The moment your tiny Vikings fall from the sky - and smack into the lovingly crafted landscape of Valhalla Hills, you realize that this is a different kind of game. Indie developer, Funatics, have designed games such as Settlers 2 and Cultures. And while they have been creating building sims for over a decade, there is something a bit fresh about Valhalla Hills. From the game’s unique setting to the simple and clean UI to the straightforward gameplay, Valhalla Hills is a well-polished strategy sim.
Entering Steam Early Access in August 2015, Valhalla Hills puts you in the role of Leko, an outcast son of Odin. Leko failed as a god due to his interest in, you guessed it, building things. Odin, disgusted with Leko’s interest in bricks rather than more Vikingly pastimes like drinking mead and eating roasted wild boar, casts his son out of Valhalla and throws up some gates to keep him out. Leko, unable to attain entry to Valhalla, gathers the fallen Vikings who share his fate and are determined to build, survive, and battle their way back into the gates. While the premise is a bit convoluted, it does provide a passable explanation as to why you build stuff and manipulate little Vikings as you go.
While a bit light on strategy, Valhalla Hills checks all the boxes of a strategy sim game while providing some interesting new twists. Procedurally generated maps work to keep the game fresh, but Valhalla Hills does more to streamline the sim builder experience than to move it forward. Some have stated that there is a roguelike mechanic but the game’s procedural generation and adaptive unlocks do not make a roguelike. Perhaps you could say it is roguelike-like, but at what point does the description even mean anything anymore? We’ll leave the buzzwords to the marketers and just enjoy a good game, which Valhalla Hills is shaping up to be.
Fans of Settlers 2 will enjoy Valhalla Hills playstyle, as will just about anyone who likes strategy sims. Firing up the game, you are presented with an affectionate cut scene explaining Leko’s backstory. And then you are given your first handful of Viking failures with which to build and journey to Valhalla. You start out on a small island with very few building options and resources around. At the top of each island, there is a portal gate which the Vikings must first discover (by walking nearby) and then open to progress to the next island, and, ultimately Valhalla itself. The challenge of course is that when the portal is opened, monsters pour out and begin assaulting your Vikings. If unprepared, your Vikings will all be killed and your progression will end. Of course, the game provides military structures to help train warriors and equip them with weapons so they can battle these evil creatures. Unlike many games in the strategy sim genre, Valhalla Hills leans more on the end goal of getting the Vikings to the portal on each level rather than accomplishing quests, missions, or storyline elements. I found this to be a great way to unleash the player’s creativity while retaining an easy to understand structure for the gameplay. As the islands get larger and more options become available to the player, the portals unleash more and more difficult creatures.
Your first island is fairly simple but each island thereafter becomes more challenging as the player hops into each portal. The goal is to ease the player into the gameplay while keeping things interesting. To that end, Funatics designed an interesting adaptive unlock system that presents players with new options based on how they play the game. While this is not so advanced that it makes a huge difference after hours of progression, it does present a nice twist to the early levels. Combined with the procedurally generated islands, players will have a bit of a fresh experience with each play-through.
The game’s mechanics work well. Build a woodcutter and your Vikings start chopping wood and bringing it to the structure. Build a tent and you have access to more Vikings. Within each building there are little elements that can be tweaked such as how many Vikings will be trained or assigned to the building. Additionally, players can shut down a building to force Vikings to work elsewhere. Like any game that stops short of full control over the units, Valhalla Hills can get frustrating when the AI doesn’t respond in a way that you hoped. Yet, isn’t that precisely what makes these games a challenge? It’s getting things to work the way you want that is the puzzle worth solving leading to your progression and, ultimately, victory.
Some minor attention to detail really does the game well such as the ability to change your Viking’s names. If you name a Viking Johnny5, you can follow his progression through each level as you move through the game. Unless of course, Johnny5 is killed by Ice Golems or some other portal spawn. The flora and fauna of the game are lovingly crafted and the details shine through as you zoom in closely to watch your Vikings work. The graphics are quite nice as well. Valhalla Hills boasts the Unreal 4 engine and the developer has put it to good use. The water is beautiful as waves crash into the island, the lighting is also excellent as evident by the beauty of volcanoes exploding on the horizon at dawn. The game’s day night/cycle shows off just how nice the stylised Vikings and their environment can look. And the variety of landscapes, from snow covered mountain peaks to the sandy shores of the beaches, provide yet another reason to want to charge through the portal gate. The audio, while not the best I’ve heard, helps create a fun and appropriately Viking-centric atmosphere in which to spend hours building and battling.
Valhalla Hills does have its share of issues despite being pretty polished for an Early Access game. Some text formatting errors make description panels unreadable. The camera snaps back into place prohibiting full freedom for the player to enjoy the visuals. The AI can operate in confusing ways that leave you wondering if you built things up properly. And despite the otherwise good graphics, the combat effects do not quite impress.
Overall, Valhalla Hills is shaping up to be an interesting strategy sim. Spending a few months in Steam Early Access should help the team iron out any bugs while affording interested players the option of diving in straightaway.
Valhalla Hills is published by Daedalic and is available on Steam Early Access with a proper release expected sometime in Q4 2015 for Windows, Mac, and Linux.