Vikings may be known for a lot of things (horny helmets, bulletproof beards, games published by Kalypso), but unless we just slept through that particular history lesson, climbing hills isn't one of them. That's more a mountain goat thing than man mountain. Yet in Valhalla Hills, managing resources, constructing buildings, and climbing hills is exactly what you'll be doing, on a quest for glory, gold and honour.
The game begins as Norse God Odin banishes his poor son Leko to Earth, having grown fed up of his unorthodox ways. You see, rather than drinking his dad under the table like a good Viking three year old, Leko was much more interested in other, less Viking-ly things - like building. Sent to Earth to rule as the God of building, Leko decides he needs to win his way back into his dad's good books, and teams up with the dejected heroes of Earth to help them build glorious villages, conquer giant mountains, and eventually, earn enough honour that they'll be able to take their place at Odin's table.
As you might expect, then, this is a decidedly different kind of Viking game - and one that couldn't be further from the hack-and-slash blood fest of publisher Kalypso's other recent title, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard. Instead, Valhalla Hills is a God game, where rather than having any direct control over the population, you instead simply issue commands to construct different buildings. By choosing the right building to build, and the right time at which to build them, you can ensure your villagers have everything they need, with a roof over their heads, plenty to eat, and the tools (and troops) to defend themselves should the need arise.
However, in order to progress through Valhalla Hills, you'll need to do more than simply build a prosperous society. After all, you're an all conquering viking - and the game's many procedurally generated hills give you the perfect chance to scratch that itch. Each mountain has a glowing blue portal at the top, and it's this that's your real target in each world. All you have to do is get someone there - usually by building an outpost or something similar nearby - and you'll be able to open the portal. Rather than having to worry about building elaborate ladders or climbing rigs, though, actually physically getting to the portal isn't all that hard - your Viking followers can easily scale even the steepest of hills. Instead, the challenge each portal presents is more of a military one - open it, and a handful of enemies will appear in your world and attack. It's up to you to defend yourself, and storm on through.
In essence then, each level follows a fairly similar format, although the exact order you'll need to do things in will depend on the layout of your map. A game of resource management, the procedurally generated worlds mean you can never be too sure what you're going to get, and different worlds will demand a markedly different strategy.
Almost universally, the first thing you'll need to do is to build a toolmaker. This cheery chappy/chappette's workshop will provide all the basic tools a thriving viking society needs - like axes, hammers, fishing rods, and sickles. As every building you make requires wood, a woodcutter's shack is another great idea for one of your early buildings - just be sure you build it as close to some trees as possible, as your vikings can sometimes be a bit thick...
Where you go from there depends on the mountain you're trying to conquer. Some worlds have plentiful berries, so you don't need to worry about building a fishing hut, or a hunter's shack, and can instead simply leave your vikings to forage for themselves. Others, like the new underground caves (yep - an underground mountain) contain next to no food or animals at all - a single, solitary lake is all we had in one. When you have to provide for two or three dozen vikings using just one fisherman's catch, that can be easier said than done.
In other areas, the problems are more pressing. The desert environments have few berries and no water, yet have plentiful animals for you to prey on, so at least you can get plenty of food - theoretically. The only problem is, some of the local wildlife can prey on you, too - like the overly aggressive scorpions, who love nothing more than to do a number on your villagers. One map we played had most of its trees located atop a hill, so we dutifully plonked our woodcutter's lodge up next to it. No sooner had he gone out to chop one down, though, than he ended up being chased back down into the village by a scorpion that had taken a disliking to him. Sometimes, they can even kill your villagers if they don't run away in time. On desert maps, one of the very first things you'll end up doing is building a ragtag army, just so you can splat all the scorpions, and make the map more liveable...
Really though, you can build as many tents, quarries and stonemasons as you want, but everything you do always needs to be working your way towards one thing - building a sizable enough army that you can wipe out any portal guardians that are roaming the map, and take out anything that comes through the portal once you open it. And as it happens, that's actually harder than it sounds.
One of the most complex things about Valhalla Hills is that everything in the world links together in one way or another, and one resource begets another. Logs can be turned into planks and sticks; stone fragments can be turned into bricks; wheat can be turned into flower and then into bread, while even the animal breeder will require a steady supply of water and grain. With so many buildings, and so many supply chains being interlinked, it'll often require some pretty extensive forward planning to actually be able to build the things you need, when you need them.
Nowhere is that more of an issue than when you're trying to equip your army. Building an Army Camp or a Military Camp will let you recruit soldiers - up to five at an Army Camp, or ten at the more "expensive" Military Camp - but recruiting isn't all you need to do. Soldiers aren't any good without weapons, and so you'll need to build axes, bows and arrows, and "healstaffs". While your basic toolmaker can equip you with some naff axes, which will at least let you defend yourself, you'll need to build an armoury to be able to build the heavy weapons - and these in turn will require leather, stone, sticks and sometimes even bones. If you don't have the resources you need, you won't be able to equip your army - and sticks, particularly, can be tricky to come by. And while many a soldier (or miner, or woodcutter) will simply soldier on through and attack their enemy (or trees/rocks) with their bare hands, when it comes to taking on the tougher enemies, you'll need the right equipment.
In truth, getting the right mix of materials can be as much about luck as it is about forward planning. While the game will warn you when you've run out of a certain resource, it won't warn you when you're simply getting low - only when your vikings are so hungry they're refusing to work, or when they're completely out of logs with which to build their new tent will the game give you a notification to warn you your supplies have completely run dry. While you can temporarily disable certain buildings - like the sawmill, which will ensure your logs stay as logs rather than being turned into planks while you're not looking by an enterprising viking - managing your resources is easier said than done, especially as there's no easy way of knowing what building will be consuming what resources before you build them.
And if anything, it's this that's at the root of Valhalla Hills' problems. This is an immensely complex game, with a lot of depth to it - but it's combined with what has to be the worst tutorial we've ever seen. And that's not an exaggeration. This is a tutorial that's so mind bogglingly bad, you'll wonder how it ever made it into a game in 2017 - yet alone a "definitive edition", presumably following a PC release that should have raised red flags about accessibility.
In a nutshell, the issue here is that the tutorial is the only thing that gives you anything by way of an initial structure in the game - yet it also explains absolutely nothing about how the game actually works. Almost everything we've mentioned in this review - the nitty gritty of how the game fits together, the delicacies of balancing resources, and even the overall goal of each map - is either glossed over, or omitted altogether. It probably doesn't help that it's written in English that veers between being awkward and broken - but perhaps most damningly, the tutorial doesn't even tell you that the objective of each level is to make your way through the portal!!!
When you first pick up the game, you'll have an objective box that tells you to open the building menu - and that's it. If you open the building menu, the objective doesn't get ticked off, and you don't get any others to follow. With nothing to tell you what to do, where to go, what to build, how the game's many systems all link together, or even that the whole point of the game isn't to scale a hill like the intro says, but to activate a flipping portal, you'll likely be left scratching your head for the first half a dozen levels until you simply figure it out for yourself through sheer bloody-mindedness. It's hard to put into words quite how frustrating this is. A game this complicated needs a great tutorial - and instead, there's absolutely nothing. It feels like you're left simply bashing your head against a brick wall for the first three hours, until you finally manage to smash it down with nothing but sheer persistence.
The lack of tutorial isn't helped by the fact there's no real structure to the game, either. There's no story to follow, or missions to complete. All you do is build up your forces, storm the portal, and move on to the next hill. Within the space of six levels, you'll have unlocked 90% of the game's building options, yet you won't have a clue what 90% of them do. That's why the structure in these games is usually so important - by giving you a gradual series of missions and objectives that require you to build all the different buildings, and shows you how to set up the various supply chains, the games usually make it easy for you to find your way around. Not Valhalla Hills.
Meanwhile, the whole "honour" system that forms the game's backbone is more than a little bit convoluted too. Your vikings will earn honour for almost everything they do in game, from constructing buildings to smashing scorpions - yet they don't obviously carry over from one map to the next. Instead, on the main menu, you'll have access to a list of vikings, which will show you the honour they've earnt, and the number of times they've been spawned in. Each map will begin with only a handful of vikings present, and the more things you build, the more vikings the game will add to your map. Seemingly, these vikings aren't randomly generated, but are instead randomly chosen from this big, central list of vikings, and so the honour they earn carries over from map to map. Once they've earnt enough, they'll be able to move on to Valhalla - and that's the entire point of the game. There's no real ending here - instead, you've just got to keep sending vikings to Valhalla, by earning them enough honour.
Despite its terrible tutorial though, it's not like Valhalla Hills is a bad game - far from it. What there is here is immensely clever - it's just so badly explained, it'll do nothing but frustrate you until finally, eventually, you manage to get your head around how it works. With a great soundtrack, and some surprisingly relaxing gameplay, this can be a great chill out companion when you need to wind down - but the lack of any structure also really lets it down. With a proper story mode, real objectives to complete and a decent tutorial, this could have been a completely different game. As it stands, if you're a fan of similar games like Tropico, and you're fairly confident you'll be able to find your way around on your own, this is well worth a look. If you're just graduating from something like A World of Keflings, on the other hand, be prepared to climb your very own Valhalla Hill before you can make head or tail of what's going on here.