Jotun is a somewhat action-adventury isometric game that is steeped in old Norse mythology. It’s every intention is to provide a journey through the ancient Scandinavian afterlife, as the main character seeks to gain entrance into the fallen warrior’s paradise of Valhalla. At times the game is striking, visually and in the sound department, but the sparse mechanics and layout, along with the failure to make more use of the rich history in order to fill in the gaps, makes for an unsteady and repetitive game experience at times.
There’s a lot to appreciate about Jotun’s art direction. Any place that you find information on the game, will initially make mention the hand-drawn and animated art, frame-by-frame. This is rightfully so, because the aesthetics are one of the bigger draws to the game. Sadly for me, the art was both the biggest testament to the game’s concept, and the greatest detractor from the experience.
Most of the best visuals of the game can be seen in the trailer. Upon first controlling lead character Thora, the player moves her up a grass cliff-side, giving a birds-eye view Yggdrasil. It’s the prettiest shot in the game and a firm commitment to the lore, which will take players through five areas commonly found in Norse cosmology and mythology, including lands of fire and ice.
The Yggdrasil area is perhaps the most polished of Jotun’s stages and their individual visual styles. Even here there are hints of my issue with the game though, which is one of depth and depth perception based on art direction. In many stages, I found it difficult to distinguish between background and foreground planes based on the isometric viewpoint. This also created issues with unrealistic hit detection at times.
Collision detection was very inconsistent. This was strongly the case in what was the second fire/lava stage for me. Thora must knock rocks thrown by giants into the lava in order to create paths for her to cross over the damaging substance. When you hit a rock with your axe and it passes over, that’s your indicator that the path you’ve created is significantly laid out enough for Thora to cross. However, on multiple occasions, I would start to walk over the stones only to be met with fire damage at the edge, and no way to settle another rock nearby without simply starting a new path entirely.
This stage was the bane of my time with Jotun. The checkpoint system, particularly in this specific stage, was extremely far from the end, with no map or direct indicator of the path to reach said end, making any death a long repetitive, back-tracking experience. The final boss, or Jotun of this same stage (think Titan or Colossus) I found to be extremely difficult to defeat, more so than even the end-game boss. It’s this repetition and wide-spread inconsistency that trouble me the most. It’s sad because I think that, underneath it all, there is an interesting story from a lore perspective, along with an intriguing core visual style.
Thora is a strong female warrior. She’s bucked the tradition and trends of her people to take a rightful place at her father’s side in battle. This creates internal strife for the family, setting off some tragic events. Through all of her battles, and many victories, Thora seems destined for the halls of Valhalla, when a sunken ships ends her life. Having died an “inglorious death” in the eyes of the gods, Thora now resides in the Norse purgatory of Ginnunangap. Here she must fight the Jotun if she is too find glory alongside the heroes of her people.
The Jotun gives the game a Shadow of the Colossus feel, which the developers have pointed to as a point of inspiration. For me, the game more closely matches the recent Titan Souls, and I believe suffers from some of the same issues. Each of the latter games simply cannot match the visual grandeur and openness of the Team Ico classic. They instead rely on a heavily stylistic approach. Their short length and limited scope can only be carried so far by the art direction however.
Where Jotun excels over Titan Souls is the strong use of voice over work and slightly better music. When asked about the language on Facebook, Thunder Lotus Games had this to say, “The VO are all recorded in Icelandic, as this is as close as we could get to old norse!” The Icelandic language to my ears is both calming, yet authoritative. Thora’s recounting of her journey and the brief interjections from the gods give the game and story some additional weight. Sound-wise, though austere in representation do a great service to the overall experience.
It comes down to what you’re looking for in a game. If you enjoy challenge, I think you’ll find the game to have that for you at times. It rewards exploration with powers and life upgrades, but punishes it with a singular checkpoint system. It’s short in length, depending on your skill set, or recognition of possible patterns in boss fights. Their use of lore is appropriate and measured, but again, being a short experience, most players will want more of it. The visual style is an impressive feat from a small team, but for my tastes needed some additional refinement. But that strong Icelandic voice over is all win.
Jotun is an indie-game, which was the result of a successful Kickstarter and is a very affordable $14.99 with a 4-5 hour playtime. It’s available on Steam now and fully supports controllers, which I highly recommend you use if you play.
PC review code provided by developer.