Volgarr The Viking is a 2D side scrolling action platformer that wants to take you back to a time when games were tough and wanted you to fail. Legend has it, that while playing this game, if you look up “failure” in the dictionary at the same time, you will see a picture of yourself. Seriously though, this game is brutal, and embraces that fact. Don’t be surprised when your hair starts to gray after a few sessions with this game. After playing, you will have cursed every person who worked on this game along with their mothers and probably even their goldfish. It’s a well made experience however, so do a couple “woo-sahs”, and strap yourself in, this won’t be easy.
The story is not given to you right off the bat. In fact, you aren’t given any details about a story until the end of the game. This hearkens back to games from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras where you are just thrown into the game as soon as you press start. There is a quick story set up in the manual however and it explains that a greedy and murderous dwarf called Fafnir, had been mutated into a ferocious, venomous dragon creature, by reason of his greed. Though, Fafnir seemed to not pose an immediate threat after some time and kept hidden away with his treasure, as most seemed to just outright avoid him rather than attempt to slay him. After some time, Fafnir began to become an immediate threat once more to the people of Midgard. The God Odin, resurrected a fallen prestigious warrior of a past life, Volgarr, to once more defend Midgard and slay Fafnir.
This game is presented in a 16-bit style with great looking, fluid animation. Sprites are big and detailed with a bright color palette that shines well on your Vita’s screen. I find my myself growing fond of some the enemy designs, particularly the trident wielding, reptilian monsters of the second world. They look like something out of any particular musclebound, mutated, crime fighting animal team of most ‘90s cartoons (take your pick). Each world has a unique theme with enemies to suit. Each boss fits their theme quite well also. The music meshes well with the atmosphere of each level, but there really isn’t anything here that will make you want to look up a YouTube playlist to listen to outside of playing the game. The sound effects are nice however, each swing of your weapon and enemy kill, gives you a meaty, satisfying sound that suits the game’s brutal theme.
Gameplay and Design:
After the game loads up initially, you are thrown right into the game play and signaled to walk right. This is the game’s tutorial stage, getting you familiar with all of your controls. There is your basic sword swing attack, nothing special. You can also swing your sword in the air or if you hold the “down” direction while jumping you will do a downward stab attack. There is a rolling dodge technique, which is sometimes your only option for getting through certain obstacles and situations. You have a basic jump that doesn’t allow you to change direction while in the air, but you also have a double jump which can dictate your direction after initiated. A spear throw attack, in which you have an unlimited amount of spears. Spears can also be thrown at walls, and while sticking out of a wall, can be used as a platform to get up to high places or across obstacles. Finally, the right thumb stick can pan the camera around a bit so you can see slightly more of what is ahead of you or around you, off-screen.
Each treasure chest throughout the game will mostly contain a piece of equipment for Volgarr depending on what gear he already has. You initially start each level with a wooden shield and your sword. The shield can take a hit or two before it is destroyed and only absorbs said hits when an attack or projectile hits the shield directly. If you’re hit from behind or below it won’t take the hit and you will also lose it, leaving you with just one more hit before death. If you manage to hold onto the wooden shield, the next treasure chest will contain a blue metal shield. The same rules apply for this shield but the blue shield is stronger and gives Volgarr another technique involving the spear throw. The spear throw attack can now be charged up if you hold the button, and sends out a stronger, glowing spear, dealing more damage and a further range. Losing your blue shield doesn’t bump you back down to the wooden shield, but rather leaves your vulnerable with no shield just as before. If you manage to keep the blue shield and come across another treasure chest, you will be granted a metal helmet which grants you another hit. Now, reaching another treasure chest while keeping the metal helmet, will grant you a flaming sword which deals double damage and increases sword attack range. If you get hit with the flaming sword however, you are bumped back down to just the shield again as this new sword doesn’t grant you another hit. After obtaining all upgrades, future treasure chests will contain treasure that is added to your stash at the end of a level. Multiple endings are featured based on how much treasure you end up with in your horde.
Reaching the end of a level at all is a grand task itself that requires lots of patience, practice, and memorization. You end up playing sections a few dozens times until it becomes muscle memory due to how many times you have to try over again. There almost becomes a rhythm to getting through each level that you would swear you were playing Guitar Hero after a while. There is usually only one mid-way checkpoint in each level and each section getting there is a long and frustrating task. Every toil just to a checkpoint feels like a full level in itself. I get that the game is supposed to be brutally hard, but you can end up getting rather far in a level and die to something unexpected, only to be taken back to the beginning or the only checkpoint, if you reached it, which is rather disappointing as you have to trudge all the way back to the section you died at just to try again and see what you could do differently. After a while you will almost be begging for some kind of cheat or miracle to get around a troublesome area. If Odin can resurrect Volgarr hundreds of times, you would think he would throw him a bone and give him some new abilities to prevent so many of his deaths.
There is plenty of enemy variety in which each type needs to be defeated in a unique way, always keeping you guessing. Even many “palette swapped” enemies will surprise you with a different attribute that requires them to be killed an entirely different way from their differently colored brethren. Some foes, have shields, some have swords, some shoot a variety of projectiles, some hop around in crazy patterns, and some will even just run or lunge at you, trying to stop you in any way they can. A lot of areas will contain infinitely re-spawning enemies as well, so keep on the move when necessary.
Bosses pull no punches either, it is almost always necessary to be completely geared up when facing bosses, not only for the increased attack power, but for the extra hits as well. Boss battles are usually the times when you will want to snap your Vita in two, as you have to make your way through half the level again just to face them, study their patterns, die, and repeat the process until you finally manage to win. I often found myself just mashing the attack button whenever I could, getting in as many hits as possible and hoping for the best. You are granted with a gold treasure chest filled with treasure for
your stash after you defeat them. Collect it sooner rather than later, as the longer you wait, the less will be in it.
I could recommend Volgarr The Viking to those who want a classic, old-school challenge that relies purely on the player’s skill. The controls work well enough besides the fact that you have little control over your jumps. The level design is solid, albeit the checkpoint system is a little infuriating. Nevertheless, the game looks great and displays well on the Vita’s screen. The sprites are detailed and colorful and the backgrounds are all unique and atmospheric. That’s about where any pleasantries end however. This game is all about trial and error, making you try again and again only to have you die from something almost immediately after getting through a part you had a lot of trouble with. If you have enough patience, this game can become second nature however, making ACTUAL use of the in-game speed run clock. If you can speed run this game you must have the patience of a saint and the skills of a professional. I found myself dying more times than I could count and the time on my speed run clock was laughable about halfway through. The only advice I can honestly give you is, “git gud”. Volgarr The Viking is a dream for masochists and/or those who want a pure retro challenge.
Score: 7 out of 10
Volgarr The Viking is an extreme experience in a retro, 16-bit art style. Straightforward controls and impressive design make the long trudge a bit more enjoyable. Just know that “difficult” doesn’t even really come close to describing what you are in for, but finally conquering a section makes it that much more rewarding.