From the outside Valhalla Hills looks like a normal strategy game, a building-centric title that's somewhat reminiscent of The Settlers, albeit in a Viking style, but with an equally concentrated feeling of hustle and bustle. And that's hardly surprising. The founders of Funatics worked for Blue Byte, and among others, they were part of the development team of The Settlers II: Veni, Vidi, Vici. Later they launched a similar series called Cultures on their own. However, once you've played the studio's new game for a short while you quickly notice significant differences.
We don't control the Vikings directly, instead they lead an independent existence. From our omnipresent perch we hand out work orders, and these are then executed by our minions on the ground. The bearded rascals are under no circumstances work shy. Access to Valhalla was denied to them and thus these characters fell back down to earth. Now they're ready to do everything for their honour and thus finally get the peace they long for. Our commands will, for the most part, be followed, but there are problems when workers or resources are in short supply. Therefore, we must be careful when building a solid economic cycle.
In addition, our Vikings will also be fighting for survival along the way. They, quite reasonably, feel the need for a healthy amount of sleep, and they're also partial to eating food; both basic needs that we have to satisfy. A hungry Viking is a grumpy Viking, and they'll angrily lash out, and even starve and die miserably. In addition, in the mountains lives wild animals, and the portal to Valhalla is watched over by ghostly icy guards. All these factors ensures that survival is hard.
So the reason why this building strategy game by Funatics feels so different is due to the fact that our Vikings act independently and therefore we need to focus our thoughts elsewhere. This applies not only for ensuring the welfare of our followers, but also for resource management. Everything in the game needs to be transported. No raw material automatically ends up where it needs to go. Therefore, it's very important to plan where each building is to be constructed, and intelligently design our transport routes.
These routes can be helped by the construction of paths that are automatically upgraded to roads when used frequently. Mostly, however, we have to rely on storage and special routes that link together courier buildings. This leads to creating small settlements, a large residential building in the centre and various services arranged in a ring around it. Some of these services should almost always be there for food production. You can never have enough of it. Actually, Valhalla Hills is more about logistics than anything else, something that Funatics is happy to admit.
At the beginning there are only a few features for us to explore. On our way to the top we unlock different options and we benefit from them in the subsequent play throughs. Initially, for example, we can't build a building for fishermen, there are no wild animals, there's no different zones, and we have no army. Over time, however, we get these things. The maps are made bigger and the demands put on the player increase - and with them so does the level of difficulty. Wheat for example, is an important and necessary resource required for food production, and while we can unlock it, it will only grow on lush, green fields, not up on the snowy heights.
In addition to new buildings, we also unlock various attributes that feed into the procedural generation of maps. Then we get, for example, various ores and/or coal as resources. The size of the map changes, as does the height of the mountain. But fundamentally, the structure remains the same - flatlands at the front with a beach, and towards the back the scenery rises up into mountainous terrain. At the beginning everything is a bit too easy because we can maintain short transport routes, but later there's no way of doing so and things get stretched. In addition, the map structure used here, with the mountain looming in the background, certainly provides a good overview, even if it looks a bit unrealistic. With the camera positioned at the front, we can always see everything.
Because everything is unlocked based on your previous achievements, Valhalla Hills doesn't feature a typical campaign, and what you'll unlock next will always depend a bit on your play-style. On every map we start from scratch, but the achievements earned by playing are kept and influence the next. However, the constant goal remains to defy the dangers and reach the top. By the way, we don't have to fight against all of the monsters: the portals are indeed guarded by enemies, however we can offer a sacrifice which calms them down and makes them go away.
Less than ten people have been working for over a year on this game. At the end of August Valhalla Hills launched into Steam Early Access, and next year it will be officially released. Until then, there are some things to finish. Although the game looks quite nice, there are a few areas that need improving. Although the game systems are self-explanatory in many situations, the team needs to introduce the individual mechanics alongside better examples. For example, they should better explain how things like producing, warehousing, couriers and consumption work together. It's something which is not clear from the brief explanation texts.
Other things are still not quite logical enough. The hunter can't kill bears and has also problems fighting against Wolves, you need an army for that. Also it would've been nice to know exactly how much food a Viking needs to stop them from starving. Similarly, if we can see that we're about to fail during a play-through, a restart function would be great. And I still do not quite know why I should actually personalise the Vikings and how I can change their clothing.
Having said all that, Valhalla Hills takes an interesting approach. Instead of a skill tree we unlock new features via earning achievements (we're even promised a few surprises regarding those unlocked features). Because we start over and over again from the beginning, it helps smooth out the learning curve. Unlike many other games, our Vikings are mortal and therefore the challenge is to satisfy their needs and help them finally celebrate their entrance to Valhalla, where they rest in peace.