Jotun: Valhalla Edition Review (PS4)
When a game tells you your core mission from the get-go is to “impress the gods,” you’re in for a ride. Thunder Lotus Games puts this lofty task upon us in the Norse-inspired adventure, Jotun: Valhalla Edition and tasks players with challenging colossal monsters in order to win the favor of Odin and his pantheon. Rich, hand-drawn worlds inspired by the tapestry of Nordic legends and lore make Jotun a fantastical and breathtaking journey, although it sometimes feels barren between the big encounters.
Jotun tells the story of Thora --- a mighty female Viking who died an inglorious death at the hands of misfortune. Robbed of her desire to die in honorable combat and enter the warriors’ resting place of Valhalla, Thora’s soul is rescued from the abyss and given new opportunity to prove itself. She must travel the realms of the Norse gods and slay the Jotun in order to impress the gods and take her place in Valhalla. The Jotun are colossal figures each barring an element of nature, and each acts as a rough and tumble boss fight on Thora’s way to ascendance.
Much of Thora’s mission takes place in a transdimensional hub world known as Ginnungagap, which serves as a gateway to all other worlds. The path to the grand battle with each Jotun lies locked behind enormous doors in Ginnungagap. In order to open them, runes must be found in levels pertaining to the elemental theme of each Jotun. Thora must make contact with two runes to open each door, which comes out to two levels apiece before the grand battles.
Each level is an environment themed around lands from mythical Nordic tales and each often requires a gimmick tied to a mythological story in order to open the path to the rune. The puzzles are mostly straightforward and won’t leave the player lost too often, but no two levels really play out the same and there are some genuinely interesting solutions to each one. Additionally, exploration is highly rewarded as each level contains an apple of Ithuun, which will increase Thora’s health maximum health, and a shrine pertaining to one of the gods, which will bless Thora with a godly power. Each is well worth hunting down, especially since the game is nearly impossible without the aid of the god powers.
To defend herself, Thora wields a giant axe and can swing it for light and heavy attacks, with another button for an evading roll in the direction the player is moving her. The balance between light and heavy attacks is well thought out in Jotun. Heavy attacks with Thora’s battle axe take a long time to wind up and leave her open to damage, but the damage she’ll deliver is very substantial. Light attacks do very little damage, but they can be done rapidly and have good recovery time, making both a very well-tuned matter of balance and timing for the player. Do you go for the big hit or small hits with easy evasion? Figuring out the time when either is appropriate is all part of the challenge.
The godly powers change up everything and do wonders for Thora’s survival. Many of them give basic benefits such as better movement speed and attacking or a quick heal, though some offer Thora very complex benefits. Loki’s power, for example, casts a mirror image of Thora which draws enemy attention before exploding. This power means a quick escape out of harm’s way and damage to your enemies while you rethink your tactics. Each power from the basic to the complex serves a necessary purpose, and we found ourselves using all of them liberally in the end. After all, the odds are most certainly in the Jotuns’ favor otherwise.
Getting to the Jotun is a majestic affair. In each arena, you awaken these massive foes and begin a grand battle. Each has a series of attacks and patterns that are somewhat easy to spy, but almost always very hard to dodge without proper timing on your attacks and evasions. As Thora whittles away at each Jotun, their tactics change and the battle becomes much more chaotic and difficult. You can expect to die a few times just getting a feel for each Jotun’s pattern. However, the game is more than forgiving, offering players a respawn fairly close by to pick up the fight again. They might be frustrating, but none of the Jotun feel unfair once you’ve got them figured out and the battles are absolutely epic and stunning visual affairs from start to finish.
Truly, Jotun’s beauty can’t be understated. Every level is a story to be told and every sprite is fantastically expressive. Even Thora, the very smallest being in the game, is fantastically created, gritting her teeth when she winds up for the big axe swings. The artistic weaving of mythology into character and environment make just about every single experience in Jotun mystifying and well worth unraveling. From the forests of Jera to the cosmic skies of Hagalaz, each area is full of rich visual storytelling, when Thora herself isn’t filling you on the lore to make it that much more interesting.
For the Valhalla Edition, a new mode was added that can be accessed once the game has been completed the first time. Valhalla Mode is a boss rush in which the player freely challenges all of the Jotun yet again. However, in this mode, each of the Jotun have reconfigured tactics and patterns, making them much harder than in their initial appearance. For instance, Jera, who sprouts vines on the field and exudes poison mist to attack the player will sprout many more vines per spawning and a flower near her being will periodically emit poison to make the player choose carefully when to attack. These particular boss fights border on absurdity in their difficulty, but you have all the tools necessary to get it done by the time you hit Valhalla Mode and the challenge is still pretty enjoyable.
One of the only shortcomings of Jotun comes up in some of the level design. Some are a breeze, others take serious effort and some feel barren in comparison to the rest. While the levels supply pretty backdrops, the most fun part of the game is most definitely fighting the Jotun. When the levels aren’t as enjoyable as the boss fights, the stretch between getting to these battles can be a bit of a slog. There are some genuinely good levels --- like one where you must cross an iced over lake and avoid a monstrous sea serpent that will haunt your trek --- but some definitely feel less inspired, leaving a somewhat inconsistent experience in between the great levels and boss fights.
Jotun delivers a larger than life tale of a mighty warrior overcoming the greatest of adversity to claim her ultimate reward. The artistry that tells the tale is a top notch presentation of the mythical gods, beasts and legendary locations tied to each branch of the rich Nordic mythology. It doesn’t always keep the hits coming constantly, but Jotun is most definitely one of the more beautiful and enjoyable adventure titles we’ve played, with enough continuing challenge to ensure that impressing the gods will be no short order.
This review is based on a download of Jotun: Valhalla Edition provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.