Jotun – What We Think:
Jotun lives up to the potential we saw in our beta preview earlier this year. It’s got an effective and affecting storyline based on Norse mythology. Its gorgeous hand-drawn animation makes Jotun the most beautiful game I’ve seen all year. And let’s not forget gameplay itself; while it’s definitely challenging, its difficulty scales up nicely, with exploration-based levels teaching strategy for later boss fights.
You’ll play the role of Thora, an ax-wielding Viking warrior. Having died an ignominious death by drowning, she’ll enter the land of the dead, fight massive bosses and work her way up Yggdrasill, the world-tree of Norse myth. Fight well enough, and you’ll earn enough glory for her to win a place in Valhalla.
Jotun comes the closest I’ve ever seen in a game to capturing the real story and mood of Norse mythology. True, other recent games have drawn on similar themes. Banner Saga uses Norse flavor only as a starting point for its own unique world-building, though, and Valhalla Hills, while featuring a similar conceit to Jotun, doesn’t rely on it for its Settlers-style village-building.
No Flights of Valkyries Here
Jotun does take a few artistic liberties: Thora’s antler-bedecked helmet isn’t historically accurate, though it’s still better than the stereotypical Wagnerian horned hat or winged headdress. And the Vikings didn’t really believe that human souls could enter Valhalla from other places in the afterlife; you were either taken there immediately upon dying on the battlefield, or you went to a different place altogether.
Still, the attention to detail is impressive. It’s not an educational game—don’t expect a Viking equivalent to what Never Alone did for Alaskan natives—but you’ll still learn a ton about Norse mythology, from the creation myth to cosmology and even the constellations. I’ve been reading Norse myths and Icelandic Sagas for a couple of decades, and even I picked up a few new things.
The evocative but moody color palettes, Icelandic language narration and subtle orchestral soundtrack also help convey the fatalistic mood of the myths themselves.
More Heavy Armor, Less Heavy Metal
If Jotun’s setting draws on ancient sources, its visual influences are a bit more recent: ’70s and ’80s animated film. The game borrows heavily from a couple of big names. The backgrounds and characters, especially Thora herself, recall the Rankin/Bass adaptations of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Return of the King. The animals, like the falcon and eagle roosting at the top of the world-tree, are more reminiscent of Don Bluth.
With a few minor quibbles – like ax damage to the terrain that doesn’t vary visually whether you’re hitting soil, wood, ice or stone – the art is gorgeous. The backgrounds are stunning, from the volcanic swamps to icy wastes to vast caverns and even psychedelic cloud realms.
The character designs are stunning, as well; simple, yet evocative. Bosses and other enemies are suitably grotesque but simply designed. Instead of being overly detailed, a few well-placed lines are more than enough to convey the angular menace of a storm giant, for example, or the dull belligerence of a fire giant.
Thora herself is equally impressive and plenty believable as a woman warrior, strong and sturdy-legged (and a welcome reprieve from the chainmail bikini models typical of more mainstream fantasy games). When the camera zooms out as she fights a massive enemy, it just emphasizes the odds against her all the more.
Boss Battles and Big Levels
No amount of story, flavor or graphics would make up for a bad game, but thankfully Jotun succeeds in that aspect, as well. Split between exploratory puzzle sections and massive boss fights, the game does an excellent job integrating the two.
Each realm has a couple of levels to explore, and the environmental hazards you’ll face there will help you fight the boss of that realm. In the first level, for example, you’ll deal with attacks from thorny vines that burst through the soil as well as poison clouds and the blue flowers that protect you from them. These dangers also represent the various attacks by boss you’ll meet at the end of the level.
I found the way that Jotun scales up its difficulty through exploratory sections a lot more appealing (and a lot less frustrating) than that of the recent Titan Souls, a similar atmospheric boss-focused game that just forces you to keep dying over and over again until you manage to discern a boss pattern.
There are a few quibbles here, as well, but nothing major. I wasn’t able to discern any patterns in the lightning strikes in the cloud level, for example. Overall, though, the challenge in both the exploratory levels and the boss battles is tough but fair.
Impressive to the Gods?
From playing the beta version and watching the trailers, we already knew Jotun was going to look great. In its finished form, it feels great, too, from the solid swings of Thora’s mighty ax to her rolling dodge to the bellows of the terrifying giants as they are felled.
Whether Thora impresses the gods enough to win welcome in Valhalla is up to you. One thing’s for sure, though: Montreal-based studio Thunder Lotus Games has done a great job impressing me. Skol!
Watch the trailer for Jotun below: