Vikings: Wolves of Midgard breathes some fresh life into the popular, yet often stagnant, Action RPG genre by incorporating trademark aspects of different game genres. It you can forgive some rough edges, it’s a fun romp.
Vikings: Wolves of Midgard (henceforth, Vikings) casts the player as a Viking Chieftain on the rise to fame and fortune. Over the course of the story, players will find themselves fighting everything from wolves to humans to fantastical Norse creatures in a mission-based format. The story itself isn’t extremely strong (though Kalypso did take the extra effort to make it fully voice acted), but it works as a tenuous thread to hold the missions together as you gradually find new members for your clan. Honestly, for games of this type, a strong story is not generally expected nor even necessarily desired, so this isn’t a major strike against the game. Action RPGs (or ARPGs) live and die by their gameplay and progression system, so that’s a much greater concern here.
At its core, Vikings is an Action Role-Playing Game (ARPG), along the likes of more well-known franchises such as Diablo and Torchlight. Players level up their characters through killing hordes of enemies and completing quests, choose skills from a skill tree, and are primarily driven by the siren’s call of ever-better loot. These are the types of hallmarks of ARPGs. From the moment a seasoned ARPG player begins playing Vikings, however, it will become clear to him or her that it doesn’t live up to the polish of other ARPG giants. Rather than attempting to directly compete with the standard ARPG game style, however, Vikings pulls a clever move in incorporating elements from games of other genres.
From Dark Souls to Monster Hunter to MOBAs, Vikings throws a little seasoning from each of them into their ARPG broth. Instead of enemies instantly granting invisible XP to the player, they drop “Blood” that both works as collectible XP and small healing pick-ups. This is simultaneously a nod to arcade games like Gauntlet (ground drops that restore health) and games from the Souls series (Blood must be spent at Altars in order to level up). If you die and are not resurrected by a friend, you lose all the Blood you collected since the last map checkpoint. Your healing talisman also works similarly to Estus Flasks, as it has only a limited number of charges, but it can be refilled at healing wells (which are fairly plentiful on the mission maps).
The itemization system is also a bit different from the standard ARPG, instead opting to go along a trading and bartering route. While enemies will sometimes drop items, the most common drops are iron, wood, and gold. A combination of these are needed to buy gear at the Stronghold’s various merchants, but instead of a piece of gear in a shop being outright sold to you for your materials, functionally it’s actually a type of blueprint, with the item being crafted on the spot. You know the general type and range of the item you’ll get (e.g. a piece of Cloth armor for the torso slot with a base armor value of 24), but you won’t know its exact stats. You might roll health regeneration or extra armor, or even get lucky and craft a better than expected rarity. Lastly, the skill system borrows from the MOBA format with characters only possessing five active skills that unlock over time with new tiers of those skills becoming available at pre-determined levels.
The full story campaign can be played in solo or 2-player co-op to much the same effect. Since this is the case, I’ll be examining everything from the co-op perspective. When playing co-op, one player will load up a game and then invite the other player directly into it. This is done from the Stronghold, which is the game’s town/hub area. The game’s host determines which missions can be done, so for players who want to consistently play with the same partner, they’ll want to make sure they always have the same person hosting the game. While each player retains ownership of his or her character to play in other solo or co-op campaigns, Player 1 is in solo possession of the campaign progress. If Player 2 fires up a solo game with their co-op character, none of the story progress will carry over and he or she will have to start over from the beginning of the story. The host player also controls mission selection, NPC/story object interaction, and Stronghold upgrading. Drops and mission rewards, however, are player-based (each player will only ever see their own loot). Strangely enough, there’s also no way for the players to trade anything with each other.
Once the two players are in the Stronghold together, the host can select any of the currently unlocked missions and the game automatically loads both players into it. These missions take between 15 and 30 minutes to complete, depending on the mission and whether the players are trying to complete the optional challenges. Each one has three optional challenges that provide large chunks of resources as rewards. These challenges include tasks such as killing a certain number of specific enemies, or picking up three Iron Skulls from treasure chests. Even if the players are split up on opposite sides of the map, their actions will contribute towards completing most of the challenges. The one exception to this is the challenges that require the player to pick something up off the ground - each player will have to make sure they grabbed the item. These challenges strike a nice balance for completionists and people who simply want to complete the main objectives; the extra rewards are nice, but it’s not a huge loss for players who opt to not do them. Most missions end with a boss battle, requiring both players to step into a circle to open a door to the encounter. Once the boss is defeated, the mission is complete, and each player will receive rewards (usually some kind of combination of gear, upgrade runes, resources, and XP).
There are primarily two different kinds of progression in Vikings: character progression and Stronghold progression. Character progression is based around a pretty standard leveling and gear system, which I briefly touched on before. The skill lines (called “Gifts”), interestingly enough, are inherently tied to the weapon types. Each skill line is associated with a Norse god (e.g. Odin, Loki) who blessed users of a certain weapon. While you can spend your points however you want across the five Gift trees, it doesn’t seem greatly encouraged, since players can only utilize the active and passive skills of a line if they are wielding the correct weapon.
For example, my character solely invested in the Odin line. This gave me access to elemental spells (e.g. fireball, ice blast) that could only be used when I had a staff equipped. Some of the passive benefits I received were armor boosts to cloth armor and increased crit chance, but again, only when using staves. In order to use skills from multiple trees, you’d have to swap weapons, which also completely changes your hotbar. Also, the two skill points you get a level can eventually be completely spent on one skill tree when you begin to have access to higher tiers of skills. These higher tiers generally just make the Gift more potent (i.e. increase the damage on an active Gift, or increase the percentage increase of a stat in a passive Gift). If you’re spreading skill points across more than one tree, you may find your arsenal to become weaker as the game goes on. There’s also no way to respec skill points, so you’ll be locked into your decisions.
Stronghold progression is gained by adding NPCs and their services to the Stronghold (which is done automatically during the story) and upgrading their stations for them to provide better wares. Remember those resources (wood, gold, and iron) that I mentioned earlier? These are also used for upgrading vendors. Only the host can upgrade vendors, and since players can’t trade resources, this is a little annoying. My co-op partner was often sitting on a wealth of resources and wanting to level up a particular service, but unable to give me the funds to do it.
As a whole, Vikings understands what people enjoy about ARPGs (beating up enemies, skilling up their characters, getting loot) and gives them that. It also provides some fresh mechanics (to the genre) that I feel were implemented fairly successfully. The missions feel suitably different from each other and completing the optional challenges feels satisfying, yet also truly voluntary, since there’s no penalty for not doing them. I also never had a problem getting my co-op partner into the game and connecting to games was easy and quick.
The game is not without its missteps, however. On the general gameplay side of things, pathing and collision (both with the environment and with other players) can sometimes be a nightmare. On PC, the keyboard and mouse controls handle a bit awkwardly and after playing with both keyboard/mouse and controller set-ups, I could tell that the game was definitely designed with a controller in mind. For example, when using a bow it can often be difficult to move around without shooting at every destructible item you happen to click on. From a graphics standpoint, there were some occasional strange graphic stutters that were annoying, but weren’t so frequent as to be a big issue.
From the co-op aspect, some of the design choices made seem strange. First off, a 2-player limit on an ARPG seems very odd. Most ARPGs scale up to 4 players, and since Vikings already scales with the addition of a second player in co-op (the game notifies you of this when Player 2 connects), it seems like adding more players should have been possible. Campaign progress only being tied to the host player is also in poor taste, as Player 2 is unacceptably entirely dependent on Player 1. This is further compounded by the fact that players cannot trade anything between each other, which is frankly the most baffling design choice to me in the entire game.
Pros and cons taken together, all-in-all I found Vikings to be a decent addition to the pool of PC, Xbox One, and PS4 ARPGs. From a design perspective I appreciated the unique gameplay experience that incorporated mechanics from other genres, despite its stumbles. Though there are certainly games of this genre that I enjoy playing more, I think this one is worthwhile for any ARPG fan who appreciates genre innovation at the expense of some polish.The Co-Optimus Co-Op Review of Vikings: Wolves of Midgard is based on the PC version of the game. Review codes were provided by the publisher for review purposes.