There is a certain exhilaration and heartbreak that can come when playing a particularly difficult game. Anyone old enough to remember the days before auto-saving or even memory cards knew the pain of seeing a Game Over screen. Even worse was the disappointment at having to finally power down a console after hours of playing but never quite being able to reach and defeat the final boss. Still, it always felt amazing being victorious after days of trial and error didn’t it? While ridiculously tough, Volgarr the Viking is one of those titles that evokes all those old gamer feelings. But is this a game just for seasoned vets or can anyone with enough dedication break past the difficulty curve and have some fun?
One of the easiest ways to give Volgarr and its core mechanics some context is to think about Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Yes, that infamous old 8/16-bit title from Capcom that forced players to beat an already difficult game twice to actually get the true ending. This is in no way to say that Crazy Viking Studios is simply aping classic platformers from decades ago. Instead, Volgarr plays like it was actually forged during the golden NES, Genesis, and SNES days.
In the same vein of games where rescuing the princess was the prime motivation for the hero, Volgarr the Viking shares an equally basic story. Odin has resurrected the deceased Volgarr so that the viking can defeat the evil dwarf Fafnir before he wrecks havoc upon the world. To do this, Volgarr slices and jumps his way through hordes of various monsters like lizardmen, zombies, skeletons, snakes and fish-like creatures who pilot mechanical crabs.
Volgarr defeats his enemies by cutting them down with his sword or throwing spears through them. Along the way, the player will find treasure chests housing armor and weapon upgrades that are crucial to progressing through the game. At first, Volgarr only starts out with a basic sword and a wooden shield which can only deflect two attacks before breaking. A durable metal shield can then be collected which also allows for spears to be charged before thrown for a stronger attack. A helmet acts as one free hit point and a flaming sword increases attack power and range. Much like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, it is easy to feel crippled when stripped down to the most basic equipment. Many runs through a level will no doubt be decided on how long the player can go without getting hit.
And you’re going to get hit a lot. Despite the fact that most enemies and traps have a set pattern, it doesn’t make them any easier to conquer. A large part of Volgarr’s fun is thanks to the quick reflexes a player gains with their experience. The first new moments of any section will likely result in death but the player eventually masters things like enemy placement and timing. Volgarr is not a game that holds hands. It asks the player to sometimes exercise patience and often press on without hesitation. Death results in being pushed back to the the checkpoint either at the beginning or middle of a stage. This can lead to frustration especially when dying at a boss but it never feels cheap. It helps a great deal that levels aren’t necessarily that long but are actually paced incredibly well by fitting clever platforming and fight sections in small stretches of game. Truth be told, a skilled gamer could beat just about any level in a matter of minutes.
Where Volgarr sets itself apart from being just a standard retro homage is in the controls. Unfortunately, that’s also where it falters a bit. For a viking, Volgarr is capable of a decent amount of agile and cool moves. Using thrown spears as jumping platforms is a clever way of implementing cover from projectiles and raising jumping puzzles up a notch. Figuring out that the shield can protect Volgarr’s backside while climbing up ropes shows that the developers put thought into the mechanics of the game. And while the list of moves takes a while to master and understand, they can also make the game a little unnecessarily challenging. This is especially true with Volgarr’s actual jumping physics. Like some older games, controlling Volgarr in mid-air is clumsy at times. Leaping from platform to platform requires guesswork and a lot of faith. Again, this is one of those instances where mastery is key but it could have been less complicated.
Graphics & Sound
Volgarr the Viking doesn’t use any fancy bells and whistles to spruce up its visuals. It’s a game inspired by a certain era and it fits in with it perfectly through and through. Enemies are varied enough in their design and feel appropriate for the worlds in which they appear. A good level of detail is put into background and the levels themselves; a somewhat typical jungle gives way to an underwater city and later a fortress in the sky. As gritty and graphic as the overall game can be, some levels lacked a varied enough color palette. On the other side of the coin, the audio presentation is decidedly basic. The squishes of bodies being sliced apart and other sound effects mesh quite well. The music doesn’t always feel as inspired as it could. The tracks themselves are good enough which is a must considering how often the player will hear them.
A game as difficult as Volgarr must keep players coming back. Whether experienced or not, if the core game is lacking then there is no reason to keep trying after several waves of death. Volgarr strikes the right chord where the desire to push through a level with a better score and faster time takes hold. That goes double for trying to master the complexities of the controls. If that isn’t enough, there are multiple endings to tackle and different paths through the main levels. But to see and do everything will require a large chunk of patience on behalf of the player (especially when one of these requirements is practically a no death run).
Volgarr the Viking obviously represents a labor of love for Crazy Viking Studios. They went so far as to include a digital instruction book modeled after old Sega games. It is a tribute to an old standard in gaming while also having its own separate identity. While it can run a little too tough for even an experienced player, a lot of depth is hidden by some good challenge. Volgarr is a tough barbarian and you will be too after playing this game.