If you’ve played any of the Settlers or similar games in the past then you’ll feel right at home playing Funactics Software’s newest strategic building game; Valhalla Hills. Here you play the role of Viking God Leko son of Odin who, rather than drinking lots of grog and sparring, prefers building things and during his free time presumably prefers Grand Designs over getting drunk. For this Odin casts him out of Valhalla telling him to be useful as the God of builders. Uniting with rejected heroes who, due to Odin’s crankiness are unable to enter Valhalla, you work your way through increasing dangers in an effort to prove their worth.
There are two ways to play Valhalla Hills. You can either play in the free play mode where everything is unlocked and you can essentially do whatever you like or there’s the campaign mode. Here each map, or mission as the game prefers, begins with a handful of Vikings gathered around a portal stone which will drop new Vikings every so often if you settlement can handle more. Nearby are a few resources to start you off with and from there it’s up to you to guide these Vikings and tell them what to build and where to build it. Each building has an area of effect and it’s important to bear in mind where you place key buildings such as the Toolmaker.
Early on, without couriers, your woodcutter will just walk around doing nothing if his building is too far away. This forces you to plan carefully and even with paths your little Vikings have a habit of doing their own thing and wandering a bit too far off the beaten path. We certainly lost a few Vikings due to their fond habit of going too deep into the woods only to meet a giant or a wolf with nothing but harsh language to fend them off with. To be fair though the AI of your minions isn’t too bad and once you have unlocked the ability to build paths you can somewhat curtail their wandering habit. There is a tutorial of sorts as you play with various pointers turning up when you do something for the first time. However these don’t cover everything and an expanded tutorial mode would be more useful.
The goal each time is to get as far as the other portal on the map. Once there it can be opened up and you have a choice: either fight or appease those that guard it by sacrificing collected supplies. As each map is procedurally generated the path to the portal could be relatively clear or filled with peril. No matter what an army is required and, like any other building in the game, it’s important to bear in mind where you place your army camp to make sure your new newfound warriors have the tools to carry out their trade. A unique bonus added to warriors is that if you can create a brewery nearby it will help fortify your troops before they go out to battle. In the end we suspect most players will take the military route with the sacrificial choice used as a fallback if things go horribly wrong. With each task carried out by your little Vikings they receive honour, which is what this game is all about, and when it reaches a certain threshold they can finally enter Valhalla.
Early on having a clean start upon which to build a new settlement was quite fun but as we progressed through the levels this repetition became a hindrance and a times a little frustrating. It must be noted as well that as the levels get hard and the terrain more rugged the building costs increase and you just wish there was a little carry-over even if just resources. It just makes the game feel more grindy than it should especially with the Viking AI leaning towards the awkward side and as you have no direct control over them you can’t help your Vikings on their way. In a few cases we had to restart a few levels due to a Viking getting stuck in a loop meaning they never completed their task. The AI doesn’t just get in the way with how your Vikings go about their tasks it can also get a little frustrating when it involves your warriors. We often found when tasked with multiple enemies they tend to all fight one enemy rather than dividing and conquering. Again, you have no control so just watch as all you fighters gang up on just the one enemy while being pummelled by another.
Graphically Valhalla Hills is very stylised with cutesy characters accentuating the well known traits we all associate with the Vikings. It’s certainly reminiscent of the Settlers games that came before it and suits the game well. Using the Unreal 4 engine the game looks fantastic but be warned, if you graphics card barely scrapes the bottom line be prepared for frequent crashes. Even with all the graphical bells and whistles turned off and the resolution at the lowest we could make it without really harming gameplay we still experienced frequent crashes. Mercifully the game autosaves very frequently so we didn’t have too much to go back over but the more you build and the more that’s going on the more likely you are to experience one. This means playing in the latter stages, which require lots of infrastructure to be built to progress, can take far longer than perhaps it should. This may prove a problem for those looking at Valhalla Hills as a game for on the go.
The audio department is not too bad either. The little Vikings don’t speak per se but they do have conversations in their own language which is kind of cool to see. The music has a nice, almost Celtic, feel to it and really adds to the ambience whilst you play. Beyond that there’s not much else but what is there really helps tie the game together. Moving on to the user interface the menus are easy to get around during gameplay and are neatly divided into three categories; Production, Logistics & Military. Beyond picking and placing there’s not much complication to actual gameplay controls as you can’t control anything that your Vikings do so there’s no squad control for example with your military units.
Valhalla Hills is an enjoyable game for what it is. It’s a wonderfully executed game and what it does it does well. With the procedurally generated maps there’s plenty of replay value and there’s something rather rewarding helping you tribe earn the stripes and conquer each level. However the issues with crashes on the low-end of the graphical scale are a concern especially as this will be a tempting game for those who game on the go. Other than that though, if you’ve played any of the previous Settlers games then Valhalla Hills is right up your alley and even if it’s not there is plenty of fun to be had guiding these wee Vikings to honour and victory.