No break from the harsh necessities of survival, even in the afterlife!
There’s plenty of fiction about Vikings that focuses on daring longboat raids, fierce battles and their mythical gods. However, not quite as much attention is given to the day-to-day realities of endlessly chopping down trees, scavenging mushrooms from the frigid earth and hours of mining ore to actually make your weapons. Niffelheim is here to fix that, simulating the experience of a lone Viking questing to earn his passage through Niffelheim to take his place in Asgard, battling the vicious undead, but also having to pause occasionally to collect eggs from the chicken coup!
The first things you’ll need to know about Niffelheim is that it’s definitely not just a standard 2D platformer metroidvania as it appears. For a start, you can’t even jump (which makes sense for the thoroughly Aryan protagonist!) Instead, Niffelheim has you trundling slowly left and right, with there being very little finesse to the combat. Niffelheim is all about planning each in-game day to best manage your very own mini-economy. First off, your grizzled Nordic avatar needs food, which they will constantly remind you of! This means a good portion of your time will be dedicated to foraging and hunting. Foraging can be done with a click of the mouse or a tap of the Q button and voila. Then these raw foodstuffs can be crafted at a kitchen into various soups, stews and roasts to provide to more susbtantial meals. And you’ll need it too (I actually had one death resulting in food poisoning from when I tried to eat raw meat in desperation).
Build the Barricades!
Periodically, you’ll be assaulted by undead hordes and this is why you’ll need to be well prepared. Chopping down trees, sawing them into planks, making rope from sheep’s wool are all essential building materials for building and upgrading your various workshops and resource-gathering stations. There need to be upgraded and repaired walls and towers for the increasingly large, well armed hordes of skeletal beasties. This tower defense aspect of Niffleheim is again, rather underdeveloped. You simply gather up the resources to make sure your towers are as strong and well equipped with arrows as possible and auto-fire your bow from behind the safety of the walls – hoping that your overall numbers of health and damage will beat their numbers. There’s a lack of real interactivity to it.
One of the highlights of Niffelheim for me was making cages to trap live sheep and chickens, before transporting them back to the Sheephold or Chicken coup to make wool and eggs. Even this animal husbandry aspect of the gameplay though is rather bland in execution. You simply put a sheep into the Sheephold, wait a bit and come back to collect the wool. There’s none of the joys of farming like actually shearing the sheep, feeding them, helping them find breeding partners to increase your flock like in other agricultural simulators. It’s really Niffelheim in a nutshell: countless different systems integrated into your mini-economy but none of them really are in-depth enough to be really satisfying.
Going Deeper Underground
In terms of combat being about skill, luck or gear, Niffelheim’s battles are almost entirely about what you’ve bought with you to the fight. You can go “defensive” by holding up your shield, but this merely mitigates the damage a little, and that’s if you time it right, which is pretty much impossible if you’re fighting more than one skeleton warrior at once, which you constantly are. You can level skills, giving you a boost to your crafting/gathering/minging speed or your weapon damage. And experience comes in a Elder Scrolls-esque gaining experience in a skill by simply doing it a lot. It’s realistic but underlines the repetitive nature of the game.
It’s only when you’re relatively sure that you’ve got your surface level life under some semblance of control can you delve into the actual dungeons! In true Minecraft tradition, the main character has conveniently built his base upon countless levels of old mineshaft – each one filled with ore to be mined, treasure to be found and monsters to be fought. The hierarchy of tools and weapons is very familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity of Minecraft. Copper tools will mine faster than stone tools, iron tools will mine faster than copper and so on and so on. And this is similarly true with armour’s damage reduction and a weapon’s damage. I did like the crafting system had some unique options, such as the ability to make wolf-skin boots or bone breastplates out of the constituent pieces of vanquished skeleton warriors. It did make the standard grind of crafting at least a little more interesting. The various quests and demands which will apparently pop up did add a little bit of excitement to the rather predictable gameplay, making me dash around for various resources before a timer ran out, but because the consequences for failure are not particularly great.
No Peace for the Warrior, Just Endless Reincarnation
One odd problem for a game so focused on the afterlife, is the way the game handles death. When your Viking bites the bullet (or rusty sword as is usually the case) you’ll be transported in ghostly form back to your stronghold where you’ll have to do the walk of shame back to your corporeal form! Once you’re reunited with your body, then you’ll be back up again, but with a “mortal wound”, reducing your attributes until you can find a regeneration potion to clear the effects away. Regeneration potions can be costly to make or buy so this discourages death, but without the threat of permadeath, it’s really just a frustrating setback for your character instead of a major obstacle.
You will also get periodically threatened by a charmingly named group called “the death priests”, who will want a offering of a special potion or they’ll send a giant skeleton to smash up your base. Lovely! Since there’s no permadeath though, dying ultimately only gives an annoying setback on your quest. Once this fact has has settled into your mind, the routine of constantly gathering and crafting becomes really humdrum. Threats to plunder your base become equally tiresome as it’s only, again, just setting you back rather creating any genuine drama where there’s much at stake.
Not Heaven or Hell, but Purgatory
Overall, Niffelheim didn’t really fully scratch any of the genre itches it had given me. It’s too much of a grinding war of attrition without the exciting drama of permadeath to be satisfying as a survival roguelike. There’s not nearly enough granularity for it to be a Minecraft style building game. There’s not enough focus on skill for it to be a good action brawler. And, of course, there’s not enough engaging plot, choice or characterization for it to be a good RPG. It’s a competent, if rather repetitive resource-gathering, day-planning, auto-attack-button-holding-combat title that doesn’t really excel in any area.
At best, I felt satisfied getting through another harsh day in Niffelheim, and irritated at death, but there were never any real extremes of emotion either way. It’s those thrilling heights of emotion that separate an average game from the great one, and Niffelheim is just lacking in them.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Ellada Games ; Developer: Ellada Games ; Players: 1-4 ; Released: September 26th, 2018
Full disclosure: This review is based on review code given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.