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Review: Die for Valhalla!

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Wise fwom yo gwave

I really miss the 16- and 32-bit eras of gaming. Game mechanics were simple, as were the plots. The beat-'em-up genre was alive and strong, and a bored kid like me could spend hours walking from left to right hitting two buttons to wail on mostly similar-looking enemies in my quest to save Manhattan. Or my girlfriend. Or the President. Or whatever -- it didn't matter, because it was simple and fun.

Die for Valhalla! hearkens back to that era of gaming with a few interesting, but largely inconsequential, twists thrown in for good measure.

Die for Valhalla! (PC, Switch [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Developer: Monster Couch
Publisher: Monster Couch
Released: May 29, 2018
MSRP: $11.99

At its core, Die for Valhalla! is a straightforward side-scrolling beat-'em-up. You have a button to jump, a dodge roll, a light and heavy attack, a parry, and a special move...and that's it. You walk from left to right beating up the Viking, toxic jungle, and wasteland-themed enemies for some 60 levels until you reach the end. It's not terribly inventive, but it doesn't have to be; it's a tried-and-true genre, and since the basics are done right you have something that can hold your attention during those bored hours in between games.

What new the game does bring to the table is mostly gimmicky in nature. DFV! introduces a possession mechanic that allows you to take control of dead Vikings straight out of their graves in order to serve the Valkyries, the true character the player controls. The Valkyries have slower movements and weaker attacks, so it behooves the player to possess dead warriors. Once a possessed character is killed, control will revert back to the Valkyrie. In that regard, possessions almost work like temporary power-ups, as the only true way to get a game over state is to die while using the Valkyrie. There are different classes of Vikings ranging from warriors to archers to summoners, each with their own attacks and uses in combat. With enough upgrades via the RPG-like experience system, you can also come to possess different enemies, and even junk littering the ground like bushes, barrels, and bear traps.

While taking control of different allies and enemies throughout the course of a single level is a novel idea, the fact is at the end of the day it doesn't alter the gameplay very much. You'll typically find that one ally type suits your playstyle and situation far more than any other, and stick with that until the end of the level. For instance, the only time the archer was ever particularly useful to me was when a boss didn't have much range, which allowed me to spam him like a motherfucker from the other side of the screen until the deed was done. Taking over enemies is a good idea on paper, but the execution is flawed. No single enemy is all that powerful (their strength comes in numbers), so you'll either have to endure much weaker attacks, much slower movement, or both just for the privilege of taking over a toxic Cthulhu. You're better off sticking to Viking heroes for the most part.

The enemies are varied enough, with every few levels introducing a new enemy type or variant of an existing one. But the environments feel a bit stale by the end of the game. There are three main terrains: The aforementioned Viking village, toxic swamp, and desert wasteland, each with its own enemies. Within each map of a terrain are between a dozen and twenty levels, where the environment repeats over and over again. I wouldn't say it was boring, but having a bit more variety in the levels themselves would have helped to set things apart as you go along.

Luckily, the visuals are nice and crisp, and display a good array of colors to help make certain enemies pop. The game is acceptably cartoony and colorful, and the whimsical tone of the writing matches the aesthetic perfectly. Vikings are gruff and goofy, monsters are slimy and silly, and nothing ever takes itself too seriously. The music is serviceable, but hardly anything special. Can't win 'em all.

The game has a fair amount of content, though a lot is filler. You have four Valkyries to control, each representing a season of the year. Each has its own EXP and stat/upgrade progression, so you could feasibly play through the game four times in order to max them all out. I had a decent enough time with one, but didn't feel the need to immediately do it again four times. In addition to the main gameplay mode, there's also a roguelike mode that serves as the "hard mode." Potions you pick up have the potential to harm you, enemies are a tad stronger and more aggressive, and if your Valkyrie dies you have to start over without any of the EXP you had earned. I see the word "roguelike" in game descriptions and instantly know it's not for me, but if you're into that kind of thing then it's there. There's also local multiplayer and deathmatch to help tick off a few more checkboxes.

All in all it's a nice little game, but a few nagging problems do their best to bog the whole experience down. First and foremost is the slowdown -- when the shit hits the fan and you're surrounded by enemies, the game simply can't seem to keep up with the action. Since the enemies by themselves are pretty easy to defeat, it will often throw up to a dozen at you at a time, and when that happens Die for Valhalla! starts to chug. It's all you can do to defeat them quickly enough to allow the engine to catch up with the on-screen action. If you use the summoner Viking, whose main ability is to summon three allies to help in battle, things can really get hairy with 15 or more characters moving around. There were times the game would flat-out stop for a second while the summoned allies were loading and pick back up once it caught its breath. This would have been a bad thing 20 years ago on the SNES, but on a 2D side-scrolling game on modern consoles it's downright unacceptable to have this amount of slowdown.

With so many characters on-screen, it's almost impossible to tell where you are. There's no circle or aura or any indicator at all to tell your Viking hero apart from any others, so if you're surrounded by allies or fighting normal Viking enemies, you wind up having to break away from the melee several times just to figure out who you're controlling. Any of the player indicators above would instantly solve this problem, but as they're not there you're going to get lost in the action a lot.

And I know it's to be expected, but holy shit the final boss is obnoxious. Hitting it takes basically no health away from its lifebar, and it sends endless waves of adds at you forcing you to deal with small, nagging enemies instead of the main threat. I'm not kidding when I say the waves are endless -- the small annoying enemies you fought in the game come out in pairs every ten seconds or so, and if you don't clear them they'll clog up the screen and you'll never chip any health off of the boss. And the worst part? That dreaded slowdown and engine-sputtering from above is compounded. The whole boss fight is basically a messy slowdown showdown between one nigh-invincible boss and hundreds of tiny, annoying spiders which can stunlock you into oblivion. No es bueno.

Die for Valhalla! is a perfectly serviceable side-scrolling beat-'em-up that gets most of the basics right, but struggles in execution in many areas. That said, it knows deep down that it's a total product of its genre, and that simplicity is something that appeals to me in an era of bloated AAA titles that either try to do too much, or try to squeeze too many samey elements into the game just to pad it out. I was able to get in, get out, and have some good fun with my playthrough, even to the point where I was able to get past some of its glaring technical issues. I was just having fun hacking away at flaming werewolves.

I don't know if I'd die for Valhalla, but I certainly didn't mind wasting a dozen hours defending it.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

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Die for Valhalla reviewed by Wes Tacos

7

GOOD

Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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Wes Tacos
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