For the past 7 years, at least in my opinion, SEGA has been in a massive slump. Since their last ill-fated console attempt fell apart prematurely, with the Dreamcast, they moved onto third-party game development, and the quality of their titles has taken an unfortunate plunge into the basement of mediocrity, or worse. Although they haven’t released many titles of note, in recent years, that hasn’t stopped them from trying. SEGA’s latest attempt, a brutal hack’n’slash action-er, takes place in the mythological world of Norse gods and goddesses, with Viking: Battle for Asgard. Does Viking escape from that aforementioned basement, or does it dwell in the cellar with many of the others? Let’s find out, shall we.
The game’s protagonist comes in the form of the young Viking warrior, Skarin (pronounced Scarr-Inn.) Somehow, he has an inexplicable connection with the gods, and has been called upon by the Goddess Freya to help take down her rival, the Queen of the Underworld, Hel. Beyond that, the narrative only exists to drive the game forward, from island to island, and battle to battle. Viking’s lackluster, anemic story is merely a set-piece. Even the developers put little stock in the game’s tale, as they adorn every cut-scene with a very noticeable on-screen icon, prompting you to skip it by pressing the A button.
On the positive side, Viking’s style of gameplay doesn’t really need a strong story-line to keep it going. At the game’s beginning, Skarin is teleported by way of a shaman’s portal into a small Viking stronghold built along the southern coast of the island, Niflberg. From there you take control, and, by talking to the stronghold’s inhabitants, you’ll learn how the game’s natural progression works. Various locations will be marked on the on-screen map at the start of each of the game’s three islands, and Skarin will travel from marker to marker liberating Viking allies and eliminating the presence of any enemies, in disgustingly gore-ious fashion.
There’s much distance to be covered, by foot, and, sadly, this highlights the first of the game’s long list of maddening flaws. Skarin runs at a snail’s pace, and he’ll have to cover a lot of ground, moving across the rather expansive maps. Magical Leystones, or portals, give temporary relief to the monotonous travel, but they can be far and few between, especially further into the game. As crazy as it may sound, killing yourself is usually the quickest way to get around. Whenever Skarin dies, he’s transported to a Leystone inside of the Viking forces’ current stronghold. You can then tap the B button and choose which Leystone you want to teleport back to, rather than hoof your way there. It’s certainly not a good thing when suicide can become a player’s preferred method of travel.
A slow-moving character isn’t the only problem this game has, however. The combat may seem decent, upon first glance, but the further you get into the game, the more you’ll realize how utterly broken it truly is. The fundamentals are present; auto lock-on, dedicated block button, outrageously gory finishing moves and plenty of ways to dispatch your foes, such as axes and flamepots (think Molotov cocktail) that can be thrown from a distance. Where everything falls apart, though, is when the game’s cumbersome controls get in the way. All of Skarin’s actions feel very sluggish. An enemy will launch into a flurry of attacks, and rather than opening up an opportunity to counter by only blocking the initial blow, after you release the button, Skarin will continue to defend the string of attacks. Not to mention, most of Skarin’s combos lurch along so slowly, it’s much easier to just stick to jamming on the A button.
Even worse is how muddled the controls feel when facing a large group of Hel’s legion. Unlike most other games of similar fashion, the enemies in Viking will not allow you the slightest opening. If you’re surrounded by 6 or more enemies at a time, which will happen fairly often, death is usually inevitable. As soon as you try to land a single strike, an enemy will attack you from behind, and then you’ll be bounced back and forth, while your health slowly drains away, until your block finally decides to start working again. To attempt to help equalize these situations, Skarin has different runic abilities at his disposal. Occasionally, the ice rune ability will get you out of a jam, as you’ll freeze and dispatch foes quickly, but the fire and lightning abilities are practically useless. In a game where you face off against multiple foes on a regular basis, one would hope that your character would be given some kind of area-of-effect skill. Skarin possesses no such skill, however, so when surrounded, you’re forced to slowly and methodically kill each enemy, one at a time.
Luckily, Skarin doesn’t always have to fight alone. On each island, there will be a few large-scale battles that take place, and during these skirmishes, you’ll be aided by a sizeable force of fellow kinsmen. It truly is a shame that these are the only instances in the entire game that really shine. When surrounded by an overwhelming amount of allies, the feeble combat mechanics become a lot more manageable. Boss-type enemies also make frequent appearances on the battlegrounds, but these fights aren’t as epic as you might hope, as you’re mostly going to stand around them pounding on the attack button. It requires a quick-time button event to finish them off, much like many other games of the same genre, but this does at least mix up the action enough to forgive them for the blatant God of War infringement.
The huge battles don’t happen very often, so players will be mostly stuck with ineptitude. And rounding off the game’s ever-growing list of flaws are a few other glaring problems worth mentioning. There will be an obvious need to gain money, to purchase new moves and character upgrades; however, this cannot be accomplished by just killing enemies. Instead, you’ll get to waste time searching every nook and cranny of the expansive maps for small bags of gold and treasure chests. When that’s coupled with how slow Skarin meanders about, you’re left with nothing but a veritable crap sandwich. Viking also becomes another action game, in a growling list, that tries to add stealth mechanics that feel like they were just tacked on. Trying to sneak around with the game’s erratic camera is mostly a lesson in futility. And, finally, for some ungodly reason, the developers decided to make players have to jam on the B button for almost every action in the game. Need to open a door? Jam fervently on the B button. Activate a Leystone? Jam away on B. Pull a lever? Yep. B-B-B-B… Why you would have to pound on the button to simply open a door or pull a lever is beyond me, but it grows tiresome very quickly.
Not all is horrible in the land of Asgard, though. Viking boasts some rather impressive visuals. The game’s world is extremely colorful and beautifully detailed; with rolling hills, thickets of unique-looking trees, rocky, mountain walls, smoke-filled lava pits, frozen wastelands and massive waterfalls. One moment, in particular, really made me stop and stare. As I was walking down a series of bridges, I stopped upon a small rock formation, elevated above the sea, and the view of the cloudy sky and crashing waves below me was truly awe-inspiring.
Along with the beauty comes plenty of ugliness, though. In this type of game, some gore is to be expected, but Viking really pushes the envelope. When you land successful attacks on your foes, their ribs will split out of their abdomen, limbs will fly off and thick arterial spray will blanket the ground around them. Certain finishing moves are needlessly excessive, including one where Skarin cuts the enemy’s head off, and as its decapitated body is slumping to the ground, he raises up his weapons and cuts off both of its arms, as well. One word comes to mind, here – overkill. However, it is impressive how much mayhem the game can have on-screen all at once and keep a steady frame rate. There can be a couple hundred models on-screen, hacking away at each other, and I only suffered a few minor drops, scattered here and there.
On the sound front, Viking handles the job efficiently, if not spectacularly. There are a few moments of laughable cheese in the recorded dialog, but most of its fitting and convincing. The hacking of limbs and bodies is surely meaty and squishy enough to turn a few stomachs. I did notice a problem with sound effects dropping out or sounding muffled during large battles when too much was happening on-screen. As for the game’s illustrious score, while it easily sets the mood with pounding drums and blaring horns, it borrows far too heavily from Howard Shore’s magnificent work heard in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. There were moments where I thought that I actually was listening to the LotR soundtrack.
At the end of the day, Viking is a game that tries to accomplish a lot, but only manages a little. The combat feels severely under-cooked, there’s far too much relentless, on-foot travel and the story gives you absolutely no reason to care about how things will turn out for Skarin and the Vikings. There’s no motivation to keep you playing, apart from some rather easy to earn achievement points. The few portions of the game that deliver genuine excitement, the large-scale battles, only make up about 10 percent of the game’s overall 12 – 15 hours of play-time. Viking surely isn’t worth the full price of admission, at $60, so it’s strictly a rental at best. And that’s only if you’re someone who’s not overly picky about what you play.