Vikings

Review by Enigma

An interesting mixture of puzzles, exciting cutscenes, and well-researched history place this intriguing and unusual game from Index+ in a category almost on its own. If you're a history nut, as I am, you'll very likely love Vikings, as I did. If you're not crazy about history, you can still have lots of fun with it, and you might even find that the game hatches a new interest for you.

A French company, Index+ so far has produced three games following a similar format. Vikings was the first, followed by Crusader and last year's Genesys, all intended to be "edutainment" games. Vikings follows a strong storyline that melds the daily life of the Vikings with mystery and mythology. Even if you don't want to, it's difficult not to learn something interesting about the Northmen who ravaged Europe 1,000 years ago.

The Story

Our hero is Hjalmar, the son of a wealthy Viking lord from Iceland. Hjalmar's father has been killed and his thriving estate destroyed in a vicious attack. Hjalmar has taken refuge with Leif Harraldsson in Norway. Harraldsson, however, suffers from a strange malady that drains his strength. He calls on Eldgrim, a powerful shaman, for a cure. Eldgrim's services don't come cheap. In order to pay, Harraldsson must gather valuable items from across the entire Viking empire. Once Eldgrim is satisfied, Harraldsson builds a "knorr," a Viking ship, to sail to Iceland and reclaim Hjalmar's holdings. There the plot thickens with a sudden twist, and Hjalmar finds himself accused of murdering his own father. With Eldgrim's help, Hjalmar surmounts numerous obstacles ranging from the mundane to the supernatural to become a legendary Viking hero.

Gameplay

The game takes place within various static scenes, such as Leif Harraldsson's house, a street, or a dock area. Rather than cartoons or static, unmoving statues, the characters are live actors shot in full-motion video, then superimposed onto the screens. They move constantly, and appropriate background noises add more life. The actors and sound add a nice element of realism without turning the player into a spectator. You right-click (or command-click for Macintosh) on characters to hear what they have to say.

You'll move Hjalmar along through his adventures by solving the riddles (called "enigmas," a term after my own heart) that represent the tasks Hjalmar must complete. After watching a movie cutscene, you visit two or more scenes wherein you'll listen to characters for clues and find objects necessary to solve the next riddle. Then you drag the objects you find onto the riddle screen to build Leif Harraldsson's knorr or rebuild Hjalmar's Icelandic estate. Not all of the objects you need will appear at first. Before your can build your knorr, for example, you'll have to get the blacksmith to forge the rivets and several other ship parts. With each successful placement of a correct item, a numbered bar across the top of the screen advances with a satisfying clang. After each riddle, another movie with a voiceover by Eldgrim continues the plot, with several shocking surprises along the way.

Note, however, that these riddles make Vikings almost 100% linear. You will encounter many instances wherein you'll get stuck because you can't find the next item, but you'll also find clues in the statements of the characters and in the encyclopedia. Much of it's really pretty simple, although a few puzzles can be frustrating. When stuck, listen to the characters, read the encyclopedia, or paint the screen watching for cursor changes. Index+ has provided a complete walkthrough for the first two riddles to help players learn how to play.

Not all of the riddles involve building knorrs or farms. One is a voyage to Iceland that actually is a maze, but a rather interesting one in which you are sailing the north seas with Harraldsson, who makes comments along the way. You'll see whales, get lost in the fog, and use crows to guide your path. Even without the clues, it's quite easy to navigate to your goal just by blundering upon it.

Eventually you'll play two authentic Viking games as two of the riddles. The first is the precursor of baseball (or cricket, if you like), and the second is a devious logic puzzle that eventually became the English game of draughts. The "baseball" game requires a bit of hand-eye coordination, but once you get the hang of it you'll find it to be really quite easy even if, like me, you're all thumbs. The "draughts" game requires some serious logical thinking. This one took me by far the longest time to win out of all the riddles, but it was an extremely satisfying success once I finally beat it. Of all the riddles, the "draughts" game comes the closest to the kind of puzzle you'll find in more familiar games.

The final puzzle is timed, but actually it is one of the easiest in the game. Although you'll probably lose a few times, you'll retain all of the objects you've gathered in your previous attempts. Once you find them all, it's a cinch to put them where they're supposed to go with plenty of time left over.

For clues, the wise player will make frequent "quickmoves" to the encyclopedia that provides much of the educational aspect of the game. Each entry shows photographs of real Viking artifacts gathered from numerous museums in Europe, such as a Viking bed or loom. Often, these are accompanied by superimposed live actors. You may be surprised when you find a large photograph of a Viking staring at you, and he suddenly blinks. All of the encyclopedia entries have highlighted buttons that will take you to pages related to your current subject. You can play the entire game without visiting these encyclopedia pages, but you'll miss a great deal of what Vikings has to offer, such as a good reproduction of the entire Bayeaux Tapestry that recorded the Norman Conquest of England.

Nice atmospheric music and drop-dead beautiful scenery add to the realism. As a fan of snowy mountain scenes, I really appreciated the way the game depicted icy northern lands. Some shots of Viking ships enshrouded in fog are simply gorgeous, and they add a great deal to the whole experience of the game. Drawings of buildings look real. You'll think you're back in time visiting a Viking village when you see the wonderful artwork, with children and animals running around.

The voice acting, with British actors, isn't bad. Many of the worker characters speak with working-class British accents, but these shouldn't be too difficult for most Americans to understand. You can click on the characters as many times as you like if you miss something. The actor who plays Eldgrim, the narrator of the game, sounds remarkably like John Hurt (but isn't). He keeps the suspense high and the mystery moving along nicely.

With the exception of one riddle, Hjalmar doesn't speak. Oddly, the young man who plays him slouches through his role, looking bored throughout. That detached performance detracts from his supposedly heroic demeanor and was the only aspect of the game that didn't work for me. Nevertheless, the story remains exciting, building into mystery and mythology in a fashion that keeps the play interesting.

Bugs

I played on a 500 MHz iMac with OS 9.2 and 256 MB RAM, and I experienced no difficulties at all. The game ran like buttah.

The Verdict

With or without the educational aspect of the game, I think you'll find Vikings to be worth your time and money. Index+ obtained grants from the European Community and produced a first-class product. Of course, just by playing you're going to learn some fascinating things about the Vikings. I was amazed by their technical skill. I found the riddles interesting, and the evolving storyline constantly propelled me forward. It's a great choice for young or old and should help to incite an interest in learning more about the Vikings, all while you're having fun. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Index
Publisher: France Telecom Multimedia
Release Date: 1998

Available for: Macintosh Windows 

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System Requirements

PC:
Pentium 133 or higher
Windows 95 or 98
16+ MB RAM
Video card with thousands of colors
16-bit sound card
4X CD-ROM drive (8X recommended)

Macintosh:
OS 7 or higher
16+ MB RAM
Video card with thousands of colors
4X CD-ROM drive (8X recommended)

 
   
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