Review: Jotun Kicks In The Door To Asgard
It's unusual for a Viking-themed game to present a more meditative approach. You won't find much blood and gore in Jotun, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
- Worth The Time?Yes
- Things LovedEvocative, hand-drawn design. Genuinely tough boss battles. Icelandic voice work. Devoid of unnecessary fluff. Sense of scale.
- Things HatedThora's movement speed.
- RecommendationIf you enjoyed The Banner Saga's aesthetic or if you're a proudly old school gamer.
- Name: Jotun
- Genre: Action-adventure
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: No
- Platforms: Windows, Linux
- Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
- Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games
- Price: $15
- Reviewed On: PC
Ghost Pops are pretty great. No, that’s not a new term for a horror movie jump-scare, rather it’s the name of a brand of potato snack (I say potato probably in the loosest association of the word possible) that was originally available in South Africa in the late 1980s. It disappeared off the scene, but came back with a bang a decade or so ago. Naturally, its resurrection took full advantage of the nostalgia involved, but as is true for much in life, scoff down a couple of packets of Ghost Pops in rapid succession, and nostalgia quickly morphs into nausea.
Hoo lordy what am I on about this time? Well, think of Ghost Pops as a metaphor for the plethora of indie-retro titles. I’m sure they’re all delicious in moderation, but if I have to sit through another 8-bit remake, I’m liable to do as men do in a land down under. Thankfully, Thunder Lotus Games understands that nostalgia is most effectively used as a single arrow and not the entire quiver. The process of coaxing out those childhood memories should feel more like a feather and less like a sledgehammer. But what exactly is Jotun, and does a smartly subtle design make for a memorable experience?
Thora, fiery-haired and fierce, is dead. But instead of a glorious and bloody defeat in battle it is the ocean that has claimed her life. And even if the only passing acquaintance you have with Norse mythology is based upon Mad Max: Fury Road, you should be well aware that slipping the mortal coil in this manner is disastrous. However, for reasons unknown, the Gods are prepared to grant Thora a final chance at proving her worth. She must journey through Ginnungagap, the void between worlds, and search for five of the elemental Jotun by unlocking their runes and exploring the many paths that lead to their domains.
Vikings are certainly an attractive element within the realm of entertainment, but undoubtedly the biggest key to Jotun’s Kickstarter success was the quality of the hand-drawn animation. And by Odin’s ravens if this isn’t indeed an exquisitely designed aesthetic. The art is simply superb, and from the opening sequence I felt compelled to fight through to the next domain, if only to see what otherworldly images Alexandre Boyer would conjure next.
In essence, Ginnungagap serves as a central hub from which, aside from the tutorial area, Thora is able to access each of the Jotun’s realms in any order. Each of these realms presents three challenges – find 2 runes to unlock access to the requisite Jotun, find the apple which grants Thora additional health and find the statue of a Norse God which will unlock a new ability. And Thora’s controls are equally as simple – light attack, charged attack, dodge roll and activation of a special ability. If only the mechanics of every game were as simple to summarise!
That sense of nostalgia is rooted in the Disney-esque animation, prior to the onslaught of CGI, but it mainly comes to bear in the way in which Thora controls. Her attacks can’t be spammed – success in Jotun is very much dependent on timing and a clear understanding of when her limited abilities are of most use. For anyone who has played a Megaman game, or counts the Sega Megadrive Collection as a prized possession this will be music to your ears. On a more personal note, there were moments in Jotun that triggered strong memories of playing The Dig. They’re not remotely the same genre, but as I crossed a bridge in Brokkr’s Forge the camera would pan back, revealing a rather potent sense of scale as well as wonderfully imaginative background detail. Each realm manages to capture a similarly evocative element, but I’m not going to detail much more as having your expectations toyed with was half the fun!
But whilst exploring the various realms allows the player to hear pieces of Thora’s story, all narrated in Old Norse, and to enjoy the art and the exquisite soundtrack which combine to an almost hypnotic degree of success, it’s all about those elemental giants. And thankfully, when those battles arrive they are anything but rote. Most of them will probably take a good 10 to 15 minutes each, and that’s without the numerous times you will die and need to restart. And they demand peak levels of concentration. We’re not talking Dark Souls levels of fair but merciless difficulty, but whenever you fail for the most part it doesn’t feel cheap. You got cocky, or you failed to observe a pattern. Even when Thora is at her most powerful, the odds always feel stacked against her – a defensive-minded attitude will be your greatest asset.
Jotun is certainly not without issues, though. Thora’s movement feels sluggish, and since the realms are for the most part sparse of combat, traversing these locations felt a little too close to being chore-like. Also, instead of having the six special abilities Thora unlocks mapped to different buttons, the player is forced to use one button to switch between the powers and another to activate them. When you’re trying to avoid a Jotun’s melee attack that might chop off a third of your health, the distraction of needing to check the top of the screen to see which power is currently active and then switch to another can be very costly.
In addition, with the boss battles only making up perhaps a third of the game’s admittedly short length, the balance of the gameplay just isn’t engaging enough when stripped of the the visual charm. Some levels do have a puzzle aspect to them, but they don’t feel quite as tightly designed as they should be. The sense of satisfaction at vanquishing a Jotun is rousing for sure, but there’s also little reason to revisit a fight. I’m appreciative of a game that shows little interest in hand-holding, and even though the first realm of Jotun can be considered a tutorial, information is dispensed in a Scrooge-like manner – though I will say that I found the game’s map largely irrelevant.
As I said earlier, the team behind Jotun genuinely understand how to mix the elements of nostalgia with a more modern approach, to the point that instead of emulating great games from the past, they have created something wholly original. It may all be over just a little too soon, but the subtle narrative, challenging boss fights and exquisitely painted world win out over the less substantial complaints.