Release Date: October 2, 2007
In the never-ending search for new worlds to make into game settings, it seems very odd that so many developers are content to ceaselessly re-mix Tolkein's work and not look to the actual history of the world. There are exceptions, but they're clearly in the minority. The subject of the article you're currently reading is one such exception. Loki: Heroes of Mythology is the first action-adventure title created by the Cyanide development team, and true to its name, this game is all about treading the fantastical tales of ancient human cultures.
At its core, Loki is a 3D, top-down isometric action-adventure game for the PC platform. Such a drab description, isn't it? Still, it is what it is: a Diablo-like adventure that will put your mouse through its paces, and your graphics processor as well.
Loki follows one of four different avatars through a twisting tale that spans the ages. The Egyptian lord of Chaos, Seth, has been released from an eternal prison by a zealous follower with absolutely zero foresight. The first order of business (such irony) for the god of disorder is to immediately launch an attack on all the other pantheons of Earth. The vicious, and seemingly pointless, violence catches all the other gods off-guard, and your job as the heroic mortal is to help the all-powerful-but-effectively-useless deities fend off a practical joke gone terribly awry.
When you begin Loki, the first decision you need to make will be which of the four playable avatars you'll choose. There is the Norse Berserker, the Greek Spartan, the Aztec Shaman or the Egyptian Sorcerer. There are two melee and two magic classes; the Norseman is more straight damage than the Greek, favoring two-handed monstrosities over lighter or ranged weapons. The Aztec Shaman is a summoner, utilizing spirits and animals as opposed to the Egyptian penchant for direct blasts of elemental power. For the purposes of illustration, I went with the Norseman. He looks like one of the Vanir from the Hyborian age created by Robert E. Howard, and that appealed most to me. Besides, I still play Titan Quest on a fairly regular basis, so I'm covered insofar as Greece or Egypt is concerned.
Onward to adventure! The basic structure of an action-adventure is in place. You're given tasks to accomplish by non-player characters, you go out exploring, fight and kill enemies, gain experience, level up and collect loot that falls off your vanquished foes. Every level up gives you five points to spend on attributes like dexterity, energy, intelligence, strength and vitality. Loki also has a faith structure in place that splits some of your experience toward a skill tree related to whichever god you're currently worshipping.
Each character has three gods to choose from, or the option to pray to none at all. If you choose the latter option, all experience will go to personal development. If you choose to go this route, there is still a way to gain skill point offerings. Instead of selling magic items to a merchant, you can offer these treasures to your chosen deity in exchange for faith points and level up your skill tree. I personally found the skills to be somewhat non-intuitive, and only once I reached level 20 did the abilities really become genuinely useful. As I will explain later, however, there are certain input issues that make skill use a tricky endeavor.
As you grind through the world, there are some impressions that leap out at you, and some that grow over time. The first impression is, of course, the graphics. Loki is a very good-looking game that bursts with spectacular effects and artistic acumen. Textures — whether they're painted onto a model or a world object — are gritty, realistic and full of detail. Lighting is dynamic and warm, although there does seem to be a strange lack of day/night cycles so the full range of what the lights are capable of only really comes into play when you move into a darkened indoor area that sports multiple light sources. Models appear to be high on the polygon scale, but they still come across as somewhat blocky in places. I'm given the impression this was a conscious decision, but it tends to clash somewhat with the attempted realism of the overall game.
What stands out most about the visuals in Loki is the art. This is not your run-of-the-mill fantasy re-hash but old-world myth as interpreted by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. Elves are twisted and evil, gnomes are malignant little tumors with a penchant for explosives and the cry of a phoenix isn't a mournful song of rebirth but the screech of impending doom. There are many really good ideas behind the monster designs (A dark Valkerie on lighting stilts? That's just straight-up cool!), and Cyanide has much to be proud of here. Of course, this isn't anything new to this development team. The last title I covered from them, Chaos League, also had an abundance of great monster concepts.
The next aspect of Loki that leaps out and slaps you is the voice acting — and not in a good way. This is one of those flaccid, untrained-and-weak-wristed attempts that you get from irate barflies who've had far too much to drink. It would be laughable, if it weren't so disappointing. You see, from the ground up, this is a tough-looking game. It's a harsh world, ruled by dark creatures and immense power. You expect raw, guttural strength and heroic bravado. What you get is thin, fairly squeaky voices with little inflection. It seriously detracts from the experience when your hulking, seven-and-a-half-foot tall Norse berserker starts talking and sounds like he hasn't quite mastered puberty yet. Odin, the All-Father, the most puissant figure in Nordic myth, sounds like an accountant. All apologies to the accountants of the world, but let's be honest here: Potent, vigorous verbal command isn't exactly what you're known for.
Not all of the audio work is terrible, though. The score is phenomenal; it's a brooding, bass-heavy theme that wouldn't be out of place at all in a modern big-budget Hollywood epic. It's certainly good enough to leave on and turned up loud enough to hear. That's high praise from me because I usually turn off in-game music as quickly as I can. The foley work is quite good, too, and sounds effects are realistic, crisp and loud. When you club something with 100 pounds of enchanted steel, it thuds in a most satisfying manner. Lovely.
The pace of Loki is somewhat slower than other action-adventure titles, which takes some getting used to but isn't entirely bad. However, the overall atmosphere of the world isn't particularly immersive, and the pace tends to draw attention to this. The level design wouldn't be bad if it weren't for the extreme overuse of it all. This is one of the more glaring flaws to Loki, but it takes awhile to really notice it. As you level up, the game doesn't get more challenging — it just gets longer. Much, much longer. This means that, while the smoldering underworld lava caverns are interesting at first, after five or more hours in the same cave over and over again, it becomes maddening. Hark, a new area! Ice caves! Five more hours of this new horizon ought to liven things up a bit, no? Basically, Cyanide have just crammed far too much of a good thing into this package. They could have chopped out easily half of the filler grind "content" and still had a game with enough single-player action to make it worthwhile. As it is, the endless repetition ultimately becomes self-defeating.
I like the aspects of massively-multiplayer-role playing games that Cyanide has tried to adopt, although once again we see good ideas gone fairly wrong. Runes are good and utilitarian. Find a rune, go to a blacksmith, lock the rune into a weapon or armor for a unique bonus. It's not too far off from sockets in Diablo 2. Overlay is a good idea too, somewhat like crafting in MMOs. Find raw materials and have a blacksmith provide an overlay of that material to increase the abilities of the item (i.e., an overlay of bronze on top of an iron breastplate provides greater defense). However, when you try to get that blacksmith to break down a basic item to gain the raw materials from it, nothing happens. This particular bug would be even more frustrating if it weren't for the fact that I've only actually managed to make the overlay function work once. Every other time I've tried to use it, nothing has happened at all. It uses the material, but the item doesn't change at all. On top of all of this is the extremely non-intuitive structure to the assemble/disassemble/overlay window. After the additional effort required to even learn how to do these things, to have them not work is annoying, to say the least.
Speaking of non-intuitive, this is a problem that permeates other areas of the game as well, most notably with the interface. A prime example is that there is no on-screen button to click that opens the inventory. The potion hotkeys aren't in a standard place (hit "end" to use a potion?), and there is almost no way to deal with bulk when it comes to items. Want to buy 20 potions? You have to click on the potion in the merchant window, click buy and click "Yes" on the "Are you sure you want to do this?" pop-up. Now repeat this process 19 more times! The same is true for offering items to your god/s. There is no bulk item select function, nor is there an "offer all" option. Yes, it's every bit as fun as it sounds.
Earlier I'd mentioned how the skills weren't useful, especially when you factor in the issues of input. What I mean by this is the maddening click lag that plagues Loki. Every action seems to take a split second to kick in. When you're surrounded by eight giant elementals and you're trying to get off that hail-Mary area effect skill and you die because of that click lag, you begin to rely less and less on the abilities given to you by the gods. It's difficult enough wrestling with the tendency for your targeting to just switch all on its own without adding in unreliable skills.
Thankfully, the AI is so lacking that you can compensate for this lag. There are no tactics here and no advanced scripts that suggest intelligence, just easily identifiable and exploitable patterns. Too many monsters? Run back about 10 feet or so, and they'll simply forget you existed. Better yet, find a hole in the ground and put it between you and the beasties. They'll get caught on that gap and just sit there while you heal up. Even if it's a creature with a ranged attack, it won't fire across a hole in the ground, no sir. You're safe as a kitten so long as there's a pothole around. How convenient that so much time is spent in caves, when natural fissures are everywhere.
I know that by now it must seem like I truly hated Loki. This just isn't the case. I know there are quite a few negative points that are easily critiqued, but the truth is there is still fun to be had and there are some good ideas. Even for the jaded old critics like me, there's amusement if you skew your perspective. Why are the gods so lazy? Why did the god Tyr send me, a mere mortal, after a wolf that trapped Odin the All Father? Sure, the gore is good, but why does it spray on invisible walls and sit there, a mural set in nothingness? Why ask why, it looks neat either way. As it stands, I think that judicious use of patches can iron out many of the issues with Loki. Until then, I'd still recommend it, but see if you can find it for a good budget price.