Valhalla Hills is the newest building strategy game from German developers Funatics, best known for its Cultures series and The Settlers. It’s very much a game in the tradition of those sim/RTS titles: players build and manage a village and its resources in service of some higher calling.
The goal of Valhalla Hills is to achieve what any good Viking aspires to: to die an honourable death in order to be granted access to Asgard’s majestic “hall of the slain”, Valhalla. At the start of the game, Leko – the god Odin’s youngest son – has been cast from that famous hall for his less-than-sufficiently-violent tendencies, as he prefers to spend his time building things rather than picking a fight with anything that moves.
In his exile, Leko meets some Viking heroes who, despite dying honourable deaths, have not been granted entrance to Valhalla. Their common goal established, the two parties band together and attempt to gain entrance to Asgard through more forceful means. It is our job as players to guide them on this perilous journey through the titular hills and up a mountain, so the gods may hear their displeasure and perhaps feel the sharp end of their axes, too.
This journey takes our heroes through a string of randomly-generated island maps. The goal within each is to open a portal, defeat whatever is guarding it, and then use it to move closer to Valhalla. However, as we quickly learn, it takes a village to raise an army – albeit a small and well-resourced one.
At the start of each map, a small number of Viking heroes will fall from the sky, land on our little island, and begin gathering resources with which we can construct buildings for a village. Players cannot individually control what each Viking does, but ordering the construction of particular buildings influences the actions of each.
For instance, ordering a woodcutter’s hut is one of the first actions you make in every map. (Yes, every map starts building progress from scratch, and yes, that does get a little repetitive.) Once constructed, the hut repurposes a Viking and employs them to be a woodcutter that can construct other buildings.
Be ready to have a love-hate relationship with resource management. While Valhalla Hills appears at first to be a rather straightforward building strategy game with a minimal learning curve, soon a challenge is revealed.
Our little Vikings need a source of food, so you want to build a bakery. For the bakery to make bread, you need a wheat farm. For the wheat from the wheat farm to be turned into flour, you need a mill. A mill needs stone bricks, which means you need a quarry and a stonecutter. This, after you’ve built woodcutter and toolmaker huts.
“Sure,” we say. “Let’s just get all that going so we can have food, then our Vikings can build a military camp and get to work on this portal.” However, the Vikings themselves have needs, even in the afterlife. They get hungry. They get tired.
In fact, they get hungry so often, you run out of gather-able food while they are still building everything they need to create a reliable a source of food. They get too hungry to work, then wander around aimlessly looking at things.
Overcoming this infuriatingly roundabout problem is less of a resource management issue than it is a pathfinding issue. Viking AI is less than ideal, considering the wild and rugged nature of their surroundings. (It does make you wonder how these heroes died though. Perhaps their internal compasses led them out into the middle of a desert?)
Without well-thought-out paths drawn with the Path Tool connecting your village’s buildings to one another (and inevitably looking like something from Microsoft Paint), your Vikings seem unable to organise themselves out of a paper bag.
So, footpath creation is where the meat of the game's strategy lies, and players might as well restart the map if their paths aren’t up to scratch, because the "too hungry to make food" state approaches with relentless speed.
This would all be much more quickly understood if Valhalla Hills had a proper tutorial to gently guide players in the right direction. The existing tutorial, also known as “the occasional pop-up box of vague information that doesn’t really explain anything terribly well” lacks depth, and doesn’t really serve as a means to ease anyone into the game.
It is only after a number of failed or nearly-failed maps that it’s possible to understand the nuances present. On top of that, the camera controls are erratic, so players will inevitably see the map from all angles and levels of zoom for no apparent reason.
Despite these flaws, Valhalla Hills is a charming, addictive game. It has a lot of personality – particularly in the painterly cartoon art, the bright colours of which matches the simplistic combat of the game (a completely autonomous affair wherein a Viking and an Ice Guard bash each other in the face incessantly until one dies).
The individually-named Viking characters are lovable and easy to form attachments to as well, and you'll feel horrible when one is lost in combat and leaves behind a tombstone to remind you of what you’ve done to the poor fellow. And it is immensely satisfying when you manage to get your buildings up and running smoothly.
It just isn't any fun when the opposite is happening. The problems the player is tasked with solving here are generally uninteresting – relating to pathfinding and little else – the game doesn't explain itself well overall, and there's a fair chunk of repetition. What's that means is that Valhalla Hills is lighthearted title of supply chain management that unfortunately feels a little lightweight.