For those with a memory of Bluebyte’s old and fantastic The Settlers II in the 1990’s, the developers of that game have come together to make Valhalla Hills, a real-time strategy city builder. The question is: can it hold up to its spiritual forefather?
In Valhalla Hills Definitive Edition, you play as the god Leko, youngest son of Odin. After being exiled to Midgard for being a failure, you’re given the task to guide Vikings along the road to the gods via the Valhalla Hills portals, only then will you be welcomed back to Asgard. This is about as far as the story goes and while it is nice that it provides some context to the action, it doesn’t give any sense of adventure and purpose on why buildings are locked off, why enemies are stronger in later maps, and much more.
Progression is handled by unlocking in-game achievements. Many of these achievements are based on how many maps you have completed. Once completed, you then get to unlock a new building, map size, or map terrain. Many of the achievements are merely a grind to prolong the length of the game for as long as possible. Once the buildings are all unlocked then the only course of action is to gain enough experience for your Vikings so that they can arise to the realms of Odin himself.
Because of this there is no real sense of progression. Sure, you can set your own goals by trying to achieve the necessary goals for unlocking extras in the game, but that can be easily done by simply leaving the game do its own thing for an hour or two, then you find that most unlocks (barring those that require map completions) to be done.
If you do want to speed things along then it’s a must playing the game on maximum speed. Having the game run at normal speed makes it feel like a snail’s pace. Even kids will have a snooze fest unless a whip is cracked to maximum – this ought to be normal speed as it takes a while for structures to be built.
Building an automated society of Vikings and laying out the foundations was a fun affair with almost the exact same setup as The Settlers II of old. Two woodcutters to a Forester, the harvesting wheat to baking bread, butchering cattle instead of hunting animals, and many more familiar and same automation trees that will be enjoyable for The Settlers II veterans to get stuck straight in.
What is handled differently is the use of soldiers. It’s a nice addition to have varying types of soldiers, from spearman to archers and foot soldiers, but when it comes to controlling what happens, it is completely devoid of anything other than the heal spell created on an altar to heal your soldiers. Monsters do try and wreak havoc in your town if a few of your citizens decide to move too close to them, but once you have an army set in a location where there’s issues, then you can simply leave them be for the rest of the map.
The only true purpose of an army is when you want to leave the map. You have an option to leave through the gate after killing a few monsters (that are spawned by the gate) or give a sacrificial offering to the gods to appease the portal for safe passage.
Roads are a nice improvement too with more varied places where they can pass, including through trees, but you do get pathing issue that is shown with a hollow dot. These paths take away building space so it’s a must to watch where you build them. As the game is in a fully realised 3D environment, the addition of extra building materials for the foundations (when built on steep slopes) is a welcomed addition and adds a more strategic element to building placements.
The notification bar at the top helps tell you – in a lot of detail – what needs to be done and where your focus should be. Soldiers without weapons? Tools missing for certain jobs? Storage full? Monsters attacking? It’s all there with a quick button press. It’s good to know especially if you’re running out of tools – which aren’t automated and can be a pain if you’re trying to concentrate on other things.
But despite wanting to prioritise certain tasks and build a large population, the level is already completed far too quickly to warrant continuing further. And with there only being a single game mode, the gameplay gets shallow and boring very quickly. What makes it worse is that there is no multiplayer – it’s a strictly single player only game – and even the huge maps pale in comparison to the size of The Settlers II.
The control scheme just doesn’t fit the controller that well either; it is clearly a genre that’s built for a keyboard and a mouse and adding, at least, a mouse to the options would make things a whole lot easier. Instead the controls feel clunky and sluggish. What’s also bemusing is the screen showcasing the control scheme. In many places in the game you need to use both the square and triangle buttons, but not once on the controller options (which you can’t change) screen does it mention it anywhere. How did I find them out? At the bottom of the screen during play it gives you the base controls for your in-game actions, which differ a lot from seemingly camera only controls in the options menu.
The Valhalla Hills Definitive Edition includes all of the DLC that comes as part of the PC version of the game – Sand of the Damned, Fire Mountains, and The Dwarf Cave. But even with this DLC it hasn’t added anything substantial to the half-full glass. What’s even crazier is the price of the game. Even though it does have all of the DLC present on top of the game, $40 for a game that feels rather shallow, lacking many features, and has gameplay issues is far too steep than its real worth. With other similar games with considerably more content and gameplay going for less than half to a third of the price of this game with its DLC, it’s hard to recommend this over others.
With many of the developers from The Settlers II working on Valhalla Hills, I would have thought a major improvement would be in order, instead it feels like two steps forward and colossal step back. There’s so much that can be done with this game that just isn’t here to keep even The Settlers II fans going for long.