Video games are often praised for the power that they enable players to feel. From blasting hordes of grunts in first-person shooters, to executing flashy combos in hack-and-slash action sequences, games like to put players at the centre of the experience.
Jotun, Thunder Lotus Games’ recent Kickstarter-funded release, switches this formula up, pitting players against colossal titans in David vs. Goliath fights to the death. On paper, the game sounds similar to Shadow of the Colossus and God of War III, both of which provide boss battles of massive scale throughout a journey of epic proportions. Jotun delivers on a similar level of scale, offering breathtaking, hand-drawn bosses and a heroic soundtrack to match. Monotonous exploration and frustrating difficulty spikes, however, keep Jotun from being a true classic.
Jotun begins on a decidedly sombre note. Thora and her crew of Vikings are navigating the seas when their ship is sunk during a thunderstorm. Sadly, they then drown and die. As Thora’s body sinks to the bottom of the ocean, she wakes up in the land of the gods. From there, she is tasked with defeating a gauntlet of gods in order to prove herself worthy to enter Valhalla. Besides this initial setup, there isn’t much to Jotun’s story. Aside from the occasional voice-over from Thora, Jotun focuses almost solely on its gameplay, with very little in the way of development for the protagonist or the world around her.
Players begin in a forested area, where they are tasked with learning the basics of the game’s simple combat. Thora can initiate two attacks: a quick hit and a longer, powered-up smash. Besides these two attacks, Thora will come across various structures housing powerful beings known as Jotuns. Finding these Jotuns provides Thora with various special abilities, such as healing herself in battle or defending herself against powerful attacks. These Jotuns can be switched on the fly during combat, and are relegated to a single button on the keyboard.
Although the gameplay of Jotun is relatively simple, its combat is often satisfying. Each attack has weight behind it, especially when playing with an Xbox controller or an equivalent gamepad. Normal enemies drop in one hit, while bigger baddies require precise combinations of dodging and attacking to defeat. With an emphasis on fewer buttons, players must rely on reflexes and properly timed dodges in order to succeed against Jotun’s enemies. While it’s certainly not the most complex battle system, it manages to remain fun and challenging for the entirety of the campaign.
After learning the basics of combat, players are whisked back to Ginnungagap, the primordial void in Norse mythology. This void serves as the hub at the centre of Jotun, where players have access to five different areas (the first of which, the forest, will have already been completed). Upon arrival in Ginnungagap, players are presented with a brief monologue from Thora, before heading to one of other four areas, each housing two levels and a smattering of collectible runes.
These levels are quite diverse from locale to locale. One level may task the player with exploring a dwarven town, while another may require the navigation of tunnel slides. Jotun’s world is varied and bite-sized in nature, ensuring that players can enjoy an original experience throughout every level.
Despite this variety, Jotun suffers from an agonising pace. Thora moves as slow as snail, resulting in scenarios where backtracking through a level feels like a chore. While each area does have a map with critical information regarding hidden power-ups, Thora’s location is not provided, making the process of searching for items all the more tedious. While Thunder Lotus Games undoubtedly made these decisions in order to make exploration challenging, I unfortunately found myself frustrated more often than not.
Thankfully, Jotun makes a better impression during its epic boss encounters. Every time the player collects both runes in a given area, they can then enter the respective boss room. Each god that Thora faces represents a specific environmental element, such as electricity or fire. These elements bring drastically different attack patterns to every fight, forcing players to think on their toes in order to defeat each one. For example, defeating one god may involve navigating slippery ice to avoid a charge attack, while another may require the player to dodge falling meteors of fire from the ceiling.
While each boss varies greatly in terms of ability and aesthetic, they are all equally massive in terms of scale. These gods tower over the player, adding to the tension of each fight, and providing a sense of impossible odds; felling each boss brings with it a great sense of satisfaction.
Adding to these fights is their impeccable presentation. While Jotun looks phenomenal during its exploration segments, with atmospheric backdrops and beautiful scenery, it looks even better during its boss battles. Each enemy in the game is hand drawn, with animations reminiscent of cartoon storyboards. The result is a combination of vibrant enemies with a satisfying fluidity to their movements and attacks. Sometimes, I’d die simply because I was too distracted oohing and awing at a god’s facial expressions. The visuals in Jotun are that striking.
Rounding out Jotun’s presentation is an equally beautiful music score. Composer Max LL emulates the moody, ethereal sounds of games such as Journey, providing melancholic melodies during exploration and tense, brooding themes during boss battles that adds to the game’s sense of grandeur and scale.
Unfortunately, the concept of being an underdog doesn’t always translate well into Jotun’s actual gameplay. While the first half of the game is challenging and fun, the latter half abandons the idea of fairness and often becomes a frustrating affair, resulting in death again and again. Despite having found the vast majority of the power-ups and health upgrades available in each zone, I often found myself dying from only two hits. In fact, boss battles are typically boiled down to slashing repeatedly at a given enemy in order to chip away at his or her health bar.
Despite its lack of story, large difficulty spikes and sluggish pacing, Jotun provides a compelling 5 to 6 hour campaign filled with breathtaking scenery and bosses that would give many AAA games a run for their money. For those that have a hankering for games of epic proportions, give Jotun a try. Just be prepared to die quite a bit before the end credits roll.
Great scale despite its sluggishness
Despite some pacing and difficulty issues, Jotun is a fun action-adventure game of impressive scale and gorgeous aesthetics.