When it comes to Thunder Lotus’ Jotun: Valhalla Edition, the first game people will think of is Stoic’s The Banner Saga. Despite very different gameplay styles, the initial comparisons are obvious. Both games feature Norse mythology. Both use beautiful hand-drawn visuals. Both feature relatively long periods of quieter gameplay, followed by combat sequences. Also, both have been scored by composers with incredible amounts of talent.
But to tie the games together in this way would be unfair to both titles. As I say, the gameplay styles are very different. Jotun is a direct-controlled action affair where you play as Thora, a Viking woman who has suffered an inglorious death, meaning that she’s prevented from entering Valhalla. The great Odin offers up a second chance for the warrior though, tasking her with impressing the various gods by defeating them in combat. Do this, and Valhalla awaits.
The story is presented via voiceovers in Icelandic (with English subtitles, of course) and gameplay is presented in a semi top-down style, seeing Thora starting off in the void of Ginnungagap, which serves as the main hub. From here, she must head into each god’s realm, finding either one or two runes – which serve as keystones – in order to unlock the battle with the god itself.
The environments you traverse during the rune-finding phases are beautifully realized, though sparse in terms of peril. In only a couple of them will you face anything like a threat to Thora’s life, which actually works quite well given the way the task at hand is laid out. Runes are not necessarily all that easy to get to and while you can access a full map of the level you’re working through at any time, your position on the map isn’t indicated. You can see the starting point and the goal but other than that, you’re on your own. This means that you’ll need to keep checking the map, whilst constantly trying to remain aware of exactly where you are and where you’ve come from.
What this does is provide a level of mild-to-mid-level puzzling to the game, so hundreds of enemies descending upon you while you’re trying to work things out would prove to be somewhat chaotic and frustrating. Thunder Lotus have done well to keep each level focused and while a lot of the stages can be whipped through relatively quickly, there’s scope for further exploration.
In fact, if you just run from the start to the end of each level, you’ll find yourself woefully underpowered when it comes to the later bosses, since you won’t have been awarded any of the keys god powers. From Heimdall’s shield to Thor’s Hammer and even the spear of Odin himself, six different powers are available along your journey, so being able to revisit beaten levels from the main hub in order to pick these powers up is welcome. They aren’t necessarily easy to find or reach though, so the hunt further extends the game’s life.
Thora has three moves aside from those powers. A quick swipe of her double-bladed axe is mapped to X with a dodge roll on A, and the main attack that you’ll use – a massive overhead swing that takes a second or two to charge – settling on the Y button. God powers are activated with B and can be switched between by tapping a shoulder button. It’s a system that is easy to master given its beautiful minimalism, but which is just complex enough to offer multiple approaches to the game’s main course: the jötnar themselves.
Each jotun is worthy of the name, standing as relative giants in comparison to your character, throwing down themed attacks that can deal massive amounts of damage. Lose concentration, and you’ll be restarting quicker than you can say “Ginnungagap.” Each one is a definite challenge, with the later battles against the fire jotun Kaunan and Odin himself being real fights for survival that will doubtless cause many a controller-throwing moment. Every victory feels like a real accomplishment and even though it’s possible to get from the opening to closing credits within five or six hours, there’s a good chance that you’ll spend a few more trying to work out attack patterns and the best ways to approach each fight.
While Jotun was originally released in 2015 for PC, the “Valhalla Edition” subtitle added to the console release is to mark the inclusion of a NG+ mode called, unsurprisingly, Valhalla. Here, your collected god powers are carried through into straight up battles against the individual jotun from the main game, complete with high scores and leaderboards. The jotun themselves are much more powerful in this mode, so the majority of people who will find the story mode’s boss fights to be challenging will be in for a treat and a great deal of extended playing time. If you’re not into high score battles, there’s nothing new to see here over that PC release from a year ago, though, so that should be borne in mind if you’re weighing up a purchase and have played the game before.
Those that haven’t played Jotun before though are in for a real treat. Aesthetically pleasing and utterly charming, it’s an interesting and compelling trek through Norse mythology that – despite a few frame rate drops and very minor bugs here and there – is a memorable experience. The bosses are the main focus of the game of course and the developers have done a great job with the difficulty curve, making it so that most players will be challenged by each battle they take on, but not frustrated to the point of turning away. A few more levels would have sealed the deal but even with the handful on offer, this is well worth checking out.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
Aesthetically pleasing and utterly charming, Jotun is an interesting and compelling trek through Norse mythology.