Considering how utterly massive my list of games to check out has been getting as of late, it’s becoming uncommon for me to forget about certain games, or even why I was interested in the first place. Some titles inevitably fall through the cracks, and with my memory becoming progressively worse as time goes on, which is especially worrisome considering I am 22-years-old, and Jotun was one of those. The game’s premise and warm reception were enough to justify giving it a closer look and, as is the case with every game I play to completion, a review.
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS4, XBO, Wii U
Developer/Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games
Jotun centers around Thora, a viking woman whose life recently came to an inglorious end, a taboo of her culture and by extension world that results in her having to undergo a journey through Norse purgatory in order to prove herself to the gods and be granted permission to enter Valhalla, the resting place for all great warriors. Said journey is primarily centered around trekking through various important locales in Norse mythology before gaining additional powers of the gods that Thora may use in order to defeat the titular jotuns, elemental giants who stand in her path and serve as the boss battles that the game is largely structured around.
After establishing the core goal, Jotun is fairly light with its story, and primarily involves Thora recounting information about the places she visits to the audience, in authentic sounding Icelandic no less. However, considering how the dialog often plays while in the middle of light puzzle solving or combat, it can be easy to ignore a line of dialog, which only makes the actual mythology she is recounting all the more confusing. You see, most mythologies of this sort are very confusing to reinterpret with a modern mindset, and require a closer more patient examination to understand what is going on. This is especially true for Norse mythology, which asks the observer to accept that a cow appeared from nothingness and not asked why his milk allowed Ymir to sweat frost giants.
Even with a pre-existing knowledge of some Norse mythology, thanks to a prerequisite college course I took, I still found a lot of Thora’s narration difficult to comprehend. Though I guess it really does not matter that much, as Jotun is more built around the battles with giants. Combat consists of Thora running and rolling around a massive battlefield while trying to avoid telegraphed attacks while poking away at the boss’s legs with her mighty battleaxe and making use of several limited use abilities she finds in her travels, most notably a healing spell, attack buff, and damage negating shield.
The battles manage to achieve a welcome sense of scale as the camera pans out to reduce Thora to a speck that is often only visible thanks to her contrasting red hair, yet the scale and camera can sometimes work against the game. There were several instances during these battles where I struggled to figure out where exactly Thora was or if she was actually hit by something until I saw a large chunk of her health bar missing. This was due to how little visual feedback the game provides for taking damage, and the way in which the roll works, stalling near the end before allowing Thora to move yet again. That would be fine, if I was not conditioned to think that a roll should be continuous without any stopping points.
In spite of these blemishes, combat against Jotun can be exhilarating during the best moments. The overhead battles are greatly enhanced by the scale of everything, each boss has their own unique attributes, the difficulty is present yet never overbearing, and battles are paced so they feel like lengthy bouts without ever feeling like a slog, mostly on account of the phases bosses adopt as their health diminishes. However, there are only about six of them and in my 4 hours of playtime, they only constituted, generously, a single one of those hours, while the rest of my time was consumed with traversing stages.
The stages are massive sprawls of nothingness with only a few tertiary and disposable obstacles in Thora’s quest for health upgrades, new powers, and the key to progress to the next boss. They take longer than they should to get through, are easy to get lost in due to how the map system doesn’t keep track of Thora’s location, and are generally boring to walk around in, occasionally solving a brief puzzle in order to progress. All while the camera seemingly torments the player by limiting being too closely zoomed in so that Thora was occupying approximately 5% of the screen instead of 1% or less, as seen during the boss battles.
These sections hold no challenge, and genuinely bored me as I meandered about through transit in order to reach the next item, often getting lost in the process. These sections very much limit the game’s momentum and by extension my enthusiasm towards playing it. One of my least favorite things to do in games is meander about a big empty area in a search for goodies and progress, and that is unfortunately the majority of Jotun.
The seemingly saving grace of this game is how it is made up of entirely 2D assets with hand drawn animation for Thora and all creatures along with painted backgrounds. While I do think the proper animation looks good and the backgrounds are well drawn however, there is little about the game that I found very visually striking, as even the broad looks at massive landscapes in the distance still managed to underwhelm. It has something to do with the art style and way in which things are drawn. Everything just looks a bit too plain and clean, as if the game lacks a distinct enough art style to be all that memorable for me.
Jotun lasted me a Sunday afternoon, and I cannot say I had a particularly good time with it. The dull traversal and piecemeal story occupy the majority of a game built around enjoyable boss battles with giant monsters. For as enjoyable as those battles can be, everything else felt like filler, and despite having great aspirations in elements beyond the boss battle, they just felt somewhat flat. Despite some mechanical hiccups, I think the game could be genuinely great if it focused more on its limited core strength, and spent less time on its abundant weaknesses.