Quietude is not a word synonymous with videogames. Most of the time there are peaks and valleys - an ebb and flow of exuberance and bombast, quickly followed by a period of downtime filled with storytelling and world building. Sometimes they eschew one focus for the next, either by being filled with a constant barrage of set pieces to excite the player or by having players unravel a larger plot slowly and deliberately. Regardless, there's always a flow, a rhythm to how it goes. What happens when a game takes those reticent moments and makes you feel quite literally alone, then follow it with what can truly be described as an epic conflict?
You have Jotun.
Jotun: Valhalla Edition follows a Viking warrior named Thora who, after drowning unceremoniously, is given the chance to ascend to Valhalla…so long as she proves her worth by defeating elemental giants in the Norse version of Purgatory. It's not as easy as simply sauntering into their domains and challenging them. You must first travel through various realms, searching for runes that open the doors to them. Then you can tackle boss encounters that are extraordinary in scale. At times these disparate modes of play seem at odds, when in reality they play off of each other in a way that you'll end up appreciating one because of the other.
In the beginning, Thora's move set remains simple but stalwart. She has an attack that can be combined into a solid one-two combo, a stronger attack that has a charge to it, and a dodge maneuver that is invaluable to her coming trials and tribulations. As you travel through the exotic lands of Giggungagap, you'll come across shrines that bestow the power of the gods upon you. Loki allows you to spring a trap on enemies in the form of a dummy that'll explode after a short time. Thor raises your strength, Freya increases your speed and a handful more provide you with perks that, although they can be optional, are actually essential in your battle against the mighty Jotun. As a bonus for Wii U players they can all be accessed via the GamePad touch screen, handily arranged by your right thumb.
With a couple of exceptions the lands you travel through are sparse. Your opposition isn't your typical horde of axe fodder, rather it's the environment. The lands of Giggungagap are harsh, foreboding places meant to deter all but the heartiest of warriors. It's in these moments, listening to the wind breeze across enormous frozen lakes or the cracking of thunder after a close lightning bolt hits the ground beside you, that you feel so very alone. Jotun sets the world up around you in a way that makes you realize this is an adventure you are definitely going on solo, and the sense of desolation and solitude are magnified. To further drill the point home, there are moments where the camera pans out so far that Thora is but a blip on the screen, just to give the player a reminder of the world's scale and how you are next to nothing compared to it.
Overcoming these elemental obstacles and persevering by finding the runes (and hopefully the life bar raising apples of Ithun!) is supremely satisfying, but they are but an appetizer to the main course: your battles with the Jotun. Five in all (six, including the final boss), the Jotun are immense, evil, almost godlike creatures that fill the entire screen and block your path to a better existence. They are some of the most imposing things ever seen in a video game, the type of boss that'll have your jaw dropping to the floor and filling you with dread and fear. They are quick to finish you off, often taking a quarter or third of your health in one fell swoop. They aren't to be taken lightly, but they aren't as impossible as you'd think at first blush.
They almost feel like battles of attrition. You must wear them down bit by bit, watching for tells on their attack patterns and taking advantage of what small and few openings you have. You'll need to be three steps ahead, as dodging their attacks and trying to compensate for their range is paramount. Just as you think you've pegged their patterns, they change them up is surprising ways or add a new wrinkle to the madness. There's a lot of trial-and-error involved; patience is key. You will die often and be greeted by a message saying you haven't impressed the gods. It can be a little grating, but it is a learning experience. When you do fell one of these foul beasts nothing but pride will overwhelm you; there are few games that have set piece battles as gratifying as Jotun.
The word painterly comes to mind when discussing the visuals in this title. Huge, but quiet, lands build from dwarven forges, snow blown rivers and poisonous forests. Everything is presented from a top-down perspective, so the scope of the game is heightened as you reach plateaus or holes, as the camera pans out and shows you the inner workings of this mythological land. Likewise, when met with large landmasses (or beasts!) in the fore, Thora's shadow is shown behind for reference. The game is also wrapped in a subdued but powerful soundtrack, the type you'd expect from your favorite fantasy film or TV show, with Thora narrating her entire ordeal in gentle and lilting Icelandic.
The Wii U bells and whistles are simple but well utilized. There's a map for reference, which fills out as you find points of note, runes and alters. The other half is filled with the aforementioned quick buttons for the various powers you gain, equally as useful as the map. Lastly, as a kind of bonus mode, and what gives Jotun its subtitle, Valhalla mode lets you tackle the giants in much tougher battles that are meant for more experienced players, which is a given considering it doesn't unlock until you beat the game proper.
Jotun: Valhalla Edition is a fantastic game from cover to cover. From the Icelandic voice over that plays as you read the plight of Thora to the painterly vistas of Norse hell and the trials, tribulations and boss battle in between, it is an artful title that marries slick and simple game play with poignant storytelling in a way few games can. The less you know about it going in the more grandiose the experience will be; yet if you must know something, know that Jotun: Valhalla Edition is definitely worth your time.