Friday, 11 October 2013

REVIEW - Volgarr The Viking (PC)

I do enjoy a good hack and slash adventure, and have done since I first clapped my eyes on Taito's epic Rastan coin-op way back when I was a wee nipper. Navigating a 2D fantasy world, wielding a mighty sword to do battle with hideous beasts has always had an extremely appealing lure. As much as I enjoy my platforming action involving cute anthropomorphic characters, bright sunny forests to explore and coins / apples / gems (delete as appropriate) to collect, there is something captivating about a darker realm, with volcanoes, temples, graveyards and dragon's lairs. Rastan still remains one of my favourite arcade games of all time, and while many games have attempted to reuse this winning formula, I have never found anything to beat it for satisfying my 2D hack and slash itch. So it was with gratuitous levels of excitement that I approached Volgarr the Viking, after all, it has all the correct ingredients to match or even (gasp) beat Rastan as the chop-em-up 2D platformer of choice.

After successfully raising over double their original Kickstarter asking price of £18,000 in August 2012 the guys at Crazy Viking Studios have been hard at work making sure that Volgarr the Viking lives up to expectations, and it would appear they have put the extra money to good use. Visually the game is immensely appealing, nailing the look of late 80's / early 90's arcade games, with the added bonus of a glorious modern level of polish that adds colour, vibrancy and depth to the fantasy environments you will traverse. The character sprites are extremely well drawn and animated, bringing the world and its inhabitants to life. Sonically, the game also impresses with an epic and rousing orchestral soundtrack that suits the game to a tee, and is a nice alternative to a chiptune soundtrack that could easily have been the path the developers took when making a retro game. It is clear that presentation was important and Volgarr excels in this area.

Gameplay is as old school as they come and will feel right at home to anyone who enjoyed (or still enjoys, as the case should be) action packed arcade games such as Ghosts 'N Goblins, Robocop, Three Wonders, Strider and, of course, Rastan itself. Taking control of the titular hero, you must journey across the 2D stages, using your sword to murder the various lizard men, snakes, mermen and other abominations. When defeated, your foes will explode in a shower of bones and guts, often dropping valuable items which become yours for the taking. As well as a ready supply of evil minions to chop to death, there are ropes to climb, pits of spikes or water to leap over, and traps to avoid. Sound familiar? Of course it does, it's as close to Rastan as you could possibly get without lawyers getting involved - the initial part of stage one even copies the one seen in Taito's game (complete with familiar looking skeleton). Where Volgar differs from its obvious source material is the ability to hurl spears, either into the chests of enemies (causing them considerable discomfort) or into walls, which in turn can be used as makeshift platforms to ascend to higher places. This spear can also be charged to fire a mighty flaming projectile which does far more damage, as well as comically launching the poor sap on the end into the nearest wall. Also at Volgarr's disposable is the ability to roll, allowing access under narrow gaps, and a double jump - complete with spinning blade attack for those tricky airborne enemies.

All good so far but, unfortunately, Volgarr has one main problem - and one that is a real game breaker - the insane difficulty level. As a large hulking character Volgarr's movement can be fairly cumbersome, which is fine except for the fact that the amount of hazards and enemies on hand to murderise you render your viking protagonist not up to the task in hand. Volgarr can only withstand a couple of hits from the start, with no life bar to show what state you are in, you can collect additional hits via armour or shields found in chests - but these are few and far between. The onslaught of enemies is relentless - in some areas monsters continually climb into battle forcing you to fight waves of monsters while trying to navigate platforms and projectiles - and spikes, arrows, and poison spitting beasts await at every turn. Worst of all, the checkpoints are light years apart, meaning when you die (and you will die, often) you have to repeat long sections all over again. Even dying during a fight with one of the huge bosses will result in the whole level having to be replayed. The game comes down to a serious case of 'trial and error', with many leaps landing you right in front of an oncoming (read, unavoidable) arrow, or onto a set of spikes you had no way of knowing were there, unless you were expecting them.

These days, a lot of developers seem to ramp up the difficulty level in their games to excessive heights, claiming anyone who bemoans the overly challenging gameplay is too used to modern games holding their hand, or that 'this was how it was in the NES days'. Well, I was there in the NES days, and have completed many titles considered to be some of gamings biggest challenges, yet I found the difficulty level in Volgarr completely obnoxious. While, I absolutely love Volgarr's exciting, retro, gameplay, and found myself gripped to it more than any other new game I have recently played, it also made me want to embed my controller in the nearest wall more than any other game I can think of, forcing me to turn it off before the veins in my head started to throb. It is an exceptionally frustrating game, and one that really requires some devotion to it to continue putting yourself through the trauma. 

In order to cater to the tiny niche of gamers who actually like being punished at every turn and replaying the same section of a level over and over again (borderline OCD cases I'll wager), indie developers are repeatedly making these games - games that could be some of the most enjoyable on the market - borderline unplayable. Despite Volgarr immediately taking me back to the days that I would pump coins into the Rastan coin-op as fast as my little hands would allow, and giving me some incredibly engaging 2D platform hack and slash action, it simply destroyed my will to continue thanks to the horrific difficulty level that only ends up amplifying Volgarr's flaws, flaws I could otherwise have happily overlooked. Volgarr is a wasted opportunity, it could have been one of the best games around, but it beat me into submission until I simply had no desire ever to return to it. Save yourself the mental anguish and potential stomach ulcer / headaches / heart attack and your money by playing the infinitely superior, and still fantastic, Rastan via MAME or one of the many Taito Legends compilations it appeared on.

The Good

  • Excellent graphics that hark back to 1980's coin-ops
  • Epic orchestral soundtrack is a nice change to the usual Chiptune fare
  • Solid gameplay that is engaging and enjoyable.. at first

The Bad

  • Horrendous difficulty level that saps your will to live
  • Volgarr's sluggish movements are not up to the task

Title : Volgarr the Viking
Developer : Crazy Viking Studios
Year : 2013
System : PC
Price : £9.99