The title tells all. The Horrible Vikings is about a band of vikings sailing the seas, pillaging, plummeting on rooftops, pummeling helpless people, and generally being horrible. The object of their ire? Ninjas. Through lava fjords and ice floes, grassy fields and islands in the sky, ninjas guard treasure, kittens, and one irritated princess. But they are dramatically outmatched.
Two vikings find some treasure. But the chest of gold coins is too far inland. So they decide, in a flash of horrible logic, to launch one viking onto the land in a catapult while the other stays on the boat—he’s the ballast, a fat man who sinks the boat wherever he’s standing, thus adjusting the angle of the catapult.
Broadly speaking, The Horrible Vikings is a physics game like Angry Birds or Ragdoll Blaster. You start on a parchment map screen showing various islands to conquer. At an island, you fling your viking to the target in the hopes that he won’t glance off a rock or snag a tree branch on the way, losing his momentum and rolling to a halt. If you miss, you simply start over; your viking has unlimited chances to fly and die (a feat both vikings joke about). Low Five Games has taken the physics template and built around it an elaborate scaffolding of good old-fashioned platformer gameplay.
You aren’t just throwing your viking to the wind. You maintain some control over his movement—tilting the iPhone left and right makes him go slower and faster while he’s in the air. The reason you want to tweak his flight is because the ground is littered with potential targets. Small treasure chests contain bonus booty; pieces of meat restore his health. Coins litter the terrain like in a Mario game. By swiping downward, you can have the viking perform a butt-slam onto whatever is directly below him. Little icons scroll from the right edge to the bottom as your viking flies toward and over targets of interest, pointing out what you might want to butt-slam and when.
When the viking slams a treasure chest, piece of meat, rooftop or unsuspecting ninja, he bounces back with renewed force and momentum. Each bounce is like a second launch in mid-flight. If you’re good, you might fly so high that you end up in starry space. This is the only way he can ever reach the treasure on most islands, since the ultimate treasure can sit ludicrously far away, maybe caught between a rock and a killer samurai.
So The Horrible Vikings is also a platformer in which the power to jump comes from the angle of that initial launch. Bouncing off rooftops, ninjas, islands, even birds at higher elevations is like jumping. It’s not without risk—you lose health if you bounce off a ninja’s head or a bomb that shoots you skyward—but you also have upgrades at your disposal, which you purchase with the coins you collect in your adventures. Mystic Milk adds permanently to your health, potions make you fatter or slow down time for easier aiming and bouncing, a viking archer sits on the boat and shoots you in the back with arrows for an extra boost, and so on.
The Horrible Vikings soars past and butt-slams other physics games through the depth of its mechanics. It’s highly unlikely you’ll hit every target on an island; you have to improvise as you go, and your next playthrough will likely differ. If you want, you can shoot your viking straight into space, but he’ll miss a lot of the treasure (and sights) below. There are times you might miss a landing on purpose so that he can roll on the ground, collecting coins. It’s thrilling to have just enough control to make the difference between success and failure, but not nearly enough to predict what will happen in the next second.
The game only falters in some of its mini-games. On some islands, you launch bombs instead of vikings, but give up all the control that makes the main game so fun. Occasionally you’ll be attacked by a shark as you sail, but the mini-game of launching bombs into its mouth is slow and predictable. And the plot takes some strange turns. On several islands your treasure isn’t a chest of gold, but a dolled-up princess that your viking binds in rope. (She’s always ransomed back to the ninjas for more gold). It feels weird to be kidnapping exotic women, even if the vikings are supposed to be horrible. And on one island, you have to rescue cats that the ninjas have caged—for eating?
These stereotypes gave me pause. But they’re ultimately joked about in the same way that things like infinite lives are joked about—as absurdities. That eagerness to go over the top, and to know precisely why, is what makes The Horrible Vikings such a thrill ride.