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Jotun (PC) artwork

Jotun (PC) review

"Vividly depicted Norse mythology."

Jotun (PC) image

Playing Titan Souls earlier this year prompted me to question why we don't see more modern titles channeling Shadow of the Colossus, given both its popularity and the traceable simplicity of its formula. In retrospect, perhaps Titan Souls itself was the answer to that question. It was a game entirely centered on slaying enormous monsters. That's fine, but it turns out that there was another crucial ingredient to Shadow's success: atmosphere. Those long treks through the vast, desolate valleys gave tremendous context to the poignant battles themselves. It's open to interpretation as to what our task actually stood for, but the world-building elevated Shadow beyond a simple feature-length boss rush mode. Whatever these colossi were, they had a reason to be there, and killing them would have a profound impact.

Jotun, a Kickstarted project by Thunder Lotus Games, not only gets the formula right but perhaps takes it a notch further, limiting the bosses to a mere six and extending the bouts of exploration between them. In fact, despite having a rudimentary combat system (consisting of a light attack, a heavy attack, a dodge and handful of spells), it would be inaccurate to call Jotun an action game. There are no standard enemies, and when you're called to pull out your axe, it's usually to chop down trees or knock objects around. Here is a game in which the descriptor "atmospheric" isn't marketing fluff; it's an honest designation of the way Jotun tells its story.

Jotun (PC) image

That story, in case you couldn't tell from the title, is rooted in Norse mythology. A female warrior named Thora (named after you-know-who) is taken by a storm at sea and denied passage to Valhalla, having suffered an inglorious death. The gods, however, take notice of her life accomplishments and offer her a second chance to prove herself by travelling to the yawning void and slaying five elemental giants, or "Jotun," within. Killing them is challenge enough, but the real meat of Jotun lies in the journeys between, wherein Thora treks through the various realms of Norse lore in search of the runes that will grant her access to the climactic confrontations.

Again, save for one or two instances, most of Jotun's levels whiz by without a single enemy encounter, with the bulk of the danger derived from the natural conditions exclusive to each realm. Crossing the frozen rivers of Niflheim forces you to frequently shield yourself from gusts of wind, while navigating the boiling lakes of mud in Muspelheim requires some quick-footedness so as to not be scorched by the magma seeping through the cracks in the earth. Both the roots and branches of the great tree Yggdrasil present snaking mazes in their own right. Jotun is as much a puzzle-platformer as it an action romp, and it's important to make that distinction, as anyone approaching Jotun hoping for wall-to-wall combat will be bored and disappointed, and that is not the effect that this wondrous journey should have on you.

Much of Jotun's story is told through voiceovers, which sounds like a bit of a cheat for such a narrative-focused game, but that's untrue in this case for two reasons. Firstly, the dialog itself is a joy to take in thanks to the simple fact that it's all delivered in beautifully chilly Icelandic, generating a sense of authenticity rare to indie games of this scale. Thora's elegant voice removed all barriers for me, as I had no trouble buying this character and her life story as faithful products of Norse legend. It's a small touch, but it works miracles in demonstrating Thunder Lotus's commitment to the subject matter.

Jotun (PC) image

The second is Jotun's audiovisual appeal, which is absolutely off the wall and ensures that even when we're not being told a story, we're certainly being shown one. The hand-drawn animation reminds me an awful lot of another recent Viking-themed game, The Banner Saga, and it's every bit as successful here, breathing life into the few living things we happen across. And Max LL's stirring soundtrack, one of the year's best, perfectly enhances every situation without overplaying it. In one scene, I had to cross a frozen lake while a giant serpent frequently burst through the ice, and the entire encounter is accompanied by a single, repeated note, timed in such a manner that it evokes images of a ticking second hand. In a game that's largely about the calm before the storm, Max LL mounts tension masterfully.

Of course, the bosses themselves are massive and stunning and a thrill to fight (save for the tacked-on final battle, which goes a bit overboard), but it's worth repeating that they're not really the focus of Jotun. The game is more about fully immersing players in vividly depicted Norse mythology and making the journey feel like one. The bosses themselves are just climaxes, triumphant bookends to an adventure that, despite running only about five hours, feels epic.


Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (October 03, 2015)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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