Jotun / Jotun: Valhalla Edition

A game by Thunder Lotus Games for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Wii U, originally released in 2015, with the Valhalla Edition released in 2016.
Jotun features a young woman named Thora – named after Thor – a Viking warrior who meets her end in a shipwreck, rather than in glorious combat as is celebrated in ancient Norse myth, and therefore she is unable to enter Valhalla. But after her death, she finds herself awakened in a green field wearing her armor and wielding her trusty axe. Nearby stands the great tree Yggdrasil, which connects the nine realms.

In this place, Thora is given a second chance to impress the gods by proving herself as a warrior, which she must to by defeating powerful jotun, giant Norse elementals that are summoned by activating runes. Inspired by Shadow of the Colossus, these creatures tower over her, and battles are long and tough. There are five jotun to be fought before opening the way to Thora’s final trial, and her story is told by the heroine in a thick Icelandic voice.

Thora has only her axe to fight the jotun and other dangers that she faces along the way. She is able to perform a slow 2-hit swipe combo, or a more powerful – and much slower – overhead strike, which takes several seconds to execute. This deliberate pace helps to build tension in the battles against the enormous slow-moving jotun, as players must make the best of every opportunity to cause damage to these creatures.

In addition, Thora has a dodge roll which allows her to avoid minor damage and steer clear of huge strikes from the jotun - many of which can kill her in two or three hits - and avoiding these crushing blows is a key strategy in all jotun encounters. Lastly, when attacking from a dodge roll, Thora has a lunge attack which thrusts her axe out in front of her, allowing her to get a bit of extra reach. This can be handy when attempting to get in a quick strike against a temporarily disabled opponent.

There is a short cooldown period after using he dodge roll, which is important to keep in mind when attempting to avoid attacks that have a large coverage area. Additionally, the dodge roll can be used to interrupt any of Thora’s attacks, which is useful given their long windup times.

The thing that immediately stands out about the game is its hand-drawn illustrated visuals, which give the game the appearance of being an interactive cartoon. When Dragon’s Lair first hit the arcades in the 80’s, a number of folks looked on it as the future of video games. But laserdisc games had very strict limitations on the interactions allowed by the player, limiting them to simple directional controls and button presses that played out canned animation sequences.

In Jotun, on the other hand, the player retains full control over the character. Thora and her enemies are fully animated in eight directions (there are some exceptions), allowing combat to be played out across large arenas with free movement, and offering a tremendous sense of scale. Boss animations are fairly detailed and often quite intricate, although they appear at a lower framerate than an actual cartoon for obvious reasons.

Throughout the adventure, the scale of the game is regularly demonstrated by having the camera pull way back, zooming out to the point that the player character is just a tiny blip on the screen. Often this is done to show off some huge background element, such as the Yggdrasil tree or some impossibly large creature. This also gives the player a better view of the landscape, as the default view is fairly tight, and the map system only shows the general layout of the level and not the player’s position in it.

However, scale sometimes works against the player as the camera occasionally zooms out during boss encounters, making it difficult for the player to determine his precise position, which is further exacerbated when the player character is positioned behind the boss and represented only by a shadow. This is particularly true in the battle against Fé, a towering warrior with a wide attack range and a horde of dwarf guards who surround the player and attack.

Even when the camera is fully zoomed in, it can be difficult to locate Thora amidst the throng of attacking foes, but it often becomes impossible when the camera zooms out, leaving the player to madly dodge roll away from danger and hope he can spot his avatar amongst the tiny moving forms. Furthermore, the camera zoom effect often precedes devastating attacks from the boss (which can kill some of the dwarves, thankfully), and the player needs to avoid these attacks in order to win the battle.

Unlike Shadow of the Colossus or Titan Souls, there is somewhat more to the game than simply seeking out and defeating bosses. Each jotun can only be accessed after the player activates a pair of runes (with the exception of the first jotun, which requires only one), and these are found by exploring vast landscapes, some of which contain enemies.

By thoroughly exploring each area – and using the map on the pause menu as a basic guide – players can locate Ithunn’s golden apples, which permanently increase Thora’s maximum health. In addition, payers may find statues that grant Thora limited-use powers from the gods, including a healing ability, an auto-blocking shield, and a higher speed of movement and attacks, among others.

Each ability can only be used twice (some can be used thrice by finding additional statues) before it must be recharged by visiting a checkpoint-style pool containing Mimir’s head, which is also the only place where the player’s health is restored. As such, it’s very important that the player makes diligent use of these abilities while battling jotun, especially given that their attacks change and become faster in the back half of each fight.

Some areas feature only basic environmental puzzles, often tasking the player with putting together several pieces of ancient Norse lore before the way to the rune is opened. In other areas, the player must deal with some simple enemies, most of which fall with a single swing of Thora’s axe.

There are some occasional dangers from the environment as well, including ground that cracks and lights up with lava, plants that give off poisonous spores, and cold blasts of wind that must be avoided by standing behind vertical walls of rock.

Most of these areas are fairly straightforward, and players should have little difficulty in simply walking from one end to the other to locate the runes. The vagueness of the map can occasionally lead players astray – and a few areas are purposely labyrinthine – but players will want to explore all avenues in order to find the aforementioned life-extending apples and power-giving god statues. The player is free to return to the hub area at any time by accessing the menu, and these areas may be played in any order and reentered at any time.

Defeating jotun requires that the player pay close attention to the telegraphs leading up to each attack. Given the size of the bosses, there are generally very clear visual indicators as to what the boss is going to do next, including shadows on the ground to indicate where an attack is going to land. Even with these long telegraphs, the player must be careful as it can take two or three seconds to get out of the range of these huge attacks, and the player must move back in quickly to deliver as much damage as possible, as bosses are stunned after each major attack.

Since these large attacks are so devastating, players must avoid them as much as possible, or they risk losing the battle in just a few strikes. Further complicating matters is that some attacks push the player back a great distance, sometimes shoving him into other dangers. For instance, in the battle against Kaunan, a number of lava fissures are created in the floor, which cause constant damage if the player steps on them. These fissures are generally easy to avoid and are in place to restrict the player’s movement and add complexity to the battle. However, if the player finds himself beneath Kaunan’s great sword, he will lose a sizeable chunk of his health and may be pushed back into a field of these fissures, with his health slowly drained away as he attempts to get free of them.

This single mistake can drain two-thirds of the player’s health in a single stroke… and there are a few places where the player may find himself bounced between obstacles and quickly drained of his health, such as having a rock land on his head, which pushes the player character back into life-draining lava. It is also possible to get knocked back into solid objects if the player gets hit while pinned against a wall, forcing the player to slowly dodge roll out of the obstruction.

Jotun was developed by Thunder Lotus Games, based in Montreal, Québec in Canada, with game design by William Dubé, art and animation by Alexandre Boyer, and music by Max LL. This was the studio’s first commercial release and was partially funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign, and funding from the Canadian Media Fund and the Montreal Inc. Foundation. The studio went on to create Sundered.