Fans of The Settlers and Cultures, this is your day. German developer Funatics has gone back to the drawing board, assembling another addictive, building-oriented strategy game. This one, dubbed Valhalla Hills, has a Norse theme — and while it’s not quite the heavenlike hall of the gods it’s named after, it’s well-worth a look for anyone interested in the genre.
The narrative here is a pretty simple one, albeit quite funny and suitable for the temperamental gods of Norse mythology that inspired it: Odin’s in a pissy mood after his son Leko fails an “exam of the gods,” so he slams the door to Valhalla shut. Unable to rest their weary bones inside, the honorable Vikings are forced to turn to Leko — demoted to the unflattering position of “God of the Builders” — who will attempt to redeem himself by leading the heroes up the eponymous mountains. You can do this one of two ways: by opening the magic portals of Valhalla to fight the enemies within, or by appeasing the gods with tributes. And by building: doing tons and tons of building.
Other strategy games of this ilk feature building as a main feature, but Valhalla Hills makes construction the main point of interaction for the player. Once you’ve broken ground for the Vikings to build on, assigned particular buildings to produce certain kinds of tools and weapons, and ensured that there are enough workers to complete the tasks at hand, there’s little left to do but watch your peons go to work. You can pave some roads between buildings to encourage more efficient pathfinding (and make the map look a lot more organized in the process), but in the end, the burden of work falls on the artificial intelligence of your crew.
Good thing the AI is mostly competent, then. If you prioritize the right things and give them enough time, your team becomes like an extension of your will. They’ll put together what you want, when you want it, and it can be an absolute delight watching them scamper about in the meantime. The randomly-generated maps do a great job of keeping you on your toes, too, and even though your goal in every stage remains the same (open the portal to the next world via tributes to the gods or battling waves of enemies), a handful of increasing difficulty factors — from larger maps to increasing numbers of enemy combatants — requires you to juggle a steadily growing library of blueprints.
In early levels, for example, you’ll be able to get by with basic building types like Woodcutters and Toolmakers, which can be crafted out of wood. However, by the time you’ve worked your way through a few levels, you’ll need to mine Quarries and fix your Vikings a cold glass of wheat beer at the Brewery. Unlockable building types often require raw materials to be refined as part of their composition, which means — you guessed it — you’ve got to get even more workers and buildings to take care of the refining. This never-ending sequence of unlocking and building is part of the Skinner box appeal of the genre, and things can get quite chaotic as the maps grow more and more expansive.
But you know… there’s just something a bit off about the lack of player agency here. Sure, the fact that you’re able to focus on building is great, and the AI does seem to do a consistently good job, but you just get the sense that there’s something missing. In the occasional case where the CPU-controlled Vikings prioritize something you don’t want, for example, it seems strange that there isn’t an easy way to give them some redirection. And when you’ve got enemies patrolling the portal, there doesn’t seem to be an intuitive way to maneuver your warriors towards them (outside of outright moving the army camp next to the enemies). With AI this good, allowing players to issue commands would have been supplemental more than anything else, but it also would have helped connect the dots; the way things are feels a bit sparse.
Visually, Funatics’ latest title is a bit on the humdrum side. The squat, ugly-cute Viking models look rather like garden gnomes, to be honest, and the randomly-generated maps fail to create any sort of cohesion among the elements. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the presentation, to be sure, but it’s not an aesthetic that sticks with you in any way. The audio, on the other hand, is quite a bit more exciting, with music that changes based on the activity on the map. These tunes, which range from tranquil woodwinds to an energetic, jangly guitar, evoke exactly the sort of Scandinavian atmosphere you’d expect from a game inspired by Norse mythology. They’re accompanied by a bevy of sound effects created by your Vikings at work that serve as a humorous reminder of all the chaos going on.
Valhalla Hills sees Funatics return to the genre that garnered them fame for The Settlers and Cultures — and while this isn’t quite as good as those formative RTS games, it’s still an addictive and well-designed experience that has plenty to offer. If you’re up for some light fun, letting your AI Vikings take care of the dirty work, there’s a good bet you’ll enjoy diving into the randomly-generated maps of this building-heavy quest.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with.
It's not quite up there with Funatics' other RTS titles, due to a rather weak aesthetic and lack of player agency, but Valhalla Hills still has a lot of randomly-generated fun in store for fans of the genre.