Friday, February 24, 2017

Valhalla Hills

I never got into the Settlers games much, never really considering why. The Settlers copycat Valhalla Hills isn't helping my opinion of the game concept.

I picked it up a little while ago, guessing it to be something like Banished or the first Trine, a modern reconstruction, from the ground up, of a classic genre. The comparison with Banished would seem particularly apt, given that Settlers-style gameplay more or less grows out of city simulators, but it's certainly not a favorable one for Valhalla Hills. Where I raved about Banished being basically everything it needed to be and nothing it didn't, Valhalla Hills is filled with top-down, dictatorial, must-have features which don't mesh with the actual gameplay. For all its initial charm, it wears thin very quickly.

For one thing, it's set up as an endless achievement grind. Your villagers gain experience as you play and a big counter on the game's main screen tracks how many of them have "leveled up" to Valhalla. Instead of reshaping the world in your image, you're supposed to be chasing that idiotic carrot and presumably comparing high scores with other brainless dick-measurers.
In-game, you can chasecam any one of your villagers... in a cramped little cartouche off to the side that somehow doubles the game's demands on your video card. Not that getting up close and personal with your loyal subjects isn't a nifty feature in general, but make sure it actually fills that immersive role.
Why, instead of Banished's perfectly rational and informative graphs and tables, am I staring at unsorted error messages scrabbling over each other at the top of my screen pell-mell?
What is the point of forcing the player to place roads by hand if they cost nothing and can be removed at will?

Then there's aesthetics. Where Banished's visual design reveled in elegant simplicity, Valhalla Hills goes the route of blocky, distorted, Warcrafty cartoonishness but misses the point of choosing such designs in the first place. Cartoonish graphics offer the advantage of flexibility, yet every building in Valhalla Hills looks like the same wooden roofs ranging in color from tan to beige, and the villagers are little better in terms of specific markers of their professions.
Vikings in the desert? Huh? Why not vikings in Niflheim, or on ice floes or among the boughs of Yggdrasil? Did you really run out of nordic-themed maps that quickly?
Vikings making generic fish sandwiches? Where's my lutefisk?
Why is there not a single damned longhouse anywhere in sight?

It even manages to shoot itself in the foot in terms of basic thematic elements. The badly voiced English version of the opening sequence makes it sound as though the game's trying to subvert the "rampaging berseker" viking stereotype by placing vikings in a constructive environment... until you find out you'll be relying on axe-wielding horny-helmeted armies every single mission anyway. Even with a generous allowance for post-ironic hipness, the whole viking theme makes no sense and is never exploited, either for humor or drama.

In terms of mechanics, this is just a city sim. The infrastructure side of things contains some thoughtful interdependence between buildings, and the bulk of each mission consists of shoring up your resource network. Combat on the other hand is as simple as stocking up the best kind of each of three weapon types and simply overwhelming your opponents. Defense towers exist but are pathetically underpowered, apparently included merely to pander to the expectation that RTS mechanics will include such things as defense towers. Your main defense is simply building away from the sheepishly passive enemy AI in the first place.

Most perplexingly, the game does not even perform well. As with Star Ruler 2, I have to ask: why does it feel like I'm getting so much less with this glossier technology? Was the Unreal engine really necessary for a two-dimensional top-down city sim with battleaxes thrown in? Instead of Banished's population of just under a thousand, Valhalla Hills starts stuttering and skipping (on my machine at least) at around 150 independently interdependent homonculi. Worse still, these Svens and Carls are dumb as bricks! Couriers running back and forth with empty backpacks, healers sitting around forgetting to heal, laborers ignoring useful resources within their sphere of activity, take your pick. Larger maps prove too large for your villagers' AI to even navigate.

You know, much as I try to opt for lesser-known titles over the latest EA tripe to storm the market, sometimes obscurity's just the destined mate of mediocrity. Glad I bought this on sale, sorry I bought it at all.

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