Vikings: Wolves of Midgard Review
Vikings is the first game by Games Farm that I’ve actually played through, but I’ve owned Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition (alternatively known as Kult: Heretic Kingdoms) and its sequel, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, since early 2015. Shadows is a strange story, having been half-released at launch with the second half being promised to come for free to previous owners at some point later on. As such, I was waiting for the game to release fully so that I could run through both games in the series back to back. Then the game’s publisher went bankrupt. That’d be the end of the story for most games, but Games Farm unexpectedly went to bat for Shadows and got the rights so that they could continue developing it on the side while they also worked on Vikings: Wolves of Midgard. Obviously it’s best for this site and my deep, passionate love of harshly critiquing every game’s flaws to avoid being impressed by developer behavior, but we’re talking about the kind of rare post-launch support that’s previously only been seen from the likes of CD Projekt Red. Needless to say, I wanted this game to be good. Before you consider that a disclaimer that I’m going to play softball with Vikings and ignore its flaws, however, please note that I also wanted Dreamfall Chapters to be good. That didn’t stop me from viciously tearing into it, and Vikings certainly has flaws of its own that I’m similarly unwilling to overlook. Overall, Vikings is an enjoyable game with environments that are destructible enough to be weirdly satisfying and gameplay that’s entertaining enough to carry it (provided you have a gamepad), but it lacks any kind of narrative weight and begins to run out of ideas for varied boss fights toward the end.
Things happen because of reasons, therefore kill everything
The writers were clearly trying to build up this whole epic thing involving vikings and giants and Ragnarok that gives you a reason to push forward, but all of this is merely an excuse to send your character, chief of a viking tribe called the Ulfong, to various places to kill everything that moves. The funny thing is that they seem to have thrown in the towel halfway through and decided to instead make the reasons as ridiculous as they could manage, such as when a group of knights you’ve allied with needs you to go fetch a wizard who’s in a forest they’ve vowed never to enter. Your playable character also sees the effects of this transformation, going from a bloodthirsty warrior to a sarcastic quip machine unable to pass up on occasional observations that they’re the only person who seems to actually be doing anything for the cause. The end result of all this is that things quickly take a turn for the predictable, such as when you’re sent to negotiate with a bunch of fire giants who are non-hostile. The game is about beating things to death with a stick/sword/axe/whatever else, so it’s not going to be any huge surprise when negotiations rapidly devolve into you murdering a bunch of fire giants.
It’s fortunate that this predictability happens to coincide with the aforementioned quips that remind me of what made Blood Knights so charming. I mean, these characters are on the verge of Ragnarok—the event that causes the death of the very gods the Ulfong worship—and yet it’s not long until their hard-faced viking exterior cracks and they’re unable to take things too seriously anymore. This isn’t a game full of brooding and grit, but a game of slaughtering ghosts and then using a one-liner to rub it in afterward. Vikings isn’t a comedic game either, though, so much as it straddles the line between seriousness and humor without ever fully committing to either.
I started the game as a shieldmaiden, referred to in narration as “she-wolf” but actually named Vow Elless (because I wanted to give her a name without vowels, but couldn’t make it work). As it turns out, deciding whether to play as a male or female is one of the few choices that actually has repercussions, though only barely; while the game presents you with important-seeming choices, none of them ever matter as much as that of gender because it dictates which quips you’ll get. I honestly don’t know which gender’s quips I prefer, but they’re both cheeky and the voice acting is on point for both. Anyway, after finally finishing the game with Vow, I made a second character with a friendly face and named him Bubblegum Spice. Then I opened Cheat Engine and jacked his stats up so that I could blow through the game a second time to see if any of the choices matter. There are only a handful apart from gender that have any real effect, such as a couple of early decisions where you decide whether to have a conquered area pay you tribute or sack it for more resources immediately. There’s no reason not to accept the tribute since you’ll get far more stuff over time because of it, though. There’s also one section where you obtain a ring and can choose to keep it. This gives you 3,000 extra gold after levels (called raids in-game because vikings), but you can’t level up until you give it up. Other than that, choices do nothing. The level in the embedded video above gives you the choice (~1:20) to go with the wizard or continue with the siege, but it’s a false choice; if you go with the king, you’ll hit an impassable wall and have to backtrack to do what the wizard wanted anyway. There’s also a choice in this level’s boss fight where you can decide whether to spare the person you came to fight or not, but this has no impact aside from the post-level narration, and both that character and the king stop mattering to the story immediately after.
The characters could stand to make more sense and be fleshed out
What makes that lack of impact so frustrating is that the boss character whose fate you can decide had been built up quite a bit up to that point. Before that final confrontation, you’ve had her taunt you and even fought her as an earlier boss, only sparing her life thanks to the timely intervention of an NPC. Conversation with that NPC then reveals—and remember, this story makes no sense and is basically filler, so this isn’t a spoiler despite how it may look—that she’s actually a queen. Okay, that’s interesting. Then your character is sent to fight a hidden viking tribe no one knew still existed, only to stumble upon the king of the very same kingdom out of nowhere and have the same person who kept you from killing the queen also dissuade you from killing the king. This is seriously contrived, but sure, whatever. After that, you team up with the king to retake the kingdom from the queen, and this is where the game lost me. The queen explains that she has no desire to return to her kingdom after being beaten the first time, but then she randomly takes it away from the king and has to be forcibly deposed? Or did they both lose the kingdom before that point? None of this makes a lick of sense, and the fact that neither the king nor queen play a role in the story after you deal with them was a major disappointment. Even the small reactivity of having one of them show up later in the game in a small role would have added to the experience immeasurably. Also, this whole thing needs to be rewritten to make more sense, because potentially enjoyable characters whose presence could better the game are currently being wasted for no obvious reason.
The gameplay is solid, but only on a controller
I saw pretty much everyone in pre-release footage using a controller, so I defaulted to that for my first playthrough, expecting the game to be more accommodating on a controller. What surprised me was just how correct I was; this game is unbearable using a keyboard and mouse, almost reaching the same heights of nonsensical controls that Silver managed so many years ago. On a controller, you move your character with the left stick and dodge with the right stick. That’s a little weird to get used to, but it feels natural after one or two maps. As for the rest of the controls, you heal with the left button and use “gifts”—special attacks, basically—with all of the other buttons save for A (on an Xbox controller), which is the attack button. It’s all nice and simple. Then there are the KB&M controls; gifts are mapped to the number keys by default (and almost everything is rebindable except for the movement and attacking inputs that you’ll actually want to change), but moving is achieved like in a typical aRPG by holding down the left mouse button and moving the cursor away from your character in the direction you want to move. You can also click to move to a specific location like in the Infinity Engine games, but I found this far too clumsy to use and would have much preferred directly controlling the character with the WASD keys. The KB&M’s strange controls would at least be workable if you had the ability to manually attack whenever you want, but you can’t; to attack while using the keyboard and mouse controls, you have to run into enemies. The problem is that it only attacks automatically if your mouse isn’t too far away from your character. I can’t tell if this is because the cursor has to be near enemies for it to attack or what, but if you drag to the edge of the screen, your character will try to run through a pack of armed enemy knights without attacking.
“Endlessly awkward” doesn’t even begin to cover how unnatural this feels. This is the kind of thing that a normal aRPG could get away with, but Vikings: Wolves of Midgard isn’t a normal aRPG by any stretch of the imagination. The way some enemies can block your attacks feels reminiscent of The Witcher 2, while your character’s ability to restore health a certain number of times with an item that’s refilled at checkpoints is very Dark Souls-esque. The maps are twisty and turny, full of hidden niches that often contain treasure, but levels are nonetheless about getting from point A (usually a portal or ship) to point B (a big, Zelda-y boss gate).
Vikings really does feel like a bunch of games thrown in a blender, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Rolling around to hit shield-bearing enemies on their unprotected side was an entertaining gameplay twist, but levels have side objectives that give you much-needed resources, and these are basically collectathons where you’re smashing or picking up X number of Y thing. The objectives are so unchanging over the course of the game that you’ll eventually know enough to fulfill at least two of the three side objectives while naturally exploring the map, but this is still an element I didn’t care for, and there were a few occasions where I reached a boss gate with one of the side objectives incomplete, only to slowly backtrack through the level out of a weird sense of obligation.
Hacky slashy RPG-y
I’m trying to think of a better way of describing Vikings’ gameplay than “go everywhere and kill everything,” but that pretty much covers it. You visit various locations from your hub village and then wander around levels beating up dudes and wildlife (including quite a lot of wolves, which I always feel guilty about harming in games) using your preferred weapon/gift combo, and both are tied to a specific god. For example, Loki is your god if you want to dual-wield two one-handed weapons, while Skathi is your goddess if you’d prefer to use a bow. The game is effectively classless and you can use any weapon you find or craft, but the gifts available to you at any given time are determined by the weapon you’re currently wielding, so the fact that Vow used staves meant only Odin’s gifts were available. If I had switched to another weapon, Odin’s gifts would have been unavailable to me, but you only get enough gift points (two per level up) to fully level up one god’s gift tree, so branching out doesn’t really become practical until new game + mode. I didn’t have enough time to see what each god’s gifts are like, but I can wholeheartedly recommend Odin because of his element-focused damage; many enemies are strong against a certain element or weak against another element, so having the ability to shoot fire, ice, and electricity came in incredibly handy. Not only that, but the electricity attack does AoE damage around you, so you can take out an entire group in one attack if you time it right. Incredibly satisfying. Another fun thing is that the ice attack can freeze enemies, immobilizing them for a short time, and killing them before they unfreeze causes them to shatter.
The RPG elements are pretty token, all things considered. Enemies drop blood when defeated, with blood basically being experience, and you can level up at an altar when your collected blood crosses a certain threshold. Each level up gives you two gift points to spend on obtaining/improving gifts as well as the ability to raise your max health, damage, attack speed, elemental resistances, or armor by 1%. All of these things also seem to go up a certain amount behind the scenes, so those small slivers of percents begin to have a noticeable effect after awhile. This is doubly the case because of randomized effects on weapons and armors that can further buff stats. Then there’s a certain degree of resource management where crafting weapons and armor and upgrading the weapon and armor shops (in addition to two other shops that are difficult to explain, but that effectively offer similar improvements) both require a certain amount of wood and iron and gold. You can obtain these things by fulfilling secondary objectives, but also by smashing things and opening chests during levels. Smash a tree and you’ll often be able to pick up quantities of wood, while smashing something metallic can net you iron, and chests often open to gold and new items. Upgrading all village shops to their highest level while still having enough resources to craft effective weapons kind of got to be a hassle after awhile, but you’re able to revisit past levels to grind out those things if you ever find yourself stuck in a corner.
Problems, bugs, weirdness, and little things I appreciated
Let’s start with a problem concerning the RPG elements: the game actively discourages decision-making when spending points on gifts. They’re all level-gated, so you very rarely have more than two in your preferred god’s tree that you can actually spend your points on. Since you’re given two points per level and trying to use two weapons and simultaneously level up two gods’ gift trees outside of new game + will only spread your character too thin to be as effective as they’d be otherwise, there are never any hard choices on what to upgrade. The game might as well upgrade your gifts automatically since there’s already virtually no player input in the matter. Then there’s the trial of gods, a repeatable series of enemy waves that’s effectively a minigame that gives you some bonus stuff. The first of these is awful, full of giants who do this annoying stunning attack over and over and over again until you’re irritated enough to ignore the trials entirely. The strange thing is that these trials often take longer than a normal level would and offer less in return, so they really are completely pointless and best ignored (at least, until you’re overleveled enough to quickly overpower them).
Thirdly, there’s new game + mode, which strips you of all your weapons and resets all of the stats you raised by one percent each level, leaving you surprisingly disempowered early on. Losing the weapons sucks, but I can at least understand it. Removing those level-up bonuses on top of that doesn’t feel right, though. Finally, there are the bosses. Vikings switches things up quite a bit over the course of the game in this regard, but toward the end there are too many “multiple giants, and killing one makes the other more powerful” fights. The laziness of these few end encounters starts to overshadow the variance that preceded them, including an enjoyably different level where you burn ships while fighting regular enemies instead of actually facing a boss. Speaking of giants, the level with fire giants has a side objective that requires killing a certain number of them, and the bosses are two fire giants who count toward the total. You have no way of knowing this before continuing past the point of no return, and the bosses never counted in any prior levels, so you can easily wander around the level looking for them for 15 minutes before giving up and fulfilling the side objective’s requirements anyway. This almost feels worse than failing because of how stupid and inconsistent it is with the rest of the game. It’s just sloppily desiged.
This game has multiplayer. If you want to know about it, though, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m a single-player type of person, full stop, so I can’t comment on multiplayer except to observe that all of the bugs that remain seem to occur during multiplayer. That’s not to say that the single-player campaign was flawless when Vikings first released, though, because I suffered all kinds of bugs. Beating the first boss didn’t end the level and required a weird workaround, a later boss got stuck in dialogue unless I loaded the save beforehand and went straight to him, and there was even an invisible wall blocking forward progress in a level. Then the first patch came and fixed everything. My second playthrough had zero bugs in it thanks to the patch, so I’d call the single-player pretty bug-free at the moment. For me, at least.
Now for the little positives that added up. Starting with the most obvious, your character shows up wearing their current equipment on the main menu, so you can get the kind of close-up look of their new loot that you’d never get in-game. It’s kind of entertaining looking at how my shieldmaiden started out versus what she was decked out in toward the end of the game. Then there are the little touches, like your character’s gender causing tiny changes in the text (one and two). Subtle, but effective. And while I’m plastering a bunch of screenshots everywhere, it’s worth pointing out that using a controller gets you menus tailored to it while using the keyboard and mouse gets you completely different menus. The keyboard and mouse menus become a bit of a pain when you have a lot of items to sell off between levels, but it’s still interesting to see the amount of work they put in trying to accommodate everyone. Screenshots aside, there were also funny little things that I kept noticing, like how the shieldmaiden occasionally shouts out “for the Ulfong!” but it instead comes out sounding eerily like “for the old folks!” I enjoyed imagining that she was dedicating all of her kills to an unspecified group of older people. You can also knock enemies off of ledges, which is one of those beautiful little touches that makes fighting near ledges entertaining. Speaking of entertaining things, the game includes occasional puzzles. While they’re not difficult by any stretch of the imagination (they’re kind of like the rare puzzles in Knights of the Old Republic), they break up the monotony of hacking and slashing well enough that I appreciated their presence. Also breaking up the monotony is the game’s “exposure” mechanic where fighting in the cold/heat/miscellaneous extreme causes a meter to slowly fill up, with it damaging you when full. This sounded annoying when I first heard about it, but it’s actually something I came to appreciate since I had moments where I had to make a tense split-second decision on whether to backtrack to a safe zone to lower my current exposure or risk pushing forward through a group of enemies. It’s also only a factor during certain levels, so it’s not ubiquitous enough that it outstays its welcome. Lastly, there’s the save situation. You can’t save manually, which is always bit disappointing for a PC game, but levels are littered with constant, reusable checkpoints that are actually full-blown saves; you can quit out of the game after a checkpoint and start out back at that checkpoint with everything you smashed and killed before that point remaining exactly as dead as before.
Decent graphics, decent music, great performance
If you’d have told me that a 2017 game made in Unity would run well on my aging hardware, I’d have laughed in your face. Unity is notorious for being poorly optimized by incompetent developers (cough Dreamfall Chapters cough), and yet there are occasionally games that make it work surprisingly well. Grow Home, I Am Setsuna, and now Vikings have all worked incredibly well on my computer, and while this game didn’t play well with my recording software—some of the videos had to be recorded at 1280×720 to avoid annoying frame drops—the lower-resolution videos reflect how smoothly the game ran at 1920×1080 when not recording. Which, again, is surprising given how old my hardware is at this point. The tradeoff here is that objects sometimes disappear when they’re still in the frame and the shadow quality drops noticeably as you run past a bunch of shadows, but I’ll take it. Otherwise the game looks really good, though it’s at its best when you’re wandering around dark caves with moody lighting or snow-covered mountains. When the “look how cool my effects are” neon green effects show up and stages begin to take place during daylight, the visuals don’t look quite as stellar; it’s during the daytime stages that the lighting is less distinct and the bloom-y spell effects can make the graphics look kind of washed out. As for the music, it’s surprisingly memorable for percussive-orchestral. Orchestral soundtracks often prove to be depressingly bland and forgettable, but there’s enough focus on melody between the percussive stuff that many tracks were stuck in my head even days after playing. I’m especially fond of the catchy main menu theme. The only downfall of the soundtrack is that it never really evolves into anything else or does anything to catch you off-guard. It’s memorable, then, but quickly ceases to be striking.