Valhalla Hills PC Review
If the story of Valhalla Hills is anything to go by, then I’m glad I don’t have Odin as a father. You see, in the beginning of Funatics Software latest God game, we are met with an angry Odin, and when the ruler of Asgard is angry, boy, is he truly pissed, and no one in the Norse mythology is safe from his anger. Odin is furious that his young son, Leko, isn’t interested in getting drunk, doesn’t have the bloodthirsty intent for fighting and won’t plunder like a good Viking. Instead, he loves building things, which is not something a true Viking should enjoy as much as having alcoholic fuelled bar brawls. It’s made worse when Leko fails in key areas of the exam of the gods, and so Odin, who has had enough with his son, appoints him as a lowly “God of the Builders” and casts him down to Earth. That isn’t the only issue, as Odin is so furious with how his son has turned out, he has closed the doors to Valhalla in a hissy fit, blocking any brave, honourable, Vikings who have fallen in battle from entering the paradise of Valhalla. This is where Leko comes in as a saviour, gathering the fallen warriors together to build their way back up to Valhalla.
Valhalla Hills is the resource management part of the God/strategy genre. You don’t physically control the population that walk around the island, rather, you passively influence their AI by building things and requesting unemployed Vikings, who have just fallen down from the sky and are sitting around doing nothing but chilling under a tree, to do work. This is to make sure that the fallen are ready for discovering and opening the portals, which are gateways to progress to the next hill, building up the honour to get ever closer to Valhalla until being at the point where you have enough honour to be let in. The game’s structure might sound similar to classic building management games, such as The Settlers 2 and Cultures, and there is a good reason for that, It’s not because the team are some young gun developers who were influenced by those classic games, but in actual fact, it’s due to the team featuring some of the same people that worked on those games all those years ago.
Each island is randomly generated from a sequence of numbers. It reminds me of the classic, Worms, where its battlegrounds were created from numbers the player could enter. While you might not know what type of island you will find yourself inhabiting, one thing clear is that each start always begins the same way. First thing required is materials, so your small group of rejected Viking warriors will hunt down resources to construct the first building, the toolmaker. The game recommends this is how you always start for every new island you travel to, as tools are key to getting life on the island to a solid start. A toolmaker offers a job to a Viking, cutting down unemployment or part-time work for the rest of the Nordic population. The Next key structure is the woodcutter, which is used to cut down trees, but to do this, the toolmaker needs to make an axe to allow the woodcutter to cut trees to aid in bringing materials to make more tools and buildings. The rest of the game’s economy is built on the starting blocks of these key constructions.
Once past this point on your lovely little island, the game gives the player a bit more space to begin building a village how they want. There is still a goal to achieve though, which is to discover the portal and open it, and the opening of the portal leaves the player with two options. One is to build a base that will be able to defend and destroy the spiritual warriors/monsters that spawn through the portal once activated. This means altering your focus around constructing warcamps and gaining a weaponsmith to equip the warriors with the means to slay. The other option is more on the peaceful side, being able to build a village with less military might, but instead, build an altar to offer resources to bribe the portal defenders to stay within the portals, leaving you an easy free pass to the next hill.
While the beginning and end game are similar for every island, it’s the middle ground between the two ends that calls for the most preparation. Vikings aren’t walking ghosts in Valhalla Hills. Just like any human, these beings need to be looked after for them to perform at their best. They are Vikings after all, so they need plenty of food and booze to keep them healthy and motivated to work. Placing down a fishery or a hunter shack opens up the chance to catch wildlife to use as food, but before those workers can do the job, they need the equipment, they need fishing rods and other gear to hunt down animals.
Almost everything has a building chain. Another example would be the bakery for making fresh, warm bread, but before you can do that, you need to have flour, which means having wheat to be harvested and turned into flour. If you don’t successfully get food to your civilians they will simply cave over and die, and with a limited amount of Vikings being dropped from the gates of Valhalla, you need to make sure you have enough to do the jobs around the village or you won’t have enough warriors to fight or resources to bribe. Valhalla Hills can be broken down into simple steps – have a good start, look after the Vikings to produce enough goods or warriors, then tackle the portal and move on. On paper it sounds easy, but the game makes it more irritating than it needs to be due to issues with the AI, a key component that has to work right or the game’s ecosystem crumbles.
To overcome the issue with wondering AI, the use of roads are ideal to create pathways to connect buildings together, but it also allows the Vikings a faster way to reach the destination. The problem is that even with a well placed network of roads, the AI, for whatever reason, can still cause issues by not adapting to their current situations. Handling hunger occasionally became a problem for me. I’d have plenty of fish stocked, but my civilians wouldn’t eat it, even though they were complaining about hunger while standing next to a house stocked with tasty fish. I guess some of them aren’t just down with eating sea life, but when it happens and screws up your game, often causing the need to restart, it can be frustrating.
The game is about making everything efficient, so cutting down journey time is important. They say time is money, or in the case of Valhalla Hills, time is another person getting tired or hungry. To help cut walking distances, stocking items in crates around the village makes it easier for the townsfolk to equip themselves with gear or grab food without having to waste time to travel to the right building that is currently stockpiling the goods. When this is working, it’s great seeing everyone go about their job without the need for you to get involved in manipulating what they need to do, but when it’s not, things just break and it’s hard to understand why without investigating the scope of everything in your village. Are the roads connected right? Is the raw material within range of the building? It could be anything, but all you know is the basics that something is wrong. I often screamed at the game with “I KNOW THEY ARE HUNGRY, BUT WHY AREN’T THEY EATING THE FOOD?!” A bit of trial and error is involved in getting everything just right, making sure people are happy and working, and that it all runs sufficiently enough without major issues to progress, otherwise it’s back to restarting and trying again.
There is a waiting game involved from putting in your command and actually seeing what happens on screen. Placing a house doesn’t instantly make it appear. The Vikings have to gather the materials, then get on with building it. It’s the same for weapons. If you don’t get on the preemptive and build the required gear, then your newly erected fishing house isn’t going to be able to do anything until fishing rods are available for someone to pick up and then take back to the workplace. Increasing speed is an option, with three settings available at the click of the mouse. Downtime like this is often, so being on your toes to make sure people are involved with work is critical, be it carrying materials from one place to another, hunting or building a house, if someone isn’t working, they aren’t been put to use and that lowers efficiency.
One thing I adore about the game is its visually charming graphics. The game uses Unreal Engine 4, but uses the power to move away from realistic graphics and produce a simplistic, striking cartoon art that adds personality to the world, while bringing some lovely visual effects, such as the brilliant lighting during the sunset/sunrise. I wouldn’t think of Vikings as cute people you would want to hug (or maybe you would if you’re into the tough look?) but somehow their adorable design pulls this off within the brightly coloured world. A slight hiccup spoils the performance with the frame rate when the game seems to be autosaving. It tanks for a couple of seconds, then spurts back to life. It’s not exactly game breaking in a title like this, but it’s jarring to have to experiencing it every few minutes, especially when you just happen to be zooming out and the game freezes, then jumps to a fully zoomed out view as it misread the input due to the stutter.
Valhalla Hills is a decent strategy title that calls up memories of the classics of this gameplay style. The game is oozing plenty of personality, but sadly, that alone does not make a fantastic game. While I adored its striking visuals, and its core resource and city management was engrossing, the repetitive nature of the start and end game deprives Valhalla Hills of much variety, leaving it as a straight-forward, slightly casual, management sim to pass the time for a few days, but never does enough to be memorable.