Ragnarok is a pretty bad time for a viking. If you’re not hot on your ancient nordic lore, Ragnarok is no less than the end of days. With it comes natural disasters, a huge battle, and the deaths of Odin, Thor, Loki, and all their other godly friends. A pretty good setting for a videogame, then. Enter Vikings – Wolves of Midgard, an isometric RPG from the small team at Games Farm, which casts you as a norse warrior attempting to live through such a catastrophic period.
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Vikings is a notably stripped-back action-RPG. There are no loot drops, your character doesn’t level up, and you have access to just a handful of abilities. The level design is distinctly linear: while you are free to backtrack and meander around as much as you please, the minimap makes it clear you’re exploring a network of corridors as opposed to an open world.
That network leads you to your ultimate destination – in my hands-on time, a boss battle – and the road there is a marathon of death. The frosty environment has little in the form of landmarks, so it’s purely down to the combat to keep you engaged. Thankfully there’s a lot of that, and the systems do offer a welcome level of challenge.
Your viking’s skills are assigned to each face button and trigger on the controller (this game really wants you to use a pad, to the extent that the preview build actually requires one), and consume stamina when used. The further to the right of the hotbar they are, the more stamina they drain. But combat demands a fair amount of dodge rolling, which too uses stamina. This forces you to make quick split-second decisions: should you pull off an attack that could be a finishing blow, or roll out the way before an enemy carves out the last of your health?
There’s a clear Dark Souls influence in the Estus flask-like health system. You can heal yourself four times before needing to recharge your charm, and while recharge locations are not particularly rare, it does mean that larger engagements demand a little more concentration and strategy. It no doubt becomes the most vital element of the game when played on the permadeath hardcore mode.
A certain amount of pattern recognition is required when fighting enemies, but you can easily get ahead by simply hurling attacks and healing at the right moment. The wolf-riding goblins that make up the majority of my hands-on enemies go down easily, but there’s more dodging and strafing required to tackle the nordic giants who kick and swing with clumsy weight. The final boss of the area – a frost golem-like creature – can summon multiple area-of-effect attacks at once, requiring you to quickly alternate between attack and retreat. It’s all pretty typical action-RPG fare.
More interesting is Fimbulwinter; a deathly freezing wind that blows across much of the area in the demo quest. The longer you stay in it, the higher an exposure meter creeps, and as your character becomes covered in frost the cold begins to nibble away at your health bar. To fend it off you must find bonfires. They’re scattered around the map just frequently enough, but the system does add a welcome amount of pressure to combat; if you can’t dispatch enemies swiftly enough and reach a fire in time, then it’s off to Valhalla with you.
While the health and exposure system add some welcome elements to Vikings’ combat, it still remains to be seen if it’s quite enough to keep the whole game afloat. Without the constant loot drops of Diablo, battles are the whole experience, as opposed to a means to outfit your character in ever-more-elaborate gear. But the combat feels more like Blizzard’s trademark smash-and-grab than Dark Souls’ considered approach, and over the course of a full campaign the lack of inventory fulfillment may damage its appeal.
That’s not to say that Vikings has no character progression at all. New weapons and gear are awarded for defeating bosses, and chests around the world offer up materials that can be used in a fairly standard crafting system to create better murder tools. And while your viking doesn’t do traditional levelling up, each kill provides blood which can be collected and poured into an altar back at home base. Sacrifices unlock new skills on a web-like skill tree, essentially making blood an XP resource you need to remember to pick up after every slaughter.
Your progress also sees your home camp grow and improve as your clan of Wolves expands, providing a visual motif for your advancement through the game. It’s here you’ll revisit between quests to get the local smithy to hammer out a new sword for you.
For publisher Kalypso, Vikings is a very different game to what they’ve typically published. It’s a far cry from the Tropico-like strategy games they’re almost exclusively associated with, and is an attempt to diversify their catalogue. From what I’ve seen of Vikings I’m not convinced it can overshadow any of their RTS picks, but its solid (if uninspired) hack-and-heal gameplay has potential to grab those who enjoy a straightforward adventure.