The Vikings had a tradition: one could only enter Valhalla if they experienced an honourable death. Upon receiving such a death, the Viking would ascend to the heavens to join their Gods in the halls of Valhalla. Of course, it’s much more complicated than this. But it is thought that this belief was the basis of the Vikings’ ferocity. It’s also the basis for Thunder Lotus Games’ debut release Jotun.
Jotun – properly pronounced as yaw-toon – tells the story of Thora, a Viking woman who, after living a glorious life, met with a dishonourable end. But Odin himself offered Thora a second chance to impress the gods. She must defeat the five Jotun – legendary elemental giants that are enemies of the Gods. You, of course, control Thora as she navigates through the realms of the Jotun. Each level contains runes – which must be discovered in order to unlock the boss fight – views and upgrades, all of which are worth pursuing.
The narrative is simple, yet endearing. And as you make progress through her quest, Thora will reveal the details of her personal narrative. A clever storytelling decision, this creates a pseudo-friendship between Thora and the player. It’s easy to feel disconnected from simple stories, but this strategy creates emotionality and sentimentality in the story. And it pushes Jotun to greater heights. On the plot front Jotun is straightforward. There are no twists or turns in Thora’s tale. It pans out how you’d expect: like your favourite bedtime story. And like a bedtime story, Jotun is fairly short.
You’d have no problems charging through the campaign in one afternoon. That said, the game is best played with some attention. Exploring the different worlds is almost as much fun as strategizing your way through the incredible boss fights. While you might not be here for tens of hours, it’s easy to sink some time into exploring Jotun’s vivid levels. Each one is created around some unique mechanic: one level has you navigating slides of tree roots; another has you skating across a frozen lake, pursued by a giant serpent. Each is gorgeously hand-painted and each is totally unique.
These levels also draw on Norse Mythology. Courtesy of my Viking-descended best friend, I’ve been well acquainted with a sizeable amount of these stories. I was intrigued by the clever manipulation of Yggdrasil, Valhalla and other legends. I was more impressed by Jotun sticking religiously to its roots. The game makes no attempt to streamline or ‘westernise’ any of its elements. The narration is in Icelandic – the currently spoken language most closely related to Old Norse – with English subtitles, and there’s no option to change this. While the narration from Thor and Thora does explain some of the integral mythology, the game certainly doesn’t spoon feed the audience. If you’re not initially familiar you’ll certainly be brought up to speed – at least enough to enjoy the story of the game. But it’s up to you to research the details. And believe me, once the end credits have rolled, you’ll find yourself reading about Ymir and other Vikings myths. Jotun is just that appealing.
But what weren’t appealing were Jotun’s controls. Thora handles like a typical tank character. She has, in her repertoire, one light attack and one heavy attack, as well as however many skills the player obtains through exploration. The attacks do differ in speed, but both of them are slow. Jotun would have profited from including a faster attack or the choice of a different build type. Sure, one can, theoretically, increase speed with skills. Except that particular skill has such a short duration and such a limited amount of uses that it’s not a feasible refuge. Regardless, the skills are interesting additions to gameplay. They are legitimately useful rewards for exploration, and each one is helpful in its own right. A definite stand out was the Mjolnir modifier for the heavy attack. The animation was tight, the Nordic reference was appreciated and I’m not sure I would have survived many boss fights without it.
Thora can also roll; however, the roll doesn’t feature any invincibility frames. So, it’s more of a burst of quick movement and less of an evasion tactic. Also, every movement is individually animated and features a brief pause afterwards, which removes the possibility of combos, chains or repeated rolls. As opposed to literally everything else in this game, the controls felt clunky and underdeveloped. They weren’t particularly frustrating at first. But as you approach the harder bosses, the brief pause becomes punishing. If any motion is mistimed you’ll find yourself paying for it with half, if not all, of your health bar. And after a few unjustified deaths, you’ll start to wish the dodging and attacking worked properly.
In all the action of 2016, Jotun kind of snuck up on me. Admittedly, it’s easy for indie titles to get lost in the squabble of AAA titles and big series sequels. And I’m really glad that this game was brought to my attention because it’s got something that the AAA titles and big series sequels don’t: character. This little indie release was one of the year’s biggest surprises. Despite a few clunky mechanics, Thunder Lotus Games’ debut was an enjoyable and rewarding experience. It looked good. It played well. And it showcased some dazzling boss fights.
Jotun is a darling bedtime story that charmed my pants off and simultaneously redefined my expectations for indie games.