Like a TV show finding its footing, I wasn’t overly impressed with Vikings: Wolves of Midgard to begin with. So much of it was familiar enough to easily pick up upon, yet it was also different enough to bother me in ways I couldn’t quite describe. But over time, I learned to take off my Diablo-tinted glasses and start appreciating Vikings for its own merits, and suddenly I found myself quite enamoured with it. Free of the expectations of trying to play ‘Diablo: Midgard’ or ‘Path of Vikings’, the efforts of the developers to create their own unique entry to the ARPG genre started to shine through.
Step 1: Assume identity of kickass Viking lady. Sensible clothing optional.
As an action-RPG, Vikings offers a unique setting that is heavily lathered in an engaging world thanks largely in part to its choice of lore, dealing with the always enjoyable Norse aesthetic. Cleaving through hordes of Dire Wolves, Jotun Giants and Trolls may make you feel like a rampaging Nordic badass, but you’ll soon be humbled when dealing with far more lethal Lava Giants, Jokul and the occasional boss. This is all fine however, because player power seems to develop at a reasonable enough rate that you never truly feel like you are powerless and anything that resembles a progression wall is often torn down by way of quick thinking and trying something different in your approach.
The game kicks off with a serious bummer for your character – your village has been pillaged, your clan have been hella murdered and to top it off the prophesised Fimbulwinter hath come. As fun as the word Fimbulwinter is (as many Norse words in the game are), its purpose is far less so, as it heralds the coming of Ragnarök – the fancy Norse word for the apocalypse. This means that everything you know and love is squarely up shit creek, but thankfully you are the chosen one – so after being elevated to the position of chieftain, you can pick yourself up by your leather boot straps (and bra straps, as I was playing a badass Viking lady) and start laying waste to the nerds that ruined your day.
Step 2: Devastate Dverg Champions. Yes that is a real word.
In a lot of my reviews, I am quick to talk of tired narratives, or stories that play it safe – and Vikings may be a prime target for both of these criticisms. But given that it is based on mythology that is steeped in thousands of years of retelling and interpretation, I feel it can safely be excused from not throwing a plot twist at me such as ‘you were a robot the entire time’, or ‘it was all the dream of a small child’. Instead you can heartily take unrepentant joy in progressing the story at precisely the pace the game requires, by way of blood and mayhem. In the end it’s the combat that serves as the vehicle required to take you on Viking’s journey.
The game feels as though it was meticulously crafted from the ground up to be played on a controller, idolising the concept of ‘hack and slay’ with quick ability buttons and repetitive mashing of the appropriate melee swings, with a safe dodge movement option thrown in for the sake of hitting all the right notes. Movement is responsive and works well, however the actual combat has its peaks and troughs. In most cases hit registration will feel on point, but there’s an unmistakable feeling that at times an impactful hit appears to whiff on an enemy, particularly when dealing with flying creatures. This can also happen with some spells/abilities to further fuel the odd frustration of being robbed of a ‘f*ck yeah’ moment. This isn’t helped by some aspects of the game’s design, where strikes and abilities, whether your own or the enemies’, don’t seem to sound or appear very impactful.
Step 3: Freeze to death. Again.
I will however praise the environment design – to a point. The variety of tilesets utilised, be they freezing fjords or poisonous worlds of legend, are visually engaging and make the act of repeating senseless violence just that little bit more refreshing. Vikings also takes a great deal of joy in its attempt to kill you simply with its game world, with the ‘exposure’ mechanic making sure that even the hottest Viking blood can eventually run cold. Freezing landscapes can at times be a tiny annoyance, but on occasion you will find yourself scrambling for cover as you slash your way through the frigid wasteland – and nothing is more humbling than a ‘badass Viking lady’ exclaiming, ‘Oh hey, I froze to death…again.’
The game’s boss encounters are enjoyable enough, though repetition in mechanics for quite a few of them do detract from the experience. Killing a boss mob, just to see his mate’s health refill to 100%, is demoralising no matter what you have done, but it is also a good enough excuse to activate your Viking berserk mode and hack away at their kneecaps. The interesting use of environments when dealing with bosses is also surprising at times, particularly with one douchebag actually being defeated by making him fall of his platform – where you then discover to great relish that he can’t swim. Not the most brutal of Viking victories, but definitely a satisfying one.
Ugh, Fire giants. How last week.
One sour point of the game that I cannot shake is the way loot is handled, with a fairly anemic spread of things to collect throughout the game’s campaign, causing the player to heavily lean on a clunky crafting system to seek the gear and stats you need. There are also times of strange disparities with gear, especially with regards to weapons where you’ll find yourself wielding an item that for all intents and purposes should not be working as well as it is, but for some reason it just continues to work. I equipped a ranged bow at the start of a level to see what ranged combat was like, only to steamroll the majority of the enemies from more than half a screen away. It left all of the skills and stat points I had dedicated to close-range hack ‘n’ slash open to questioning long after I had abandoned it.
I would also be remiss not to mention some of the odd bugs I encountered during the game, particularly with regards to quest checkpoints not completing or NPCs failing to activate. Many could be fixed with a reload to a prior checkpoint, which in most cases wasn’t all that inconvenient – but on occasion you may find yourself losing a fairly hefty amount of progress for the sake of moving on. I also encountered a boss who decided to stand mostly still, rotating on occasion to stare at me while I hacked at his legs until he died. At first I thought it may have been a mechanic that was soon to reveal itself (he was a big bastard after all), but my enthusiasm was entirely drained when I realised he was having an AI brain fart. I am mostly forgiving for this, at it is the studio’s first foray into the ARPG genre – their most popular IP prior to this being the ‘Tropico’ series.
Vikings: Wolves of Midgard is well worth a try for anyone who enjoys a hack ‘n’ slashy dungeon crawler. It offers fun and interesting Norse-themed enemies with a simple (but effective!) range of player abilities coupled with an engaging enough combat system that keeps you thinking. The few technical issues may prove frustrating for some, but it’s nothing that can’t be eliminated with a little TLC from the developers.
Reviewed on PS4