Jotun is a hand-drawn action and exploration game developed by Thunder Lotus Games; it’s also one that IGM has been following closely since the Kickstarter campaign in 2014. The premise is a simple one: Thora, a Viking who died ingloriously, is sent to Norse purgatory to prove herself to the gods in order to enter Valhalla. The journey itself is fairly short, but the challenge factor is high, giving Jotun a leg up where it might otherwise feel a bit light on content; with the visuals factored in, Jotun is quite an impressive game.
The story begins with Thora being told that she must defeat a series of jotun (Norse gods) in order to prove herself worthy to enter Valhalla. The player is then dropped in front of Yggdrasil, a giant tree that, in Norse mythology, connects the nine worlds to each other. A network of roots, poisonous mushrooms, and blue healing flowers await the player as they run through to activate three Dis (guardian spirits) in order to gain access to The Void within Yggdrasil, where the journey truly begins. The first enemy faced is Draugr, a guardian of The Barrow Mound; players should enjoy the lower-level challenge he presents while they can, because it only gets more difficult from there on out.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the gods and other worlds, a bit more about Jotun‘s mechanics and gameplay is in order. Thora’s only weapon is a large hand-axe, which she wields using two attack styles. The first is a basic attack (X on a 360 controller), and the second is a special attack, which takes longer but deals quite a bit more damage (Y). Throughout the levels where Thora must collect runes to unlock jotun, she comes across special abilities by a number of Norse beings, including Loki, Thor, Frigg, Freya, Odin, and Heimdall. These abilities can be unlocked using the controller’s bumpers to select, then B to use. Further, Idunn’s apples are scattered throughout levels, and each apple gives a boost to the player’s total available HP. Careful observation of an enemy’s attack pattern is needed in order to utilize these skills effectively, as wasting them can mean a quick death.
After defeating Draugr, players are faced with Jera, the Nature jotun. Jera isn’t messing around – she slams her fists into the ground to try to smash Thora, emits a cloud of poison from which there is no escape, and calls forth a small army of root tentacles to help her smack the player down. I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time trying to discern her patterns enough to defeat her. Given that only one rune is gathered in The Barrow Mound, and that Draugr was somewhat easy, having Jera be the first introduction to Jotun‘s true colors is appropriate, somehow, as it sets the tone for the rest of the game. That tone can be summed up as, “don’t get too comfortable, mortal.”
From Jera, players are given access to The Void, where they can select the next region they’d like to conquer from the remaining four worlds: Cave, Winter, Storm, and Fire. In each world, there are two runes that must be obtained, and each rune lies in its own level. Each level has a unique mechanic to make it challenging, such as root slides in The Roots of Yggdrasil that must be navigated with the use of elevators to backtrack. Not all of the roots lead to the same place, and a lot of this backtracking is sometimes necessary to obtain items. The Nine Rivers level features high winds that will damage Thora if she is unable to find shelter. Featured mythical beings in the nine worlds include Jormundgandr (Midgard Serpent), Vethrfolnir (falcon of Yggdrasil), and Nidhogg (dragon trapped in Yggdrasil’s roots). One thing I can say for Thunder Lotus is that they did their research, and the result is a multi-faceted world where if the player takes the time to explore the worlds properly, a rich tapestry of stories is revealed.
The music in Jotun is appropriately epic, resembling some of the best movie soundtracks of the past two decades. Drums provide a fighting rhythm, with what sounds like a kantele providing the melody. A backdrop of stringed instruments gives tension to the fights and adventures. The soundtrack, composed by Max LL, is available as a separate purchase, and I would highly recommend it to those who enjoy the music of the game’s trailer. The game sounds themselves are what one would expect, but just because they’re common doesn’t make them ordinary. They’re well-timed, and give great feedback at times when Thora might not be visible (which is true for a number of jotun battles). The muted game is very pretty, with hand-animated sequences and watercolor backgrounds; the unmuted game is gorgeous. The soundtrack is basically gilding the lily, but I’m not complaining.
The main draw of Jotun are the battles with the jotun themselves. Jera (Nature), Fé (Cave), Isa (Winter), Hagalaz (Storm), and Kaunan (Fire) each have unique attacks and patterns that seem designed to throw the player off their guard. Each jotun has a basic attack, a secondary special attack, and a devastating attack that usually involves conjuring of some sort. In the order listed (which is the order suggested by the developers for this review), each jotun is progressively more difficult, and the gathering of runes begins to feel like a reprieve from a constant battering. It took me a minimum of three deaths to figure out the patterns of each boss, as I would get a little further each time, and these patterns span the entire length of the jotun’s HP. The game requires a large amount of patience, and as I mentioned in the opening, sometimes the worlds themselves feel a bit empty compared to the jotun; this is not unwelcome.
Fé, the Cave jotun, carries a large shield to carry out her main attack, which is to slam her shield into the ground to attempt to smash Thora, while also calling an army of dwarves to her side to aid in the assault. When she screams, the dwarves begin to chase Thora, and at one point I had so many after me that I panicked and ran into a corner, which is not an advisable strategy. As a tip, she can throw her shield in a ranged attack, which often takes out a number of the dwarves. Isa, the Storm jotun, relies on a charging attack, which can make avoiding him very difficult. He breathes a whirlwind of icy air, and as the battle continues, storm winds increase to blow Thora around the arena, making avoidance and attacking quite difficult.
Hagala, the Storm jotun, calls on lightning strikes to electrocute Thora, while sending out a beam of lightning in front of her to discourage front attacks. She also teleports, and with each progressive hit, can activate one of 5 power sources that emit small static charges that cause damage to Thora over time. Hagala nearly made me ragequit – she can be defeated, but prepare for a lot of frustration. The final jotun, Kanuan (Fire), felt like a combination of Jera and Fé, with striking attacks (using the Ragnarök Blade), thunderous calling of meteor showers, and the creation of fissures in the ground which make navigation very difficult. Dodging was used liberally with him, and this battle was, by far, the longest I completed.
Finally, after the five jotun are defeated, Thora is challenged by Odin himself. He makes liberal use of Gugnir, his spear, by throwing it at Thora often. When his HP begins to drain, he becomes enraged, summoning even more Gugnir spears, which must be dodged in order to avoid damage. For the purposes of the review, I fought Odin, but failed spectacularly to impress him. Again, it’s not impossible – but Odin is a challenge unlike any other in the game. I have a feeling there are some folks out there who will enjoy it, immensely.
Overall, Jotun is a well-designed game with very few flaws. Thora’s base speed, only increased by a short ability, was an issue, as exploration seemed to drag a bit in certain areas; boss battles were made just that much more difficult because timing is so imperative, and Thora can only go so quickly. Her powerful attack has the same effect, being so slow as to demand precision with use, else the opportunity to strike would pass. Aside from that (and perhaps because of it), Jotun‘s challenge level offers the kind of difficulty not often seen in games, today, as bosses are typically seen as a stepping stone to the end. In Jotun, the boss battles are the point, and that point is made quite soundly.
Pick up Jotun, released today for Windows, Mac, and Linux, on Steam for $13.49 USD until October 3, when the price will return to $14.99. The soundtrack is available as DLC for $8.99 USD for the same period of time (regular price $9.99).