Coming from Ellada Games, Niffelheim is a survival based game set in the endlessly surprising worlds of Norse mythology. Playing as a recently dead warrior on the way to Valhalla, you are somehow waylaid and awaken in Niffelheim; one of the nine worlds, and the homeland of primordial darkness, cold, mist and ice. Our brave Viking has somehow ended up here and must escape. So come with me to this brutal land where the only way to escape is to find the portal to Valhalla.
Niffelheim comes with a beautiful hand-drawn art style, and does a very good job of portraying a world of ice and darkness – although there isn’t a hint of Justin Hawkins. The backdrops look gorgeous, if bleak and barren, and things that you can interact with in the world pop up a prompt when you walk past them. These can be attached to plants to pick, trees to chop down or even animals to kill and loot. There are also buildings and dungeons to enter, including your stronghold which can be upgraded if you can find the materials.
Inside the stronghold are various bits of kit that can be upgraded, such as a forge or a sawmill, allowing you to craft various different items. To use a crude comparison, Niffelheim in this stage of the game is like nothing so much as a 2D, side-scrolling Minecraft. As you explore the world, you pick up items that can be crafted into food, and when you explore your stronghold you’ll discover there is a mine inside. Crafting a pick allows you to mine through the walls, uncovering stone and various ores as you go; even finding doors that allow access to lower levels of the mine. Keep digging and collecting, and you’ll soon have all the things you need to make better weapons and tools.
So, the actual collecting of bits and bobs and crafting things is pretty good fun, but there is also a combat side of things to contend with – and here the news is not so good.
Try as I might, I can’t find any strategy to these fights at all, and it’s very much a case of going toe-to-toe with the enemies and seeing who falls over first. And if it’s anything bigger than, say, a wolf or a boar, you can be pretty sure that it’s rarely going to be them to hit the ground. The enemies you need to kill live in dungeons or the depths of your mine, and if you manage to bring down a boss then there is a chance that they will give a piece of the Portal to Asgard, so sadly it’s not like you can avoid the battles. Obviously, crafting better armour and weapons will give you a better chance in these fights, but since they are made from bits of other animals that aren’t easy to kill, you will always feel like you’re running into a losing battle.
Luckily, it appears that if things are going badly, a swift retreat, heal and then re-engage seems to be the only viable tactic, as the bosses don’t recover health if you run away. Thankfully, while exploring fireflies will become your friends, as they heal you if you stand in their vicinity. In addition, hunger is as much your enemy as to the bad guys, because if you let the hunger meter get too low, then you start to lose health just by standing still.
Just as appreciated is visiting a town with a merchant, and this lays at the heart of the three worlds that you can explore. The merchant carries lots of useful items, from potions to pies, but by far the most important item is the resurrection potion. You see, every time you die you have to find your corpse in order to be revived. If you die in a dungeon, your corpse is laid out on the ground in front of the dungeon, which is quite neat given you are a ghost in essence and can’t interact with the physical world. Walking over your dead body is enough to reunite flesh and spirit, but at a cost. You carry injuries when you revive, which reduces the maximum health you can have. The resurrection potion removes these injuries, but such an item is very expensive. However, battering wild animals will give you gold, so you will know exactly how to make some cash.
Add into this a bunch of Death Priests who give you missions, which if you fail sees them unleash a horde of the undead on your castle, a Raven who talks to you and wants you to assist him, and a whole army of beasts to kill, and it’s fair to say you aren’t short of things to do. Building the castle up to withstand the onslaught of the dead is vital though, as if they break in they will ransack the castle and steal all the stuff you’ve been hoarding; with crossbows and ballistas to construct, watching an army of skeleton get shredded outside the walls is great fun. You can even join in the fighting if you wish, but there are a lot of enemies to contend with.
All in all and Niffelheim on Xbox One is the very definition of a game of two halves. The mining, the crafting and the constructing all work very well, and I’ve not been happier in this game than when down in the depths of my mine, chiselling away at the rock to see what I can find. Upgrading the facilities allows the construction of more and better items and potions, and even the cooking of better meals. One of my favourite touches is simple, but shows the amount of thought that has gone into this game; if you kill a chicken, you get a piece of meat, but if you construct a trap and chase it into said trap, you can keep it alive and get more resources that way.
Sadly, as good as this side of the game is, the combat is equally poor on the other side of the scale. When you are injured, you can’t walk fast enough to escape, and the time it takes to escape through a door to a an upper level is usually enough for an enemy to get a final hit in, killing you more often than not. The combat is by far and away the weakest part of the whole Niffelheim experience and honestly the game feels poorer for including it. It’s quite possible to get to a point where you have to partake in a battle you aren’t geared up for, and constant deaths really start to irritate, particularly if you are fighting in the depths of a dungeon and have to make it all the way back to the boss before trying to pick up where you left off.