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Review: Jotun: Valhalla Edition

Started Jotun in the first hours of 2019, thinking it’ll be a game I should be able to finish quickly enough, to get a good start of the year from this point of view, and that proved to be the case. That second Jotun, which is in fact the only one that attacks simply because you’re there, the other battles starting after you strike first, made me think I had been wrong, killing me dozens of times and making it seem as if I couldn’t get past a certain point in the battle, but once I got past that it went quite smoothly. The handful of attempted “Valhalla Mode” battles against the two Jotun which had seemed easy only resulted in the same number of deaths without it even seeming that I had a chance against those more powerful versions and I didn’t care to struggle any more with that, so I’m just referring to the game itself, up to that point, which is actually pretty short, despite some issues that may make it artificially longer and also cause the player to reconsider a session if they’re not certain they’ll have the time to at least finish an entire area.

What does work well in Jotun is the art, and I’m not just referring to the style of the graphics. That is indeed excellent, and also does a good job of creating the sensation of scale and of how small Thora is compared to the challenges she’s facing, but the music isn’t bad either and the developers seem to have made pretty good use of the mythology, at least for the limitations of the game. The way the creation myth was used in the Ymir’s Blood area struck me as particularly notable, though I guess others may disagree, since this is very obvious while in other areas the mythology was perhaps more organically intertwined. How Thora presents a part of her story after each section also works out all right, despite probably not being something notable in itself. I’d say that the spoken language proved to be somewhat more notable, on the other hand. It had at first struck me as a gimmick which was likely to prove annoying, but once I actually played for a while and heard it a few times, I realized it really fit and enhanced the setting and the desired atmosphere.
So what I can say about Jotun is that it can be seen as a pretty good work of art, at least considering its limitations. Judged more by its artistic value and less by its gameplay, it would do quite well. It may be a fair example of games as art, but I don’t think playing it is required to properly appreciate its artistic value. There are games that make particularly good use of the medium in this manner and which need to be played in order to be understood, felt, appreciated at their real value, but in case of Jotun, watching it may be enough… Which I guess isn’t a good thing in itself, but may be if you don’t have the skills to finish it or just don’t care to.

However, it is a game and I did play it, and the first thing that bothered me was the camera. I’d even go as far as to call it awful, at least if you’re trying to actually play the game and not just watch it. Probably another element that works quite well if judged on its artistic value, but there’s no way to control it and the changes in zoom level and the way in which it follows Thora or the action can and will cause quite a number of issues. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being too slow to reveal the larger area or follow when you move away from it, likely in an attempt to create a more powerful impact and pressure the player to stick around long enough for it to sink in, but other times it may actually cause some confusion or add to the difficulty of battles. And on that note, the fact that only Thora’s shadow is visible when she’s under or behind something else definitely doesn’t help either, though I must admit that, without being able to change the camera’s angle or rotation and without negatively affecting that sensation of scale, I don’t know what other solution the developers could have found.
Since I mentioned battles, one important reason why they are difficult is Thora’s particularly slow attack, which keeps leaving her exposed since it can’t even be stopped except by dodging. Yes, enemies tend to also be slow, usually even slower, but clicking and then needing to wait for two seconds before the strike comes doesn’t allow for any sort of flow, nor does it give you a feel of the battle, not even creating a sensation of weight. Yes, there is a quick attack, if you attack while dodging, making Thora end the roll offensively, but that attack is much weaker and also requires dodging straight towards the enemy, and there’s the time needed to roll to be taken into account as well, plus of course needing to be very much aware of the position at the end of the roll.
On top of that, you can’t save manually, the situation being automatically saved once you complete each area, so the areas that need to be explored, for the required runes, as well as the God Powers and additional health, need to be completed in one sitting, and if you die at one point, you’ll need to start over. You do keep what you gain, but still need to go through the whole thing all over again, until you can get to the end in one sitting and without dying. In addition, if you quit you’ll start back in Ginnungagap, needing to walk back to the area, and through that first part, before the actual “arena”, of those with the boss battles. There’s also the fact that, until you learn to make proper use of the fountains, restoring your health and powers only at the end, or when you find yourself unable to do so, it may be better to die early in a section’s second area, as in that case you’ll start it again fully restored, while otherwise you’ll only have what you had left when you completed the first area.
The area map isn’t exactly easy to use either, since it doesn’t indicate your position and is rough, possibly even including a few mistakes, so you’re expected to keep track of your position and figure out what those rough sketches actually represent. It’s a smaller problem than the rest, but it can nevertheless be frustrating… As was the fact that I couldn’t see the right part of the last constellation in the Northern Sky area, only sorting the matter out after starting over, since trying to complete it blindly eventually resulted in death, taking a screenshot of the image on the rock and using it to fill in the rest once I got back there. Perhaps it had to do with my resolution, 1280×1024, this possibly having something to do with some of the ways in which the camera annoyed me as well, but if a game supports a certain resolution, it should actually be playable in it. And since there’s nowhere else to put this, and it’s not like the scroll wheel is used for zooming or anything, I’d have liked to be able to use it to switch God Powers, but it’s not possible.

Overall, Jotun really is better if seen as a work of art than as a game, with an excellent graphic style, fitting atmosphere and a fair amount of attention paid to the mythology it’s based on. Judged on its merits as a game, on the other hand, it’s quite frustrating, in good part due to various design decisions, and while the camera may perhaps be partially justified by the desire to enhance the artistic value, it’s harder to find justifications for the lack of manual saving, the rough map that doesn’t even track your position, or Thora’s slow attack that doesn’t even create a feeling of weight… Except perhaps that the developers wanted to extend the game’s length to some extent, since it’s quite short otherwise, but this is most definitely not a good way to do so. As a result, I can recommend watching the game, if the one recording explored everything and did so properly, but actually playing it, perhaps not so much. Still, couldn’t possibly call it a bad game, so if you can deal with some frustration and a few tougher fights, you can play it too, even if just to list another game as finished in a relatively short amount of time.

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