Think of Paradox Entertainment and up pops an image of a strategy epic that you need to play with three open textbooks on your lap. The Europa Universalis series and its World War II-based successor, Hearts of Iron, have given the Swedish developer real credibility with the smart set. You don't need a university degree to play these titles, but it sure helps. However, no such qualifications are needed for the company's latest game, a Diablo rip-off of sorts called Valhalla Chronicles. This hack-and-slash game is so dumbed down that it's practically an insult to anyone who can walk and chew gum at the same time, let alone the crowd that's been conquering Europe in Paradox's previous releases. While it's understandable that the company is interested in branching out into other genres and getting away from the brainy-game stereotype, Valhalla Chronicles pushes too far in the other direction.
The gameplay is what you'd expect if you asked a team of developers to copy Diablo as quickly as possible. Aside from a roundabout plot that forgoes the usual broadswords-and-bimbos fantasy for Norse mythology, the game is so commonplace that it might as well have come in a box marked Brand X. The design is simplistic to the point of being stultifying. The four character choices differ only in their character art and choice of weapon. Some are swarthier than others, and there's a blonde Scandinavian babe in the mix for sex appeal, but all are fighters who have few skills other than cracking skulls.
The game mechanics also reflect this monotony. Quests involve nothing more than finding people and doing odd jobs. Saving the world has never seemed more like a succession of trips to the corner store. There isn't much to do here but wander heavily forested and/or snowy maps and either talk to or fight a succession of peasants and villains.
Neither option is rewarding. The necessary conversations make little sense, as dialogue often begins in what appears to be the middle of a discussion. There's something to be said for brevity--especially in the role-playing genre, which is plagued by developers more into War and Peace-class word counts than keeping the action flowing--but the characters in Valhalla Chronicles often seem to be on a different page altogether. Quests are routinely introduced with no preamble, leaving you to wonder what you're supposed to be doing, and most of the casual conversations border on absurdity.
If possible, the combat is even less enjoyable. Like most other action-oriented isometric RPGs, Valhalla Chronicles uses an elementary point-and-click system. You right-click on an enemy, select the attack icon in the menu box that appears, and the rest is automatic. It doesn't seem very automatic, though, as battles go on and on. You flail with your sword. The bad guy flails with his sword. Repeat ad nauseum, with the little guys going at each other like weed whackers until somebody finally falls down about half a minute later. Battles seem to take the same amount of time regardless of the odds or your weaponry, so the pace doesn't improve as the game goes on.
The enemies are extremely stupid, to the point of ignoring attacks. You can chase foes all the way across the screen, constantly slashing at them with a battle axe or whatever else is handy, without even being acknowledged. The culprit seems to be programmed patrol routes that enemies have to follow no matter what is taking place. A forest bandit, for instance, will typically walk to a set point, like the edge of a lake or river, before turning to see that a big Norseman has been trying to decapitate him for the last quarter mile. It goes without saying that enemies also ignore attacks on their allies. You can typically splatter blood on their feet without an alarm being raised.
Not that you could see any evidence of this blood, or any other fine details. Valhalla seems to have been made with some variation of the engine that powers Legion and Chariots of War, which isn't exactly good news, since both of those titles have subpar visuals and animations. The characters aren't so much humanlike figures as they are multicolored blobs who kick their feet forward like spastic Rockettes when they run. If there are more than two or three animation frames in use here, they're well hidden.
Some of the background graphics are pretty well realized, however. The forest scenes look suitably woodsy, and the backdrops involving ice and snow are equally appropriate. Good atmospheric sound effects further bring these settings to life, though it's hard to get worked up over realistic chirping birds and wind. The musical score is also impressive--so impressive, in fact, that it seems to have been dropped in from another game entirely. Its majesty and dramatic impact would have added a lot to a better game, but here it just seems inappropriate.
Actually, there's very little about Valhalla Chronicles that doesn't seem inappropriate. It's hard to believe that this shoddy effort comes from Paradox Entertainment, the developer responsible for such painstaking work as Europa Universalis II. If the company was trying to break away from the image created by those sorts of releases, mission accomplished.