So today's title has been available on PC for a while, but it was a game I knew nothing about until it showed up on my list of potential Switch review candidates. By the time you read this, it will have released not just on Nintendo's hybrid console but on the others too, and it caught my eye for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's Norse themed. I've been interested in the Viking mythology ever since an early school project, and have loved the stories of Odin, Thor and the rest of the pantheon ever since. Secondly, it's a crafting and survival game, a genre that I've been thoroughly enjoying lately and one that I always welcome the chance to play more of. Now, just from these details alone, I suspected there might be plenty here for me to be interested in but, well, I've been fooled before... Will Niffelheim impress me? Or will it fail miserably? Let's find out, shall we!
Created by Ellada games, their newest console release starts with a small introduction to set the scene. You play the role of a warrior who has recently died. In keeping with Norse tradition you and your belongings were placed on a funeral ship and set adrift, hoping that this vessel will carry the warrior’s soul all the way to the realm of Valhalla. You should be heading to Odin's mead hall, the Viking idea of Heaven, where you'll spend your days hunting and practicing your fighting skills, while your nights are spent drinking and singing into the wee hours. Unfortunately, though, this will not come to pass. At least not right now. You see, as your soul journeys towards Asgard, hoping to reach the perfect afterlife, it is instead set upon and abducted by demons. Dumped with only your faithful sword, and a few other basic tools, you find yourself stuck in Niffelheim. A harsh land of ancient spirits, you must harvest resources, improve and defend your castle, while ultimately finding some way to get your soul to Asgard.
Unfortunately that's basically it as far as story goes. You get an opening cutscene that explains the above set-up, and it is done in a Viking poem style that's kinda cool, but from then on the story is rather nonexistent. There are a few text scrawls here and there, but nothing that amounts to anything more than background details, and it would have been nice to see more of the amazing Norse mythology used here. But let's be fair, the story isn't always needed in a game. It's the gameplay that's important so let's get on to that. The first thing the game asks is that you choose an area to place your castle, and there are 4 to pick from. Whether you decide to go for the Mound, Forest, Moor or Wasteland though, it doesn't really matter. Outside of the background look of each area, they all seem to be balanced to include more or less the same amount and types of resources, with none providing any advantage over the others.
This would usually seem strange in a survival crafting game where you'd expect different biomes to have different resources, but here I think I understand why they're all very similar. You see on PC this is a multiplayer game, and having the areas like this ensures that no matter where a player chooses to start, they have no real advantage over the others. This doesn't matter as much on this Switch version though, as it seems that multiplayer has been removed, with only the option to use bots remaining. While the game can easily be played alone anyways, and the bot option is there, be warned if you had planned to pick this up to play with friends.
After world creation, next up is choosing a character. There are 4 available, The Viking, The Valkyrie, The Berserker, and The Shaman. Alongside unique Avatars, each character is also stated to have different starting statistics. Things like health, defense, immunity, how fast they get hungry and starting cash are all affected, but in practice, I never really found any major advantage or disadvantage between them, so don't agonize over this choice. I'd recommend going alone the first few times you play the game but, if you want, you can also assign bots in this section too, introducing AI-controlled opponents who will play as any (or all) of the other characters.
After we get these opening choices out of the way, we get to the main focus, the important part: the gameplay. Each run starts with you standing before the humble beginnings of a home base and are, more or less, left to get on with it. Now if you've played any game like this before, you'll not be surprised to hear you spend most of your time gathering resources. Unlike many other games though, Niffelheim takes place in 2D and you can only head left or right while searching for harvestable material. By heading out from your base, you'll discover trees that can be cut down as long as your axe holds out, and animals that can be hunted for meat and furs. Rocks can be collected and there are plants, fruits and vegetables scattered here and there, but obviously, most of the things you find are nearly useless on their own. To be most effective, we need to combine them into something more powerful and to do this, we need to head off back to our castle. Located in the center of whatever area you chose earlier, it contains not only storage but all of your crafting stations too. There are 4 of these you can create; a sawmill, a forge, a cookery station, and an alchemy lab, with each providing more powerful recipes as they are upgraded. By clicking on each station, you will be presented with a list of everything that can be created here, with any items you can actually build being highlighted for convenience. Pretty standard stuff so far then, tools are made at the forge, food is cooked at the kitchen and so on, but one major niggle I quickly discovered was the total lack of a recipe book. Standing in front of the relevant crafting unit is the only way to check recipes, and this made knowing if you had enough resources to create that vital item a real problem, especially while out in the world. As you spend the vast amount of your time gathering resources, it would have been nice to be able to check if I have the correct items to build something, without having to head to my castle to do so.
As well as using the available resources to make more effective tools, more powerful weapons, armor, etc, and alongside upgrading your crafting tables, they can also be used to upgrade the castle itself. Starting off as little more than a rundown wooden hut, you can build and improve walls, as well as arrow shooting defense towers, and put down areas to grow vegetables and keep captured animals. All these additions appear in fixed locations, so no choosing the best place for them, and they each have their own uses. Animal pens and chicken coops are great for alleviating the grind of collecting food and feathers. Walls and defense towers are important too, as they hold back and damage invaders, making sure that bots can't raid your base for your stored resources. Even if playing without bots though, there are certain events like repelling skeleton hordes and Dark Priest attacks, that are way easier with the walls and towers to help. I'd recommend building them as quickly as possible and make sure they have plenty of arrows because if you don't, you'll need to rely on melee combat and this is certainly not Niffelheims strong suit.
In fact, I go so far as to say it's extremely mediocre. All attacks are basically assigned to one button, Y, and holding it down with an enemy in range, will send your warrior running off to attack. You do get a bow, but arrows run out quickly with replacements being a little bit of a hassle to obtain, so you'll find yourself using melee weapons a lot and it's extremely disappointing. There's also the option to equip a shield to deflect some damage, but I found it extremely ineffective, with fights boiling down to me hoping that I can do more damage per second than they did. Spamming these simple melee attacks is the only way to fight, there are no special moves to obtain or powers to harness, you don't even have a dodge, and combat feels really simple because of it. When first starting out and dealing with the initial enemies, or when hunting basic animals, the combat doesn't feel like much of a problem, you hit them a couple of times and they go down. The more powerful enemies though are much more like damage sponges and you'll quickly come across more of these as you explore the deeper parts of the available dungeons.
This brings me to another of the disappointing parts. The exploration. Or more accurately, it's not so much the exploration but the level layouts that I found repetitive. As said earlier, and as you can see from the screenshots, everything takes place in 2 dimensions. Each of the 4 areas is more or less identical, you can't jump, there are no cliffs to scale or hidden paths to discover, and instead, your only options are to walk left or right. As you continue on you will come across openings that you can enter, but these are simply doors in the background, leading either too simple one-roomed buildings or to a dungeon. Now at first I thought these dungeons would provide some much-needed exploration opportunities, but I quickly discovered that they had this simple layout too. Made up of long horizontal tunnels, you can head left or right and will come across the occasional enemy, treasure chest or toxic cloud but that's about it. Each tunnel will have doors to discover, you can even build and place them yourself, but all they do is allow you to move down to the next identical horizontal tunnel. As you make your way down, about every 4 or 5 levels, you will come across a large chamber, sometimes containing a mission giver, but usually this will be the lair of a powerful enemy. Seeking out and killing these enemies is the ultimate purpose of the game, as each will grant you a much sought after portal piece when you defeat them. Seeking them out though is so simple and combat so unsatisfying, that killing them becomes a chore. Add to this the fact that the same design is used across all the dungeons and you can begin to see how repetitive this could get. Even the mine you have located under your castle is set up like this, the only difference being you need to manually clear many of the tunnels with your pickaxe first. This lack of variety in dungeon design makes all these locations blend together, and it would have been nice to have more (or even some) variety to their appearance and feel. They do each have unique looking and interesting entrances however, and this is where I found Niffelheim to shine the brightest. Its characters, enemies, various assets, and especially the backgrounds, are all very well done.
Everything you see has a beautifully hand-drawn style with each character having their own unique looking avatar, all of which are detailed and look sufficiently "Viking-like" to impress a little. They also change appearance to reflect the weapons and armor you have equipped, which is always a detail I like in these types of games. Buildings like your castle and dungeon entrances have nice little touches like banners, runes, and Norse carvings, all adding nice details that help add to the Viking feel. This "Viking feel" carries over to the environments too, with each area having details that give it the look of the cold and harsh environments you'd expect from a Viking story. The real standout to me, however, were many of the background highlights and dungeon entrances. These took a variety of forms from jagged rock formations and gnarled overgrown trees, to giant carved skulls, bones and dragons heads. Some of these were really impressive, and would be great as posters or desktop backgrounds, and were definitely a highlight.
All in all, I found Niffelheim to be a very mixed bag. While it looks great (especially the backgrounds) and the basic crafting-upgrade-better resources gameplay loop is reasonably satisfying, the combat and terribly repetitive level designs really let it down. With the multiplayer mode having been removed, playing on single player, or with bots, ends up feeling very samey. Without a good story, satisfying combat or an interesting world to explore, I fear many would get bored very quickly. Maybe worth a look to those who love the crafting survival genre and need something to play, those looking for deep combat or amazing lore would be better served elsewhere.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review
Final Score: 6.5/10
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