Jotun’s premise is a basic one: Using a variety of god given abilities, Thora embarks on a quest to talk down a pantheon of Jotun — Norse gods — to reclaim her honor after death. Sure, it’s not the most original sounding idea in gaming, but what game is anymore? What’s important is what gets done with that idea, and how the developer makes it their own. Like a swift mix of elements from Transistor, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, and a variety of other game mechanics, visuals, and styles, Jotun quickly manages to evoke feelings of an indie darling with its old cartoon styled visuals, boss centered gameplay, and overall artistic rendering.
Each level consists of some simple mechanics to reach the rune at the end, as well as health upgrades, additional abilities, and some visual treats along the way. Navigating these areas is simplistic and does very little in the way of offering any kind of challenging gamplay, but that’s due to Jotun’s focus on the boss battles against the beings that the game is named for. All of the regions are very distinct and offer wildly different visual presentations meshed with only slightly different mechanics for making it through each one.
Journey Through Norse Mythology
By the end, the trek through each region began to drag on, realizing that it was far from being the core mechanic, and more of a distraction leading to the grandiose boss battles. It’s not to say that these sections aren’t beautifully designed or that I didn’t enjoy the little surprises each one offered, but too often it felt like there was just too little to do, and no real reason to use skills or abilities outside of the arenas where you stick an axe in each Jotun.
It’s a shame too. Each area held so much gameplay potential and initially I saw Jotun playing out more like Transistor, with smaller encounters leading up to the final challenges. Instead these encounters were microscopic in comparison to the six titans I faced across the game’s narrative, yet somehow the whole thing retains a sense of serenity and beauty — a wondrous creation of the Norse afterlife, helped along by the striking visuals and haunting soundtrack. But we’ll talk about Jotun’s artistic merits more in a moment.
The central scheme of Jotun is the beautifully animated Jotun themselves, challenging boss battles that test patience and challenge players in a variety of ways. No matter how grotesque each one appeared, the art style that looks like a 50 year old hand drawn cartoon is stunning, from the robust branches on the rotund Jera, to the icy beard of the menacing Isa. Each one looks distinctive, with distinct mechanics to match. The mechanics bring back the classic feel of learning a boss’ moves and powers, and figuring out how to best counter, dodge, and when the right time to move in to attack is. Jera, the nature Jotun, is static, but fills the battlefield with vines and branches to damage and block your path as you try to approach her. Isa, the winter Jotun, is fought on a frozen lake, where you must take into account sliding about as you chase him down and try to avoid his icy breath.
Each one had me nearly to a point of giving up until I found methods that worked to keep me alive just long enough to kill them. High difficulty games are all the rage these days, so the challenge of the Jotun feels like an attempt to bridge classic gameplay styling with the modern day difficulty of games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne. I say attempt because the sense of victory doesn’t linger. Powers aren’t granted upon a boss kill, and there is very little real reward to say “you did it!” except to have to do it all over again, only this time with an even higher difficulty.
In the Halls of Valhalla
See, Jotun already released on PC a year ago, but this console version, dubbed Valhalla Edition, comes with an additional Valhalla Mode, which is essentially a boss rush mode, tossing away the task of grabbing the runes, and letting players dive straight into more difficult versions of the game’s six boss battles. These battles will track everything from the damage you take, time to completion, and even the number of times god powers are used. The challenge here arises in the form of the Jotun: Valhalla Edition’s trophy list. Beat each Jotun in under a certain time. Beat each one without taking damage. Beat each one without using god powers. Each challenges players to have to think in unique ways, often differently then they did when initially tackling these goliaths.
Without the added goals and challenges though, Jotun still presents a simply beautiful tale of Norse mythology. It’s not a tale of revenge, or even good versus evil. It’s a tale of regaining a lost honor, and proving oneself in death as Thora strives to take her place in the halls of Valhalla after dying in a storm that wrecked her ship rather than honorably on the fields of battle. The voice acting is done in a Norse dialect with English subtitles. The soundtrack fits the epic viking tale being told. And I’ve already talked a few times about how stunning the hand drawn cartoon visuals are. Taken as a full picture, it comes together in quite a stunning way that many games simply do not.
There’s a lot going for Jotun, it’s Norse artistic nature permeating the very being of the game, but there are certain aspects of it that certainly focus more directly on the art side of things rather than the gameplay experience. That’s not always a bad thing, but in the case of Jotun, it can make the overall experience feel disjointed; going from a simplistic and art inspired level to a challenging boss battle is a paradigm shift that is difficult to properly balance. At the end of the day Jotun is a great game for everything it does right, including its art and overall styling, but misses a lot of the key aspects that could make it a perfect journey to the halls of Valhalla.
Review code for Jotun: Valhalla Edition provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.