A most beautiful slog.
Jotun: Valhalla Edition on Xbox One
One of the best things about video games is that they can be completely different things to different people. We tend to arm ourselves with a particular mindset going into a game, and let that (combined with our personal preferences) color our impressions of them. Jotun: Valhalla Edition feels like a game that can be consumed one of many ways, but really, it’s a simply beautiful game heavily marred down by itself.
Jotun opens on the death of the viking warrior Thora, as the sea washes her away. She then awakens in The Void, a purgatory-like proving ground for Valhalla itself. After a less than glorious death, she’s been given one last chance to impress the gods by…well, killing a few. The premise is pulled straight from ancient Norse mythology, but for Norse buffs, there’s likely some nuance to the tale lost in translation.
But what’s not lost on us is our main character’s narrated stories along the way, as she reconciles a life dedicated to become the ultimate warrior and dying such a simple death. The narration by Thora is what sells it here, as everything is beautifully spoken in what sounds like Old Norse. This, undercut with a gorgeously subtle soundtrack, really perfected the quiet moments. This is best exemplified by the dramatic steps leading up to boss fights, as Thora describes the god you’re about to face, and establishes an air of despair that matches the massive scale of the beast itself.
Presentation is where Jotun shines, but this is most true in the game’s visuals. Everything in the game is beautifully hand-drawn, and also completely hand-animated. The technique is used to amazing effect, particularly in boss fights, which come alive in a spectacular fashion that few games can ever pull off. Though at times, the painted look of the background environments combined with the hand-animated characters on the foreground made for certain moments when the two didn’t mesh well, and looked off as a result.
Jotun is a game about boss fights and quieter moments in-between. Similar to Shadow of the Colossus, you enter a new zone and either solve rudimentary puzzles or fight off simple enemies until you get to one of the game’s five bosses (or Jotuns). These areas in-between are sometimes a nice showcase of the game’s very talented artists, but mostly, they just felt boring. The objective of each area is exactly the same, with each area having its own gimmick that defines your journey through it. It’s meant to feel like a break between boss battles, and that’s appreciated at first, but they just last too long and aren’t engaging enough to be as interesting the fifth time around.
This problem is almost exacerbated by what is Jotun’s most fun aspect, the boss battles themselves. The combat system is extremely rudimentary, with just a light attack, heavy attack, and dodge roll. The combat gets marginally deeper as you progress through the game and find more “god powers,” like healing, attack boost, speed boost, and shielding. By the time I had all of these powers, I began to feel a small layer of strategy forming in when to use certain powers, but since any of the bosses can be tackled in any order, there’s never a case in which they feel required.
And that would be okay, except that the base combat is nowhere near tight enough to support the whole game. The heavy attack is an extremely important attack to be using all the time against bosses, but you can move for the two seconds while it charges. This wait became incredibly frustrating when the 2D plane betrayed me, and had me thinking I was closer to the boss than I truly was. These concerns aren’t addressed in the new game plus mode part of Jotun’s “Valhalla mode,” which is a simple boss rush mode that asks the player to defeat every boss quickly for a spot on the leaderboard.
Combat doesn’t feel like Jotun’s priority, even though it defines the most exciting parts of the game. It’s an experience that puts style before substance, and asks its players that they do the same. And for a while, we were able to do that. But by the time the game is asking to take a fifth lap around its gameplay loop, we weren’t looking forward to the boss fights or the rudimentary puzzle solving. Jotun had become a slog — a very beautiful, heavily flawed, hand-drawn slog.
Score: 3/5 – Fair