"A man was born in Iceland many winters ago. He was named Hjalmar. He was the son of Ingmar, the hairy bodied and the men of his clan were Berserker, those warrior beasts whose veins are filled with the blood of wolves and bears. There has never been a worse destiny for that of Hjalmar, who one day, set out over the ocean to recover the axe of his ancestors. He had to fight the forces of chaos, he saw his dearest friends die and he lost his hand in a fight. But, he met the most enchanted of beauty, Thorild, and became the equal of the Gods. It is this strange and terrible saga, the saga of Hjalmar, the iron-handed, which I, Eldgrim, will now tell you".
Several years old and missed (I suspect) by many, probably through a combination of a limited release and (Rosemary quivers) being an "infotainment" (or is it edutainment) game, Vikings is a thoroughly enjoyable 6 hour pastiche of Nordic myth, full-motion video, games-within-games, and (dare I say it) interesting cultural information.
Vikings is obviously fairly short, and it's relatively easy as far as puzzles go. This doesn't mean it can't be fun. Stacked up against some of the giants of the genre, this game will not rate. Stacked up against some of the more holistic puzzle adventures, it will also not rate. Stacked up against good value, unpretentious, interactive adventure stories, it easily holds its own.
I like games with real people, and I like them on a full size screen. I like grand adventures spread across a large and majestic vista. I like a story that continues at a good pace, that challenges me to think a bit. I like colourful characters in settings a bit out of the ordinary. Vikings is all of these.
It is also infotainment, but more of that later.
As indicated above, Eldgrim, an old shaman, tells the tale. You control Hjalmar, a young man of noble blood (a jarl) who is on a quest to recover the axe of his murdered father. Eldgrim will guide him as he grows and learns, and ultimately confronts the forces of Chaos intent on bringing about Ragnarok. If he succeeds, he will truly be the equal of gods.
The game unfolds essentially in chapters. Each requires you to complete a "riddle", which will advance the quest. These riddles are varied in nature, and are all grounded in the Viking ways and culture. In one, you must place the appropriate workers and merchants in the right trade and production areas throughout the known Viking world in order to generate enough wealth to embark upon the next part of the quest. In another you must build a ship, procuring the raw materials, transforming them into the necessary items, and using them in the right order. You must navigate to Iceland with only the help of flights of crows, run a naval blockade, and win a game of Knattleikr. None are hard, some require a little bit of dexterity, but all are fun.
Each chapter consists of only a few separate locations, and whilst you can go back and forth between the locations, you do not move your character around within a location. There may well be a lot happening within the location (a tavern or a trading post perhaps), but it will all take place within the confines of what you can see on the screen. This is nowhere near as limiting as it might sound. Many of the locations are large and full of characters and events, and I didn't ever feel stymied or closed in by the fact that I couldn't walk Hjalmar around.
Indeed, Hjalmar will be present in most scenes. So whilst you are engaged in advancing Hjalmar's saga, he is an ever present character. In that respect the game is akin to a third person perspective as opposed to first person.
As mentioned, it is predominantly a full motion video experience, although a somewhat different one to that normally experienced. 3D video scenes utilising actors occur against a superb 2D background, which admirably recreate the Viking world. Progressing tasks (eg shipbuilding) will usually result in an animation or other special effect (you will see your ship built before your eyes). Some of the riddles will also be done from a top down perspective, again complete with animations. A task bar at the top of the relevant screen (eg when building the ship you need to be at the shipyard) will tell you how you are progressing, and Eldgrim or some other adviser will usually provide relevant information. Throw in some excellent ambient sound effects and music, and a most interesting tableau results.
The game interface deserves special mention. Everything is present on the screen, yet the maximum amount of space is devoted to the full motion videos. There is a minimum of fairly obvious cursor icons, and the main action cursor is like a computer mouse. The left mouse button will be black if you can pick the object up or otherwise interact with it, and the right will be black if you can talk to the person concerned. All of the collected items are displayed below the main screen, but are only visible if the cursor is moved to that part of the screen. Using them is simply achieved by dragging the particular item to the proposed spot. If it can be used there, it will be. If not, it puts itself back in the inventory. You can also drag inventory items, which may include characters, onto a question mark to get information about them. The options, save and quit screen are also accessed below the main screen. At the top, again only visible if the cursor is moved there, are links to the other locations in the particular chapter, and a title telling you your current location.
I can't recall a game where so much is accessible on one screen, with so much of the screen dedicated to the game video, and yet nothing seems cluttered. This is partly due to the fact that those things outside the "video" screen are only visible if you move your cursor there, so they don't offer any visible distraction. Also there was no manual with my game, but the interface was so self explanatory it was only a short time before I was embarking with Hjalmar.
There aren't subtitles in the game, but moving the cursor over an item will generate a caption telling you what it is, and moving it over a character will give a caption summarising what that character will say. It would be perfectly possible to play using those captions. However the cut scenes between chapters, which tell the continuing saga, have no such captions.
But what of the "infotainment" says Rosemary? Certainly, there is plenty of historical and cultural information available in the database, and it would be misleading to say that you could play the game by completely ignoring it. Translating the verdict of the Thing (a form of Viking court) would probably not be possible without some information on Skaldic poets and their use of kennings (metaphors). The rest of the game though could probably be done just by trial and error, but I suggest you would be missing something if you did it that way.
I dipped in and out of the database, usually as a result of dragging my inventory items onto the question mark. That would bring up a relevant page, with short pertinent information and specific links to other pages. Often that first page was sufficient to provide the information I needed, which was usually in the nature of detail - ie the more I knew about boat building the less trial and error there was on giving my workers their materials, and the more deliberate I could be about where to go next for what I needed.
It is arguably no more onerous than, say, reading the journals in Myst/RealMyst or Riven, or having April Ryan listen to a lengthy monologue in The Longest Journey. It provided exactly the same sort of depth and background (and clues) to the saga at hand as did the journals and dialogue referred to. It was not like research, and I didn't play it to learn stuff, although you could certainly spend a lot of time reading all the links and information if you wished to. I didn't wish to, so didn't do so, and had a lot more fun with this game than a lot of others in which there is not a scintilla of educational content.
So yes its infotainment, and yes you might learn something, but it doesn't overwhelm the game or the story and it would be wrong not to play it simply because it has an historical database built in. It's a short, breezy, adventure saga, sometimes violent, very occasionally bawdy, never dull. I picked it up for a song, and it was worth every cent.
Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2001.
All rights reserved.
Windows 95/98/ME. Pentium 133 MHz,