I must admit, I did not enjoy my first moments with Jotun. A lot of that had to do with my preconceptions for how games should show me where to go, so that I can get right to the point. But that’s not what Jotun wants to be. The game encourages you to explore its nooks and crannies to uncover the secrets hidden within and forces you to memorize the land around you. However, as I began to settle in, I slowly gained an appreciation for the kind of game Jotun is.
Granted, I think it is fair to say that Jotun’s game world can be a tad empty than most would like, as there are multiple instances where I found myself wandering between areas that looked a little too identical to one another. One the other hand, it could be argued that this is an intentional design choice in an attempt to evoke the loneliness that your disgraced Viking heroine, Thora, is supposed to endure on her journey to redemption.
Without any maps or way points to guide you, it can be tough to gauge where you are in relation to where you need to go, which can make exploration a bit tedious. But it’s the moments where you do happen upon a monument that dwarfs your character in size or a statue that grants you a hidden power where the world comes alive. In these moments, the cinematic camera pulls upwards to reveal the grand scope of everything around you and you really begin to understand what the Jotun experience is all about.
Exploring the environment is meant to be optional, taken in at the player’s leisure. However, there are plenty of tangible rewards for venturing off the beaten path; rewards that can end up meaning the difference between success and failure when it really matters. Scattered throughout the world are trees of life with hanging golden fruit that enhance your life bar and statues of various gods like Thor and Freyja that grant the player unique abilities.
The best part about Jotun is easily its boss encounters. You might say the game’s emphasis on boss encounters takes inspiration from the likes of Shadow of the Colossus and to an extent, you would be right about that. But the difference here is that the puzzle in defeating the boss isn’t figuring out where its weak point is, but when to strike without getting your health bar blitzkrieged by the waves of spawning enemy minions or the boss’ area effect abilities, both of which are quick ways to another inglorious death.
I got my hands on a Beta copy of the game, so I was able to explore two unique areas that had their own bosses. The first area is probably well known to those who have been following the game up to this point, Nilfheim, home of the Frost Giants and the Winter Jotun boss encounter. But the area that stood out to me the most wasn't the boss itself, but a level leading up to the fight called Jormungand’s Lake.
For those of you who aren’t up on your Norse mythology, Jormungand is a giant sea serpent that lives in the waters around Midgard and in this particular level, you are tasked with traversing across a slippery frozen lake in order to find a relic to unlock a giant door that leads to the Winter Jotun. As you explore the area, a massive silhouette moves swiftly and menacingly beneath your feet and you quickly feel an authentic sense of unease. At random points, the serpent ascends to the surface, breaks through the ice, and causes massive damage to Thora if you don’t move her out of the way in time. This entire area was legitimately and masterfully terrifying, slowly building up the anticipation before delivering the payoff with a beast that you immediately recognize that you are no match for.
The second boss in the Beta was a Jotun known as Fe, and was by far the most difficult segment of the entire experience. Fe herself wasn’t too difficult to fight, but it was her ability to summon hordes of minions to block the path between you and her that made things challenging. At the climax of the battle, there was easily 30-40 enemies on the screen at the same time, some of whom could throw deflectable projectiles at you. Even more impressive was the fact that the game never experienced any slow down, so the difficulty was never unfair even with so much going on at once. Between balancing Fe’s attacks, navigating through melee-oriented enemies and deflecting incoming projectiles, there was a lot to contend with at once. Suffice it to say, I had to retry this battle about 20 times before finally getting the victory screen.
Difficulty aficionados should find a lot to like with Jotun. I myself am excited to see all of the different ways the developers use their cinematic camera to enhance exploration and what other Jormungand-like surprises they may have lurking around every corner. Of course, the boss battles are the meat of the experience, and the Beta is proof enough that each one will be both unique and challenging.
Jotun is due to release in full sometime in September 2015 for PC and Mac, though no official date has been given.