With a final groan you are thrown backwards. Freezing in mid-air, your clothes and flesh melt away before your bloody skeleton explodes. This little moment plays out whenever you receive a final, fatal hit and it’s a moment you’ll be seeing a lot in Völgarr the Viking. This action platformer may have first seen release on other systems in 2013 but its inspiration comes decades prior to that, not just with its 16-bit pixel art aesthetic, but with its brutal difficulty.

Its opening moments match those of Rastan and the game has similarities to Taito’s 1987 game as well as Capcom’s Ghosts 'n Goblins series. You work your way through a series of worlds slashing at some bad guys, lobbing spears at others whilst also climbing ropes and leaping over hazards. Jumping can at first seem awkward as you are unable to change direction once you’ve made your leap, but a double-jump is possible and here you can make your adjustments or just go for extra distance. Anyone who’s played Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts recently on their SNES Mini will know what to expect here, although Völgarr’s double jump also features a spin attack that is useful for slicing through airborn attackers.

You begin the game armed with your sword, a spear and a frankly rubbish shield that breaks after a mere two blocks. Luckily the first weapon upgrade grants you a superior metal guard as well as the ability to charge up spear shots; charged spear shots do more damage and take out multiple enemies at once. You can also acquire a helmet, allowing an extra hit, and a flaming sword to more efficiently deal with the hostiles encountered on your adventure. Throw in your roll ability to get through gaps or avoid danger and you have all the tools needed for a relaxed adventure.

Well, not quite.

The tools are certainly handy but what will actually get you through are the failures, those regular deaths and the mistakes learnt from them. This could be frustrating, but where the game excels is that it is always clear why you failed. Enemies move in set ways, jumps are a matter of timing. When you die you know it’s because you didn’t block that guard’s attack quick enough, you now realise that roll won’t take you past that spider and of course if you’d waited a little longer that jump would have taken you past the fire pit. It’s a matter of small margins, and knowing that slight adjustments will get you that bit further gives the game an addictive quality as you become sure of what needs to be done and are certain you’ll manage it the next time around. Then you do manage it and you die a bit further along, but you know why you died and you go again.

The controls are also a big help as they are responsive and straightforward, again ensuring deaths are due to your own errors. There’s a button to attack and one to jump; press up and attack to throw a spear, down and jump to roll. One potential problem is that in the heat of the moment you may find yourself rolling or throwing a spear when you didn’t intend to. If you are prone to unintentional direction presses, however, fear not - developer Crazy Viking Studios has you covered. Dive into the options menu and you can disable the up/attack and down/jump combinations. This doesn’t remove those moves from your arsenal, either, as they are also mapped to their own buttons.

Whilst the game never feels unfair with its challenge, you will have to set aside a bit of time when playing. In another throwback to gaming of ye olde times, there are very few checkpoints. Actually, with the exception of the final one, each world is split into two stages and the start of the second stage is your only checkpoint. Also, that checkpoint is only in place whilst you are playing. Struggle through to the second stage, then exit the game for a rest and you will find on return that you are back at the first section; you can always make liberal use of the system's 'Sleep' option as an alternative. Of course if you are struggling through the first part you’re probably not ready to tackle the second, but the setup is a far cry from the frequent autosaves of many modern titles; this is not a game you can play in quick bursts here and there – at least not whilst you are still learning the levels.

There’s a lot of enjoyment in figuring out your way through the worlds, but even once cleared they still entertain due to good level design that sees you perform a variety of jumps, climbs and slides en route to the boss. The action isn’t just left-to-right, either, as sometimes you’ll be working vertically through levels and you’ll find yourself using spears thrown into walls as makeshift platforms.

There’s a good range of locales visited during your adventure including a zombie village, a fiery castle, an airship stage and a water city (complete with boat ride section). The game also goes for a retro look that suits the gameplay. Some parts of stages can look a little blocky, but good use of colour and shading gives the visuals a cartoony look and flame and water effects work well. It’s possible to tap a button to zoom out the camera for a better look at the level and in the options you can change this to a toggle switch if you’d like to keep this view. This is handy for giving you a heads up of forthcoming dangers, but it can make the game look a bit basic at times with enemies sitting idle until you’ve got close enough to trigger their movement.

Adding to the experience is a good range of sound effects as you slice through enemies, block attacks, smash through things or crash to the floor from a great height. The music is epic, adventurous and at times atmospheric and there are subtle but effective uses of rumble in your controller.

The difficulty of the game ensures you’ll be kept busy with it, with there being several stages of progress. Most new sections result in death and even when you know what to do it isn’t always easy to pull it off. Eventually though you’ll stumble through; next time around you’ll maybe make it and only get hit once. Once mastered you’ll find a section that always ended in an explosive shower of bloody bones, and you'll hop through without really thinking about those tough earlier battles. Get really good and you’ll find yourself on the Valkyrie path, which offers tougher versions of the worlds.

For those seeking further replay value, there are a number of achievements to go for if that’s what floats your longship, or you could try and collect more treasure or attempt speedrunning. The game keeps records for individual worlds and overall playthroughs and even has a speed run HUD you can activate to see how you’re doing.

Conclusion

Völgarr the Viking is a tough game that will see you die a lot. Many sections will be replayed often as you try to get through, but the game is always fair and whilst the solution to your problem may be tricky, it is at least obvious what needs to be done. A range of enemies and varied level design keeps the action enjoyable and even when you are struggling there are moments to make you smile, whether that's the way a charged spear sends the impaled foe flying off the screen or a Stan Bush-referencing achievement. The limited checkpoints in worlds are not ideal when trying to learn the levels, and there's the odd moment where the stylishly retro visuals just look basic, but there's little else to fault. For those seeking a stern old-school challenge on their Switch, Völgarr the Viking is an excellent choice.