A hand-drawn trek through Norse mythology as beautiful as it is punishing
Atmospheric games that don't hold your hand; Shadow of the Colossus
On a list of my favorite things only video games can do, that bit where the camera slowly zooms out to show you just how tiny you are compared to your surroundings is near the top. Games like Shadow of the Colossus go out of their way to make you feel insignificant next to ancient architectural structures or hulking beasts. But rather than feeling defeated, watching that camera pull out until my character is a mere dot on the television screen only serves to increase my resolve when I find these seemingly insurmountable challenges, and intensifies that feeling of victory once I accomplish my goal. It's a feeling that Jotun: Valhalla Edition revels in for the entirety of its campaign, and I absolutely love it.
Comparisons to Shadow of the Colossus abound, and it's a good starting point to explain Jotun, but it's a very different beast from that PlayStation 2 classic. Like Shadow of the Colossus, Jotun is about exploring a meticulously crafted world where combat is rarely seen outside of a handful of larger-than-life boss fights. But rather than telling a tale of deception and selfishness, Jotun spins a yarn of redemption, a Nordic celebration of valor, combat, and overcoming incredible odds to impress the gods.
Jotun follows Thora, a Viking warrior who died an unworthy death and finds herself in a state of limbo, unable to move on to Valhalla to aid Odin in battle during the inevitable coming of Ragnarok. Due to special circumstances which you'll learn as you play, the gods have given her one final chance to prove her worth. Moving through the astral plane of Ginnungagap, Thora will have to scour several different zones to collect runes in order to access and slay the five titular Jotun - elemental giants who don't take too kindly to interlopers.
All of this is told with a grace and confidence that escapes most games that attempt it. Conveyed entirely through hand-drawn art and subtitled Norwegian dialog, Jotun looks like a lost Don Bluth film, conveying its world and its gameplay through context rather than beating you over the head with tutorials and tool-tips. The animation is absolutely sumptuous, and the camera's not afraid to pull back as far as it can go to really let you soak in the enormous scale of everything on display.
The most obvious draw here is Jotun's boss fights, and combat is methodical, deliberate, requiring patience and a steady hand to persevere through it. But Jotun is more than just a difficult boss rush (even though one unlocks once you finish the story for the first time). The lead up to those explosive and impressive battles is perilous, contemplative, and full of surprises as you explore the beautiful and deadly lands that make up Norse mythology. One area might require you to surf down a maze of Yggdrasil's roots while dodging falling rocks; another might require that you skate across an unbelievably massive ice lake while outrunning a giant snake who keeps breaking through the surface in an attempt to make you its latest snack. What begins as a slow, uneventful jaunt punctuated by larger conflict slowly reveals itself as an entire world filled with unique challenges to overcome.
Jotun wants you to feel mighty, even when the challenges you face are quite literally 100 times your size, but it also wants you to reflect on its world, study its history, and appreciate its mythology. It's the kind of game that knows exactly what it wants to do, and executes it with beauty and precision. You may just be a humble Viking warrior attempting to impress the gods, but you're just as worthy as any of them - you just have to earn it.
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