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Red's Read on Shadow of Valhalla

Red Thomas Updated: Posted:
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Virtual reality is one of those things that’s captured the public conscious for as long as I’ve been alive.  Even longer, if you count the advent of 3D movies as early as the 19th century and of course the rise of 3D films through the 1950’s.  In my lifetime, we had plenty of 3D cereal boxes and cartoons when I was growing up, and then various game manufacturers attempted early pseudo-3D handheld gaming systems (which were significantly larger than today’s variety).  The most successful was probably the Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, which was the most playable (and that’s not saying much) option available for several years.

VR continued to elude commercialization on any real scale until the release of Avatar in 2009, which spurred a push back into 3D films that still has some momentum.  The success of 3D in cinema helped prepare the market for the announcement and crowdfunding campaign of the Oculus Rift a few years later.  The system’s success ushered in a boom in 3D gaming, but there were still issues to be addressed.

Nearly a decade later, we’ve made far more significant strides and in an incredibly short amount of time.  Hand-tracking, head-tracking, and display resolution have all made VR far more viable than ever before.   I was one of those folks who started with an Oculus Dev Kit, and even when I got the release version of the headset, it was cool… but it wasn’t that great. 

I’ll never forget my first Elite Dangerous experience in VR, and though it was worth every dollar for that experience, I just wasn’t left excited to keep experiencing VR after a few weeks of playing with the RC1 in 2016.  For the past four years, I’ve remained interested, but the VR gear remained in my desk except when kids visited.  I did find it a cheaper and easier alternative to Sea World, but otherwise only loosely monitored that aspect of the industry.

However, I’m a huge sim fan and new sims have been hyping their VR integration increasingly over the last few years.  I’d been considering trying it again with a newer set, feeling the better resolution was likely to make it a far better experience for me, but I hadn’t tried it yet.  Then, a friend fired me a heads up about Shadow of Valhalla and suggested that I take a look at the game just as one of my nephews was talking to his mother about buying a VR set for himself.

The timing was too convenient, so I packed up my Oculus and sent it to my nephew as a loan to decide if he liked VR enough to drop that kind of money, and I also ordered a new Valve Index for myself.  I purchased Shadow of Valhalla from the Steam store, and gave it a go.  Hopefully my experience will help some readers decide if they’re interested in doing something similar or not.

Initially Conflicted

To start with, I did have a little trouble setting up my new VR set.  I’ve recently changed my office layout and I’d planned to do my VR sitting down.  It turns out that just wasn’t going to work.  Valve didn’t want me using the headset sitting down and trying to do so goofed with my calibration.  Though, once I got that sorted, I was very impressed with how much better VR has gotten in just four years.

Once I loaded up Shadow of Valhalla, I got a little worried again.  Returning readers know I don’t like writing negatively, and my initial impressions of the game weren’t great.  The main screen and aesthetics looked a little dated and were backed by a relatively simple otic ambiance.

The title screen is an opportunity to set the tone for the game, and I think there are some missed opportunities here.  A good composer and environmental sound engineer could have significant return on investment.

It’s not that anything was terrible, but all of it combined made me a little worried about the rest of the game.  The title is in Early Access, so there has to be some slack given, but I usually find that art style and sound design to be two of the distinguishing factors of an early title.  If I’m looking at an early game, maybe the best clue as to where the game will go is nearly always going to be whether or not I feel an emotional pull from the score and how well chosen the color palette and general artistic style seems to have been.

Before I make that thematic turn towards what I really want to talk about, because you know I don’t really do negativity, let me list out a few of the other problems I have with the game currently.  Don’t worry, there is more that problems to discuss, but I like getting issues out of the way first.

Once I actually got into the game and started playing it, there were a couple other things that bothered me.  For one, there are open gates around the courtyard you spawn in.  Running up to them, you can’t go out.  That irked me a bit, because it’s so immersion breaking.  The idea that there’s an open gate there that I just can’t walk through doesn’t make much sense, which I just found unexpectedly aggravating.  There are a ton of things they could do to resolve that issue, and most are easy fixes, though.  Bar the gates and have creatures jump from a ledge into the fortress or have the zombies crawl out from under the ground.  Even leaving the gates open, but putting some sort of spell effect on them, perhaps even one that hurts the player, that’d be a great way to keep the player in the intended area without just running into an invisible wall.

Another thing I didn’t like is that I think the sword just didn’t feel weighty or function heavily enough.  This is in part a similar problem that I think any game like this is going to have.  Without holding an actual sword while playing (which I don’t recommend), you just don’t get the sense of heft that you’d get from a battle axe or arming sword.  A rapier would feel more natural, I think.

It wasn’t just the weight in my hand that I missed, but also just that the weapon didn’t feel heavy in the game.  I tried thrusts that didn’t seem to do much damage against notionally unarmored opponents.  It really felt like those thrusts and even some swings connected the target too lightly.  I suspect that this is something the team just needs to tweak and iterate on as they get more data from players in early access and can dial it in so that swings feel significant without feeling ridiculous.

One gripe is that the weapons didn’t have a weighty feel to them, but I think that can be adjusted easily with time.

Lastly, there’s not much of a story.  Again, this is really not something that I would have expected in the game.  This is a general beat the crap out of everything as it spawns sort of game, and I wasn’t really looking for depth of story or huge world-building.  I still feel like we’re missing some reason for being in this fortress all alone and smashing hordes of baddies. 

I get that this is supposed to be something like Valhalla or Ragnarök, and I think that was a really smart choice.  I’d just like some sort of introduction to the situation that makes some sort of sense.  Maybe I’m holding off the horde so that my fellow warriors can escape to warn others, or perhaps this is a contest designed to settle a wager between gods.  Whatever the reason, I’d like to know why I can’t leave the fort and why waves of critters keep demanding that I give them hugs.

Not Surprised Ending

You all know me and I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t like the game though.  Part of it is that I give the team a bit of a pass because this is Early Access and you have to expect a rough project.  Many of my gripes are probably things that will be fixed anyway.

What was crazy about this game is what happened as I played it, though.  All my issues went away and I had a blast.  I’d been playing it for only a few minutes when I just stopped thinking about anything except jacking more orcs, decapitating zombies, and trying to see how far I could flip the spiders through the air.

The first time I played the game, I was in it for about 20 minutes before karate-chopping the ever-loving-crap out of my desk.  It scared the heck out of me, and my hand didn’t exactly come out of it with flying colors.  I shut the game down, but it’s a testament to how fun it was that I soon loaded it up again, this time nearly clearing a monitor off the second desk in the room that my niece uses.

What have we learned?  That “Standing Space Only” is just not a realistic option in the calibration of the VR set and that I desperately need to either move my gaming rig into the living room where there’s more space or I need to build a second rig that’s just for VR and put it in there.

Rise from your grave!  Shadow of Valhalla is an old-style arcade game in 3D form, and once that clicked, my whole perception of the game shifted dramatically.

My third time playing the game, I didn’t hit anything and played for about 30 minutes before having the VR gear on my head and the constant movement made me feel a little stuffy.  I also noticed I started seeing parts of the game in a new light.  I’m not sure if it was intentional or if it’s just me liking the game and seeing things differently, but I find the aesthetic feels more vintage than dated at this point.  The sound of the game, the corny melodrama of the narrator, even the title screen all feel like sort of an homage to 70’s era cinema or 90’s era adventure video game.

The graphics are obviously better than Daggerfall, but it still has that sort of dark and gritty feel that I remember from when I first played the game.  There’s clearly none of the depth one would get out of an RPG here, but there’s this fantastic charm in a romping adventure that’s more akin to what we experienced at the arcade as kids.

Shadow of Valhalla is a far more addictively fun game than I’d expected, and I think a lot of folks will enjoy it.  I don’t find myself moving around the area a lot, partly because the movement throws my sense of balance off a little, but also because I just like picking a spot and going to town on the monsters.  The first time I flicked my sword into one of them and used the ragdoll physics to flick the zombie dozens of feet into the air, I cracked up laughing even as his buddy proceeded to bash my virtual face in.

The game also becomes a decent work out and I’d like to see more waves of more mobs so that you could actually get a little cardio while dual-wielding through a stream of critters.  They could call it Beat Rapier Mode or something like that and I’d laugh the whole time I was dicing my way through the undead hordes.

There is magic in the game, but honestly, I never cared.  I was having too much fun dismembering zombies with my sword and axe.

Red’s Read

In the end, this was a really good reintroduction to VR, though I don’t think my furniture (or the occasional unlucky pet) can take much more of it.  My current setup is far more conducive to space and flight sims, which is kind of a bummer.  I really enjoyed Shadow of Valhalla far more than I expected to as I loaded into the game and had that first experience.   If this is Early Access for them, I’m pretty thrilled to see where they go next, though.

Should readers pick it up, though?   That’s a hard one.  If you have the VR gear, are inclined to enjoy games in Early Access, and you have the space to play it, I think this is a fun one that’s worth adding to the library.  In part, there’s some speculation there that we’ll get more modes and more critters over time which will make the game really live up to that $20 price-point.  If you’re like me and don’t have the space, I still think the game is worth some consideration whenever it happens to go on sale.  Without the space to really move around, I’m not sure someone would get their money out of the game at full price.

On the other hand, if you want a feature complete game and are less interested in the development process or if you just don’t have the space to really stand up and move around, I think you would do well to give this game a pass.  Folks that don’t enjoy watching the growth of a title as developers make decisions and pivot through that last year or so of development should stay clear.  This game is very clearly not finished and severely lacking in content.   It’s just that I happened to find what was there a lot of fun.

I think that with a little more attention to both the sound design and the score, along with a bit more in-game context, Shadow of Valhalla could be one of those games (with the gore turned off, of course) that my nieces and nephews beg me to play when they come to stay with us over the summer.  It also might just find its way into my new COVID workout routine if I can figure out how to do it without wrecking my office in the process.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.