by Tom Mackey
reviewed on PC
If I were to say to you, “how do you fancy playing a God and leading Vikings to glory and honour in Valhalla?” You may be forgiven for expecting an epic and glorious battle full of gore and pillage. So it might surprise you to find that in Valhalla Hills, a new strategy game from Funatics Software actually involves mostly building and managing your way to glory. There are certainly strong foundations in place here, this being the same developer who brought us games like Settlers and Cultures. But how does this most recent of RTS games stack up against its older brothers? Will it be sidling its honourable self through the glorious gates of Valhalla, or will it be struggling with resource management back on Earth with the rest of us?
It is actually this lack of bloodlust that forms the main driving focus of the games campaign. You are essentially a builder who hasn't done quite enough blood thirsty pillaging for Odin’s liking and are banished back to Earth. It is then your job to restore you and your fellow banished Vikings’ honour, not through war so much, but through building a successful existence for yourselves. Your chief target in every randomly generated environment that spawns, is to make it to the nearest mountainous portal to Valhalla and earn Odin’s acceptance. It is perhaps a little perplexing that Odin would accept you in only after you’ve built a successfully functioning society for your Vikings, considering he banished you for ‘not enough killing’. It seems like he’d be more likely to respond well to destroying a village rather than creating one, but hey, the developers had to shoehorn an RTS simulation into a Viking setting somehow.
Frustrating, yet satisfying
So Valhalla Hills is a game that can be frustrating and satisfying in equal measure, which comes entirely from the way you play it. I wouldn't be completely amiss if I told you that the majority of your time will be spent sat watching your Vikings get on with stuff. The level of control you have over that ‘stuff’ is where this frustration can rear its head. You will have direct control over certain elements, like who builds what and when, for example. But you may not have everything you need to build a certain building or tool and have no control over how long it takes the assigned Viking to collect that particular resource. There is also not always a clear path back to where the mistakes you made were in a failed game. The game does not make it easy to locate missing requirements or tell you exactly where you failed or how to fix things. When it comes to teaching the player the mechanics at work, Valhalla Hills is a tad fuzzy. It is, however, possible to get into a satisfying rhythm of building and progressing if you overlook not having full control and accept the game as more of a quick fix rather than a long haul strategy simulation. As long as you don't mind occasionally stalling in your settlement building for some obscure reason.
But more often than not you will satisfyingly develop your Viking society and go some way towards pleasing the Gods. If you are familiar with RTS games already then the lack of complexity combined with gratifying sense of progress and achievement will probably suit you fine. For those trying something new, the lack of an effective tutorial and clear enough interface may be off-putting. This is a little odd, as an RTS with less depth than is usually present would seem perfectly suited to getting new players into the genre. Ultimately though, the draw of developing your settlements and unlocking and discovering new things to help you progress is fun enough to keep you invested.
For the Nordic developer in you
What I really do appreciate in Valhalla Hills is the effort to give the game a humorous and quirky setting. Though it doesn't necessarily do enough to make itself the most memorable of games in terms of style and effect, it doesn't fall flat. The game’s style evokes something of an ‘if Blizzard and Pixar had a child’ type of feel. The mountain environments are bright and cartoonish and keep your eyes visually stimulated enough to the point where staring at the next new environment won’t put you to sleep. The actual Vikings are squat, cute little creatures who aptly go about performing their settlement duties in an amiable enough manner. I say creatures as they do look a little more like fantastical gnomes or dwarves than Vikings, but this adds to their endearing nature rather than detracting from it. The game’s soundtrack, though, is where its style really starts to stand out. Rather than putting you through the same dull tones throughout your time with the game, the music changes depending on the situation in the game. It moves from fittingly soft mountainous melodies to upbeat guitar as you play and does a fantastic job of evoking the kind of traditional Nordic feel you’d expect.
Valhalla Hills is all in all, a strong little RTS, with enough going on under the surface to satisfy most fans of the genre. Its style is fitting enough, whilst not being truly memorable, and the game endears itself to you and keeps you immersed. The lack of clarity and assistance at times may be off-putting for those not already fans of the genre, but give it a little bit of work and you will find a fun little fix for the Nordic developer in you.
Mostly solid and satisfying gameplay, decent style and fitting soundtrack
Poor tutorial and some lack of clarity