moonlightmoth's Vikings: Wolves of Midgard (PlayStation 4) review

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Valhalla Middling

Jonathan Meades once wrote, most likely with reference to someone else, that to be northern is to be ill at ease with oneself, that seeking oblivion – vast consumption of alcohol – is a symptom of this existential imbalance. The levels of darkness, the cold, wind and rain do something to the mind, perhaps inculcating a melancholic view of one’s place in the world, longing for distraction from the harsh, oppressive climate.

But what happens when you run out of alcohol? How is one to live without it? Well Vikings: Wolves of Midgard is here to answer that question. With nary a mention of drink or sex its inhabitants turn to the other great love of our species; violence. But thinking logically for a moment, what better distraction could there be then than a nice day out to butcher the locals? Its good exercise, you get to see new places and when the party’s over you don’t even need to clean up. The threat of imminent death seems to me a pretty effective deterrent from the burden of introspection and conscience.

In fact, it’s quite unnerving to hear your warrior/shield-maiden talk so excitedly about their next opportunity to go a-slaughtering. I understand the reputation Vikings have for their brutality but the bloodlust here does seem to suggest they are not the most mentally stable of Nordic chieftains. Fortunately they do also happen to be the greatest fighter in the known world so I guess it makes sense to just do what you do best rather than waste your obvious talents, probably too late to take up dressmaking at this point anyway.

Few games have loading screens as beautiful.
Few games have loading screens as beautiful.

But yes, the game, it’s an ARPG and is most akin to the console port of Diablo III only with a number of changes that do little but add gimmicks to a style of play that does little to benefit from them. Some are negligible, such has having a mission based structure with a central hub whilst other’s like the exposure mechanic, where if you stay out in certain areas for too long you start to take damage are just plain annoyances, forcing you to backtrack, stop, then wait for it to lower when you could be, you know, playing the game.

Not that gameplay is a revelation; it’s solid if a little straightforward. It’s got a swift pace and feels natural with a controller but it struggles to match the level of responsiveness of its more well known contemporaries. It’s still good fun but there are a number of little issues which keep it from the top tier such as with the collision detection when dodging. It’s never clear why an attack may or may not hit when you roll, sometimes I’ll be hit yet nothing on screen touched me, other times I’ll roll through an axe swing without issue. It’s almost as if you’re playing online and there’s latency trouble, which makes for some quite frustrating encounters, doubly so if on a harder difficulty where precision counts for so much more.

Another issue is the lack of variety to the skills on offer. Each weapon set ties you to a mere handful of skills which you cannot change without changing weapon. So if you want to use a bow you get one fixed set of active skills with no ability to customise them beyond adding a handful of passive buffs and incremental bonuses to damage, movement speed etc. This dearth of flexibility leads to a lot of repetition as splitting skill points between different trees does not equate to an increase in combat effectiveness. The passive and active skills for each tree only apply when the related weapon is used which leads to a needless compromise as the game is perfectly doable with the one weapon/skill tree.

The rate of levelling is also problematic. As the game rolls on each main mission starts to demand a higher level from you which the preceding missions do not grant alone, regardless as to whether you cleared the map and eked out every experience point you could. This forces you to take on the optional hunt missions that are nothing more than a trip through and old map with the same enemies with a boss fight replaced by a demand for X number of enemy kills. If there is one thing the experience didn’t need it was more grind.

bop enough enemies and you can enter 'rage mode' to the thrill of damage numbers everywhere!
bop enough enemies and you can enter 'rage mode' to the thrill of damage numbers everywhere!

It’s a shame as the core combat is fun to play and the aesthetics surrounding it quite compelling to anyone with a love of mythological Nordic antiquity. The graphics are fine if a little undercooked for the capabilities of the system, but the art design shines through with some pretty environments and a UI embellished with lots of appealing details fitting for the Viking theme. A special mention must go to the artist who created the loading screens, it’s probably a bad sign that these are the most noteworthy part of the experience but they really are quite extraordinary landscapes, depicting a world the game could not possibly live up to.

The music likewise feels as if it was parachuted in from some other, better game. It’s unobtrusive, never felt repetitive and when it does become noticeable it tends to be for good reason, aside from the final boss battle where music is omitted for some baffling reason, making an already anti-climatic finale even more unsatisfying.

Typically I would have mentioned the story by now but its importance and value is vague at best. Ostensibly it’s about trying to prevent Ragnarok but the reality is more of a series of confused and ill-defined reasons to fight this enemy and that. Most of the tale is told via narration and whilst the writing is perfectly serviceable I did notice the use of “noone” instead of “no one” which I can only hope was an innocent mistake as opposed to a deliberate display of linguistic treason. There are a couple of good lines, such as when my shield-maiden, when wading through a poisonous swamp, quips about feeling unwell and hoping she isn’t in fact pregnant. But otherwise the story is poorly paced, uninvolving with absolutely no pay off at its conclusion.

I wish I could be kinder to Wolves of Midgard but it just let’s itself down far too often. The setting, the art and the basic combat saw me through to the end but the lack of variety to skills, to enemies, the reliance on crafting over exploration, the non-story, the grinding, it all piles up on the negative end of the seesaw when other games have already surmounted such issues quite easily. If more thought and time were spent of refining the fundamentals and the gimmicks ditched in the bargain then Vikings could certainly live with the Titan Quests, Path of Exiles and Diablos of this world. Alas, amat victoria curam.

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