First Impressions: Volgarr The Viking

Volgarr the Viking

Odin is a dick. The title screen of Volgarr The Viking has him glaring disapprovingly at a mangled corpse on the ground, and pointing towards the statue of a stalwart Viking hero. “Rise, warrior,” his godly voice booms, but he might as well be saying, “Why aren’t you more like this guy?” And like a wayward son desperately seeking approval, Volgarr rises from the grave in search of glory and adventure. Twenty seconds later, a lizardman clubs him in the head, causing him to explode into a pile of gore

“Sword in my hand,
Axe on my side.
Valhall awaits me,
Soon I will die.
Bear skin on my back,
Wolf jaw on my head.
Valhall awaits me
when I’m dead.” – Amon Amarth

A recent Kickstarter success, Crazy Viking Studios are clearly one of those outfits that want to live up to their name, so their first game is about a Viking of clearly questionable sanity. Why so nuts? Because he’s as fragile as Arthur from Ghosts & Goblins, but highly reliant on a wide sword-swing lifted directly from Taito’s arcade barbarian-em-up, Rastan. In fact, just a few minutes of gameplay reveals the three strains of visual and design DNA that make up Volgarr: the slow and considered platforming of the original Castlevania, the power-ups and double-jumping from Ghosts & Goblins and the melee combat and frequently spawning foes from Rastan. It’s a great big gory tribute to the most brutal games of the late 80s/early 90s.

Tribute seems like the right word at first – the opening of the first level is lifted tile-for-tile from Rastan, right down to the eponymous barbarian’s withered corpse slumped against a wall nearby. There’s definitely more going on here gameplay-wise than Taito’s straightforward hack-’n'-slash action, though. The levels in this preview build (the first 3 out of a possible 6, if their ultimate kickstarter targets are within reach) are intricate arrays of traps and fakeouts. Nothing that can’t be conquered if you take things slowly and methodically, analyzing each threat as you reach it, but the second you start to feel overconfident is when you’ll jump forward instead of safely advancing with your shield at the ready, and then you’ll die, dragging you back a long way. Checkpoints are few and far between in the game right now – a little too far apart for my liking, but that’s just personal preference.

Twilight Of The Thunder God

Volgarr is a very technical kind of platformer. Every move you make has some kind of recovery phase to it, and depths to explore. Jumping has little to no air-control, but you can double-jump freely, as in Ghosts & Goblins, and the start of the second jump manifests as a spinning sword attack, which can also double as a projectile if you press the attack button while spinning. Your basic melee attack is a broad swing of your sword, during which you can’t change the direction you’re facing or bring your shield up to defend, and your projectile attack (a thrown spear which can double as a platform when lobbed into a wall) has both a wind-up and cooldown phase to the animation, and the power-up system means that a single mistake or misjudgment of your own abilities can rob you of what few additional powers you’ve collected.

Aside from a few pseudo-random enemy spawns (that are visibly telegraphed), everything is fully deterministic; the only thing deciding failure or victory is player input. If you want to survive, then nothing can be done on impulse – you need to learn the levels, learn the limits of your moves and master the controls. The pace of gameplay is very measured – there’s no ticking time limit pushing you on, and even regular enemy spawns are easy enough to handle, so long as you don’t completely ignore the incoming threats. Even the boss battles are slow and have simple, easily followed patterns. Everything is laid out in such a way that it’s clear what you have to do to achieve victory – it’s just a matter of performing all the moves in the right order and without error, and that isn’t easy. After many tries, I’ve managed to achieve victory over the preview levels, but I still can’t do it consistently.

I’ve definitely enjoyed my time with these first three stages, and want to see what additional twists the remaining content brings in the final version. Still, there’s some tuning that I think could be done – even Ghosts & Goblins wasn’t cruel enough to bust you back an entire level after just one mistake. I generally like most of the sprites, but there’s something about the art style that doesn’t look quite ‘busy’ enough to me. Maybe I’m just hankering for the days of Bitmap Bros’ gradient-heavy stylings. While there are some things I’d personally change, I think Volgarr is well on target for the most part – it captures what made games of that bygone era so notable and challenging, while adding some twists of its own. Volgarr The Viking is available to pre-purchase via the Humble Store for $12, and is exclusive to Windows PCs.