Everyone loves a good Viking - the hairy, horn-hat wearing, sea-faring roughnecks of the north. Just like the Greeks and Romans before them, the Norsemen had more than their fair share of myths and legends, making them an ample source of inspiration for games that has been sadly under-explored. While a handful of titles have certainly drawn on Nordic influences, from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrimto Odin Sphere and even Tomb Raider, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard, a hack-and-slash adventure from our friends at Kalypso, is one of only a handful of games to be based around actual Vikings proper - and yet sadly, it falls somewhat wide of the mark.
Taking inspiration from a gamut of Norse legends, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard is a hack-and-slash adventure that sees you stepping into the fur-clad boots of one of the sole survivors of the Ulfung tribe, a clan of ostracised Viking warriors known as the titular Wolves of Midgard. With the Norse armageddon of Ragnarok on the horizon, and the Jotan - the fire and frost giants of the mountains - readying their armies, it falls to you, as the leader of the Ulfung tribe to save Midgard from destruction. Disappointingly though, despite the potential of its subject matter, the story here is largely academic, doing little but serving as a backdrop for a decidedly Viking-themed bloodbath. In hindsight, that's possibly a blessing in disguise, as what little story there is is so badly explained, it ends up coming out as more of a jumble of Norse-sounding words than anything particularly coherent or meaningful.
Borrowing heavily from the likes of Diablo, Torchlight and Dungeon Siege, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard follows a rather familiar format, as you plough your way through wave upon wave of goblins, giants and rival tribes, seemingly on a mission to make everything extinct before the coming armageddon gets them instead. From the off, you have a choice between a male/female character, a handful of hairstyles and one of five different 'deities' to worship, which determine your main weapon specialities - for example, those blessed by Thor wield heavy hammers, whilst Odin followers prefer the staff, and the icy goddess Skathi grants her disciples mastery over the bow. Each weapon speciality has its own associated set of skills too, whether its increased resistance to the cold, a heavy-hitting rage, or spewing a fiery arc of flames at your enemies. A rudimentary crafting system also lets you forge new weapons and armour from raw materials, and enchant them with magical runes, giving you better gear for your character, although gathering the necessary ingredients can be a bit of a grind.
Setting out on your quest to nobble all the other tribes, you'll stroll through somewhat formulaic levels that largely consist of travelling from A to B, killing anything that moves in the interim, as you work your way up to the final boss. Optional Challenges, which task you with destroying a certain number of tribal flags, collecting three iron skulls or defeating a set amount of Shieldmaiden enemies (for example) keep things from feeling too much like a slog, along with giving your attack button mashing finger a much needed break. Convoluted fetch quests, puzzles and escort missions aren't for Vikings: Wolves of Midgard - here its all about whooping bad guys, plain and simple.
One interesting touch - and one that probably sounds better in theory than it does in practice - is Wolves of Midgard's 'exposure'. As you're exploring the different regions, you may come across some harsher terrain, like snow-topped mountains and tundras (this is Norse country after all). To make things feel more 'realistic', in such situations your character has an additional meter you'll need to keep an eye on, which indicates their 'coldness' - max it out, and your character will start to freeze, and begin taking damage. Fortunately, you can warm yourself up, and therefore reset the meter, at the conveniently placed campfires that have been littered in and around the snowy areas, before trudging on to the next. However, while it may sound like a cool idea on paper, it's one that actually only ends up discouraging you from exploring - especially as the fires aren't quite as regularly placed as we'd like, and are often surprisingly heavily guarded by enemies, meaning you'll likely end up taking damage from both the cold AND the bad guys way before you reach the next campfire.
Away from the battles, it's fair to say that Vikings: Wolves of Midgard is a little bit rough around the edges. Whether it's the camera sometimes stuttering to catch up with your character, some seemingly sticky scenery that your character will sometimes get stuck on (once, so badly we had no choice but to start a mission over), or a particularly weird glitch we encountered with our archer class character, where despite standing straight in front of a particular enemy (close enough that they could whack us, no problems), our arrows were connecting, but for some reason doing no damage, there's enough bugs here that it starts to hamper your enjoyment.
While the above are mostly minor annoyances, we did also encounter a few more serious glitches, most notably in a boss fight against the 'Iron Guardian', a large, fire-breathing metal golem. About half way through the battle, for reasons we've still yet to figure out, his health simply stopped decreasing, despite the fact we were landing hits the game reckoned doing around 80 to 90 points of damage each time - with his health frozen, he'd also stopped doing his trademark 'Iron Fist' attack, which gave him a temporary shield powered by a number of stone pillars. The only way to fix the fight was to get him to kill you, so you can start the whole boss fight over again - something which could potentially ruin your whole game if you were mental enough to play on the game's hardest one-life-and-then-its-game-over Valhalla difficulty.
In an earlier level, we also ran into difficulties when trying to complete all of the optional Challenges. As we backtracked searching for some of the missing flags we were supposed to be destroying, we passed through a checkpoint which reset our progress in all three of the challenges to zero - without resetting the enemies, flags or iron skull locations. Unfortunately, this rendered it impossible to actually complete any of the Challenges, as you couldn't get anywhere near the target number of flags, iron skulls or enemies, because there physically weren't enough of them left in the level. Thankfully, the Challenges are only optional, so finishing a level doesn't hinge on you getting them all, but completionists and trophy hunters may resent having to replay the same stage just to get all of them again.
In all, then, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard is a bit of a mixed bag - its a pretty average dungeon-crawling hack and slash, in a similar vein to Diablo et al, but without enough substance to back it up. Despite the reams of inspiration source material, the story's ended up coming out somewhat nonsensical and irrelevant, while levels almost exclusively revolve around mashing the attack button until everything stops moving, even if the optional Challenges do add some much-needed structure to the proceedings. It's by no means bad, but it's also nowhere near as good as it really should have been, with some annoying bugs and glitches getting in the way of what could have been a decent adventure for those looking to scratch a button-mashing itch.
Format Reviewed: PC