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Jotun Review

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Jotun Title Screen

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Freelance writer and used-to-be artist based out of the Pacific Northwest. I studied Game Art & Design in college. I have been writing web content for the last 6 years, including for my own website dedicated to entertainment, gaming & photography. I have been playing games dating back to the NES era. My other interests are film, books and music. I sometimes pretend to be great at photography. You can find me on Youtube, Twitch, Twitter, 500px, DeviantArt and elsewhere under my nick: JamesInDigital.

Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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