Heavily inspired by indie developer Messhof’s Nidhogg, Griefhelm is a game that’s all about deadly sword fights. Developed by Johnny Dale Lonack (Run of Mydan), the game puts players in the shiny chainmail of a knight who must fight his way across the realm on a quest for glory. With its tense swordplay and a challenging rogue-lite campaign, Griefhelm‘s medieval mayhem can be good fun in short bursts. But a lack of mission variety and some frustrating design choices work to dull the edge of this dueler.
“Soon you’ll be wearing my sword like a shish kebab!”
Like Nidhogg, Griefhelm‘s melees take place on a 2D plane. As you make your way across dreary battlefields and mighty fortresses, you’ll cross swords with waves of murderous knights that want nothing more than to turn you into a snazzy, chrome-plated pincushion.
The key to the game’s combat system is mastering its stance system. Each weapon has three stances: high, mid, and low. And you can quickly switch between stances by moving the right joystick (or mouse, if you’re a masochist) up, forward, or down respectively.
To block an attack, you’ll need to match your attacker’s stance. For example, you’ll need to hold up to guard against a devastating overhead slash. While holding down will protect you from having your legs cleaved clean off. Once you successfully block an attack, you’ll leave your adversary momentarily stunned and can try to move in for the kill.
Sounds simple, right? Well, don’t get too cocky. Griefhelm is a demanding experience, to say the least. It’s a game where one hit can often spell a bloody death, so your timing and precision always need to be dialed to 11 if you hope to survive its stab-happy melees. There’s a variety of weapons to master ranging from swords and spears to maces and war hammers, each with their unique animations. You’re going to have to pay close attention so that you can recognize what each stance looks like so that you can counter your enemies’ attacks accordingly.
The campaign mode is the main draw here. Playable solo or with up to four players cooperatively, this mode sees you traveling from node to node across a branching map. The goal of each map is to reach the end and kill the enemy leader in a duel before moving to the next area.
The game features a small handful of mission types. For instance, the game’s tug-of-war stages play out similarly to Nidhogg. The goal of these stages is to make your way from one side of the battlefield to the other to reach the enemy encampment. As you run across the stage, enemies will continuously assault you. If they manage to kill you, you’ll respawn but lose some progress. And if they push you back to your encampment, you’ll be resurrected as a flaming spirit to try a last-stand assault.
In addition to the tug-of-war stages, there are also horde matches that pit you against waves of enemies, and skirmishes that unfold like a round-based fighting game: Albeit, a fighting game where a single well-placed slice can bring a fight to its bloody conclusion.
As you complete nodes, you’ll unlock new types of weapons and armor that you can equip, along with perks. Perks are single-use bonuses that can do fun things like give you a mount for the next battle, replenish your lives, or even allow you to siphon health from the enemies you kill. Given that this mode plays out like a rogue-like, where losing all of your lives forces you to restart from the very beginning of the game, it’s important to carefully consider when best to use your perks.
The Stages of Grief
Griefhelm‘s bloody swordplay and considerable challenge can make it very exciting to play at first. However, the limited number of mission types to choose from all but guarantees it won’t take long for things to feel a bit too repetitive. With drab environments and little enemy variety to spice things up, I found myself growing pretty bored with the rinse-and-repeat challenges the game was throwing at me. Greater mission variety would have gone such a long way towards making Griefhelm‘s clashes more engaging. As it stands, it’s hard to imagine most players won’t feel they’ve seen everything Griefhelm has to offer after five or so hours.
Another issue I had with the game is the way it tries to ramp up the difficulty in cheap ways. Some stages are full of foreground clutter like bridges and castle ramparts that seem designed to obscure your enemy’s stances. Given this is a game where death comes hard and fast, this proves to be more frustrating than fun by adding an unwelcome element of unpredictability to a game built around keen observation and quick reflexes.
Speaking of quick reflexes: some stages even feature bottomless pits that you’ll need to jump across. Usually, this wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, holes have been a time-tested peril in videogames for close to four decades now. The problem is the jumping controls in Griefhelm are frustratingly unresponsive, which leads to plenty of unnecessary deaths at the hands of these age-old adversaries.
Still A Better Value Than A Trip To Medieval Times
Though rough around the edges and lacking in content, Griefhelm can be great fun in moderation. Whether you’re hacking your friends’ heads off with a claymore in multiplayer or sending enemy swordsmen into the stratosphere with a gigantic war hammer, the game certainly has its moments. However, courageous knights and PC-bound sellswords looking for an epic adventure will likely find themselves wanting a bit more than what this game has to offer. Here’s hoping Johnny Dale Lonack & Co. can beef up the experience down the road.
Despite Griefhelm’s issues, if you’re a Nidhogg fan who’s dying for something new to sink your sword into, it’ll probably scratch that itch.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Thornett Publishing; Developer: Johnny Dale Lonack; Players: 1-4; Released: August 20, 2020; ESRB: N/A; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.