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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

RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure

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RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 5

A Conflicted Beginning

The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.

Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.

As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.

Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 1

With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).

Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.

Gunplay To Die For

Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.

Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.

The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.

Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 2

Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.

The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.

The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.

However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.

A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast

The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.

Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.

With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 6

To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).

Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.

A Slipshod Structure

Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.

Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.

Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 8

On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.

Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Xbox One X.

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