Vikings: Wolves of Midgard - Review  

By the Wisps of Odin's Once-Glorious Beard
by Pascal Tekaia

Less than 20 Hours
+ Great use of environmental and particle effects
+ Intuitive and simple combat system
- Story comes across as a bit of a placeholder
- Variety of unnecessary gameplay mechanics
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   Combining the isometric hack-and-slash gameplay similar to that of well-loved titles like Diablo with the rich world of Norse mythology is a concept that sounds amazing on paper. When this concoction is further sweetened with RPG tropes such as multiple skill trees and classes for character development, a narrative spread over three distinct campaigns, and some light resource management, it almost seems like a winning recipe that can't help but be an intriguing gaming experience. Perhaps this was a trap Games Farm, the developers of Vikings: Wolves of Midgard, fell into, as there is just something missing from the overall experience, some key ingredient to bind it all together and provide it with a heart and soul of its own. As it stands, the game has trouble moving past its by-the-numbers trappings, with a combat system and story that simply scream average.

   Vikings is a simple revenge tale, focusing on one member of the Ulfung tribe who goes on a quest to slay the particularly vile and nasty ice giant Grimnir, who laid waste to the Ulfung's village and decimated its people. Taking control of this lone survivor, players get to decide whether to play as a brutish Warrior or the resilient Shieldmaiden, and which deity from the Norse pantheon to follow, like Odin, Thor, and Loki. Choosing a divine protector merely determines the character's preferred fighting style; Tyr, for example, is the right deity to choose for single-handed weapons combat, while Skathi grants a boon to those wielding a bow and arrow. Each god has his or her own skill tree, and while all skill trees are available to spend points in throughout the game, greater bonuses can come from staying true to one. In any case, the gods themselves don't put in any appearances, even when the story's stakes rise dramatically, and the majority of the game is spent dealing with the lesser beings, the mythological equivalent of cannon fodder, a real missed opportunity.

   Only about half of the campaign is spent in the frozen wastes and mythical realms typically associated with Norse mythology, like Midgard, Utgard, and Niflheim. In an effort to draw the game out, rather than come up with authentic twists and turns that bend the story in new and surprising directions, the developers have chosen to see the protagonist get caught up in the midst of an invasion from a foreign legion, so the story inexplicably puts on the brakes every now and then to send the Viking off into wholly different environments, like sandy beaches and the forts and fortresses of the enemy nation. These sections don't add a whole lot to the muddied narrative, and exist solely to throw in more content to slash through; ironically, the Shieldmaiden frequently loses her patience whenever an NPC tries to explain the need for yet another plot point to her, exclaiming that it doesn't matter, as long as there are plenty of enemies to kill.

Enemy models feature interesting design and nice detail. If the camera would only get close enough to see it. Enemy models feature interesting design and nice detail. If the camera would only get close enough to see it.

   Where the story isn't exactly designed as a thrill-a-minute ride, the environments and level design don't add a lot of excitement to the mix either. The majority of stages are vast, and uncovering every nook and cranny of some took nearly an hour apiece. But the outdoor nature of the majority of locations just doesn't lend itself to clever level design; frozen wastes and boggy marshes, often filled with low-tier meat for the grinder, are repetiitve by design, and even interior cave systems often fail to add much variety to the mix. The most interesting locations are the human siege forts and fortresses, where buildings give way to fenced-in yards, and merchant's stalls and carts laden with goods line the narrower pathways. Some of the harsher environments, like the frozen fjords or boiling-hot mountain dwellings of the fire giants, threaten the Ulfung avenger with additional damage from elemental exposure, if remaining out in the open for too long. There are, however, safe zones strewn about the map where the protagonist can recover by a crackling fire or find relief from the heat under a magical elemental shield.

   As is so often the case with this type of game, mastering the combat system comes down to one simple skill: being able to press the X button. Whether long range or up close and personal, there are few foes that cannot be felled by ordinary blows from bog-standard weaponry. The Ulfung warrior practically wades through a proverbial sea of low-level imps, birds, and crabs, with larger giants and yotun being able to soak up a good bit more damage before succumbing. But one way or another, wailing on the X button is almost always a sure-fire strategy for success, with the occasional dodge roll thrown in to get out of harm's way. Level-end bosses, on the other hand, require a bit more finesse, though are by no means particularly challenging. The first time through the game will probably be a breeze for most players, with the joy of combat coming not from besting clever adversaries but from the sheer bloodlust of brutally slicing and dicing one's way to Ragnarok.

   There are a few enemies that manage to turn the table on the player, whether due to being large and armored, having far-reaching attacks, or otherwise being able to resist the normal onslaught of melee swipes and stabs. This is where the special abilities purchased from the skill tree come in handy. Most opponents that are shielded against physical damage are highly susceptible to magical attacks. But here, too, Vikings prefers quantity over quality, and before long the player will have each button mapped to a different ability, most of which will only be rarely, if ever, used. It's much more likely that each player gets used to one or two magical attacks, which can do a great deal of damage if increased to their maximum levels, eventually one-shotting even some of the game's tougher opponents. Another feature that gets even less use is a rage ability, which can be activated for a limited time once the rage meter has been filled via combat. Like the extraneous magical abilities, there is just too little use to activate rage mode, as it just adds a little more heft to blows that are usually strong enough on their own already.

   Of course, the player character is also constantly growing stronger over the course of the campaign. Each and every kill, in addition to restoring a fraction of the Ulfung's health, fills up an on-screen orb with blood, which can be offered up at special altars once filled for a level increase. Gaining a level like this lets the player increase a base stat by a point and awards two skill points to activate or upgrade available nodes on the skill trees. Finally, slain foes will drop plenty of loot to beef up the Viking's offense and defense, some of which can also have magical runes engraved into special slots. The majority of gear, however, is simply sold at the smithy between missions; while the village blacksmith and armorer also sell weapons and armor, it is always far inferior to what is freely available as random combat drops.

Battles are filled with special effects from attacks. Battles are filled with special effects from attacks.

   The developers have included another handful of gameplay features, though none of them do much to elevate the final product beyond its simple hack-and-slash premise. Being sent back through previously-played levels, only this time with the goal of killing a certain number of enemies ad nauseam, is as exciting in practice as it sounds, and grinds the already slow-paced narrative to a total standstill. Still, there are times when players are literally forced to do just that to gather resources like wood or iron, which are needed to upgrade the shops and other facilities in the Ulfung village hub. This isn't simply an optional undertaking, as progressing the story at certain points requires, for instance, the shipwright to be a high-enough level to build ships capable of accessing a new location. These are tedious and unnecessary roadblocks that slow progression simply for the sake of doing so. The repetitiveness of rerunning entire levels is in addition to the bits and sections of stages that are already copied and pasted, for all the variety between locations, into the design of others.

   Vikings does throw some pretty nice environmental and particle effects up on the screen, to give it some credit. From choppy, storm-driven waves breaking on a rocky shore to a host of Tomtar, gnome-like pests who usually appear in force, literally bursting forth from the snowy ground in sprays of powder while the Ulfung is busy smashing their huts to splinters, there are some nice visuals to feast one's eyes upon. Lightning flashes, magical shields, sparks erupting from an enemy's attempts to stomp the Ulfung into the ground, sprays of blood, shards of ice, and blasts of flame inundate the screen almost constantly. Enemy models, too, could hold interest competently, but the caveat with all of this is the fact the game is often zoomed to a pretty high degree, often taking away from the awe that the graphics, especially the creature design, could otherwise have held. Instead, the camera will occasionally zoom in for a flashy, over-the-top slow-motion kill. Still, the multitude of magical and combat effects is so pervasive and varied that it made it easy to forgive not being able to view everything as up close and personal as I would've liked.

   A large chunk of the music, while thematically fitting the Norse flavor of the game, comes off as a little generic. There's nothing wrong with music being more ambient rather than taking center stage, but the only track that really piques much interest is the title screen music, which features presumably authentic Nordic chanting, growling, and wailing. Voice work is similarly non-descript — not bad just not very good — with the exception of the old crone narrator who mainly comes in at the beginning and end of each mission, and the hilariously over-the-top gung ho Shieldmaiden. Much like with the visuals, however, the effects work surrounding the skirmish of combat is where it's at audibly, with multiple different sources mixing together the clank of steel on steel, lots of squishy tearing of flesh, all manner of arcane effects for friend and foe alike, as well as varied shouts of battle and of dying. Combat may be simple in execution, but far more complex in its soundtrack.

   Vikings: Wolves of Midgard manages to provide some fun for those who know what they're getting into. Simple yet serviceable combat and a competent graphical presentation make for a game that is as easy to handle as it is to look at. Its multitude of extraneous features, however, fail to add much engaging and compelling to the mix; resource management and town-building, multiple skill trees, repeatable hunt maps, and a rage combat ability can all safely be ignored. Though it has a lengthy campaign and relatively low challenge, it never really manages to rise past the basic thrill of its combat, and will disappoint those looking for a deep, satisfying story or anything beyond the hack-and-slash loot-a-thon it is.

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