Vikings are cool. It’s official. From the TV series Vikings, the Nords of Skyrim, Thor in the MCU, the Banner Saga series, to Neil Gaiman’s new book Norse Mythology – all cool. (I’ve also checked out Viking museums in Keflavik and York. So I’m like, practically an expert).
Naturally, I’m excited to see Kalypso’s take on the setting in their new action-RPG Vikings: The Wolves of Midgard. You play the chieftain of clan Ulfung, ostracised Viking warriors. The action begins with a devastating attack on your village. As the defacto leader, you must rebuild your settlement, get vengeance, and save Midgard (Earth during the time of the Vikings) from certain doom.
For the Glory of Asgard!
You start by customizing your male or female Viking. Next, you choose one of five Norse deities as your character’s primary deity, which defines your class. To become a Mage, for example, you select wise Odin, or for a Warrior, you pick Thor. Following tricky Loki as your deity makes you a dual-wielding Rogue, one-handed Tyr represents “sword and board” (a sword and shield combo), and, to be a Ranger, you choose ice mistress Skathi.
During actual gameplay, donating blood sacrifices from slain foes at the village altar will level up and unlock ‘gifts’ (abilities) from each god. The set up is simple, allows for flexibility between roles, and feels true to Norse mythology. You need to have a god’s favored weapon equipped to use his or her gifts, but you can switch weapon sets quickly for versatility.
After making my shield-maiden look suitably fierce with tattoos and a cool haircut, I’m ready to enter Midgard.
The Steam preview build I played only supports controllers. But as Diablo III has already proven, they’re a natural fit for this style of gameplay. Combat controls like move, attack, roll, and various special attacks all flow seamlessly.
Admittedly, I confused the Left Bumper and Left Trigger buttons at times, but that’s not the game’s fault. I’d simply forgotten HOW to use my controller, due to being a hardened keyboard-and-mouse jockey. Inventory and skills management are the only areas in which a mouse would seem to have the advantage. Navigating the interface with an analog stick is a bit fiddly for my tastes.
The game world is authentically cold. You’ll feel the chill factor while rushing from campfire to campfire to avoid freezing to death. Suffering from exposure is a clever mechanic that adds an element of urgency to the action. But in practice, having to find the next campfire can seem like a chore – especially during long bouts against foes. My character does a lot of rolling around campfires, dodging giant feet. In fairness, subsequent areas of the game take place in warmer climates and thus don’t rely on the exposure mechanic.
Thwacking your way through hordes of beasties is very satisfying, as is defeating them by blasting the platforms they were standing on. But players used to spamming bagfuls of health potions – à la Diablo – will have to learn a new strategy. Here, you heal with a limited-use health charm. This forces you to strategically conserve heals between visits to the healing altars spread across the landscape.
Rather than missions, the story is divided into raid campaigns. Successful raids unlock new options and NPCs for your clan. Raid objectives are clearly laid out and thematically appropriate. One such raid sends you out to attack a rival clan’s village. The option to either conquer other settlements for future tithes or pillage for instant cash is a nice touch. Beneath those Norse flavorings, though, the structure for raids is fairly typical: sweep through mobs, complete your objectives, and kill a boss at the end.
Happily, the first boss fight against an icy demon called a Jokul requires more engagement than simply squaring up against a big guy with a lot of hit-points. The Jokul’s arena is contained, so you can’t just roll away to the nearest healing altar. It also utilizes the environment, with the demon summoning nasties and pelting you with icy AoE attacks from atop his frozen throne. All the while, you have to dance back into the shifting warm areas – lest frostbite set in. It keeps you on your frostbitten toes.
12 More Wolf Pelts!
The campaign also throws some resource gathering quests at you. Not the most exciting quest type, but the game treats them knowingly. “Only a dozen more until I can be done with this pointless chore,” my shield maiden pipes up. One has to wonder: do we really need pointless chores? Gathering quests aren’t mandatory, but they do provide valuable materials for upgrading your village and crafting equipment.
In addition to the standard campaign and its multiple difficulty levels, an additional Valhalla mode adds permadeath to the campaign. A survival mode, ‘Trial of the Gods,’ is accessible from your village, pitting you against waves of enemies for the favor of each god. The full game will support online co-op on all platforms and LAN on PC as well.
Even in the preview build I played, Vikings is a very polished product. It looks and sounds just as good as its competition from Blizzard. Perhaps this flavor of fantasy is just different enough to provide more meat on its bones than a standard loot ’em up, even though the underlying mechanics are the same.
The historical fantasy setting lends itself to hack and slash Action-RPG gameplay as easily as it already has with sprawling sandbox epics (Lords of the Fallen) or tactical turn-based combat (The Banner Saga). In fact, this style is such a natural fit for the genre that one wonders why it hasn’t happened before.
Hopefully Vikings: Wolves of Midgard will fully deliver on its premise when it launches in the coming weeks. If this game is part of a larger trend of modern fantasy riffs on Norse mythology, I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I demand more of the same.
Vikings: Wolves of Midgard will land Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, and Linux on March 24.Steam preview build provided by the publisher.