Sons of Valhalla review – Management and melee, a compelling combination

Sons of Valhalla requires you to excel in action combat and command a great army.
Sons of Valhalla

Sons of Valhalla is a game about being a parent. Okay, it’s not really. It’s really a side-scrolling, Kingdom-like, strategy-management brawler. But, hear me out. 

Someone has to smash down the barricade, decapitate four soldiers with a single swing of the sword, push the ram and make sure everyone has had enough fish – and that someone is me. Sure, I could encourage the vikings to help out, but they’re slower, weaker and somewhat less blessed by the gods than I. It’s just easier to do everything myself … Or is it?

I learned (very quickly) that I could not single-handedly conquer England. I needed to teach everyone to be capable and strong, then yell until they started pitching in.

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in Norse mythology, but the characters are recognisable enough. The story opens in Valhalla, with Odin sending ‘Thorald’ (back to life) to rescue his stolen wife, ‘Raya’. 

Read: The biggest video game releases for April 2024

The campaign unfolds over five levels. On each, you begin in a fortress, then (from left to right) conquer an outpost, a fortress, an outpost, a fortress, an outpost and a fortress (sorry), before engaging in hand to hand combat with a boss. Each boss has unique attacks, and is incrementally more terrifying, as you progress.

A fully upgraded fortress has six build locations, which generate military units, or basic resources; wood and fish. Outposts are for fast travel and recruiting special mercenaries. There’s a satisfying rightwards motion to the overall experience; running back to reinvent the leftmost places as resource hubs, while cobbling together new offensive buildings to the fragile right.

I absolutely loved experimenting with the composition of my army; swordsmen, swordsmen with shields, formidable shield maidens, archers, archers with fire, siege engines, siege engines with fire, combat blacksmiths, shamans (for healing), and so on. The potential size of your army grows, but is capped by how much you’ve conquered, and built. 

Better units cost more ‘people’, so an army that counts as ‘45 people’ may only have 25 units. Especially on higher difficulties, prioritising swordsmen with shields (worth two people, but who defend engines from arrows), compared to basic swordsmen without shields (worth one person), can have a profound impact on the outcome of any given battle.

sons of valhalla
Image: Pixel Chest / Hooded Horse

As much as you’ll need to build, I most loved when my best laid plans started going to Hel. That’s when it’s time to take matters into your own hands, perform heroic feats and tell emergent stories. 

‘Hold position,’ you may yell, leaving battered archers in a tower and swordsmen at the gate. You’ll collect mercenary archers from outposts and train a fresh army in a nearby fortress but, when you return, the gate is in tatters and everyone is clinging to their last few hit points.

Bravely, you’ll dodge roll past the gate, damaging five enemies (thanks to a useful rune that grants this ability), then left click to draw your sword and hesitate metrically (while the heavy attack charges), then finish all 5 in some specific (and gory) way according to how you’ve built Thorald, as a result of luck and careful decision making. 

You’re the commander, but also in the thick of it, until Odin needs to resurrect you over and again. You won’t pause in heaven, to pat his wolves. Any time you are hanging around, your army is dying without your leadership and strength. I didn’t rest for a single second of the (approximately) 8 hours I played.

Sons of Valhalla
Image: Pixel Chest / Hooded Horse

Yes, Sons of Valhalla was very much to my viking (sorry again) but there are a few niggles to be aware of. When yelling orders, only units within hearing distance will respond, which initially seems great because it adds a layer of gritty plausibility.

The ‘hearing radius’ is not made explicit, however, and some units appear to randomly ignore commands. It’s also possible that there is an explanation for this, and that I’ve actually misunderstood the system. Tutorialisation is light, and so I was frequently confused, until I paid proper attention.   

There are missed opportunities and incoherencies. For example, fog is beautiful, and it’s harder to ‘see’ combat when things get grey and smudgy, but I didn’t find any fog-buffing runes. I was perhaps misled by the night-buffing runes suggesting weather could be more meaningful overall; rain, fire and so on.

Similarly, there’s a neat stealth level, but it contradicts the story via gameplay; a defenceless and valuable character is simply killed when discovered, rather than captured. Also, sleeping guards can hear footsteps, but stationary, alert guards cannot? 

sons of valhalla
Image: Pixel Chest / Hooded Horse

These aspects didn’t detract from my cheerful experience. If a Shield Maiden didn’t hear the command to retreat, I just roleplayed her in my head as Brienne of Tarth leading her own doomed, solo charge out of a misplaced and excessive love. Thorald certainly is lovably impressive, so it made a kind of sense.

My spouse had Covid this week, so Sons of Valhalla was a nice break from having to take sole responsibility for the house and kids. Or was it? More accurately, multitasking, mental load and ‘mucking in’ felt appropriately familiar, and allowed me to forget my real responsibilities for a time. 

It takes a village to raze children. Or something like that. So, enjoy the brief fantasy that is being able to finally do it all, and so vigorously.

Four stars: ★★★★

Sons of Valhalla
Pixel Chest
Hooded Horse
Release Date: 
5th April 2024

A copy of Sons of Valhalla was provided for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are rated on a five-point scale.

Meghann O’Neill is a videogame roustabout, with a patchwork career spanning reviews, composition and education, often all three at the same time. She loves the creativity and cleverness that independent developers bring to the medium, especially in Australia. She’d love you to tell her about your game at @indiegames_muso on Twitter.