Being the swords and sorcery junkie I am, I’ve always maintained a fondness for Norse mythology. Take any great series of fantasy books, films, or games, and you’re bound to find plenty of material tracing back to Scandinavian folklore. From terrifying trolls to warring gods, there’s plenty there to inspire you, as Thunder Lotus Games should know all too well.
Jotun is the Canadian developer’s first big release, having recently made the jump from PC to consoles. In short, it’s a fast paced, top-down action adventure brought to life by some stunning hand drawn artwork. Although not quite as polished as The Banner Saga, there’s a lovely, almost Disney-like aesthetic that somehow gels with the game’s Norse themes.
The story couldn’t be further away from one of Disney’s timeless classics, however. Jotun kicks off with the death of its protagonist, Thora, killed at sea amidst a raging storm. To meet such an inglorious end far from guarantees her passage to Valhalla, and so the viking warrior is sent on a quest to prove her worth to the gods and face them in battle.
One thing that struck me as odd about Jotun is its structure. After a brief tutorial, Thora is beamed up to an astral plane that splits off into five paths. Each of these paths then branch into three stages, culminating in a boss battle. The strange thing about this is how players are freely able to choose where they go, with no indication of what lies ahead. This ambiguity carries into the level design, with naught but a vague map to guide you.
It won’t take long to find your bearings, however. Although potted with the occasional distraction, levels are fairly straightforward – all you need to do is find a rune stone and be on your merry way.
Naturally, there are all kinds of pesky obstacles in your way. From hammer-lobbing dwarves and snowstorms to poisonous swamps and giants lava, each hazard aligns with an overriding theme. They help to change up the pace, sure, though Thunder Lotus leans on them way too hard, in a way that doesn’t feel all that fun. Seeking shelter from a sudden blizzards helps add some flavour, but does little for the gameplay. As such, all but a few levels in Jotun feel lifeless, like padding shoved between the game’s far better boss fights.
The bosses aren’t strong enough to mask its shortcomings yet do a fantastic job of reeling you in. Their frightful appearance is matched only by their hulking stature and brutal attack patterns. Whichever god you decide to take on, they’ll make full use of the arena, spawning lesser enemies while blocking certains routes and pelting you with projectiles.
Needless to say, Jotun is far from a cakewalk. However, the hallmark of a class boss battle is being able to detect a certain flow, dancing to the rhythm and waiting for just the right moment to strike. Sure, your enemies will occasionally land a cheap hit, but for the most part it’s a fair fight.
Although an accomplished warrior, Thora doesn’t hold a candle to Kratos. With a basic two-hit combo, heavy attack, and dodge roll, she’s serviceable yet lacks versatility. The only upgrades players receive during their adventure are four magic abilities, each with a finite though replenishable stock. While Loki’s gift summons a decoy, the other three grant a burst of health, improved movement speed, and attack power. Although each has its own use, they don’t exactly open the door to a bevy of tactical options. Jotun may only last a handful of hours, but could have done with more character progression beyond a tiny grimoire of spells and an elongated life bar.
For those who connect with the game’s combat, Jotun’s Valhalla Edition has an ultra hard rush mode in tow, pitting you against an amped up roster of giants. It’s taxing, but feels like a pure distillation of the game – a highlight reel, if you will. If Thunder Lotus had constructed more of these encounters, or simply filled the gaps between with something a little more exciting, the result would have been far greater.
Jotun just falls short of receiving that higher recommendation. It’s enjoyable yet clearly inconsistent, despite its great use of setting and some terrific boss fights.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4