Jotun – PC/Mac (Steam)

I didn’t earn my place in Valhalla. After banging my head against the final boss for a while, I realized there were better uses of my time. So I watched the last thirty seconds of the game on YouTube, because I really wanted to see every piece of the art that I could. That’s Jotun in a nutshell: occasionally frustrating but always gorgeous.

Jotun is mainly an exploration game with infrequent action moments. You play as Thora, a viking warrior who died a boring-ass death at sea and is trying to earn her place in Valhalla by hacking up gods with an axe. You spend most of the time exploring locales from Norse mythology, such as Yggdrasil (the world tree) or the Bifrost (the burning rainbow bridge). Thora earns new powers for herself as she explores, and uses these to defeat the Jotun, or giants/quasi-gods (rougly equivalent to Greek Titans). It’s a simple concept, but Norse mythology is almost endlessly interesting in its details, and the story is told in Icelandic with English subtitles, giving it some great flair.

In fact, style is something Jotun has in spades. Simply put, this game is a stunner. All of the animation is hand-drawn, the colours are vivid, the worlds are strikingly imagined, and the camera zooms in and out to fantastic effect. If you play small independent games, think of the visuals as a hybrid of The Banner Saga and Bastion, only more beautiful than both.

A few quick examples. While the camera never zooms quite this close, here’s our hero, Thora:

jotun-thora-wallpaper

And here’s Thora when she goes up against one of the Jotun:

isa

Yeah, that little speck down there is your character. The game has a sense of scale and style that is really easy to admire. I loved looking at the world of Jotun and being consistently delighted and surprised with how the developers rendered Norse mythology. Best, you can freely explore each world in whatever order you choose.

Now if only the gameplay could live up to the visuals.

Jotun finds itself in an odd position, in terms of game mechanics. Most of the game is wandering the Norse realms, collecting runes to unlock boss battles. These stretches of the game are relatively peaceful, if occasionally dull, mainly pointing your character in a direction and occasionally solving a very light puzzle. Throughout your exploration, you also collect special powers and bonuses to your health bar. Standard Legend of Zelda or Mega Man type stuff, but more relaxed. These parts also teach you some of the techniques you might use for later against the Jotun, such as how to distract enemies or how to avoid poison gas.

Once you’ve finished exploration of a region, you unlock a boss battle and then fight that area’s Jotun. And suddenly the game goes from low-key wander to intense combat, the type that usually requires you to fight a boss over and over to learn their moves.

On the one hand, these boss battles are beautiful and (at their best) can be tense and exciting. On the other hand, it feels like different battles were designed by different developers, with wildly varying difficulty and quality. When this combat clicked, I found myself running through a fight two or three times, learning the moves and then progressing based on whether I did well or not. In other words, some of these were fair. But other fights were ridiculous and I could feel myself bumping against limitations in the game design, trying to dodge objects that were practically bigger than the dodge animation, or swinging an axe at a character who could run much, much faster than me. In particular, I almost gave up during the first boss encounter. Why on earth would you make the very first fight in the whole game such an unpleasant slog? And like I said, I did give up on the last boss, because I was having approximately zero fun with it.

It’s tough to say who a game like this is for. Casual players will probably enjoy the game’s world but scratch their heads over some of the more unfair combat moments. Twitch players will probably enjoy the multi-stage boss battles but get bored with the exploration. If you play video games and have any interest in hand-drawn animation or Norse mythology, I would say give Jotun a shot; it’s a short game, maybe 6 hours at most, and there’s some beautiful variety in the art. Just don’t expect to have much fun with some of the boss encounters, even if they’re stunning to look at.

You can pick it up for $15 on Steam.

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