Volgarr the Viking touted a lot of things on its Kickstarter page, which completed its funding at the end of August this year, but perhaps most memorable of its claims was that it aims to put the ‘meat back in the cheeseburger’ of action games. By that, it means bring back the difficulty and feeling of reward which so many games of late have shied away from, although some things about Volgarr make me think that maybe we just have a hamburger here.
I’d love to tell you the premise of Volgarr the Viking, but there isn’t one. “Rise, warrior!” is shouted at you by some booming voice in the sky, and you start in earnest hacking away at enemies and getting knee deep in platforming without any explanation whatsoever. There’s some real charm in that, honestly, not just because it harks back to arcade games of old, but also because it’s like you’re in Valhalla itself: infinite enemies to decapitate and infinite lives. Those infinite lives will certainly come in handy, because just as Volgarr is brutal to his foes, so is the game brutal with killing you and sending you back ages. Loot chests drop pieces of armour which are effectively your health bar, with each piece being able to take one hit. However, these pieces are few and far between and the real aim of the game here is mastery and doing every area so many times you simply don’t make mistakes.
I’ve always thought this is a pretty fine line to tread. There are plenty of retro games which are horribly made, but use their difficulty almost as an excuse. If we’re going to see the same areas time and time again as we go for our thousandth retry, they’ve gotta be interesting and mechanically sound. Fortunately, most of Volgarr the Viking’s areas really are quite varied and keep the old-school look, albeit not a very Viking-y one. Being able to pretty much do parkour through an area you’ve learnt like the back of your hand truly looks heroic.
There are some gripes I had with the ‘pain and reward’ system, mind you. I get that what many people want is a seriously meaty cheeseburger, but I wouldn’t mind a bit more cheese for actually completing a level. Even if it was just a little momentary change in the music, or some superficial change in the armour, a dumb little ‘victory’ animation – anything would do, really. Mastery is its own reward, sure, but going into the next level after struggling for hours as if nothing just happened seems a bit pale. My other main criticism is one that I’m sure will outrage some hardcore players – I just don’t like it that you have to start at the very beginning every time you load up the game. I know, I know, retro-styled arcade game, only true warriors need apply, but I don’t have all the time in the world. I’m happy for that to be some kind of game type, but I’d really like to just carry on from where I was last getting battered. If I’ve mastered the levels before, why do I have to prove it every single time?
Still, in Volgarr’s cruel simplicity, he’s certainly a Viking, and I felt like a Viking. Battling is bloody, endless, and grim, and if you’re a big fan of games that seem to have nothing but contempt for you, there’s glory to be found in Volgarr the Viking’s quest. Fortune favours the bold!
[+Brutal difficulty, and brutal, bloodsoaked combat] [+Great level design, keeps you on your toes] [+Volgarr looks and fights like a viking] [+Captures the retro essence pretty perfectly] [-Music is pretty forgettable, and you'll hear it a lot] [-Can feel too harshly unrewarding]