Jotun: Valhalla Edition

Despite containing a number of intriguing stories and relationships, Norse mythology hasn’t gotten a lot of use in video games.  For those with an appreciation for the thematic concepts it brings, Jotun: Valhalla Edition’s appeal is immediately apparent.   In contrast, Valhalla, Thor, Odin and the like are not unfamiliar names to the average person, but the details of the more obscure creatures in the game will likely be foreign.

Jotun begins with a short intro sequence, detailing the death and potential redemption of the protagonist Thora.  The player is then given control in a very direct and simple hub world with a clear goal in mind:  Impress the gods by defeating Jotun in order to be permitted into Valhalla.

The gorgeous art in Jotun is without a doubt the highlight of the entire game.  It does an excellent job of drawing you into the world and is further complimented by very smooth animation.  This is an advertisement for hand-drawn art in video games that manages to look just as good in motion as it does as a static background.   The entire package has excellent composition with a great use of color and variety that makes an otherwise stale environmental design intriguing.  While the sound design itself is nothing to write home about, its prominence in the game is well-established.  The music ebbs and flows at appropriate moments and really works to highlight a contrasted sense of tranquility with intense moments.  From a general artistic standpoint, Jotun succeeds from start-to-finish.

The controls are very simplistic, with Thora’s actions limited to light and heavy attacks, dodge rolling and god powers, which can be acquired throughout the game’s exploration sections.  Everything here is mechanically sound, but it does little to make the core gameplay truly entertaining.  Your motivation for moving further is not to experience another great gameplay sequence, but to simply see more wonderfully constructed artwork in the background.  This is a perfect example of tried-and-true gameplay design with no notable faults, yet absolutely no innovation.  If your engagement in the visual brilliance of Jotun fades, so too will you motivation to continue playing it.

Jotun consists of two primary sections that can be initiated via the hub world: exploration and boss fights.  The exploration levels are prerequisites to the Jotun fights and do a good job of being varied in theme with a handful of alternate routes.  Some may involve taking cover during a snowstorm, while others have a central creature which periodically attacks you as you progress throughout the level.  Despite this variety, none of the exploration levels truly feel dangerous because the things that can kill you are always indirect – save for a single area.  While some of these segments still remain excellent, the typical exploration level feels more like a break from the action than it does an expansive world to discover.

The boss fights with Jotun, however, are excellent.  There is a fantastic sense of scale as the camera zooms out to give you a very real idea of just how miniscule Thora is compared to a Jotun.  Every one of them is a goliath that has its own unique methods of attacking the player.  Perhaps the most welcome element in the boss fights is that they mimic the exploration levels.  This is Jotun’s most notable example of good game design, because the boss fights carry over elements from the prerequisite levels, ensuring that the player is not blindsided by new mechanics.  While there aren’t a large number of Jotun to fight, none of them are forgettable.  After the defeat of each Jotun, you are returned to the hub world and are fed narrative exposition in the form of Thora’s backstory regarding her family, history and personal thoughts.  It’s not a bad way to flesh out the character more, but the delivery of this effect has less impact than a playable section.  As it is, you’re encouraged to just stand around reading subtitles that don’t really flow well with what’s on the screen.  Only the introduction and ending provide proper cutscenes, so the in-game narrative segments feel rather disjointed by comparison.

Upon completing the game, Valhalla mode unlocks and offers something of a boss rush mode with more difficult variants of the existing Jotun.  The base game is fairly easy and relatively short, so this mode is a welcome way to get more out of the already memorable boss fights.  I always appreciate it when the most enjoyable part of a game is isolated so the player can experience it again without any fluff in the middle.

Jotun: Valhalla Edition feels like the product of ambitious artists and sound designers who had a vision for their world and executed it nigh-flawlessly.  Unfortunately, this simply serves to drive home just how mundane the gameplay is.  In essence, Jotun as a video game feels more like a vehicle to deliver the artistic talents of its developers.  Every element is passable, but the memorable moments all come from artistic achievements, not strong gameplay design.