Jotun PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, and PC Developed by Thunder Lotus Released in 2015
I am always trying to keep Legacy of Games relatively kid-friendly in terms of swearing, but rarely have I felt as inclined to drop a few nasty words as right now. The further I get in this indie month where I hoped to dig up missed gems from my massive backlog, the more this effort begins to feel futile. Barring Oneshot, Stardew Valley, and Mark of the Ninja, possibly Velocibox if you’re in the mood for that, every game so far has been a disappointment, and there are more waiting in the rest of the month, don’t you worry. These months were meant to celebrate indie gaming not to pick on it. Alas, here we are again, with Jotun, another one to add to the growing list of disappointments.
Party like a viking
The game puts you in the boots of Thora, a Viking chieftain who dies while out at sea. With her life taken not on the battlefield, Thora dies in shame and doesn’t get to go to Valhalla. Instead she wakes up in a field and learns she must impress the Gods by gathering all the runes from parts of a mythical realm and defeat the “Jotun”. Only then can she hope to enter Valhalla and enjoy her eternal rest.
Each zone is kind of like a trip through old Viking mythology, taking you to various places where Thora will narrate on the creation myth of her people, their Gods, and other creatures that are part of her culture. After defeating each Jotun she’ll also reveal a bit of her past through narration, which is actually the best part. I enjoy the thematic elements of Norse religion, but usually these are just quick lines without going into much depth, and with the amount of names Thora drops I found it difficult to make any of her storytelling stick. Hearing her talk about her life growing up, her family, and her ambitions, now that is sometimes I enjoy hearing!
Thora is a really cool girl that I wanted to help reach the afterlife she desires, but I do wish she was a little more chatty. The levels are often long and samey, so it would really help to have some dialogue sprinkled around, which may also help in getting players invested in the rich, religious background story. I played the entire game and I don’t even know what the heck a Jotun is.
Story score: 7/10
Slow ride, take it easy
Usually I’d talk about gameplay with some logical flow, but today I just kind of want to rant, so….
WHY IS THORA SO SLOW
That, right there, is my main bugbear with this entire game. I enjoy Thora as a character, but absolutely resent her as an in-game avatar. The game tries to sell its sense of scope, so enemies and areas are tremendously large, as represented by the really sluggish pace at which you make your way through it. This makes exploration an absolute chore, as the prospect of finding anything but the bare necessities in these massive, non-linear stages is not appealing at all.
This also manifests in boss-fights, where the huge, lumbering creatures you are asked to battle will often dash around their arena, forcing you to crawl your way after them. In the cruelest of fights you may need a good 10 seconds to get to the boss, whereupon you can get 1 hit in before they warp to the other side of the playing field again. I could maybe buy that this was meant to show how huge things are compared to Thora, but I can’t forgive how this makes playing the game feel like absolute rubbish. I never felt confident in my move-set, running is slow, having Thora roll seems to only make her slightly faster and doesn’t grant any invincibility frames, and her attacks are kind of bad. She can either do a regular attacks, which only barely chip away at the massive health bars you are asked to deplete, or a heavy strike that has way too much wind-up. After catching up with a boss I never feel secure in throwing a heavy attack, because they might suddenly move away again before it lands.
The gameplay of Jotun is divided into hack & slash stages in which you must find a way to a rune and the major boss-fights. The stages are a mixed bag, some, like the puzzle level where you must recreate star signs using crystals or the level where you slide down the roots of a tree, those are really neat. Others are long, confusingly designed, and have obnoxious gimmicks to them. The stages have a very limited amount assets to work with, so long levels like the lava stage or the one with all the snow-covered islands are a hassle to navigate and outstay their welcome way too much. Had they made these levels more linear, I feel they would have been much more entertaining.
The bosses are the big moments and I honestly did enjoy fighting the first few I got to battle with. Each one is unique and has interesting mechanics to them, as well as memorable and unique presentation. Towards the final boss, however, a lot of my goodwill dissipated. The final boss is a major annoyance that uses all of Thora’s movement problems against you. He warps around, he’s too unpredictable to reliably land heavy attacks, his own moves have a lot of tracking to them which makes dodging almost useless, and, on top of everything else, the fight is way too chaotic. You are left running around, trying to dodge between multiple different attacks with conflicting patterns while still doing some damage, and you constantly need to keep an eye on your spells as you rapidly tap Q and E to try and cycle to the one you need.
Idea #1: map the darn magic to the keypad so I don’t have to constantly worry about what I got selected. When I see a hit come in maybe a second before it lands, I can’t cycle to the shield spell from whatever I am currently on and tap F in time. You are constantly overshooting and wasting your very limited amount of spells while in a rush.
Idea #2: give Thora at least some invincibility frames. The dodge is really quite useless as it is now, but more egregious is that there is no safety net. I have had moments where a full health bar is depleted immediately because a boss attack hits me right into something else, which is especially an issue in the final boss, but also happened in the stages a few times. Sometimes I wasn’t even able to really see what did the damage.
Idea #3: Either make Thora just a little bit faster or allow more uses for the spell that improves your speed. Having everything be this gigantic is impressive visually and interesting for gameplay, but with just 3 charges to get a little boost in speed for a few seconds, it never feels satisfying to manoeuvre against these bosses. It always feels like you just barely have a chance to get out of the way of something or land an attack, which is just unsatisfying. I can understand limiting charges for the other spells, but speed is innocent enough that a cooldown would seem more appropriate.
Gameplay score: 2.5/10
Death isn’t so bad
For second opinion reviews I generally try to recycle images from the first review. Storage space is expensive and all that, but moments into Jotun I felt compelled to take a screenshot, just in case Stian hadn’t used that image already. This really is a beautiful game, lush with color, and gargantuan in its landscapes. As Thora you really feel like a tiny person exploring the realm of Gods, everything is imposing and the game loves to zoom out and give you a good view of background vistas. The style of the animation is really appealing and smooth, I love little details like petals scattering in the wind or seeing the shadow of a large creature that’ll confront you later in the stage.
Those are the strong moments, which sadly aren’t always at the forefront. I already mentioned that the levels have a limited set of assets to work with and when the game zooms in a little more, this becomes really apparent. Sometimes you are just staring at an empty screen with your character and a floor texture, which makes it almost feel like the endless staircase from Super Mario 64. On the flipside, when the game zooms out far it can be really difficult to keep track of Thora, especially when bosses obscure the isometric viewpoint and you just kinda need to guess if you are close enough to get hits in.
The bosses look really amazing though and have fantastic animations, these are amazing creatures to do battle against. They do hit on one of my pet peeves, where the game is really arbitrary about what space a boss physically occupies. This was only an issue for two of the bosses though, and even then only a minor annoyance.
A really cool feature is Thora’s narration, which is apparently done in Icelandic. It’s really cool to listen to and gives the game an authentic feel. The rest of the sound-design isn’t bad, there were a few tracks of music I definitely enjoyed, but it’s not really as present or noticeable as Thora’s voice. Again, I wish she was a lot chattier.
Presentation score: 8/10
Apples and oranges
Each of the stages has two collectibles you are asked to gather. The first is a golden apple, which will extend your life by a portion, and the second are statues that unlock new spells or grant you extra charges for existing ones. Both are really useful, almost necessary for the average player, which makes it a boon that neither of these are too hidden. In most stages it will only involve a minor detour from your intended path or small puzzles. What I like here is that the structure of the game allows you to get these any way you want. You can clear all the stages first before going to any of the bosses if you want, meaning you’ll face them all with the maximum arsenal available to you.
Extras score: 7/10
Writing this review was really upsetting, because I went into Jotun with high hopes, only to find it a game I enjoy visually and thematically, but absolutely hate playing. It’s slow, it’s unwieldy, and the lack of gaming mainstays like invincibility frames after taking a hit is kind of baffling. Going into it you may find a beautiful game, not entirely unlike fellow Scandinvian adventure Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, but I can’t guarantee you’ll want to actually finish it.