Review: Volgarr The Viking

volgarr-01Volgarr The Viking (PC)
Developed by Crazy Viking Studios – Published by Adult Swim Games
Release Date: September 13th, 2013 (Worldwide)

CPU: 2.0 GHz
Memory: 1 GB RAM
HDD: 200 MB available space
Video:  Video card with 256 MB of VRAM
Input: Gamepad or Keyboard and Mouse

I’m gonna start things with a little experiment, so please bear with me. I’m going to say four words, and then you’re going to react to them. Simple enough, right? Let’s try it out. Are you ready?

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts.”

Now, if my calculations are correct (Note: No calculations were made in the creation of this review) a lot of you out there probably just cringed at having the horrible memories of Capcom’s classic masochistic platformer conjured up all these years later. For those not in the know, it was a game that was positively relentless in dishing out pain in the form of countless deaths with devilish enemy placement, some pretty mean randomly-generated chaos with item drops, and a set of jump controls that took quite a while to master. It’s more than earned its place in gaming history as one of the most simultaneously frustrating and rewarding experiences in gaming.

Crazy Viking Studios’ debut production, Volgarr The Viking, takes its own stab at trying to recreate and pay homage to that legacy, with a heavier lean toward Rastan’s sword-based combat for good measure.

volgarr-02As soon as you’re in control of our jacked up and bearded hero, the influence will be easily noticed. You have a double-jump mechanic that’s almost a note-for-note recreation of Arthur’s, the pace is very slow and deliberate, requiring both quick reflexes and thinking, and you lose pieces of equipment when you sustain damage, ultimately dying when you have no more pieces of armor left. Stage and enemy themes are also largely similar, though Volgarr’s foes have more of a bent toward mutated animals and beasts, rather than zombies and skeletons, but there are a few of those too.

If Volgarr The Viking was a straight-up retread of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, however, it’d be a pretty boring and not very creative endeavor. Thankfully, Volgarr sets himself apart from Arthur by managing to be a much more formidable hero. He may be just as fragile in the health department as his inspiration, but Volgarr’s attack and defensive capabilities make sure that you always have the goods to back up all that pixelated muscle, and being in control of his moveset actually makes you still feel very dangerous, even when you’re left without a shield to defend yourself.

Along with some standard sword strikes which can be upgraded with a fire element, Volgarr comes equipped with a double jump that also serves as a rather vicious somersault attack. When airborne, pressing jump again, not only gives you a bit more lift, but also causes Volgarr to spin with his sword extended, dispatching any nuisances that happen to cross his path. Additionally, Volgarr’s shield isn’t just for looks. It fully functions in actually blocking enemy attacks, so long as you’re standing still. Even attacks you wouldn’t think can be blocked, end up stonewalled by just standing still. Volgarr’s default wooden shield can only sustain two attacks before shattering, however once upgraded it can take a seemingly endless amount of punishment, so learning to be patient and block can sometimes be the more favorable option to just rushing in and slashing away.

volgarr-03Our viking hero’s arsenal also happens to be stuffed full of an infinite supply of spears with which to kebab his foes. They’re surprisingly powerful for a ranged weapon and only get stronger when you have the ability to charge a throw and spear through multiple enemies at once, which feels very satisfying. Along with being a means to defend himself, Volgarr can also stick spears into walls and jump on them to ascend to out of reach places or grab some precariously placed power-ups. Spears also get a lot of creative use in boss fights, so it helps that a weapon that could have been such an afterthought ended up being so fun to utilize and has so many uses. Crazy Viking’s work with making sure every part of their character’s mechanics could be used in such a wide variety of ways really makes Volgarr The Viking feel a lot more polished and thought out than other retro throwbacks.

It’s a good thing that Volgarr’s so well equipped to handle virtually any challenge he may face, but you’re going to have to be just as prepared if you’re to see the end credits here. Volgarr The Viking is a game that is very up front in all of its promotional materials about its maddening level of difficulty. The game bills itself as an homage to the “golden age of arcades,” and if you’ve had any experience with arcade games of that era, you know the kind of quarter-sucking difficulty you’re in for.

It’s only in your first 20-30 seconds of playing Volgarr that you’ll feel any real sense of safety as you mindlessly walk forward, decapitating fairly harmless lizard men pests. After that, the game begins to show its true colors and never lets up with round after round of meticulously placed enemies and stage hazards.

volgarr-04Enemy movement and attack patterns are all fairly simple and almost shamefully easy to predict, and it’s merely up to you to react quickly and find a way out of each situation. Nearly every enemy encounter in the game is set up to trap you somehow, by either making you guess wrong at which way to attack or jump, or to fool you into making a move when you should have blocked. The amount of times you’ll smack your forehead in disgust at your own mistakes may be enough to cause a tumor of some sort, so be wary of that going in.

The nature of Volgarr’s difficulty unfortunately leads to a lot of trial-and-error and replaying of stages. For most, progress will happen in very tiny increments in any stage, with you tripping up somehow on the next obstacle. You’re only given a checkpoint on each new screen, and there are no checkpoints prior to boss fights, so a lot of near-perfect execution goes into actually finishing an entire stage. There’s very little leeway in how you need to tackle each stage, and sometimes the rote nature of the game can wear a little thin, especially when making a run back to a boss you’re almost sure you’ve not fully grasped yet.

To finish Volgarr The Viking is one thing, but to actually obtain a good ending one must embark on the “Path of the Valkyrie.” The Path of the Valkyrie contains five alternate stages for stages two through six and also adds a seventh stage afterward. The only way to access these alternate stages is to not die or lose any equipment so you can obtain a blue orb, which will then make the next stage the harder alternate version. You have to keep collecting blue orbs to continue on the path and dying takes one of your blue orbs away. If at any point you run out of blue orbs, you’ll be ejected from the alternate stage and back to the normal six-stage path. Most players will never see these alternate stages and fewer will ever actually finish the full path with the amount of memorization and time it’ll take to do so, and it’s almost crazy that the devs hid so much effort and content behind such a herculean task.

volgarr-05In terms of effort that is shown and clear as day are the lush pixel art and highly-energetic soundtrack. It’s hard to look at these screenshots and not be completely taken in by Volgarr’s visual style. In motion, the game looks even better with loads of hand-crafted sprites to gawp at that animate almost as fluid as some of WayForward’s work. There’s also a nice variety to the visual package, with loads of enemy types, and though stage themes may be a tad on the traditional side, Volgarr’s artists still manage to pack in a lot of very lush detail and background animation to make every stage very visually impressive. All that prettiness is backed up by a triumphant orchestral soundtrack that’s not only fitting for the setting and action, but is also pretty bad-ass on its own, so even if you’ll be stuck on the same stage for a while, at least you’ll have some good tunes driving themselves into your earholes.

Volgarr The Viking is made with a very specific audience in mind. If you didn’t grow up in and experience games from the era it’s so heavily modeled after, then the frustration may simply be too much. The heavy-handed focus on memorization, with very few avenues to pursue in terms of getting your way out of tough situations, begins to make the game feel tedious and overly frustrating in parts, and makes one wonder why some of the creativity in honing the main character’s versatility hadn’t been carried into some of the level design too. On the other hand, Volgarr The Viking is in no way cheap, and it will absolutely satisfy cravings for hardcore action platformer diehards in need of a fix, and if you’re new to this kind of thing, satisfaction is almost guaranteed if it can sink its hooks into you.

Final Score: 7/10

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