At a SEGA press event in March this year WayForward’s Director for Thor: God of Thunder, Austin Ivansmith, noted that it is the company's “love letter to the DS” and considering its back catalogue of well received DS and DSiWare titles this game caught the attention of gamers normally hesitant of a movie licenced game. Playing through the seven chapters of its Story mode reveals a well-crafted hack-and-slash game, although it is apparent that Thor’s Mjölnir hammer is not quite able to ‘slam-and-crush’ away the repetitive gameplay, which is a bugbear of the genre that also hampered Red Fly Studio’s Thor: God of Thunder on Wii.
First impressions suggest Thor: God of Thunder follows on from WayForward’s great work on DS adventure Batman: The Brave and the Bold, particularly as Thor leaps across platforms in a similar manner to genre classics like Taito’s Rastan Saga or NEC’s The Legendary Axe. However, it is evident that Thor takes its greatest inspiration from Lance and Bill, as the use of their Contra 4 engine enables gameplay built around darting between two DS screens. Alongside the brawling is a simple magic system, with the player collecting blue orbs from downed enemies to build a super meter to unleash one of three God Powers: thunder, lightning or wind. These are essentially a touch screen smart-bomb, with the lightning effect conjuring memories of Gilius Thunderhead’s magic power in SEGA’s original fantasy slasher, Golden Axe.
In an attempt to add variety to the action, WayForward included set-pieces that help to enhance the gameplay. In Chapter I (ii) a right-to-left scrolling section sees Thor relentlessly chased by an army of troll imps, but unable to fight as he carries his injured warrior friend, Sif, to safety. Another chapter involves a huge chunk of a rock breaking away from a Niflheim ice mountain, with Thor battling enemies aboard it as it slides down the cliff. Instances like this are brilliant at adding excitement to the action, but the game would have benefited from a larger range of these moments. WayForward clearly has an imaginative team and the player will appreciate sections that showcase this, like in Chapter VI where Thor battles a hulking Muspelheim enemy, rips the armour off its back and holds it above his head to shield him from a downpour of fiery rain.
Although the cover art may give the impression that this is a movie licensed title, the game benefits from a separate story more closely linked to the Marvel comics, which provides greater visual variety as it visits five of the nine worlds in the Thor universe (Asgard, Vanaheim, Niflheim, Hel and Muspelheim). Thor’s home of Asgard is invaded by an army of Trolls and he sets out on an adventure to destroy the source of the invasion, Frostgrinder, and save Sif who has been trapped in the Cave of Ages by the Goddess of Death, Hela. However, Thor’s reckless temper allows him to be tricked by his brother, Loki, resulting in his rash actions awakening and releasing the powerful demon, Mangog. The most interesting aspect of the story is the way it depicts the hero’s foolhardy aggressiveness: Thor comes across as a thorn in the side of the other realms, his gung-ho nature bringing trouble to his home and to his father, Odin. The story events are told using portrait slides drawn and coloured by Marvel artists Mark Brooks and Sonia Oback, and they are an example of how the presentation expands beyond the confines of the movie plot.
WayForward have also provided a varied move-set, which is accessible but flows smoothly when mastered. Thor does not have a grapple like in Contra 4; instead he dashes from the bottom to the top screen by holding up on the D-Pad when jumping, which can be combined with a ground slam to create a fast and fluid feel to the dual-screen action. As well as combo attacks with his hammer, he can throw Mjölnir as a projectile across both screens to take out distant enemies. To keep the combat flowing Thor is bestowed with an evade manoeuvre, which means that although he cannot block, he can dive past awkward enemies like archers and creatures that shoot spikes of ice below the ground. However, Thor’s adversaries can block, so it is possible to time a smash attack to break through enemies with a shield, like Verma. In a nod to retro side-scrolling brawlers, parts of the environment can be picked up and used as weapons, such as destructible pillars, and it is a fun addition that you can grab hold of an enemy and swing them to attack enemies. Unfortunately, despite a free-flowing move-set that encourages a different technique to conquer a variety of enemies, it is easy to progress by simply mashing the attack button, an approach which makes the gameplay feel considerably more repetitive.
Austin Ivansmith acknowledged that WayForward “really push the DS to its limits” in this game and fans of 2D pixel design will appreciate the level that its graphics team have achieved. It is not just the detail, which is a continuation of the style displayed in Contra 4, but a combination of lush parallax scrolling and weather effects like rain and snow that bring the twin screens to life. Yet again WayForward can be commended for studying its retro predecessors, as sprite design like the winged fireball-launching creatures draws comparison to enemies in SEGA’s Altered Beast and Capcom’s Red Arremer from Demon’s Crest. WayForward has its own flair though, and 2D art fans' jaws will drop at three boss encounters, Ymir, Surtur and Mangog, which use a glorious visual technique to scale the camera so far back that the Thor sprite becomes absolutely tiny. This makes the vast boss size feel more epic, but keeps the animation wonderfully fluid on the teeny Thor sprite, that you may well openly exclaim “Th-w-or!” Both the music and sound effects are also well implemented; the fantasy tunes are atmospheric and dramatic fitting the pace of the action, while the attack audio carries weight and crunch.
Unfortunately, the general difficulty level for its core action is too easy, so it is left to the boss battles to offer some semblance of challenge, with boss design being a highlight of the game. There is no choice of difficulty settings and few players will be troubled by the early chapters. A power-up system is incorporated in which runes can be found hidden in the environment and one special power can be bestowed for each of Thor’s helmet, vest and Mjölnir. Just as the difficulty picks up and the game throws hoards of sprites at Thor, you discover a ‘Health Orb Bonanza’ rune on Chapter VII which means that you no longer play in hope of finding a red health orb, the abundance of blue orbs provides health refills instead. It's effective that the player can change runes on-the-fly, but it's ultimately a simple system when compared to the levelling up format used in hack-and-slash games like DS Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s Quest.
The game provides fun extras, with Survival levels opening up in which you can face-off against waves of endless enemies, and you can unlock a short bonus level called ‘Frostgrinder Assault’ that enables you to take control of the game’s previously non-playable characters after you complete the story. There is a final extra called ‘Archon Chaos’, which not to give too much away lets you, in SEGA's words, “Roll a giant boulder as fast as you can, and watch the resulting chaos.” The seven chapters are split into three acts each and it takes approximately four and a half hours to complete all 21 acts, although it is a shame that WayForward did not provide a co-op option, which could have incorporated Thor’s allies, the Warriors Three. This would have aided replay value as the main story is a linear adventure, without secret areas or extra level routes, which worked well in games like SEGA’s Guardian Heroes.
If Thor: God of Thunder had included co-op play, deeper character development and a variety of paths it could have added extra depth to counter the moments of repetitiveness that are inherent in this genre. However, even if it does not reach the levels of excellence set by Contra 4, it draws inspiration from classic brawlers and WayForward's respect of their heritage has resulted in a very good game that exudes fun.
WayForward set out to push the DS to its limit, and by Odin's beard, it succeeded with thunderous applause. Your jaw will drop from WayForward's pixel-mastery and lush 2D art design, especially the incredible sense of scale during boss battles, and longtime fans of the brawler genre will rejoice in its reverence towards the classics. Just like its namesake, it is more brawn than brains, the special powers enabled by the rune system only add a rudimentary level of depth and it is unfortunate that some players will miss the intricacies of the combat system, because they can button bash their way through the Story mode's comfortable difficulty level. The addition of a co-op option would have helped it avoid the genre's inherent repetitiveness, though the extra modes are welcome additions, but most importantly of all bounding between two screens during a single player fracas is fun.