These last few years seem to have been kind to fans of indie titles and players looking for something outside the familiar IPs from AAA developers. Jotun: Valhalla Edition, developed and published by Thunder Lotus Games, is one fine example of this influx of solid independent efforts. Having released last year on PC, Mac, and Linux, Jotun has finally brought its unfathomable beauty and simplistic gameplay to Nintendo’s Wii U.
Jotun follows the adventure of deceased Viking Thora trying to prove herself worthy of entry into Valhalla after dying a less than spectacular death at sea. To do this, Thora must slay the namesake Jötunn — forsaken giants of Old Norse mythology — in honor of the Æsir, the Old Norse gods from whom she seeks approval. Along the way, Thora will tell her story, what sadness and treachery led to her death, and teach the player the mythos of her Viking heritage.
The first thing Thora will introduce players to is the pretty landscape she inhabits. Personally, I have not been impressed by beauty in a game like this since Vanillaware’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade was released on Wii in 2009, which itself was preceded only by Nintendo’s own Wario Land: Shake It in 2008. Jotun’s spirited majesty is the product of hand-drawn elements, vibrant colors, and sheer magnitude — the end result of which is an organic-feeling world that all looks and feels like one object rather than a series of assets placed on top of a board. The fact that each stage has its own unique enemies that inhabit that area alone helps create this sensation as they follow the particular theme of their stage. You will only find Dwarves in Brokkr’s Forge and you won’t find Fire Giants outside The Crater.
Though, at times, the seamless melding of art causes small issues for the player. The main problem from this comes from background/foreground confusion. Because the art is so seamless and stylized, it became difficult at times to determine what was in the foreground and what wasn’t, effectively making stage borders and traversable terrain look the same in certain areas. This is a problem that could be resolved with thicker lines or shading on certain objects, though it is only cause for mild frustration from time to time. The foreground/background blending problem is most apparent in The Nine Rivers where some parts that seem like they should be traversable are not, and vice versa. However, the programmers did ensure Thora’s movements are easy to track by showing her shadowy outline as she moves behind objects. While a small detail, it is a detail often forgotten in games with isometric views and it is greatly appreciated.
The greatest thing, however, is the sheer artistic magnitude of this thing. Within the first five minutes, the player is treated to a magnificent view of The Barrow Mound with incredible details and sound. It is a literal “woah” moment, and it is probably one of the least spectacular views the game will throw at players. As it moves on, the scale and size will only impress more, and the sound design team did everything in their power to ensure the player not only sees that moment, but hears it and feels a real emotional impact. There is an eeriness and calmness to the soundtrack, perforated with simple melodies, sets the mood perfectly in Jotun’s story and stages. This becomes most apparent during action sequences which raise the tempo, add some extra melodies, and show off the giant set pieces made for the game.
Once you catch your breath from the art overload you remember that you are playing a video game. You will notice controlling Thora and getting through each stage should prove pretty manageable. With obvious love and understanding for game design, Thunder Lotus has created rock solid and simple controls. Using mainly the four face buttons and an analog stick (or D-pad, if you insist), Thora is provided only with essential movements for standard attack, charge/heavy attack, dodge, and powers/magic. To support the powers, using the shoulder buttons or touch screen on the GamePad allows for easy cycling/switching of powers ala the Mega Man X series. While quick-scrolling for powers won’t really become critical due to the extremely limited nature of these powers as most only offer two uses, it will prove incredibly convenient during difficult boss battles. Outside of those boss battles, however, players will likely find themselves using the standard attack to work their way through enemies while the heavy/charge swing will help solve puzzles and throw in the one or two heavy punches where bosses allow (believe me, most won’t give you many opportunities). Every command feels responsive and tight and just plain good.
Jotun: Valhalla Edition has only six bosses, though each one is incredibly unique and requires an equally unique approach. Each boss is also more impressive than the last and only becomes increasingly more difficult than the last. But every single one is manageable — another aspect that Thunder Lotus needs to be commended on. Rather than creating bosses that just become progressively cheap and beg “luck” to defeat, each Jötunn instead requires the player to develop their play style and skill to beat it. Thora herself won’t get stronger (she will have access to new powers), but it is the player’s cunning strategy that will defeat each boss. For example, each time one of the Jötunn is defeated, there is a wonderful redeeming sense of achievement punctuated with the statement “You have impressed the Gods!”
Though, Jotun: Valhalla Edition is not perfect. During gameplay, the player can look at the GamePad or pause to see the stage map. The map shows the whole area, which displays some key points, main puzzle objects and where the stage objective is. The problem is that the map doesn’t show where the player is. The easiest way around this is to look at the game map once a key area is encountered as that will create a highlighted mark on the map and give the player an exact location. The other option is to play cartographer by redrawing the map in your mind while constantly looking back and forth between the game map and TV screen. Nearly half the game is linear, which is a little troublesome, but it is offset by the other half of the game which involves winding branches, roots, leaves, cloud bridges, etc. Luckily, these problems are alleviated by the combined effects of literally everything else the game has to offer. Once you find yourself sliding down the roots of the World Tree itself, you tend to realize you’re too busy being a puny part of this mythological world to worry about your exact location.
In terms of length, this game is not long. The main game, including collecting everything, can be accomplished in under six hours. That covers all the wandering around, all the dwarf smashing, giant killing, and root sliding. But the game doesn’t feel any less for it. In fact, it feels good — efficient even. Each moment of the game is utilized to prepare the player for the impending boss battle, to help them solve a puzzle, or is just the result of the players decision to explore. Very little feels like extra fluff, and every extra tidbit of Norse mythology just adds to the epic feeling Thunder Lotus has packed into this title. Luckily, the Valhalla Edition added a Valhalla Mode, a boss rush that can be unlocked after clearing the main game. Speaking from personal experience, hitting those bosses again after finishing the final boss battle does not make them any easier. It doesn’t help that they have all been beefed up to accommodate Thora’s new array of powers. While this mode does track personal high scores, it does not compare them online, so any notable accomplishments will be for local bragging rights only.
At the end of the day, Thunder Lotus’s main goal seems to make players feel totally immersed in Jotun: Valhalla Edition’s story and style. The sheer magnitude of the world they have designed, the music choices, the art style, and even the fact that the whole game is dubbed in Icelandic — one of the closest living languages to Old Norse — achieves that goal without a doubt. Despite small issues with the map and some background/foreground confusion, this is nothing short of an amazing first offering.