Picture a canyon-filled wintry landscape, craggy and inhospitable, Hoth by way of Scandinavian death metal. Wind buffets the cliffs, turning the unending snowfall into a near-horizontal blizzard. A massive dropship, all gunmetal and jet exhaust, lumbers onto the scene at low altitude, unceremoniously ejecting two man-sized pods into the craggy earth below. The first splits smoothly at its seams, revealing a paragon of a man clad in what Robocop would wear had his armor been designed by Boris Vallejo. His face unreadable, he surveys the path before him, hefting a broadsword inscribed in equal measures with runic symbols and circuitry.
A metallic clang and a string of muffled curses erupt behind him. Thor has broken his drop pod again.
The opening cinematic to the second level of Silicon Knights’ Too Human presents a perfect microcosm of the game as a whole. Short yet massive, deftly executed in some parts and nearly broken in others, Too Human’s greatest achievement is the ambivalence of its presentation. It wants to be a Diablo-killer (a surreal concept eight years after Diablo II’s release), and to its credit its loot-heavy hack-and-slash adventure roots are solid. Not satisfied with merely that, Too Human branches out in a hundred different directions—a half-written sci-fi epic here, a half-hearted attempt at innovation there—but it gives the elements which should set it apart all the focused attention of an ADHD-ridden child in a candy store.
The story picks up somewhere in the middle of the end of the Norse world. We’re a few centuries into the unending Fimbulwinter, but full-on Ragnarok hasn’t broken out yet. Protagonist Baldur has been killed by his unwitting brother Hod, and Loki, the mastermind behind the trick, is imprisoned in a VR simulation of his original torment—a snake, dripping poison into his eyes forever. Things pick up when the god Hermod, at the behest of his Aesir brethren, violates the pact between the gods and the caretakers of the dead by kicking open the door to Niflheim and dragging the tortured Baldur back to the realm of the living.
Hel, ruler of the Norse underworld, declares war on Asgard. The classic Norse rogues’ gallery—trolls and elves, mostly, updated as rogue war-mechs built by a dead race of giants to fight the Aesir—press their perpetual attacks anew, opening a war on two fronts and forcing poor Baldur, fresh from the pits of Hell, back into the fray.
Being thrown headlong into the middle of a cyberpunk rendition of the Norse Tribulation can be daunting for the uninitiated. Silicon Knights does so unrepentantly, casting volumes of backstory to the wind and assuming that the average player knows more about the Aesir than Stan Lee did when he made Thor into a blonde, beardless comic book space-god. Bad move on their part—while Too Human’s plot makes for great fan service for those familiar with the mythology, the average gamer is likely to be less than impressed with what is on its own a threadbare treatment of the material.
When it comes together, it’s Devil May Cry by way of a techno remix of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Every now and then, Baldur will remember that he’s a warrior god and start acting like one, yawping his way effortlessly across the battlefield and sending robot appendages flying with every errant swing of his weapon, and when he does the game becomes an ode to the joys of a good old-fashioned orgy of bloodletting (if you’re fighting robots, is it oil-letting?). These moments are fleeting, and they occur as if Too Human comes pre-programmed with a Viking Red Bull power-up that finds its way into Baldur’s bloodstream at random intervals, turning him into an unstoppable killing machine one minute and leaving him sluggish and unresponsive the next.
It depends too much on elements like its quirky control scheme, which replaces repetitive but accurate button-mashing with tandem use of both analog sticks, and this set-up only does what it’s told half the time. The moody camera seems programmed to give the player the best possible view of the room in which he’s being killed because he can’t control the camera.
There’s an old tech maxim that advises users to pick any two between fast, good, and cheap, because you’re never going to get all three in one package. Too Human reminds me of that; if Silicon Knights had gone with their two or three favorite hooks, they wouldn’t have stretched themselves too thin, and the game wouldn’t have suffered for it. As it stands, when it isn’t running on all cylinders it’s a clunky, unintuitive, stuttering mess, more so for the fact that the fun you’re not having was once there, but Too Human just snatched it from your hands.