Despite being a little over a year old, Nintendo Switch already has more than its fair share of top-down action adventure games. The presence of Cat Quest, Kamiko, Ittle Dew 2+ and numerous others like it means genre fans are already spoiled for choice when it comes to the old hack-and-slash routine.
Jotun: Valhalla Edition is the latest to join the ranks and it’s a game that more die-hard Nintendo types may already be familiar with, since it previously launched on the Wii U eShop a year and a half ago. Since the Wii U was on the way out by then it’s probably fair to say most failed to notice it, so let’s treat this Switch port like we’re seeing it for the first time.
The game puts you in the hefty shoes of Thora, a Viking woman who’s not been having the best time of things lately. She’s recently died, you see, and naturally she’s a tad peeved at the inconvenience. What’s worse, because it was considered an inglorious death – a storm sunk her boat and she drowned – she doesn’t yet get the chance to enter Valhalla, the heaven for heroes who die in combat.
There’s hope for Thora yet, though. Waking up in a Norse version of purgatory called Ginnungagap (the Void), she discovers that if she can make her way through each of its realms and defeat the Jotun – enormous giants – located in each of them, she’ll impress the gods enough to gain access to Valhalla anyway. It’s basically the video game equivalent of when the One Direction boys failed their solo X-Factor auditions before Simon Cowell gave them another chance by putting them in a band.
The aim, then, is to travel from Ginnungagap (which acts as a hub world) to five different regions, each containing a couple of stages. After finding and activating the rune located in each of these stages, you’ll then get to fight off against that region’s huge Jotun in a boss fight. Beat them all and it’s a trip to Valhalla for you.
This structure results in a slightly disjointed experience, though not necessarily a bad one. Each region’s two stages tend to be fairly sparse, and with a couple of exceptions enemy encounters are by and large a rarity. Much of these stages are instead spend exploring the environment in a hunt for the rune you need to unlock the boss fight. This is made easier with a map on the pause screen, though it isn’t entirely spelled out for you: your location isn’t shown so you’ll need to use the environment to figure out where you actually are on the map.
After wandering through these relatively empty environments, the Jotun battles offer a huge change of pace as a result, offering lengthy boss fights with screen-filling opponents. This stark contrast in action also brings with it a hefty difficulty spike, meaning playing the game can feel like a bit of a rollercoaster at times with easy exploration levels followed by difficult boss fights. The second boss is a particularly good example of this: by the time you reach Fe you’ve just finishing strolling your way through a couple of straightforward cave levels, and now all of a sudden you’re fighting a stone goddess 50 times your size, who can summon literally hundreds of dwarven servants to attack you. You will get your ass kicked numerous times here, and given that you’ve just spent an hour in relatively peaceful surroundings it can be a little frustrating (especially with the slightly-too-long load times between deaths).
This way of offering two distinct playing styles also leads to another contrast, in terms of how the game looks. It’s always a visually stunning game whether you’re playing the stages or the boss fights, but in different ways. When you’re exploring the vast, generally empty stages the game has a tendency to occasionally zoom out, continuing to do so until your character is a tiny speck on the screen. This gives a true sense of scale, further puts across the feeling of being in limbo, and is a great way of showing off the beautiful hand-drawn environments.
On the other hand, when you’re fighting a boss the camera pulls in tighter to make sure you’re fully immersed in the action: when it’s closer in like this you can better appreciate the phenomenal character designs and animation. The bosses in particular are gorgeously animated, each frame hand-drawn as if you were watching a Don Bluth creation (such as Dragon’s Lair or The Land Before Time). When you first encounter them you’re treated to a fantastic animation of them discovering your presence and ‘awakening’ to start the battle, and when you finally manage to beat them – which is no mean feat, as previously explained – they die in a brilliantly satisfying, drawn-out way (literally).
Jotun is a fascinating take on the action-adventure genre. Written down it doesn’t sound like it should work: its controls are basic, most of the main levels are practically free of enemies and the boss fights range from tricky to knuckle-gnawingly infuriating. And yet, when it combines all its parts and brings them together, the result is a journey that takes in stunning landscapes, puts you in intense battles and blesses you with some of the most beautifully and professionally-designed characters and animations you’ll see in an indie game.
As long as you’re prepared for its erratic pacing and are happy to accept that there’ll be moments where you’re doing very little and moments where you’re cursing the game upside-down, you’re going to have a great time playing this visually stunning game.
Graphically, it’s a masterpiece, but Jotun’s action is too imbalanced to allow the same to be said about the game as a whole. Exploring its environments will be a treat for some players and getting stuck into its difficult boss battles will be a treat for others: if your tastes are wide-ranging enough to appreciate both scenarios, this is a winner.