few ways to break down a piece to actually assess its artistic value. First, we can take a look at the elements of the piece which are essentially the building blocks. In Jotun’s case that will be Animation, Character Design, Graphics, Controls, and Sound Effects. Next, we will attempt to determine the quality of the principles of game design such as Story, Gameplay, Level Design, Musical Score, and Presentation. At the end of the review check for the TL;DR version if you would rather get a quick fix.

Character Design: 10 out of 10

When you start up Jotun you will find some unexpected character design choices. Firstly you are a female Viking warrior who is not overly feminine nor weak. Kudos to the developers for not “barbie-ing” up the main character. In fact, the artist’s seem to really have hit the overall aesthetic of what one would imagine mythological Norse beings would be like. Glorious, gritty, and tough as nails. On your journey, you will see everything from human characters to massive original looking elemental giants to even the likes of godlike squirrels and hawks. The range is phenomenal.

WiiU_JotunValhallaEdition_Screenshot_Jera_3   “Exquisitely gross character designs at times. It looks even better in motion.”

Animation: 8 out of 10

One of the more interesting aspects of the game are the expertly crafted animations. Unfortunately, the camera is panned so far out that you tend to miss the exquisite detail the artists put into the character animations. I played the game on a 46-inch tv and sat with a chair a few feet away and still had issues really seeing the hand drawn detail most of the time. I think it would help to add a few more frames and angles into Thora’s animations as they feel somewhat stilted at times. The bosses tend to look much better but this is probably due to the size of them allowing the quality work to be viewed in all their epic glory.

 

Graphics: 6 out of 10

The graphical effects that you will see in Jotun tend to involve heat distortion, lighting effects, shadows, particle effects, and a few others that are more subtle than anything. Keeping graphical effects toned down is a good choice as it forces the gamer to focus on the hand drawn art. When playing I am often reminded of another great game called Muramasa on the Wii. The few times Jotun gets heavy with graphical effects it tends to make the game chug a bit. I had two major crashes due to heavy lighting effects in The Crater where I had to unplug the Wii U. The problem was so bad that I as soon as I found a rune stone I chose to head back to Ginnungagap (hub world) instead of finishing my exploration of the level which would allow me to get some new abilities and/or raise health.

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“Breaking character design stereotypes one battle-axe chop at a time!”

Controls: 7 out of 10

Controls in the game are normally tight but sometimes frustrating. The closest game I can compare the controls to would be a simplified, isometric version of Monster Hunter where you have to time various hits just right or face potential death. Thora moves around using either the control pad or stick and do a rolling dodge with B.  She has two regular attacks using Y for a weak horizontal strike that can turn into a 2-hit combos or X for an stronger, overhead swing that has Thora raise the battle axe handed down by her father up into the air until it gleams then finds it way downward with a chopping into enemies with a sufficient thud. You can also chain together a dodge then weak attack which will push the axe forward. Special attacks are handed down to you by various gods throughout the game and can be activated by pressing A. These include Thor giving you Mjolnir to make a stronger downward swing, a speed-up power, a duplicate for enemies to focus on, healing, a temporary shield, and a javelin to attack from afar.  You can select from the various special attacks by scrolling with the trigger buttons or activating it on the Gamepad.

 

Sound Effects: 8 out of 10

Generally, the sound effects are of good quality. There are definitely different clangs, thuds, thwacks, clomps, grunts, and so on for each level or boss. Occasionally sound effects are used to heighten a moment such as a soft clang that gets louder and louder as you walk up to an opponent working on a sword. There are little moments like this which make the usage of sound effects to intensify gameplay as some of the best that I’ve witnessed in an indie game.

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“Why so blue Isa?”

Story: 9 out of 10

Sadly, the game’s story ends abruptly in this 6 to 8-hour game but everything up until that point is sublime. If you come into the Jotun somewhat ignorant of Norse mythology then you are in for a treat. The developer does a great job of educating the gamer about what is going on and who you will fight. The story of Thora’s death slowly unfolds through the game after taking down the giants. Her story when she was alive isn’t the most epic thing out there but if it was that would defeat its purpose. There are a few moments that killed the immersion and story for me due to Kickstarter name inclusions.

 

Gameplay: 7 out of 10

When you boil the gameplay down to its core then you are essentially left with, “Find runes in themed level, unlock a boss door, kill a boss, repeat.” It seems simple but it feels like there is more to it than that. When you finally make your way to a Jotun then get ready for an epic brawl. Bosses are massive, truly demi-god like, and aren’t exactly bound to human rules. You will find some split in half attacking you, releasing dozens of enemies in groups, destroying the playing field causing a fire to erupt below, releasing blizzards while attacking with a bull rush, creating bullet-hell scenarios, and many other blood pressure heightening patterns. Generally, the idea is to unload as much damage as you can at the beginning but get ready for the boss to ramp up in speed, complexity, and pain as that health bar drops. I rarely beat a boss on the first go around but always felt rewarded when I finally managed to get through a battle with my head intact. For those of you who love a challenge, you can play Valhalla Mode after you defeat the game to see how fast you can defeat the game bosses! They also can be a bit harder than the main game.

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“Everything’s bigger in Ginnungagap!”

Level Design: 8 out of 10

The levels in the game are very unique and have nice pacing to them. You are treated to the occasional vista and will find some thoughtful foreshadowing in certain levels. Levels tend to have multiple hazards like tentacle-like thorns that spring from the ground or something as crazy as a massive sea monster that will bust out underneath an icy lake. Another good rule of thumb is that if you see a random shadow – RUN! This game loves to randomly drop things on your head for no reason other than to make the afterlife harder. Occasionally you will get no warning. Each level attempts to put new gameplay styles and aesthetics in front of you in mostly successful ways. Thora traverses from lands of green to underground mines to a giant tree with a hawk that tries to eat you alive then the game will take you away to the stars. There is always something new and cool to see.

 

Musical Score: 10 out of 10

I rarely find a game that utilizes sound and music as well as Jotun does. You will hear different scores in each level and the music will match what you are doing on screen. Essentially it feels like a movie-quality soundtrack. I highly suggest playing with a good surround sound system or good quality headphones.

 

Presentation: 10 out of 10

The consistently strong stylized mythological Norse design courses through the veins of this game. Jotun never appears generic and the overall aesthetic has been directly integrated into everything, even the font! There is something special about seeing the engravings glow on the doors before boss rooms or occasional bas-reliefs that help tell the story. Some parts of the presentation aren’t simply aesthetic but rather auditory. The Icelandic voice acting, for instance, really helps drag the gamer into Thora’s plight. It is very hard for a game to hit a level of gestalt like this one has.

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“You think this looks crazy? It gets way…way worse. In a good way!”

TL: DR Review

This game is great. If you like hand-drawn art in games like Muramasa and epic boss battles akin to Monster Hunter then this is the game for you. Overall the presentation, music, sound, and level design is just as epic as the story. The biggest issue I had involves a crash in The Crater due to the Wii U chugging on an abundance of lighting effects. I have explained how to avoid the crash in “Graphics” above. Until the developer fixes the game crash in The Cavern on the Wii U I would suggest picking up Jotun : Valhalla Edition on another console or PC if you can. It may be worth it to buy the game at the discounted price on release date and wait for a patch if you only own WiiU. It’s that good.

Overall: 83 out of 100  (rounded up to an 8.5 out of 10)

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“More like 83 out of 100 baddies knocked down!” 

simplyTravis
We keep Travis in a cage, mostly so he doesn't hurt himself.