Fimbulvetr – or as it’s more commonly known in English, Fimbulwinter – is three non-stop winters in a row, with not even a hint of an intervening summer in sight. For people in the modern world that would mean public transport so delayed it would never start again, lots of moaning on Twitter and we’d all have nipples sharp enough to carve ice sculptures. Fortunately Fimbul takes place in Norse mythology as opposed to reality, so all this snow is a good excuse for action, adventure and blood soaked violence.
Viking Mythology has proven fertile ground for video games in recent years; both God of War 4 and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice have found success while drawing upon the rich tapestry of characters, stories and world building that the original sagas provide. Fimbul however, avoids the obvious in its interpretation of the myths. There is little to no mention of iconic Norse gods such as Loki, Thor and Odin, there’s not a world serpent or a giant wolf frothing at the mouth in sight and Ragnarök only gets name-checked. This is instead a tale sent within the aforementioned Fimbulvetr that sees an aged berserker, the impossible to pronounce Kveldulver, on a quest to stop the giants of Jotunheim kicking off the apocalypse early.
Visually I found this game to be a real treat. Whilst perhaps not to everyone’s taste, the retro vector inspired visuals brought to mind classics of yesteryear like Another World and Flashback. Though he’s a 3D character, Kveldulver moves with the same silky rotoscoped grace of Lester Knight Chaykin before him. The environment he explores is also a delightful fusion of expansive bright white snow and intense sunlight, the camera often pulling back to allow the player to take in the immense scale of the world that Kveldulver explores and the vast foes he does battle with.
Fimbul sees our bearded hero charge from location to location, doing battle with huscarl warriors, trolls and humongous giants in top down third person action. It’s like a gory version of Tom Thumb. The combat is straightforward, but with some added depth to reward advanced play. Striking your enemy with light and heavy attacks slowly charges a power meter which can be used to unleash special abilities. Whilst these are limited in number – there’s only four – they offer variety in their usage. One summons a banner that heals Kveldulver for a limited period of time – just make sure no-one cleaves it in half or that sweet health boost will soon dissipate – whilst another results in the instant decapitation of the enemy and the occasional hilarity of seeing a severed limb fly into the camera.
There’s a nice flow to the combat as you’re often vastly outnumbered, so the trick is to use your heightened mobility to split your foe into smaller groups. Timing is everything and one strike at the right time, which is indicated by a red symbol, is worth ten frantic attacks. Your shield and spear can both break, but replacements can thankfully be gathered from the fallen, adding variety to the violent encounters as Kveldulver dodges and ducks to gather a new arsenal.
It’s a real shame then that this solid gameplay is undermined by some truly atrocious frame rate issues, at least on PlayStation 4. Basic battles are fine, but against swarms of foes or in boss battles against a troublesome troll the visuals judder to a near halt. The absolute barnstormer of a final battle – which sees multiple giants, trolls and Midgardian mortals do battle – is nearly ruined by these issues. Other problems, such as the player weapons of a sword or axe offering no change in gameplay, hamper the combat, it is the continued frame rate stutters that truly frustrate. I also encountered two occasions when the game crashed entirely. There is a just a general lack of polish, as gameplay lurches into cutscenes with all the elegance of a one-legged troll on a mountain bike.
The story of Fimbul delights however, offering a plot that would not be out of place in the Prose Edda. By which I mean it’s a bit weird, does fun things with time and doesn’t necessarily have a happy or satisfying ending. The story absolutely works in the context of the world that Fimbul is set in, but the delivery of the story through comic book panels leaves a lot to be desired. For a start the art style is simple and underwhelming – everyone, regardless of age, gender or being a troll has the same face shape and design – and the whole aesthetic is best described as a poor man’s Frank Miller. The text bubbles are also laid out in a way that does not make for easy reading, often leaving me confused as to which dialogue was attributed to which character. The only one I was ever certain on were the words of the crow, thanks to his repeated *caws*. Again, like the framerate issues, this feels like an own goal. There’s a good story here, you just have to work too hard to find it.
The developer promised a non-linear plot, but this isn’t as exciting as it sounds, offering only the choice to kill or spare specific bosses. What is a nice touch is the ‘life chain’, a necklace-like menu that allows the player to observe all the individual beads of their quests and instantly revisit any previously completed section. This allows the player to change their mind and kill someone that they had previously let walk. While this sadly makes little difference to the story, only altering your allies in the final battle, it does make going back to hunt for trophies significantly easier.