WayForward is the Amish community of game makers, willfully using the modes, aesthetics, and play of ye olde school in its myriad 2-D adventures. The developer’s games Contra 4 and Shantae: Risky’s Revenge might as well have been made in 1995, they’re so exact in their adherence to that era of design. So too is the company’s self-described love letter to the Nintendo DS, Thor: God Of Thunder. It’s a beautifully animated two-dimensional game, a movie tie-in that recalls an era when all movie tie-ins had you guiding the lead from left to right, bludgeoning hordes of bad guys as you went. The brawling is as tight as the art, but for a game about gods and strange worlds arranged on a universe-sized tree, it’s awfully shallow.
Though it isn’t shallow in the expected ways. Most beat-’em-ups fail thanks to ennui. How many times can you punch and kick? But Thor’s action is rarely dull. Since the action spans two screens, and the real skill is in keeping enemies knocked down so they can’t attack, the simple combos, hammer throws, grapples, and screen-clearing “god” attacks (lighting, wind, etc.), demand constant attention. The problem is the setting: Though you traverse seven levels (each with three acts, a boss, and a separate elemental theme), they’re identical. The icy plain of Nifelheim and the fiery pit of Muspelheim are more or less the same: You walk over a rock path in front of a static background and occasionally pull down a crumbling bridge, the same bridge in every stage. Your antagonists, a legion of trolls and giants, are also unvaried. Though each level introduces one or two new enemies, they’re often variations on previous baddies. The fighting is good enough to outweigh the issue, but the monotony of the terrain is a glaring problem.
Given WayForward’s adherence to the classics, the company should remember that a colorful, barely interactive background is one of the chief pleasures of the beat-’em-up. Games like this require a constant stream of landmarks and colorful signposts—maybe a helmeted dude saying, “Tonight I dine on turtle soup!” But the studio’s other work nails this formula, so perhaps Thor’s repetition is due to rushed development to coincide with the film’s theatrical release. There are inspired moments here, especially in the game’s boss fights—the final two involve multi-jointed sprites spanning both screens—but they’re few and far between. Maybe a 3DS sequel will allow WayForward a second chance. ’Tis a good start, but sure ’tis no classic, English.