Have you ever realised how much Norse mythology penetrates popular culture? There are numerous spins on its gods in Marvel's movies, inspired elements taken from its races and characters in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, and countless references spread across video games from Master Chief's Mjolnir armor to equipment and iconography associated with Destiny's Iron Banner event. These imaginative, subtle takes on Norse mythology are far more common than explicit, proper ones, so when something like Jotun: Valhalla Edition comes around, we were jolted that it seeks to emulate its source material with honest accuracy. However, does this commitment to detail result in a beautiful love letter to the gods or a lifeless husk worthy of Hel?
If we're going by the art style alone, the former statement couldn't be closer to the truth. The painted environments mixed with hand-drawn animations for every enemy produce a visual tour de force that we loved watching. The line work behind the fluid motion and vivid expressions of the bosses is impressive, and whenever the camera panned out to the point where our character was a blip on the landscape, we were in awe at the sheer size of Nidhogg gnawing on Yggdrasil's roots or the view of the first level's forest as we crossed a bridge from high above. The game sells itself on the effort its artists injected into the graphics, and while it excels in doing that, the level design has short-sighted compromises.
The treks in between bosses task you with uncovering two runes in nearly every region that allow you to open gates to fight them. These runes' meanings are also elementally related to where you go, so because Isa is the rune of "ice, stillness, and power", you can expect two levels with slippery lakes and snow aplenty. The changes in scenery are needed and gorgeous, but they can't mask the game's sub-par stretches of exploration. Your character's slow pace compared to the expansive locales can drag down navigating the semi-linear layouts of the levels, especially since each of their gameplay gimmicks or grunts are rather one-note and bland. Ithunn's Apples that raise your health and god shrines that grant you new powers are good incentives to always look around, but even we grew tired of the extra effort required to do this near the game's end.
While these sections feel like half efforts to show off the admittedly cool artwork that decorates the worlds, the gameplay thankfully shines bright with boss fights. The grunts may be sad pushovers to plow through, but Jotun (giants) like Hagalaz and Kaunan will give you a run for your glory in Valhalla. By using dodging, your axe with light and heavy attacks, and bestowed god powers like speed, invulnerability, or healing, you'll be increasingly challenged as you fight each one. They have such widely disparate attack patterns and ways to take them down that you'll always be looking forward to each one, and when these Jotun give it their all with more ferocious assaults when their health is halfway down, you'll be on the edge of your seat during these epic moments.
Your antics of legendary proportions should last around six hours, but if more had been done outside of the boss battles, we're sure this game could've garnered another two hours of substantial gameplay in every corner. However, in lieu of this wishful thinking comes the titular Valhalla Mode that graces the game's updated version on PlayStation 4. It's essentially a rush mode where you attempt to topple each Jotun in any order you wish. Be warned that they are more dangerous and cunning with this mode, but you are granted maximum health and every god power, so that's a great help in seeking to beat your high scores and streaks without dying.
Your approaches to the bosses' strategies and movements here are of the utmost importance, forcing you to exploit their weaknesses with your god powers quickly and efficiently. While a new boss or world to explore would have been incredible with this edition, the mode is a good allure for completionists and gluttons for punishment. As a side note, we also would've rejoiced had Thora's directional input for aiming had been given 360-degree movement with the right analogue stick, but you can only look in eight directions, which is an unnecessary limitation inherited from the PC version that results in frustrating moments where some long-range attacks will miss.
We did say that the Norse mythology shot through the title adheres to its origins, and you can witness that not only in the descriptions and brief exposition of major plot points from its ancient lore, but also the creative depictions of bosses and highlighted realms spread across Yggdrasil. The bosses in particular are original creations inspired by the runes they represent, which could easily number as giants of the nine realms had they been created thousands of years ago. As for the main character, Thora's story is told through her own monologues, and while it isn't anything groundbreaking, it cements her adventure to a rightful place in Valhalla with her heroic, tragic life.
Speaking of the monologues, she and Odin actually speak throughout the game in the Icelandic language. Considering it resembles ancient Norse, it's instantly breathtaking whenever these characters open their mouths. It truly makes the experience feel grander, and the music is no exception in bolstering this effect. Max LL's minor-inclined score appropriately forms to the game with natural percussion, old wind instruments, and rich cellos intermixed with wonderful melodies guided by the harp, so we never tired of hearing these tracks flare up. However, does the game come together with all of its parts to impress the gods?
Jotun: Valhalla Edition is an epic to experience, but more for its memorable destinations than the journeys to get to them. The gorgeous scenery and animation combined with the amazing, authentic audio make its bosses something that should be hoarded like Fafnir's gold. Even though the gaps between bosses leave more to be desired with disappointing exploration, Thora's tale is one that manages to enter Valhalla's gates with an adequate amount of flying colours.