Sons Of Valhalla Review: A mostly brilliant tac-and-slash tug of war

Like an aggressively competitive thane at a reindeer-piss guzzling contest, 2D tac-and-slash roguelite Sons Of Valhalla never lets up the pace for even a moment. Whether you’re charging across its pixel-art battlefields slashing and burning increasingly tough-to-crack strongholds, or making quick decisions to get the upper hand in its tug-of-war tactics, the only times Thorald is not doing cool violence, commanding others to do cool violence, or upgrading his camps so that he may act in cooler and more violent ways, is when he’s restoring stamina with a cool slug of mead or violently gnawing at health-boosting meat.

Viking Thorald Olavson is a man possessed. A rival Jarl burnt his village and nicked his wife Raya. In his quest to find her, he’s prepared to do anything – even visit England. As Thorald, you’ll butcher your way up a chain of command in your search for Raya across six stages, each of which sits somewhere between the side-scrolling tactics of Kingdom Two Crowns, the lane strategy of a Warpips, and the slashy/blocky/shooty/dodgy of any 2D ARPG you care to name.

There’s even a sprinkling of roguelite. You’ll have to sacrifice an upgrade rune, collected from certain foes, each time you die. This sounds like a bit of an overwhelming mish-mash, but SOV nibbles with reserve at each of these concepts, hamster-cheeking only the bits relevant to its astoundingly potent momentum and “cult flash game you all bunked off sociology to play and when the teacher came to tell you off they forgot and just watched it for a bit” charm. (I mean this entirely in terms of moreishness and focus. You’d be as hard pressed as a burnt waffle to find an old flash game with pixel art this good.)

Thorald and Odin have a nice chat in Sons of Valhalla
Image credit: Pixel Chest/Hooded Horse

On the ARPG level, Thorald is a force of nature after a mere handful of upgrades, either runic or bought from your mead hall bases with a rare resource. He’s capable of slashing through foes three at a time, and quick enough on the quiver to send his quitting foes quivering in their Nesquik-coloured underoos. Later, you’ll unlock a tar pot/flame combo so disgustingly broken that I’d moan about if it wasn’t so much fun, if the exquisitely grizzly foe-frying animation that I imagine took someone weeks of work wasn’t so brilliant. By the final stages, you’ll be taking entire camps down solo.

Not at the beginning, though, and that’s where filling out your warbands comes in. One of the first things the game teaches you is the ‘shield wall’ command: shields to the front, archers to the back. Very effective. Then, you go and get all your shield lads killed in the first charge and can’t build anymore until you buy the upgrade. No matter! Plonk down a barracks and a couple of resource buildings, and you’ll soon have a nice band of raiders by your side. As the game progresses, you’ll gain access to everything from shieldmaidens to siege weapons. Foes beget hacksilver, hacksilver begets mead hall upgrades, and mead halls beget new building slots. Your unit cap increases as you build and capture more. It’s always small enough to be a consideration, but generally big enough to put together a varied force. Some units are very specialized, so the more you unlock, the more significant a factor in your plans the cap becomes, especially as enemy barricades become exceptionally fortified in later levels.

Despite this core loop being set from the off, variety is something Sons Of Valhalla absolutely nails, keeping all the old stuff relevant while consistently building on top of its baseline on both sides, and evolving the same of tug of war in both intensity and complexity. The press kit tells me there are over 40 enemy types, and I believe it. After each stage, you’ll face off against a cartoonishly evil boss fight, bookended by nostalgic headshot natters reminiscent of retro beat ‘em ups. It is, as I’ve said, unbelievably charming. Violent and possibly traumatic for several of the characters, sure, but I’m not sure the story is intended to be taken seriously as much as its meant to provide a campy, high adventure framework for all the pillaging and promises of vengeance. Its much more Asterisk and Obelisk than The Norseman. Also, the music is positively swashbuckling.

Actually commanding your troops can sometimes be a hassle, mind. They’re fond of shield-walling in the wrong direction if there’s friendly troops playing catch-up behind them, and sometimes you have to run around spamming ‘follow me’ to cancel the ‘attack’ command and get them to ‘hold position’ while you’re building up your force. Generally though, this a nicely condensed four button menu that does what it’s supposed do, as do your troops.

A retro game style world map in Sons of Valhalla
Image credit: Pixel Chest/Hooded Horse

You know when I said the game doesn’t let up, up top? Much like the game did to me, I actually pulled a fast one on you. And, much like the game did to me, I’m going to stick a big chunk of ‘What? Why?’ right in the middle of your experience. This. Is. A. Textual. Interpretation. Of. A. Pacing. Roadblock. Torch their homes of poop and straw! Shoplift their wimminfolk! Pickle their prized cattle! Deface their effigies with weak and puny mustaches so all will doubt the virility of their pathetic gods! Tiptoe past them while they sleep and distract those awake with hurled pottery! Wait, hang on. Scratch that last one, because that is counterintuitive to the Viking Experience, surely the least stealthy experience there is.

I’m not sure about you, but rarely when I’m this eyeball-glued to a game possessed of such raucous momentum, do I think, “You know what I’d really like right now? An irritatingly long stealth section playing as a different character with entirely new things to learn that will never come up again”. I’m going to have a crack at giving this section its fair shake, but while hindsight-ful critic me can understand and even appreciate why this glum, gluey trundlefest was included, actually playing it was a dull ache with occasional sharp pains. Not stabbing pains, mind, because stabbing would be too much fun.

Yes, it occurs dead in the middle of the game, a timely interlude to break up the action. Yes, it lends the story a sense of scale. And yes, it somewhat prevents Raya from just being ‘Thorald’s Wife’, and lets her be a capable character in her own right for a while. It is not the presence of this section I bemoan, just its execution. Just give the woman an axe! Hell, give her a boltgun, I’ll get over it. Perhaps a scaled-down version of the main loop where Raya commands an army of befriended sewer rats to help take down prison guards? That would have transformed Sons Of Valhalla from ‘the great game with that confusingly bad stealth in the middle’ to ‘the great game with the rat tactics’. You could have called it ‘rat-tics’! I would have clapped if you’d done that!

Thorald fights a dog wrangling boss in Sons of Valhalla
Image credit: Pixel Chest/Hooded Horse

But wait! It’s over! Raya crawled out of a sewer, kicked a guard in the face a few times and, oh look, the game is great again. Sure, by this point Thorald is starting to become so powerful the bosses are more fun because of novelty than difficulty, and sure, you’ve probably sussed the game loop out so the last few stages are easier than the very first. There are more difficulty options, though – the one above ‘normal’ is probably perfect if you want some real bite – and there’s nought wrong with a victory lap.

There are a bunch more intricacies you’ll discover as you play. Every second outpost you take down, for example, provides a forest camp rather than standard base, letting you recruit mercenaries and trade resources; adding yet another layer of tactical book balancing to consider. The real tug-of-war is actually in your mind! A good chunk of the runes you’ll get aren’t just for Thorald, either, adding buffs or new tricks to specific unit rolls. There’s also a horde mode that gives you a massive unit cap to begin with, and tinkers with the rhythms of the campaign by giving you a set preparation cooldown – time you’d usually have to quite literally carve out yourself by finding sensible lulls in the action to return and upgrade.

I was very close to sticking a Bestest Best on this one, but that awful stealth chunk, combined with how the game failed to put up a real fight just when it needed to most, held me back. Up until the halfway point, though, and for a good while after it, I was having a ball with Sons Of Valhalla. It keeps its ARPG action within the relevant confines of its tactics, and keeps its tactics paced to match to its intense and immediate combat. It’s wonderfully scored and animated. It doesn’t overstay its welcome but then gives you an additional mode and thoughtfully tuned difficulty settings if you want to dive back in. And even with my complaints, I’m eager to do just that. Barkeep, more reindeer piss.

This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by publishers Hooded Horse.

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