Oh, hello. I didn’t see you standing there.
I can’t stop staring at Jotun: Valhalla Edition.
Jotun is an almost impossibly beautiful game. Seemingly ripped line for line from a Disney animation cell, you can see the pencil strokes in the hand-drawn characters. I’ve long admired Jotun — and its incredibly attractive visual style — on PC from afar (it arrived on Steam in September of last year), so it goes without saying that I was jazzed to finally get my hands on it now that it’s come to consoles. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. Behind Jotun’s infinite style lies a challenging hack-and-slash epic that adventure game fans should have no problem deeming worthy of their time and attention.
I’ll try not to spend this whole review talking about Jotun’s visual stylings, but it’s just such a damn good-looking game. The hand-drawn art style the game employs is simply breathtaking. Backgrounds and environments have this almost painted feel to them, while the character models come to life with their animation-inspired design. The visible pencil lines and smooth character movements really hammer home that you’re essentially playing a cartoon in motion. Of course, we can’t talk visuals without talking about the pantheon of giant bosses Jotun employs (more on them in a minute). Sterling design work brings these behemoth Norse gods to life, and their colorful palettes and expressive character models convey personality without them ever uttering a word. The bosses look ridiculously cool in motion, and you’ll find yourself wanting to play them over and over again to catch another glimpse of the giants in action. Seriously, I can’t get over how awesome this game looks.
As I alluded to above, Jotun is steeped in Norse mythology. You assume the role of Thora, a Viking descendent of who has suffered an inglorious death. In case you’re wondering, inglorious deaths are bad news in the world of Norse mythology. Trapped in this sort of purgatory following your untimely demise, it’s your job to guide Thora throughout the Norse realms and impress the gods by defeating them in battle. Only then will you prove yourself worthy of entrance into Valhalla, the final resting place of cherished Norse warriors.
I grew up a Marvel kid, so I’m a big fan of Norse mythology due to my interest in Thor, and I love how developer Thunder Lotus Games has tapped into the rich history of Norse myth here. It’s fun to see the gods invigorated as larger than life beings of enormous and imposing power. It’s such a great backdrop against which to set a video game. The game is fully narrated in Scandinavian with subtitles, further calling back to its narrative heritage. While I like the material and its implementation here, I would have loved a stronger focus on the story. Outside of a brief static cut-scene at the start of the game, the rest of the story is simply told through omniscient narration. I want to know more about Thora’s origins and ancestry, the history of Valhalla, and the role of the gods in all of this. I get that this is not a game heavily invested in storytelling, but the lore and style of the game is so ripe with potential for further exploration that what’s here feels like a narrative missed opportunity.
At its heart, Jotun is a hack-and-slash action/adventure game, and what’s here in this regard seems deceptively simple at first. You have a light attack, a heavy attack that takes a little longer to execute, and a dodge roll, and later on you earn the ability to call upon the power of the gods to use magic. It doesn’t’ seem like much, but this is where the game’s excellent design comes into play. Jotun is basically divided into two phases of gameplay: stages and boss battles. Stages are maze-like puzzles that task you with discovering a god’s rune. These runes are what grant you access to the boss at the end of the stage. The stages are all unique, and the constant introduction of new obstacles keeps the game feeling fresh throughout. One stage might have you searching for a warrior’s apparition while avoiding poisonous plants, while another has you ducking and dodging a giant bird hell bent on making you its next victim of prey. Enemy encounters are few and far between in most stages, and it’s a subtly brilliant design decision. Hacking and slashing your way across the game’s myriad of stages could have easily become an exercise in monotony. As is, the game’s more cerebral approach during the level-to-level gameplay allows the combat to feel rewarding and special when you finally do take axe-to-enemy, especially during the game’s epic boss encounters.
Speaking of bosses, this is where Jotun: Valhalla Edition shines the brightest. They’re the game’s main event, and you’ve no doubt seen several of these big baddies if you’ve paid attention to any of the game’s pre-release materials. Layered and nuanced with an impressive sense of scale, Jotun’s boss battles harken back to the glory days of these end-level encounters. The game’s console release (this mode is in the PC version now as well) emphasizes this through the newly included “Valhalla Mode,” a boss rush mode that strips out the levels and has you fighting tougher versions of the game’s six gods one after the other. I love how the game’s trophies/achievements encourage different ways of tackling the bosses as well. Some of the magic can tip the scales in your favor later in the game, but try defeating one of these gargantuan gods without getting hit or without using your magic. I’ve had a blast trying to find the best way to slay the Jotun (as the game call them), and I’m looking forward to refining my tactics during subsequent battles.
While I applaud the game for what’s its able to do from a design standpoint with the simple systems it has in place, I can’t help but wonder how a more robust upgrade system would have affected the game. Hidden apple trees and the statues littered throughout the gaming world increase your health and magic abilities respectively, but I would have loved the ability to upgrade my axe or find different ones to use that would force me to weigh my options in battle. It’s a small nitpick when compared to Jotun’s greater whole, but it’s a tweak that would cause players to invest more in their version of Thora.
Jotun: Valhalla Edition is recommended to anyone who enjoys challenging action/adventure affairs. It won’t be easy to make it to Valhalla, but the beautiful journey is well worth it. Few games sport the gorgeous visuals that Jotun does, and it thankfully has the substance in its action and design to back up its visual prowess. The game’s soundtrack also deserves a mention as it’s utterly fantastic and nicely conveys a sense of Jotun’s atmosphere. While I wish there was more attention paid to the game’s lore and narrative, what’s here is terrific and a ton of fun to play. The boss battles alone are worth the price of admission. Don’t let this one slip under your radar; Jotun: Valhalla Edition will make a fine edition to most gamers’ digital collections.
A PlayStation 4 copy of Jotun: Valhalla Edition was graciously provided to us by the fine folks at Thunder Lotus Games.
- Impossibly gorgeous visuals
- Epic boss encounters
- Stage variety
- Atmospheric soundtrack
- Underdeveloped narrative
- Lack of a more robust upgrade system