Not that I’ve given up (far from it), but I don’t see myself completing it any time in the next couple of days, and even less likely to clear it consistently well enough to earn one of the better endings. What I can do, though, is explain why I’ve chosen to walk this road of suffering.
You see, Volgarr is a very difficult game. From the very first Kickstarter pitch to the official promotion when Adult Swim snapped the game up for a Steam release, that has been the message, consistent and strong: this game will kill you. Even the official trailers have featured the titular Viking warrior getting smashed into gory paste time and time again. Not exactly encouraging, unless you’re an old-school masochist like me.
Drawing inspiration from a handful of high-difficulty classics such as Ghouls & Ghosts, the original Castlevania and the old arcade game, Rastan, Volgarr takes them apart and re-assembles them into an unholy torture device. The trailers are true; the game can and will crush you on a whim, but it’s one of those games that you can’t really get mad at, mainly because it’s so structured and orderly that every problem has a clear and simple solution. It’s just a matter of whether you’ve got the dexterity to pull it off.
“What sets Volgarr apart from most modern ‘hard’ games is the near-complete lack of checkpoints.”
This is a pure 16-bit tribute. An amalgamation of elements from an era of gaming been, gone and done. The sprites and limited colour palette are reminiscent of the Sega Genesis/Megadrive, and even the manual riffs off old Sega materials, giving you a scant single page of back story which is barely touched on in the game itself. It’s just straight into the action, with only the faintest of in-game tutorials. Aesthetically, I personally think the game relies a little too much on large blocks of unshaded colour, making the sprites look a little flatter than they might otherwise be, but the game is smoothly animated and seldom anything but clear and easy to follow.
The world of Volgarr is more akin to general ‘barbarian fantasy’ than anything. Less Norse myth and more Aztec temples filled with lizardmen, grumpy Atlantean fish-people rising from the sea, serpent-people hanging out in grim volcano fortresses and the like. Like so many 16-bit classics, it’s an excuse to travel to a variety of themed regions, meet new bosses and kill the local monsters. The music is a steady, grim orchestral arrangement for the most part, too, a world away from the exuberant metal accompaniment in the official trailer and going a bit beyond the self-imposed retro aesthetics, but it works well and doesn’t become too repetitious.
A large part of the much-touted difficulty of the game comes from the movement physics. As in Castlevania and Ghouls & Ghosts, once you’ve committed to an action, it will play out in its entirety whether you want it to or not. A sword swing cannot be interrupted, and pressing the button to turn the opposite way will merely make you step back while still swinging forward. A jump has a fixed arc to it which can only be interrupted through double-jumping or hitting a wall. Every action has weight and meaning, and every attack has to count.
The levels are designed more as puzzles than anything. Unless you’re racing through for speedrunning fame and glory, then almost every obstacle can be approached at your own pace, analyzed and then attacked. A small ledge directly above might be impossible to jump forwards onto due to your movement arc, but a triangular double-jump away, and then back towards the ledge, will place you on it, rather than into the spike-pit immediately beyond. A hall full of spore-spitting plants can be rendered safe by climbing a side-passage and throwing spears into ledges to catch the projectiles before they can fall.
Valhall Awaits Me When I Die
What sets Volgarr apart from most modern “hard” games is the near-complete lack of checkpoints. If you die, and death can come very easily, then you’ll be thrown all the way back to the start of the current level. If handled smoothly, each stage is only a few minutes long (maybe two-to-three if done efficiently), but that’s still a nerve-wracking length of time to keep your cool – even more intense when you factor in a semi-secret path through the game, leading through several even harder levels, but with the additional pressure of a limited number of continues. Die repeatedly, and you find yourself dropped back to the regular levels.
You can soften the blow of making a mistake a little, though. Over the course of the level, you’ll find treasure chests. Each one contains a linear upgrade over your current gear. You start a level with a wooden shield that’ll protect you from one un-blocked hit or a couple of shield blows, but then upgrade to an invincible metallic shield. The next step is a magic helmet that gives you an extra layer of defense, breaking off if you’re hit. After that, it’s a flaming sword that deals double damage to enemies, but provides no additional defense.
Scouring the levels and attacking suspicious-looking walls can also earn you a rare item called Thor’s Blessing, which provides you with an extra hit worth of resistance. Fully upgraded, you can take three hits before being stripped of all gear, and then a fourth will kill you. Or just a single drop into a bottomless pit or expanse of water, because we all know that Vikings, being made of sterner stuff than the average man, sink like a stone, rather than exhibiting any kind of buoyancy. It’s science, y’know. Viking science. Sometimes, it’s hard to predict a threat the first time you encounter a new enemy type or obstacle, but memorization is part of the experience too.
The reason why Volgarr can get away with such abject cruelty is simple: the controls are tight as a drum. Everything moves at a very deliberate pace, and most threats are telegraphed or otherwise predictable. Your limited range of moves (a basic sword swing, a downwards thrust, a spinning attack, an evasive roll and a spear-throw) are all easy to perform, with little to no chance of confusing one for another. A good thing, because one slip, one mistake, one jump too early or too late will send you back to square one.
While there are some small semi-random elements, like minor enemy spawns in larger combat arenas, once a level is mastered, you’re likely to breeze through it on every return trip. With the exception of a handy “look ahead” button that zooms out the camera a little, absolutely everything is controlled with just 8-way digital movement and two buttons. As it stands, the 360 gamepad may be the officially supported controller, but I fell back to an older, sturdier controller for more precision. Never underestimate the old Sega Saturn controller and its almighty D-Pad. This is a game that demands precision, the kind you break out your Sunday best for.
Volgarr Display Of Power
One reason why I think that this game will endure, and why many players will persevere, is because Volgarr seems built for replay value. There are global leaderboards, time-attack challenges, plenty of incentives to speed-run and multiple routes through the levels.
There’s no save-game system, although a shortcut to completed levels does pop up once you’ve made some progress. However, the best endings will be locked off if you take advantage of it. Volgarr is meant to be played in a single sitting, and mastery should bring the length of the game down to under an hour. Mastery does not come easy, but it’s immensely satisfying when you get there.
“At the end of this long, painful road lies bragging rights unmatched, but only if you’re willing to take the first step”
Many hours of play later, and I think I have the first two worlds worked out in full, and most of the third. The manual tells me that there are seven, the final being locked away from all but the most skilled of players. I hope to see this fabled land some day. This game is aimed squarely at those who want to challenge themselves. It’s a game about endurance, rather than twitch reflexes. It’s more Castlevania, less Super Meat Boy. More R-Type than Touhou. It’s a very specific kind of challenge, aimed at a very specific breed of gamer.
The big question is whether you’re one of those gamers that lives for a challenge. If you can’t stand frustration, defeat, death and lost progress, then this is not the game for you, and never was. There’s immense satisfaction to be found here, but only for those willing to persevere, explore each stage, puzzle out the solutions to each set of obstacles and commit it all to muscle memory. At the end of this long, painful road lies bragging rights unmatched, but only if you’re willing to take the first step. It’s a long one, off the edge of a cliff and into a bed of spikes.
Volgarr The Viking is out now for Windows PCs and can be purchased direct from the official page via the Humble Store for $12. Not only does this get you the DRM-free version of the game, but also a Steam key. However, buying from Steam or GOG directly will net you a $2 launch discount.