by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
If you are a long-time Settlers fan, you’ll probably agree with me that the series went off the rails from Heritage of Kings onwards. Settlers 7 was an enjoyable experience but still nothing like the original games. The team at Funatics, having worked on several Settlers titles, must have looked at how the series has evolved and thought to themselves “what was wrong with the original games?” and cooked up the idea behind Valhalla Hills.
Yet Valhalla Hills is certainly not a straight out Settlers clone set in Norse Mythology. The basic ingredients are the same: you control a small tribe of people trying to survive in a new land. You build housing, recruit blacksmiths and carpenters and explore your surroundings. Slowly you settle the new land to make it your own.
Where the game differs is that the player’s struggle is not with other settlers, but with destiny. You see, a Viking’s life revolves around pleasing the gods to earn a place at Odin’s table in Valhalla. But, as any mortal knows, the gods are a fickle bunch. Arriving at Asgard, the Vikings find the door closed. Raging against the injustice, they learn that the only way in is to earn the respect of Odin by achieving feats of honour. They cannot do this alone, and put themselves into the service of Leko, outcast son of Odin and God of the Builders.
… but different
So if there are no other nations to fight, you need something else to work towards. In Valhalla Hills, your goal is to get through magical portals situated somewhere on the mountainous islands that you are trying to settle. The portals are defended by all sorts of magical creatures which aren’t going to be defeated with your starting party and gear. You’ll have to devise ways past all kinds of obstacles, usually of the “alive” variety. Packs of Wolves, Ghosts and giant Ice Vikings are just some of the things that stand in the way of reaching the portal and some of them won’t sit and wait for you to find them either.
Your first task is to beef up the fighting prowess of your Vikings. You do this by building up your economy which increases your fighting force and unlocks better gear. Blacksmiths need iron which can be found higher up or in the foothills of on the mountain. Carpenters need wood which is sometimes difficult to reach. Roads connect buildings, traders carry goods between them and before you know it you have a thriving community of beer-loving Vikings.
As long as your starting portal survives you are able to work towards the exit. Every time you jump to the next portal, your Vikings will come with you, unless they have died trying to get there. If they were lucky to gain enough honour during their lifetime, they’ll be allowed into Valhalla.
Coming around the mountain
The further your progress, the higher the mountain becomes. The starting island will seem as flat as a dime by the time you have made your 15th jump and as the island rises up it will be more difficult to reach the portal. A day and night cycle adds to the difficulty, dynamically changing just how hard it is to defeat the dangerous beasts that lie in waiting when dark sets in. Building costs also go up with steeper terrain and the roads you build will become harder to traverse. Fortunately, additional options to deal with all these threats appear too. A particularly fun one is the ability to sacrifice objects to the defenders of the gate to mellow its defences.
Valhalla Hills isn’t a Settlers clone but it does take some of the series’ more interesting elements and blends them with some new ones. I have some questions as how long the gameplay will remain interesting, but the Gamescom presentation has raised my enthusiasm to the point that I am keen to find out.