Review | Valhalla Hills

Valhalla, where good (read: adept) Vikings spend their afterlife having lived a full life of a Norse nomad. The problem, for the Vikings of Valhalla Hills, is that they’ve just not been good enough. They find themselves kicked from the gates down to a randomly generated landmass, presumably somewhere on Asgard, where they must bust their butts… building up  functional supply lines as to break through the main portal at the highest point of said landmass and move one step closer to the mighty halls of Valhalla.

Funatics, the developer, is a veteran studio including several critical players from the Settlers series, and the “Cultures” series of games, and it shows. Even I immediately drew a connection with the title – and my experience of the series was failing to play through Settlers III, as I had never played a game with a focus on supply lines, and building up said supply lines in a set order so as to not exhaust supplies and reach a standstill. As a matter of fact, it’s almost impossible to discuss Valhalla Hills at any length without drawing parallels to the series… and that’s nothing but a good thing.

Forever Alone. Looks like somebody decided to build a fisherman’s hut before their woodcutter.
Forever Alone. Looks like somebody decided to build a fisherman’s hut before their woodcutter.

You are Leko, God of Building, and your challenge is to take this bunch of dishonourable dregs of Norse culture – rejected from Valhalla – and give them guidance as that they might earn enough honour to take their place in the afterlife. In game honour is accrued by pretty much any action – a Viking who takes up an axe as a woodcutter will accrue honour with each tree felled, while a baker will similarly score for each baked bread.

The game comes with two main options for play. Open Game, which is the game at its core – you already have every building unlocked, and the world will be large and unruly, with no natural progression it’s very easy to put your foot wrong – as with Settlers – and assign something which condemns your people to starvation and ultimate death, (Read: Using your wood up on other things before getting a woodcutter, etc).

The other mode, Normal Mode, is the game as it should be played. It plays out as a string of tutorials, each one having your collected honour unlocking more of the games features, and as such adding a difficulty ramp relevant to your ability and competence with the game. These tutorials, or missions, are on randomly generated areas – although they take into consideration the terrain types, and building types you have unlocked.

This means that you unlock, as an example, platforms of varying sizes which allow you to build on steeper terrain, before you unlock even more awkward terrain, and you unlock the inland pond as you unlock fishermen huts.

Even the very first tutorial level showcases some of the fantastic art style.
Even the very first tutorial level showcases some of the fantastic art style.

When you first start the game you feed in a random seed, from what I have seen this only really affects later levels of the game – as the early levels generate practically identical worlds – this is primarily due to the above mentioned locked away ‘more difficult’ elements.

The world you are in is set in design from the second the level generates, with finite resources dotted across the landscape (as with any RTS) and certain areas plentiful with fish. From there you take on a passive ruler ship role wherein you can only issue build orders, and assign individuals to roles, as opposed to having to direct each individual action.  This means that the title does play out like it’s early quoted inspirations (Settlers, Cultures) in that there is realistically a set build order throughout each level, as you – at a steady pace – lay out buildings in a rolling fashion. Wheat farm to grow the wheat, windmill to grind the wheat to grain, baker to bake the grain to bread, bread to feed the Vikings. As such the starting sections of each of the quick tutorials may seem repetitive a bit faster than maybe they should – but, that said, with repetitiveness comes haste, and with haste comes placing too many buildings too early, and it all going wrong.

And, that is the game at its simplest, when all is stripped back. It’s a game about maintaining supply lines, as to support those that defend your supply line, and as such don’t contribute to the resources. The way, and style in which the game does it though is absolutely fantastic.

The first landmass to break the expectations I had built up, from here on in they started pushing my infrastructure through heavily varied landforms.
The first landmass to break the expectations I had built up, from here on in they started pushing my infrastructure through heavily varied landforms.

For a start, graphically the game is completely sound, textures and animations are perfect, and fit the style of the game to a tee. The only main issue that can be taken with the game – and for me it was a fleeting distraction – is the clipping and collision detection. Birds, animals, enemies and characters will casually walk through objects on the surface, and balance at odd angles when walking along steeper edges. That said, and as I said I barely took note of it once past the early levels, the terrain animations will easily distract from that – as water laps at the shore, lava laps down volcanoes, and your Viking’s shadows jitter as the little chaps and chapettes converse around the camp-fire in the pitch darkness of night. It’s a cartoon, rounded world free of sharp edges, and it completely succeeds at giving the game a fun, refreshing appearance.

A major factor in this, in my opinion, is how the buildings, and items of the worlds are aligned specifically to be facing your natural view on the game, this is achieved through the fact that while the game is entirely rendered in 3D, the camera is based around an angle which aims at the incline of the landmass. You do have an option to rotate the camera, for ease of spotting stuff stacked behind, which is useful on the lowlands, but it is locked so that you are rotating on a 180-degree pivot, meaning that you can never view the land looking downhill.

This restriction on the viewpoint may have come about originally as to keep the player focused on which way is up, or to stop the player from viewing the steep, sheer drop off at the end of the landmass’ summit – but now it serves an additional purpose. The orientation of the buildings, and subsequently of the growing stacks of goods and materials are all stacked up towards the downhill incline, meaning that you are constantly getting a visual reminder of what has what resource – without having to click-through onto the building for basic statistics. As well as this, it also means that as you climb the hill, or zoom out, you get a feeling of the height needed to be climbed, and the verticality almost serves as a progress bar to victory.

A long road, visible in various states of use.
A long road, visible in various states of use.

One negative of this is that the camera sometimes jams and juts as you try to zoom in, especially considering the camera zooms in on where the mouse cursor is – as opposed to the point of focus. I actually felt like the zooming functionality was unnecessary, and ruined the experience, that it could have been left out, and a tiered zoom put in instead, with set levels from the ground rather than what is currently in.

The novelty, and replayability, of the game comes in the varying layouts and shapes of the seeded landmasses once you have unlocked more advanced game features. One of my more memorable experiences with the game was when the game first presented me with a map where I wasn’t simply at the bottom of a thin wedge of land I needed to climb. Instead, I was on the leftmost extend of a thinner stretch of land which extended far past the end portal, this meant that the village I was assembling took on a very different form than the ones I had been used to – stretching along a horizontal line, with a secondary wood supply set up at parallel to my main food hub. Different map shapes like this mean that you end up creating longer stretches of road – and better show the inner machinations of the AI over the clumps of buildings I had gotten used to planning out.

Roads are a critical element of the game, without roads your Vikings will no consider an area friendly, or a building relevant, which can lead to some frustration until their importance is drummed into your head. AI will willingly starve to death while berries rest just outside of your connected land, they’ll also stand absentmindedly at a new building you have planned out if they do not have a road-plotted route back to the resources required to finish it. This is a bit of an immersion breaker until you force the habit of connecting up buildings upon yourself – but, once this habit is in place, even those absent mindedly created roads become quite a fantastic thing, or at least to me.

An early, self-sustaining village. Later levels offer much more efficient ways to do this, but also force you to work around awkward landmasses.
An early, self-sustaining village. Later levels offer much more efficient ways to do this, but also force you to work around awkward landmasses.

You see, I am that guy, the one who likes infrastructure, the one who spends hours utilising a good inventory system, the one who deletes a town just to have efficient roads – and I have to say, I really think the road system in this game is excellently done, and the way it ties into the game is too.

The more a road is used, the wider it grows, meaning that beaten paths only used by foragers and woodsmen look just like you would expect, meanwhile that busy crossroad in town looks well-worn and, even, maintained. This and the fact that if the road is tight to a steep incline it will be supported by wooden platforms, means it makes for a really good indicator of use, and a realistic one too.

There’s a fairly robust, if shallow, notification system. You receive pop-ups saying that tools, or weapons are required to complete jobs – however the weapons detailed are not specifically pointed out. You receive pop-ups saying that certain resources are unavailable to complete a project – however the game will not tell you if there is a worker who cannot reach resources due to a lack of road. You receive pop-ups saying that your workers are refusing to work due to starvation – however you are not given a clear way to access the food produced versus the population requirements.

The last point is not necessarily true, you can click on food buildings to view an amount being created – although no time frame is given – and your population is visible at all points – although their food consumption is not give. This information is even accessible through a statistics menu, filled with graphics. What, however, isn’t given is the time frame to which these two elements work over. It’s safe to presume that one food is for one Viking over one day – but where these two statistics sit in relation to themselves is not visible from the game’s UI.

The objective of each level, as earlier discussed, is to set up a self-sustained village, and then open up a portal in order to pass to the next level. This, in itself, is split into several sub-missions, the first being to simply move a Viking within range of the portal, after that you have to clear the area surrounding it, and then defeat a final block of enemies. It’s here that the ‘supply line’ term comes into play.

The guards around the portal can be sated through offering up resources, these are offered up at an altar, which is one of the first buildings you unlock. The other option is simply smashing the enemies into biscuit crumb shaped rubble. Both of these options require you to have set up a decent supply of resources – either to offer them up as bribes, or to arm and sustain an armed force, either for defence or for offence.

The main portal, and a way to the next land, and the next challenge.
The main portal, and a way to the next land, and the next challenge.

This objective is also what pushes you to expand forwards, as while you may have built a nice, self-sustained village, with enough food to cover a small armed force, the units must be moved around by relocating their encampment, and to sustain themselves in war for any decent amount of time they need to have access to a supply depot. This supply depot follows the rules of all the other buildings in the game, they must be connected up to the buildings which supply them. Due to their nature they will be further afield, and as such couriers, or secondary villages, are options to be used to create an immediate supply line to the troops – who without a full depot will be unarmed, remain injured, and be less effective in combat.

Once you trigger the portal you move to the next area, your Vikings gain a boost of honour, you receive your unlocks (if in normal mode), and you start again in a new setting, with the same Vikings waiting in the wings (unless they have accrued enough honour to ascend to Valhalla) for you to do it again, but maybe a little bit better, and more efficiently. Of course the landmass will also be different, and the steepness, and harshness, of the new land will force you to build up your village in a different way.

In conclusion, Valhalla Hills is a perfect little package of city-building and resource management, perfect for anyone who enjoys either. The few flaws it has can be overlooked thanks to its excellent art-style, and logical systems. While it lacks the complexity and depth of titles like Dwarf Fortress, Gnomoria, and Clockwork Empires, it wholeheartedly delivers on a quality level, and stands strong against its true peers, “The Settlers” series.

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