One hour. Sometimes, that’s all you need to form an opinion about a game. In the case of Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga, it’s because every major issue that makes the experience unpleasant rears its head within the first 20 minutes. Or to put it more bluntly, this is the first time in recent memory I’ve played a game where the very act of moving is a chore.
Eldar Saga doesn’t make a very good first impression. For one, it looks terrible. When you boot it up, the game allows you to create a customized character. You can pick what kind of face, hairstyle and hair colour you want on your avatar. The problem is, the choice of faces is sorely lacking in variety, and the alpha-mapping — which basically allows you to turn part of an object or texture transparent — on some of the hairstyles is pretty messed up, which causes them to look like…well, it sure as hell doesn’t look like hair.
Textures in general tend to look blurry in-game, even from a short distance away, and the bad unwrapping is very apparent at times. Even the character art is nothing to write home about. Characters — including your own avatar — are mostly expressionless regardless of what they’re doing, and do a terrible job of ever acting in a convincing manner.
But enough griping about the art. Valhalla Knights games are about battling monsters and finding loot, so this is what I set out to do when I booted up the game. The character I created was of the Thief class, with most of my stat points invested in the "Speed" attribute. The rest went into Dexterity and Luck, with a few saved for Vitality, just so I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with my base HP.
You start out in town, greeted by your childhood friend Penelope, who does little more than giggle at you. Once I finished up with her, I decided to explore the small town a little to intimate myself with the basic controls. This is where the first of Eldar Saga’s control problems made its spectacular debut — the in-game camera. There are three different camera settings, and they all suck at following your character around in town. The camera lags behind your movements constantly, and gets worse when you run instead of walking. It really made me appreciate the tight camera in Zelda: Twilight Princess’s Hyrule Castle Town, which zoomed in and out appropriately and gave you a nice, wide look at your surroundings no matter where you were or what you were doing. Perhaps K2 should have considered taking a look at that game’s camera or even Devil May Cry’s.
Once you step outside of the walls of your town and start to engage in combat, Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga’s sloppiness becomes even more apparent. You can perform two different kinds of attacks: weak attacks with the A button and strong attacks with the B trigger. Now, it isn’t uncommon for strong attacks in games to be performed slower and require more precise timing, but when your weak attack is almost as slow, you’ve got a problem on your hands.
In Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga, you can spam A or B in order to perform strong or weak combos. The problem is, since both forms of attack are quite slow, and the lighter enemies like to dodge — boy, do they like to dodge — you’ll end up missing. A lot. Even worse, a lot of the time, you’ll stand there comboing into thin air while your opponent gracefully dodges to the side and starts whacking you in retaliation. Sometimes, you’ll miss even if you’re standing right beside your opponent. I couldn’t tell for certain if this was due to bad hit detection, but considering the number of points I piled into Dexterity early on, I’m inclined to believe it was. I actually felt quite proud of myself when I managed to take down a rabbit without missing once. (yeah, see how that sounds?)
One way you can reduce the chances of missing is by locking onto enemies. This can be done by holding down the Z trigger. Unfortunately, Z-targeting here is nowhere near as flawless as you’d expect it to be. While locked on, you also tend to walk very, very slowly — something the game points out the first time it teaches you to lock on. The problem with this is, your enemies tend to just…run away…as you crawl toward them. Which then means exiting lock-on, catching up to them, then locking on again and hoping your slow attack animations don’t miss. There’s also special attack you can perform by shaking the remote, which is more effective, but you’ll need to wait for a gauge to slowly build up before you can use it. It feels incredibly annoying if you’re used to better action games.
Here’s another interesting point to note: Eldar Saga has no "jump" button. This means that, in order to climb over objects or raised platforms in the environment, you’ll have to go over to them and press C, which is also your run button. Unfortunately, you also need to press C in order to climb down from a higher platform, regardless of how insignificant its height may be. Oh, and as far as combat is concerned, it means you can’t jump to attack airborne enemies. You’ll have to wait for them to come down to you, or wait until you get ahold of some ranged attacks.
I’ll be playing Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga some more this week and checking out the different skills and combat in-depth, but it certainly won’t be because I like what I’ve seen so far. Just an hour in, and I already feel like putting it right back in the box. It’s unfortunate, because Valhalla Knights seems to take some inspiration from games like Twilight Princess and Monster Hunter, but the actual execution of all of its elements isn’t nearly as polished. Perhaps Episode 2 (the game contains two episodes) will make a better impression. We’ll keep you posted.
Food for thought:
1. Something as simple as making the A attacks faster could have reduced the frustration in combat.
2. The team that worked on this would probably have benefited from hiring a good technical artist that could’ve helped optimize the game for the Wii and taken some of the burden off of the programmers. Tech artists are invaluable in this day and age.
3. Eldar Saga seems to be trying to do too much, with the result that none of it is particularly polished. Perhaps focusing on a less broad, tighter experience would have helped? Diablo II certainly didn’t suffer from preset characters, for instance.