Thor: God of Thunder Review
Posted by Jamie O'Neill
Does 3D Thor give 2D a hammering?
When SEGA decided to port Thor: God of Thunder to 3DS, there were two clear routes available: could build upon the DS game, a well-received pixel art 2D side-scrolling brawler by WayForward, or directly convert Red Fly Studio’s third person Wii hack-and-slash title. It chose the latter — after all Red Fly has built a reputation on Wii for fun movie licensed games, including Ghostbusters and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, so in theory its version of Thor should be empowered by the mightier 3DS hardware. However, as further fuel to the 2D vs. 3D debate, 3DS Thor demonstrates that an accomplished sprite and pixel art DS game is superior to an ill-fitting conversion of a motion controlled title, especially when it is not optimised for 3DS hardware.
Set to coincide with the Blu-ray and DVD release of the movie, Thor: God of Thunder’s story works in parallel with the DS game, travelling through 16 levels and five of the nine Norse worlds, although its plot is separate to the film’s script. The Jötun ice titans invade Thor’s home of Asgard, which sets off a trigger of events largely prompted by Thor’s rage-filled desire for retribution and his brother Loki’s weasel-like manipulation behind the scenes. If you've played the DS game you'll recognise key events, and it also shares key enemies, with the quest to capture the heart of Surtur working as a more action-packed setting for boss encounters than a direct translation of the film.
The single-player brawling gameplay starts well, with a focus on mixing power with quick attacks and building a combo meter, which provides stronger finishers as the combos increase and opens up touch screen ‘Storm Powers’ including a charged hammer, lightning storms and a cyclone. It is fun at first to knock an enemy into the air, juggle them using a light attack and crush down with Thor’s Mjölnir hammer slam finisher. Throughout the gameplay there are ‘Feats of Strength’ moments, which are essentially a button-prompted quick time event (QTE), used to break up the action. Unfortunately some boss battles, like Ymir, are over reliant on QTEs and the bosses do not really explore a mix of core gameplay and QTE until you meet Surtur and Mangog at the end of the game. Stages 3 and 12 feature on-rail flight sections, in which you use the Circle Pad and tap A to summon lightning, hold A to lock onto enemies and press the L shoulder button to deflect huge projectile rocks. However, the action in these sections is stark and simple, especially compared to what Treasure managed in Wii Sin & Punishment: Star Successor and won't satiate your appetite until Kid Icarus: Uprising.
The attempts to add diversity to the action are unsuccessful, as an awkward control set-up results in the player resorting to button mashing, especially as the enemies are just as susceptible to an unsophisticated flurry of attacks as they are a strategic string of combos. The Wii version of this game was praised for its motion controls — our review described it as “uniquely suited to the Wii” — but the 3DS conversion of the inputs feels cramped. This is true of commands that involve the shoulder buttons: holding R and then pressing Y for a hammer throw or holding L to block and then tapping X for a gust of wind does not feel instinctive. Similarly, pressing a touch screen icon to perform a lightning bolt, and then using the Circle Pad to direct the lightning is not an effective way to quickly take out a shield that protects an annoying sentry orb. You first notice control difficulties during a boss battle, as manoeuvring Thor with the Circle Pad dictates that quickly reaching down to the D-Pad to dodge is not a viable option for briskly evading attacks. Reliance upon the solid core controls becomes more dependable, hammer dashing out of the way of trouble works as an alternative to a D-Pad dodge, but adopting a simpler button mashing approach eventually contributes to the feeling of repetition.
This feeling is amplified by a regurgitation of background visuals, as the first five levels are based around ice themes on the worlds of Asgard and Niflheim, but greyish blue environments are drab and the textures are bland. Things improve later in the game as Thor’s journey to Earth (Midgard) and Muspelheim finally adds variety to the colour scheme and background design, although some of Midgard’s city models for derelict cars and battered buildings are more fitting of a DS game. The use of a fixed camera also creates problems as it clashes with the 3D effect: during level 10's confined indoor police station the walls, furniture and beams are awkwardly placed and create a jarring visual effect, obscuring the action. At times the camera positions the characters too close to the foreground, making it hard for your eye to focus on them in 3D. The 3D is most effective in outdoor environments, but during these moments the engine is prone to slowdown, the scrolling becoming jittery and the frame rate dipping. Combine this with collision detection that results in Thor’s legs disappearing into the scenery, or enemies becoming embedded in a wall, and it does not give the impression of a technically polished 3DS game. The audio is more consistent, its tunes are well suited to match the fantasy setting and voice work by actors like Chris Hemsworth help the game to connect with the movie universe.
In a similar manner to 3DS Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters, Thor does not effectively capture the vigour and pizazz of a comic book hero, or dispel people’s perceptions of a middling and average movie licensed title. The game is short, despite the ability to unlock four challenge arenas as you progress through the main adventure, with all 16 levels taking under four hours to complete. The Normal difficulty setting presents no real hurdle, so it is advisable that you start this game on Hard mode, although you can unlock the Ragnarok difficulty after you first complete it. Throughout the main action you collect golden orbs to fill an experience meter, which once full earns storm tokens to purchase upgrades towards Thor’s Might, Valour and Storm capabilities. These range from new combos, and health or Odinforce upgrades, the latter of which you need to fuel your touch screen storm powers. The upgrades also enable you to earn new Runes, as you are assigned four Rune slots which are unlocked as you play through the game and each one increases Thor’s melee or storm powers. Special treats like the Rune of Surtur’s Flame are a reward after beating the game, although there are new costumes and concept art scattered amongst the levels as you progress, so it is worth using the World Tree option to revisit your favourite levels.
In hindsight, given the option of directly porting Wii Thor: God of Thunder to 3DS, or developing an enhanced version of the DS game, SEGA would have been better off updating WayForward’s side-scrolling 2D title. Many of the problems with this 3DS version link back to the uniqueness of the Wii game: its motion controls have not translated well to the cramped button and touch screen layout on the 3DS. The shortcomings of a fixed camera in the Wii version are also exaggerated by the stereoscopic 3D effect and the graphics engine has not been tidied up, so moments of jerky scrolling, slowdown and poor environmental collision detection are evident. There's still fun to be found: the backgrounds become more varied deeper into the game, building a combo meter from attacks against multiple enemies is rewarding and the final two boss battles are a highlight for gamers who are motivated to spare four hours to complete it.