"I am the Prince of Valhalla," says a small, chubby-faced young lad, soon after the thunder has subsided. "And I have a sad story to tell." A potted history of the Kingdom of Valhalla follows: good against evil, and the Prime's quest for justice against his father's murderer, his dastardly uncle, The Lord of Infinity. Despite the apparent lack of plot originality, Valhalla impresses the hell out of you right from the off, because the story doesn't unfold as scrolling text or pages of a book, but directly from the Prince's mouth. Oh, and from this moment on, vanquish the word 'unoriginal' from your minds completely.
The user interface is the easiest I've come across. With only three functions - look, take/drop and use - not once is there any laboured confusion as to what course of action to take in a particular situation. At the very worst, trying all three in turn takes about 15 seconds. Of course, even this methodical approach doesn't bear fruit every time, but that's another story, and something you'll no doubt find out for yourself when you buy the game, which you really should.
A top-down perspective is all very well for the likes of Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder and that sort of thing, but Vulcan have decided to give it a try too, and surprise surprise, after a dizzying couple of minutes fighting the urge to crane your neck and maintain balance, it works like a charm.
Getting back to the story, you will recall that the Prince (name unknown at the lime of going to press, if indeed he has one at all) has come of age, and is charged with the task of returning to his native land, the once peaceful Valhalla, to avenge his father's death at the hands of the Lord of Infinity. He seems unperturbed by the fact that the Lord is obviously a bit hard, and rightly so as it turns out, since the Lord has done a runner and will take some finding.
A very limited section of the playing area is visible at any one time, with the screen scrolling as the Prince wanders around via joystick control. Not only does the introductory story come straight from the Prince's mouth, but every piece of interaction throughout the game is relayed in the form of speech, without a hint of a text bubble anywhere. Despite all the technological advances and increased programming capability of the last half dozen years, this really is a first, a true original and it seems strange that the programming team of two former film students working on their first project should be the pioneers. Anyway...
In the huddle
When we received the demo, I must admit to not paying it a great deal of attention. Steve and Neil huddled together in dubious fashion for a good few hours, and my only involvement was asking them to "turn that annoying little git down" from time to time. How wrong can a person be? The speech absolutely makes the game, and the Prince has a comment for anything he comes across that you care to query. This isn't any old Gorf-like computer talk either - once Valhalla is loaded, you are talking to a very real small boy with the occasional Scots twang.
OK, so you're dubious. You've played various adventures with differing degrees of enjoyment, and unfailingly you've been perplexed by the constant repetition; you choose a question, a text bubble appears, the character responds, you answer back, a text bubble appears, the character responds and it's exactly the same joke he made 10 minutes earlier when you were asking about something else altogether! The whole episode takes about two minutes - more if you don't have a hard drive - and you end up turning the game off and doing something less tedious instead, like watching Pebble Mill in black and white.
This is never the case with Valhalla. The Prince has a vocabulary of over a thousand words, and when repetition occurs, which it inevitably does, it's over in a second, you're usually wiser, and most of all... it just sounds nice. Of course, it would be nothing but the opposite of a Don Bluth game if it didn't have gameplay. Luckily it does, in bucket loads.
Now obviously the idea is to get to the end of each of the four large (huge) levels. In order to do this, doors need opening and obstacles removing, and in order to do that, the correct jems/stones/scripts/potions/bits of wood etc, need to bo found, and placed/changed/melted/consumed, or whatever. Sounds dead simple? In theory it is, and this is where the second part of its appeal lies. The levels (a maze of narrow passageways and 'treasure'-laden rooms) contain hundreds of... of... things, just waiting to be found. And as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing goes to waste.
No matter where you find yourself, or how stuck you appear to be, there is always a way of opening another door or changing an amulet, and in all but the rarest of occasions the puzzles are largely logical. (Mouldy ale indeed!) The difficulty curve isn't that steep; It starts damn tricky and it bloody well stays that way throughout the game, and while the graphical style of the four levels docs change somewhat, the task remains the same - basically, find stuff and use it.
While we're on the subject of the levels, I feel compelled to heap yet another superlative on Valhalla, this time for the way in which it has been programmed. Each of the levels comes on a separate disk, and you can save as often as you like on each level, the last save simply being overwriten by the new one. We've been playing the game on a 600 with a hard drive, and it takes about two seconds to save, and another two to reload. Seriously. Playing from disks it takes a fraction longer, and there is a very slight pause before speech, but everything simply whizzes along, there's no disk swapping during a level, and it's amazing to think that no-one's managed it before.
And now to the 'we' bit I mentioned earlier. The fact is that while I'm writing this, Steve, Neil and Chicken are all arguing over what to do next in order to progress on level three. (We're playing it properly, despite passwords, which says something) It's almost five o'clock and with the exception of Chicken, who's been on the skive, it's been this way all day, all yesterday, and the best part of the day before. Valhalla has had the office at a virtual standstill for almost three days; we haven't been bored once and we're far from finished yet, and this is the best testament I could possibly come up with.
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