At the end of September last year, a little known indie game managed to slip under my radar until some months on from its release. As I’ve mentioned previously in my review of Divinty: Original Sin, through my incredibly broad interests, one of the earliest and foremost has always been the fantasy genre – in particular, reading and tabletop RP.
With roots based directly on Norse mythology, Jotun is a top-down adventure game developed by debuting studio, Thunder Lotus Games, after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014 that raised $64,000. Being relatively simplistic in premise, the story of Jotun follows Thora – a disgraced Viking warrior who is trapped in Norse purgatory, but offered the chance to redeem her soul and pass across to Valhalla if she can defeat the very gods themselves. Over the course of the game, you slowly learn how the events unfolded which brought Thora to purgatory before her death.
While I loved the setting and atmosphere behind Jotun, and the way the story was structured to drip feed you information slowly – the actual narrative itself was a little disappointing. While it’s understandable that the story isn’t going to be an epic, given the relatively short length of the games play time, I’ve seen other games offer a lot more content with excellent delivery in the same period of play. Unfortunately, where Jotun excelled in creating a captivating depiction of the Norse mythos, it simply lacked any narrative complexity or depth below the surface.
It’s a real shame, too, because I feel as if this area the game had potential – but there seemingly wasn’t enough forethought into expanding the universe, where I thought the game could have been longer, and the story better told with more time. However, in saying that, if you’ve ever been interested in learning about the basics of Norse mythology – Jotun is an excellent source, and remains very faithful to the original tenets of Nordic lore. Jotun also scores a few extra points in my book by bucking the trend and putting a female protagonist at the head of a historically male-dominated setting, which was both satisfying but also mixed with a little disappointment as we didn’t get to learn more about her.
As you travel through purgatory, Thora is slowly imbued with magical abilities from some of the Norse gods; such as Heimdall, Thor, Loki and Odin, among a handful of others. While these spells are nothing inspired by fantasy video games standards, they still fit thematically and intuitively into the framework of Jotun without getting overly technical or experimental. The level designs are interesting, with a combination of fighting enemies and solving puzzles in order to progress – sometimes combined over the course of a level, although, also sending you through one or the other depending on what area you’re playing through in order to change the dynamic of the game.
When I tried to explain Jotun to fellow gamers who hadn’t played it, I compared it to a Dark Soulsesque sort of title. The design of the game is intentionally clunky much like the Souls series, which forces players to be far more calculated when fighting enemies as opposed to spamming relentlessly through until succeeding. One wrong step, or just going for that last hit because you think you can get away is often the wrong move – and, like Dark Souls, the game punishes the player for being greedy or overly aggressive. Given the sort of player I am, I never learn my lesson and this game was no exception – so there were many a curse word and growl threw around when I was in the motions of a Jotun session.
What drew the most comparison between Dark Souls and Jotun for me, however, are the designs of the boss fights. The Jotuns are essentially Titans, and the game does a fantastic job at showing the true scale of how insignificant Thora looks in comparison to these enormous beings. Often they would come equipped with a set of standard attacks, and then as the phases ticked over from the player’s damage – the tempo and skill-set of the fight would change, meaning you are forced to adjust your strategy on the fly while accounting for the changes in order to maintain the tenuous grasp on the fight. This similarity was incredibly high for me, especially given I’ve been slowly playing through Dark Souls for the first time recently – so the distinctions were very defined and easy to draw parallels between in my eyes.
The artwork is also fantastic, having been hand-drawn frame by frame – putting Jotun in the company of other great indie titles such as Dust: An Elysian Tale, which is another game I admire the artwork of. The designers do an excellent job of making the universe seem so gigantic in scale, with almost every level having the camera zoom out at some point to reveal a beautiful backdrop that looks to stretch endlessly into the distance. My hats off to the audio crew as well who worked on Jotun, as the music is timely and often delivered in conjunction with the narrative or tempo of the game in a very fitting manner. To top all this off, the voice work provided for the game was also really high class – and very much made me feel the need to pay attention whenever something was being said, even if it wasn’t relevant to the plot necessarily.
While being narratively light and a little short on playtime, Jotun still managed to pull me in with its compelling atmosphere, artwork, and challenging gameplay. Whether you’re a hardcore fantasy enthusiast like me, a Dark Souls diehard, or even simply a little curious – I recommend giving Jotun a look, as if approached right, it could be the perfect pallet cleanser between long games such as Metal Gear Solid V or The Witcher 3. So what are you waiting for? Grab your battle axe, and prepare to slay your way forward to Valhalla!