Game: Jotun: Valhalla Edition
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games
Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch (Review code/copy provided)
We all love a bit of Norse mythology, don’t we? From marauding vikings to their fierce gods, the Norse myths hold some compelling tall tales, full of tricksters, giant sea creatures, life trees and frost giants. Jotun is a game that brings all of that together in a visually stunning package. Originally launching on PC in 2015, Wii U, PS4 and XBox One versions followed in 2016. Now it’s the Switch’s turn with this updated Valhalla Edition.
Playing as a Viking Shieldmaiden, Thora, the player is, in the opening scene, drowned at sea in a storm. Waking up at the roots of Yggdrasil, the life tree, Thora must explore areas of the nine realms, gain godlike powers and defeat six massive bosses. As the player guides Thora in her afterlife quest, the story unfolds, narrated by the character herself in Norse with subtitles in English. Coupled with the music, this approach adds a very “storytelling” feel to the narrative, and the use of native tongue rather than accented English works really well.
But the first thing that strikes about Jotun is how damn colourful it is. Characters are all hand animated in a style very reminiscent of Don Bluth. Indeed it reminded me very much of the Core Design viking game, Heimdall which also used a similar isometric approach to gameplay, but was more of a roleplaying game. Character animations are fluid and expressive and the massive bosses look simply sumptuous.
Gameplay wise, Jotun is an interesting mix. As mentioned, it plays from a top down, isometric viewpoint with the left stick moving Thora about the playing field. The face buttons activate light and strong attacks with her axe, as well as a dodge roll. As you play through levels you will find special “God” powers to heal, increase your strength and speed among others – these can be scrolled through with the shoulder bumpers and activated at the push of a button; they can also be stacked allowing you to plan different combos for certain situations. You need to use them wisely as they only have a certain number of charges before they run out and have to be recharged at fountains dotted throughout the levels. What I did find odd, though, is how little combat the game actually has.
Jotun is oddly calming at times. As Thora ventures through each self contained level, looking for runes to open up boss encounters, the game becomes somewhat lonely. Other than a level which puts you up against an army of Dwarves, there are few, if any, enemies outside of the bosses. The challenge comes from environmental puzzles which task you with using your attacks and abilities to overcome danger without resorting to combat. Players will need to read the world maps, looking for points of interest and gemoetry to help them find their way around, as well as taking notice of emerging hazards, from freezing winds to creeping electricity; these will generally come back into play in the boss encounters, so figuring out how to survive is key. The lack of enemies to fight can get somewhat disappointing, however, which is a shame. Sometimes you turn a corner, hoping for a few dwarves or trolls to batter about the head, and the lack of combat can make the worlds feel somewhat empty.
The boss encounters do make up for this, however, coming often as a storm after the calm, a tense throwdown with a screen filling enemy. These battles can be gruelling challenges as you have to study ever changing attack patterns, telegraphed moves and figure out the best way to reduce your opponent to a pile of bones. There is definitely a sense of relief when you finally topple one of the Jotun but, in a Shadow of the Colossus sense, also melancholy. You feel like a stranger in a strange land here and it almost seems wrong to be attacking these gods.
For this Switch release, developers Thunder Lotus Games have tightened things up, added a couple of new effects and also put in a new Valhalla Mode; a boss rush for anyone who wants to play only those big, hulking encounters. All in all, without some serious in-world combat, there doesn’t seem to be much for the determined player outside of this boss mode; the game itself could easily be completed in one sitting, but this is thankfully reflected in its mid-range price. It may seem like a brief jaunt into Norse mythology, but its striking visuals and unique approach to storytelling make Jotun a great experience on Switch.
Strong animated visuals with simple yet challenging gameplay. Jotun may lack some variety but this short experience is one worth adding to your Switch games collection.