In Niffelheim, a 2D action scroller and dungeon crawler meets a complex survival game imbued with Norse mythology. Ellada Games has incorporated several elements into one survival experience, and it’s an interesting take on the genre. Hand-painted graphics beautifully render the cold and chilling lands in which you roam. A lot of work went into creating the atmosphere of this Viking adventure. Niffelheim spent two years in early access on Steam before officially releasing, and it’s now available for PS4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch. Let’s take a look at what works and what doesn’t.
A heroic Viking warrior has fallen, but the path to Valhalla has been barred. His soul remains trapped in the realm of Niffelheim, a place of undead and danger where you must use all of your skill to survive and to seek the portal to Asgard. Creatures guard the secrets of the land and only the mighty will be able to conquer them and secure a path out of this forsaken world. Death Priests will demand tribute and offerings from the lost soul, and your warrior must decide how to live. In subjugation or defiance. Choose the nature of your journey back to Valhalla.
The premise intrigues me at first, but it serves to build and to enhance the setting rather than create a convincing narrative. The story is lost in the grind. And that makes the world less compelling and exploration less inviting. A great survival game encourages the player to explore and to discover all of the possibilities lurking in the nearest dungeons or on the highest peaks. I didn’t feel that urge while playing Niffelheim.
Four starting locations are available at the beginning of a new game, but there isn’t much to differentiate them in terms of content. The hand-painted environment will change. That’s about it. The animals, the resources that you can scavenge, and the dungeons spread out across the land all resemble each other. There was only one time during my playthrough when I felt the need to travel to another land. I couldn’t find any spiders, and I required different arachnid body parts for my alchemical recipes. Other than that, the biomes are much the same.
You can choose between four Viking avatars and their stats revolve around health, damage, and satiety. The warrior, the Valkyrie, the berserker, and the shaman all differ in the value of those three attributes. I would recommend prioritizing health and damage over satiety. After you grasp the mechanics of the game, satiety is not something to worry about. Keeping your warrior fed will be simple enough given the abundance of edible resources and the ability to purchase high-tier food from the central city.
An interconnected crafting and progression system lie at the core of Niffelheim’s gameplay. Four major crafting trees exist and each of the related workshops has five sequential tiers behind which stronger equipment and items are locked. Smithing, building, cooking, and brewing all serve to protect and to heal the Nordic avatar you control in this desolate plane of existence. The most important task that will affect your growth in the game is mining. Ore is required for metallurgy. Stone and clay are required for building. Saltpeter and rock salt are needed for cooking food and brewing potions. Bosses that dwell in the mines are required for fragments of the portal to Asgard. So much stems from excavating the mine that I felt a lot of pressure to remain in that location. The resources obtained there were crucial for advancement. And that felt laborious after a time. Drifting through the parallel horizontal lines of the mine was not exciting.
Combat in Niffelheim is unfortunately lackluster. It’s a button-mashing and potion-chugging system that feels outdated. Many action scrollers have proven that the limitations of 2D do not prevent innovate fighting controls, but Niffelheim just feels tiring. Hack-and-slash here is exactly that and nothing more. Also, tracking the distance between enemies feels inconsistent There were times when I would engage a creature and my warrior would kick or swing their weapon from a distance. Other times, with the same gap between the Viking avatar and the creature, the Valkyrie would rush forward until almost past the enemy before attacking. It was a clumsy element that detracted from the experience.
At its best, the game presents an interesting world with a unique mashup of action, exploration, and survival. But I also encountered bugs that frustrated my progression. One time the game did not properly save my progress and I lost roughly two hours of play. Scrolling through online forums told me I was not the only victim. Other times I had chests that wouldn’t open or slow loading that made the frame rate stutter. I’ve played my fair share of complex survival games in which I experience issue but the loss of save files is especially disheartening in a game that relies on grinding.
The graphics are the best part of Niffelheim. Everything is hand-painted, and the harsh realm springs to life as you roam from place to place. The dungeons and subterranean depths are dark and moody. The animals and monsters are realistic and intimidating. A lot of care went into creating the atmosphere and visual elegance of the Nordic adventure.
As with most survival games, you can spend a long time playing Niffelheim. Each time you restart your journey to Asgard, your efficiency and your knowledge of the world will increase. It rewards iterative play, and the different starting locations and characters mean that there will be a slight variation in gameplay. The amount of time you spend playing is up to you.
WHAT IT COULD HAVE DONE BETTER
There were a lot of small factors that affected my overall experience. The combat system needs an overhaul. It was clunky and tiresome. Exploration was not rewarding and the rush of adrenaline when discovering something new in a dangerous world never materialized for me during my time with Niffelheim. Small bugs or glitches also worked to take me out of the game. The game works well, but it doesn’t capture my attention for long periods of time which is essential for any good survival game. The grind exacted a toll rather than provided solace.
Niffelheim is a mediocre survival game, pretty on the surface but flawed underneath. It doesn’t have the charm or wonder necessary to engage the player long enough to forget about its shortcomings.