Reviewed on PS4
Too often are incredible experiences only offered on PC. While they eventually make the jump to consoles, that’s not until months—if not years—later, segmenting the audience that may be interested in the title. Such is the case with Jotun. Released about a year ago on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux, Jotun delivered a Norse mythological narrative wrapped around a beautiful hand-drawn aesthetic with a simple loop: bosses. In a similar vein as Titan Souls or the ever-popular Shadow of the Colossus, Jotun pitted you against challenging, towering bosses. There was light exploration, but your goal was to defeat the bosses in order to reach the ending. Jotun: Valhalla Edition delivers the same experience, but on consoles, while adding the new Valhalla Mode, which is essentially boss rush mode.
For the unfamiliar, Jotun: Valhalla Edition puts you in the shoes of Thora, a Norse warrior who dies unceremoniously in battle. It is this inglorious death that has made Valhalla, the safe haven in Norse mythology, closed to her. In order to redeem herself and be granted passage to Valhalla, Thora must prove herself to the Gods by defeating the colossal wardens of the elements, the Jotun. As you progress from one Jotun to the next, Thora delivers exposition in authentic Icelandic, a North Germanic language. This authenticity offers a sense of realism to the narrative as it provides a connection to the world and the characters that inhabit it. The emotions Thora posits and the descriptions she gives are believable because of this decision to use Icelandic, and the translation helps contextualize the visuals. Shame, then, that the narrative itself is quite insipid. Merely a quest for redemption, Jotun: Valhalla Edition does nothing to invest you in Thora’s plea for refuge to Valhalla, especially since the reason she is killed is not visually apparent. While the writing is sharp, the narrative itself is weak, and the excellent voice acting can do nothing for such a fundamental problem.
Gameplay is tight and responsive, which is what you want from a game like this.
Thankfully, Jotun: Valhalla Edition is a pretty game—a damn pretty game, actually. The designers of Thunder Lotus Games drew everything by hand and it shows. From the furious sketch lines to the inconsistent line width to the desaturation of color, this human touch is appreciated. Similar to Stoic’s The Banner Saga, Jotun: Valhalla Edition takes advantage of the hand-drawn aesthetic to create a beautiful contrast in both color and depth of field that isn’t only automated by the tech, the Unity3D Engine, behind it. Every color used in the game has this almost pastel-like quality to it, but it’s also vivid and absolutely gorgeous. The Jotun are detailed distinctly, the environments are expansive with stunning draw distances and rendered beautifully, and the color palette is alluring. However, the most impressive aspect of the game is its sense of scale: While being a 3D game, it has this sort of 2D/isometric view that makes the Jotun even larger than they probably are. You want to talk about feeling small? Well, Jotun: Valhalla Edition does an excellent job of making you feel small.
Thora is not small, though, let me tell you. In fact, she is a burly woman carrying an even burlier axe. Jotun: Valhalla Edition‘s gameplay is tight and responsive, which is exactly what you’d expect from a boss rush game. (You can’t have floaty controls here. Well, you can, but it would be rage inducing.) You have a dodge, a light and heavy attack, a button to cycle through whatever powers you collect, and a button to active said rune—fairly straightforward. Though simple, Jotun‘s gameplay is satisfying and appropriately animated, and Thora’s movements have weight behind them as she puts her entire body mass into every action she performs. Heavy attacks take a while to execute, and even light attacks have to be accurately timed; this heaviness requires precision as you are left vulnerable immediately after you attack, allowing the Jotun to punish you relentlessly. Thankfully, however, should you die, the game’s checkpoint system is sparing, and the controls are simple enough that the nuances are easy to pick up. Although there isn’t a dedicated tutorial, Jotun: Valhalla Edition thrusts you into the throes of the world, demands you to learn as you go, and is so much more rewarding for it.
Enemy AI is highly exploitable and quite vapid.
The game does offer puzzles and light exploration to break up the monotony of boss after boss after boss. Each Jotun has two runes that must be collected before entering combat with them. These two levels are unique to themselves, but the formula does become a bit bland after the third or fourth time. One is a puzzle level, where you have to solve some kind of complex and confounding puzzle in order to reach the rune and the optional Ithunn Apple (which increases your maximum health). The other is an exploration level, where you travel from one point to the next, searching for the rune and the optional Ithunn Apple. Unfortunately, while expansive to a degree, there are no hidden secrets or areas to discover in these levels, leaving them ultimately lifeless. Moreover, you are given a map, but the map is useless: It does show the area in its entirety, but there is never an indication of where you are on the map, causing you to feel lost doing such a menial task.
Enemy AI is inane and easily exploitable as well. After dying a few times, you’ll quickly pick up the patterns of the AI, which allows you to defeat these hulking bosses much quicker than possibly intended. It’s unfortunate because all of the bosses have two forms, but there is no response to damage, and the AI never adapts to your strategies. The only time you need to deviate from the strategy is when the boss becomes more ferocious in the second half of the fight; other than that, once you figure it out, you can (essentially) spam the boss to death. Furthermore, Jotun: Valhalla Edition has some graphical issues. Though nothing detrimental to the overall experience, the flickers and the stuttering are noticeable enough—and they do occur frequently.
Still, Jotun: Valhalla Edition is an impressive game, if just for its Icelandic voice over and striking visuals. There is something oddly titillating about versing an enemy much larger than yourself and defeating it. Jotun delivers this experience expertly, and feeling the exhilaration of beating an enemy with more abilities and strength is enjoyable. While the narrative is nothing truly captivating, the AI can be sorely underwhelming, and the lack of variety is disappointing, Jotun: Valhalla Edition still provides the trite David vs. Goliath experience in a neat little package. Just know that the Gods are watching your every move.