Somebody needs to tell Cyanide that it's a little late in the day to be ripping off Diablo II. That seven-year-old action RPG provides the template for Loki: Heroes of Mythology, a derivative hack-and-slash that brings nothing new to the genre. Still, being late for the party is the only major strike against this game. Even though the Diablo formula may seem awfully ho-hum these days--especially in this case, since Titan Quest covered the mythological-heroes shtick over a year ago--good mechanics and great atmosphere make up for the lack of innovation.
Despite the title, Loki has an equal-opportunity philosophy when it comes to ancient mythology. You choose from male or female warrior and mage characters from the Norse, Greek, Egyptian, and Aztec traditions and engage in four different lengthy campaigns that can be played solo or with up to six friends in cooperative mode (although there is no matching server, so it can be tough to hook up with fellow players). Things start off with you playing errand boy for the three principal gods in your pantheon (a lineup that includes heavy hitters such as Athena, Isis, Tyr, Quetzalcoatl, and the like), but then move on to you defending a collection of multicultural divinities that looks like an old United Colors of Benetton ad. The end goal is to defeat the machinations of the evil Egyptian god, Seth, who has defied divine rules and crossed into other mythologies in the standard megalomaniacal bad-guy quest to take over the universe.
As this hook-snouted deity is also apparently a big fan of all things multicultural, you face a hodge-podge of monsters from across the entire mythological spectrum. But each of the four campaigns is based on the character battling beasts from his or her own milieu. So the Greek warrior begins by cutting down hundreds of Amazons, centaurs, and harpies, for instance, while the Norse fighter slaughters beasts of the North like bears and wolves, the Egyptian sorcerer battles desert creatures such as giant scorpions, mummies, and scarab beetles, and the Aztec shaman fights jaguars and giant tarantulas.
All of them look great (although, oddly enough, the same can't be said for the four heroes, who are thin mannequins who move in a slightly herky-jerky fashion), and are accentuated with creepy sound cues. Many of these sound effects, such as the hissing of vipers, are so effective that they give the game a menacing vibe that usually isn't present in speedy, action-oriented RPGs. Some monster types are relatively generic and can be found across different levels, although these creatures are often given differing characteristics based upon their location. Birds of prey, for example, look like eagles in the forested Greek missions, while in the Egyptian desert levels they appear as scruffy vultures. The monster variety in Loki is quite good--even though you still wind up killing so many birds, beasts, and living fauna over the course of the game that the proceedings can get rather monotonous in spots (Amazon lancers? Again?!).
Additional atmosphere comes from music and level design that really plays up the four mythologies. The original score is fantastic, immersing you in each of the four cultures through tunes that perfectly evoke the setting and time. All are decidedly spooky, too, specifically the Greek and Egyptian scores. They wouldn't be out of place in big-budget horror movies about Medusae and mummies. Visuals tie into the music for the most part. The Egyptian campaign is particularly effective, as it takes you into desert wastes and forbidding tombs, although the snowy wastes of the Norse missions and the jungles of the Aztec escapades are almost equally evocative of ancient myths (the Greek settings go a little too heavy on generic fantasy forests). Cyanide apparently uses a random level generator to mix things up, though, which makes your travels look a little mundane after a while. You encounter a lot of the same terrain, and outdoor maps often seem to be laid out on a template. You generally get a single road leading from point A to point B along with a lot of scrub brush to both sides that is packed with enemies.
Quests themselves are more varied, however, as they're drawn from specific myths. You check out what rival gods are plotting for Athena, explore the tomb of Seth, rescue Odin from the clutches of Fenrir, and so forth. Storylines aren't really developed, though. Generally, you just walk over to the deity of the moment, who's typically loitering around the hub of each campaign as if waiting for a bus, and take your marching orders. These orders always involve straightforward objectives like looking into some sort of mystery, such as seeing if Seth's body remains in its sarcophagus, investigating the deadly machine that Minos seems to be constructing, or going out to murder some deadly threat like the Medusa.
Regardless of your goal in Loki, you always get there the same way--by bloodily slaughtering an endless horde of monsters. This Diablo-styled theme was old when the world was young, but Loki still manages to mostly pull it off by sticking to the template. The only serious annoyance is extreme difficulty even on the easiest "mortal" game setting. Enemies are so numerous in spots that you need to wage a war of attrition to make it through many maps. You start off by killing as many monsters as you can before succumbing to their crazy numbers, then respawn at the start of the level and repeat. Over and over again. Many levels require seven or eight instances of this frustrating wash, rinse, and repeat cycle. Even worse, there are moments when the game engine can't keep up with the number of monsters onscreen. In some of the Greek forest missions, for example, the combination of dozens of flying foes and the heavily treed landscape turns the game into an instant, unplayable slideshow. Thankfully, these slowdowns are rare.
Despite the overall difficulty, everything moves along pretty quickly. Even though you have to repeat yourself a little too often, you still easily get into a killing groove balanced just about perfectly between addiction and monotony. The only thing that slows you down is the regular 20-second or so wait after battles to regenerate health and mana. As with every other good action RPG ever made, you know that you're just clicking mouse buttons over and over again, but the pace of combat and the collection of magical weapons and other goodies (the usual assortment of swords, armor, and potions, with some cultural characteristics tossed in mainly to differentiate one style of clothing from another) is so speedy that you can barely bring yourself to stop playing.
Character development is an equal mix of the simple and compelling. Leveling up is a quick process of assigning points to attributes like strength and vitality. Added special battle abilities are gained with points earned every time you max out your faith bar. Basically, this lets you suck up to your three principal gods and take on combat buffs like Thor's Bull's Charge and spells like Ra's Fireball. The whole faith system is actually laid out in a very similar fashion to the skill masteries in Titan Quest, although the number of options here are even more varied. You're generally stuck on a linear path when picking abilities, however, so this doesn't afford a great deal of character customization.
All told, Loki is one of those rare, totally derivative pleasures. A game that will inspire a lot of déjà vu but very little boredom.