Viking Squad, a beat 'em up in the vein of arcade classic side-scrolling brawlers like Legend and Double Dragon, sports perfect controller support, smooth animation, and a kickin' soundtrack. Developer Slick Entertainment Inc. put a lot of work into making a good throwback arcade title that's not just nostalgia-riffic, but also brings some new goodies to the mix: RPG stat progression, item shopping, and beautifully illustrated dialogue-free cut scenes. Plus, what would a quality beat 'em up game be without great local and online co-op? Not Viking Squad, that's for sure.
You're a Viking sent to different lands to topple monsters and reclaim the gems that Loki has stolen, which will unlock the gates of Valhalla. Loki–who, in this game, is a small green goblin-like creature–was freed during your tutorial level when you unwittingly smashed his large gemstone prison into carry-able chunks for pillaging.
To make matters worse, the gem-chunk you bring back to your chief changes him from a benevolent (though money-loving) Viking to a toothy grey-skinned greed-monster that looks like the stepbrother of the Lich from Adventure Time. But hey, he's still the chief, so smash heads and rake in the loot. For the good of the clan!
First and foremost, the controls are presented nicely in the brief tutorial level via wordless wooden signs with buttons drawn beside their actions. The art is clear, and you'll know just what <blank> key does from just a quick glance. That doesn't mean I didn't tap the jump button when meaning to attack once or twice at the beginning, but that was player error all the way.
More important that a nice tutorial, though, is a tight control setup, and Slick Entertainment Inc. took the time to get Viking Squad's just right. Moving up, down, right and left is just a button push, and a double tap forward sends you careening ahead in an offensive dash. One button is for a regular attack, another is a special attack that takes "Rune" power (built up through battle), another is to use an item (life potions), and yet another is to jump. All this is pretty standard but definitely responsive. I never encountered a death that wasn't somehow my fault, so shame on me.
But a strong attack button and regular attack button also means something in a beat 'em up, and that's combos, combos, and more combos! The first few are given to you from the start and are basic (such as a regular attack followed by a strong attack equals two quick strikes). From then on out, though, you'll gain combos by upgrading your character's stats (as described below under Progression System).
The default controller setup also has a right trigger dedicated as your "grab," and you can heft barrels and ice or fire bombs to hurl them at your enemies. You can also use the grab to move massive stone pillars that are barring your way. A left trigger is set up as your special attack, which is a devastating screen-filling affair that damages all enemies (wiping out most of the cannon-fodder villains). You need to acquire four golden balls in order to use this massive attack, which you'll find by killing regular enemies (but more often by killing the characters who run off the screen at your approach). The enemies themselves are awesome and bizarre and range from 'roid-raged polar bears to green skulking zombie-warriors.
While you're without a doubt a Viking, there is more than one type to take into the fray. The default soldier character is an all around decent brawler, with medium-speed attacks and a nice ice rune attack that freezes enemies, and the berserker-like character has fast combos and a dodge. The archer has distance attacks, and the lady-Viking has a big ol' hammer and a ground slamming attack that throws enemies up for aerial combos. They're all very playable and very different, so it's worth experimenting to find your favorite (and you'll probably end up playing them all to level them up and score all their gear and combos).
Stages are delivered linearly, and you can choose to boat back to camp and upgrade prior to jetting off to the next stage (or you can just plow onward). And did I mention steeds? No? Well, Golden Axe fans, rejoice, because you can mount up on beasts such as wolves, ostriches, and see lions to rip apart your foes and cruise to victory! The only thing about the level design that mucked me up a few times were the branching paths in a few levels–they're excellent additions and loot-troves, but the doorway trigger spread too far, so I entered when I intended to do something else more than once. When I became aware of this problem, however, it was easily avoidable.
Lane Based Brawling
When Slick Entertainment Inc. described VS as a "lane based" brawler, I had no idea what that meant. Seconds of gameplay explained it all, though, and it means that you'll spend less time trying to figure out what "layer" an enemy is on, and more time pounding them into dust. Instead of the classic Double Dragon formula, where a character walks smoothly up and down the horizontal battle plane, moving up or down in Viking Squad actually "hops" your character into a new lane. When I first saw my character do a little jump, I expected it to be distracting and disorienting. The battle proved me wrong, though, as I no longer noticed it when the swords started swinging. The lanes are effective, too, and their presence prevents you from swinging at the air either behind or in front of an enemy due to a faulty sense of depth. The enemies, by the way, do not exhibit this hopping, so the majority of the on-screen action is smooth as polished steel.
When defeating enemies, breaking barrels, and opening chests, your character may find coins, items (such as golden balls or life potions), or golden chalices. Golden chalices are the currency you can use to upgrade your character's hit points, strength, or Rune Attack power. The higher you advance these, the more chalices are required to go up the next rung. Chalices can also be used to buy access to new helms or weapons that you've unlocked throughout your looting. Coins are the currency that can be used to buy items, such as golden balls, life potions, keys (which you'll need to unlock various chests and doors in levels), and potion boosts (which permanently raise the amount of health a potion replenishes).
Each of these upgrades is receivable at your clan's camp, and each area of upgrades is offered from a different background character. Again, there is no dialogue, but the character designs speak for themselves (Viking-carnival strongman for your strength upgrade, anyone?) When you die at a stage (which you will, especially if you're going solo), you'll be sent back to camp with all your riches–but you can't leave camp with them! You'll need to spend all that you can, which is why a later upgrade that lets you turn chalices into coins is super helpful.
You'll also find massive treasures in stages, and you can carry them back to your boat (allowing that you keep them from getting destroyed, and don't die trying to haul the thing around). These treasures count as multiple chalices and appear to be statues later at Heimdall's gate.
There's no four-player X-Men bliss, but the three-player couch co-op and online matchmaking co-op is sweet enough (besides, at this stage of my life, I'm hard pressed to find more than two friends, anyway). Battle gets easier with multiple players, but not overly simple, and it's all the more fun battling past your homeboy or homegirl to catch those coins before they do.
graphics and sound
The graphics are gorgeous, provided you like a boldly-colored cartoon approach, and were pulled from designs by the artist Jesse Turner (the "Drawbarian.") The characters, interactive objects, and enemies don't clash but stand out enough to be clearly defined. The only think I wasn't a huge fan of was Loki–not necessarily because of his design, but more so because of his animation. Unlike everyone else, he floats and has a rag-paper-doll vibe. He's not terrible, just not quite as smoothly done as everyone else. There were also a few items that didn't stop my movement, and let my character slide through them awkwardly. I really only noticed this in the tutorial area, so it didn't take place or register in the real guts of the game.
The bosses, however, are epic, and some are truly ginormous.
The sound effects fit well and aren't ear-piercing or quite, but the soundtrack is truly golden. Game music powerhouse A Shell In The Pit, who also did the music for Rogue Legacy and Invisible Inc., put together a slew of acoustic-tinged Norse tunes that'll make you want to down some grog and pull out the D&D dice.
There's nothing preventing me from recommending Viking Squad to anyone yearning for, or even remotely interested in, a great sidescrolling beat 'em up. If you have friends to hunker down with, you'll have fun tearing through these stages as a party of destruction. Solo players are welcome, too, and I actually enjoyed the slight upping of difficulty that lone-wolfing it offered.
|+ Beautiful stylized artwork||– Some items can be passed through, looks odd|
|+ Great acoustic-metal soundtrack||– Doors can accidentally be entered from far away|
|+ Perfect controller support|
|+ Classic beat 'em ups are always welcome!|