Last year, we were arguably treated to the best Norse-themed game ever made. 2018's God of War saw the franchise move from its roots in Greek mythology to the nine worlds of the Viking era, with incredible success. It may be tough to bring a Norse-themed game to market this soon afterwards as the bar has definitely been raised, but developer Zaxis have given it a go, to mixed results.
The game begins as you escape a burning building in a small Viking village. Fimbul uses this brief intro as a way to teach basic movement and traversal mechanics, which work well enough for the gameplay style on offer. You are shown how to move around, dodge, roll and climb your way out, which will all come into effect further as the game progresses. In this initial stage, we found ourselves fighting with the camera somewhat, but fortunately, the wide open winter spaces that most of the game takes place in work better with the camera's unpredictable movements.
Once you escape, you are thrown into a fight almost instantly. The combat is basic and follows a simple block, dodge and attack loop that is enabled by four pieces of equipment; your shield, sword, axe and spear. At this stage the enemies seem easy to defeat, as they often are as an introduction, but in Fimbul the standard soldiers never pose much of a threat. It's often easy to button mash your enemies into a stunned state, defeating them with two or three hits, and the combat only increases in difficulty once larger enemies and boss fights are introduced. A special move-set is also introduced as you progress, but the healing station is the only ability we found very useful.
The combat is broken up by a few very short stealth sequences, and some exploration tasks. These sections boil down to avoiding the view of an onlooking troll as you make your way through an area and finding runes to activate, which then progress you to the next stage. Sadly, these gameplay styles are underdeveloped and unfortunately, hardly used. Although the stealth could do with more refinement mechanically, it was a nice change of pace to the often repetitive combat sequences and it was disappointing that these sections only cropped up twice.
Exploration suffers a similar fate. Once a combat scenario has played out, you are allowed to relax a bit as you find three runes to move forward. At this point, the game still follows a linear structure, but multiple paths to find the runes would have created a nice environment for some optional collectables and nuggets of Norse back story to flesh out the world.
Fortunately, Fimbul's story does a good job with providing motivation for progressing through the game, albeit whilst being quite vague and requiring a basic knowledge of Viking themes, Norse stories and more specifically, the events of Ragnarok. The "cutscenes" are presented as comic strips, often of conversation between multiple characters and can be confusing to follow. The way that each character's dialogue appears within the strip can often lead to instances where it's hard to know which lines to read in which order, but we managed to get the gist more often than not. Proper cutscenes with voice acting would have been preferable, as they would have provided clarity to better understand the story.
The comic book style sequences are also at odds with the visual style the main game follows. Sitting somewhere between Ico and Rime, the game's atmosphere has a lonely vibe with a pale, cartoony character sticking out amongst the more realistic backdrop. Although somewhat disjointed, we really liked the unique graphic style Fimbul shows off, but it is definitely an acquired taste, like that of the aforementioned Ico. We can only speculate as to the reasoning behind using the jarring comic style to present story cutscenes, as an aesthetic more similar to the game itself would have worked much better.
Although we enjoyed the art style, the game does let itself down slightly with technical issues. None were game-breaking, but we saw strange clipping issues, janky scene transitions and often a camera with a mind of its own. Dips to well below the 30fps target were also on display with one boss fight showing signs of huge slowdown. Luckily the lack of difficulty means none of these issues result in too much stress, but they do make the game feel a little rough around the edges even for a lower budget title.
Towards the end of the game, Fimbul begins to trip up over itself. An over-reliance on the same combat sequences with more enemies and frequent repetitive boss fights take away from the uniqueness the first half of the game sets up. The balance between combat, stealth and exploration is thrown off for a false sense of end-game satisfaction, which may work thematically but does little to serve the gameplay. There is fun to be had with Fimbul especially for those with a keen interest in Norse mythology, but technical issues, confusing comic book dialogue and too much hack and slash combat mean the overall package doesn't quite live up its early-game premise.
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