Review: Niffelheim (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One
  • Nintendo Switch
  • PC

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K HDR

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: Niffelheim
Format: PSN (2.71 GB)
Release Date: September 20, 2019
Publisher: Ellada Games
Developer: Ellada Games
Original MSRP: $14.99 (USD)
ESRB Rating: T
A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Niffelheim, originally released on PC on September 26, 2018, is a 2-D action survival game set in the time of Norse mythology. You play as a viking who has fallen in battle and been relegated to the unforgiving realm of Niffelheim. In order to survive you must explore your surroundings, craft potions, battle foes, and ultimately collect all of the pieces of the Portal of Valhalla.

Gameplay:
True to its no-nonsense Norse roots, Niffelheim begins with little fanfare. There is a short cutscene describing the grim situation that your viking warrior finds themself in before you choose one of four classes to play as: Viking, Valkyrie, Berserker, or Shaman. Each class has unique statistics that affect its resistance to damage, stamina, and ability to dish out damage. These starting statistics increase based on your playstyle as you level up and can be altered with various consumables, equipment, and charms.

In addition to character types, you must choose one of four worlds to start in. The map of Niffelheim is effectively a circle made up of the four worlds surrounding a centralized city. The layout of each starting location is nearly identical but they are inhabited by different species of plants and wildlife. Fast travel between these areas is possible by spending gold or using craftable items.

Like many survival games, Niffelheim starts you off with a barebones castle and sparse provisions. Your warrior is equipped with a basic club to fend off enemies, axe to harvest wood, and pick to mine various natural elements. There is little to no explanation of how to play the game, which is frustrating at the onset. However, the lack of direction does make each new discovery that much more rewarding. There are written tutorials in the menu which can be helpful in understanding the basic features of the game, but they deal more in generalities than specific gameplay mechanics.

The gameplay loop of Niffelheim may be best described in reverse. The end goal is to form the Portal of Valhalla by collecting all twenty-two pieces of it scattered throughout Niffelheim, guarded by trolls, giants, undead soldiers, and various other bosses. Some of the bosses are incredibly tough and require high-end weapons and armor to defeat, as well as the aid of various potions and consumables. Weapons, armor, potions, and any other useful items can all be crafted in the various workshops that lie within the walls of your castle. The castle itself can be upgraded, along with its surrounding walls, armed guard tower, and two accessory buildings.

Inside the castle is the hub of your journey to Valhalla: the workshop. The workshop contains all of the tools vital to craft food, potions, tools, and many other useful items. The main stations in the workshop are the forge, kitchen, sawmill, and alchemy bench. Each of these stations can be upgraded five times using various resources to improve the quality and increase the rarity of items that it can produce.

The workshop also contains eight craftable item chests, each of which has slots for forty stacks of items. There is a vault in which you can store your most rare items to keep them safer than chests will in the event of your castle being overrun by a horde of undead enemies. At one end of the workshop is the throne room, complete with plaques for mounting the heads of slain enemies and a throne that provides health regeneration when you sit in it.


In case all that was not enough, you will also find the entrance to the mine in the workshop. The mine is a randomly-generated series of floors which contain materials used in the workshop. These materials, such as clay, rock salt, and ores, generally become more rare the further down into the mine you go. Traversal of the mines is slowed by the fact that you must travel through mine shafts scattered throughout the floors. Doors can be crafted and placed wherever you wish to travel vertically in order to speed the process up and make a clearer vertical path.

Items in the mine are obtained using a pick, and higher quality picks can be crafted to provide a quicker mining process increased durability. A few swings of the axe may produce three items of one type or multiple items of multiple types. The appearance of the wall that you are mining hints at what is contained within, such as the silver and golden flecks found in the deeper levels of the mine. A trip to the mines is not without threats, enemies and bosses lurk in the mine and clouds of harmful gases linger, damaging you as you walk through them in search of the next mine shaft. A map of the mine is available and is helpful in planning your route down through the huge, maze-like structure.

Hunting and gathering outside of the castle functions similarly to mining below it. An axe is used to chop down trees, producing core resources such as timber and twigs. Plants, vegetables, and berries can all be harvested with the press of a button. These edibles are necessary to craft meals that keep harmful effects of a low satiety bar at bay. Initially, it is tempting on these hunting and gathering expeditions to pick up everything you come across, but you soon find that you frustratingly run out of inventory space and are forced to drop the most common and least useful items.

Combat in Niffelheim is largely unexciting and feels more like harvesting a resource than overcoming a foe in battle. Generally you stand in place and hold a button to attack or raise your shield to lessen incoming damage. Ranged weapons and the turret-mounted projectiles at your castle add a little diversity to the combat, but not much. Boss battles in particular feel disconnected from actual combat and more like an exercise in systems monitoring. The main mechanic is actually just keeping an eye on each health bar in order to know whether to stick around and finish them off or head for the nearest exit and try again later with higher level gear. Each time you die you are afflicted with a death penalty that lowers statistics and abilities, and must be cleared with a potion.

As you survive more and more days, your character will naturally level up in their basic abilities such as hunting, mining, and woodcutting. Doing so provides passive bonuses that will speed up progress and make you more efficient at your various chores, as well as better at defending your castle from oncoming waves of enemies.

Quests in Niffelheim are somewhat unconventional and disorienting. Some quests come from an NPC you meet, such as the raven who visits your castle, while others pop up at seemingly random times to interrupt whatever you are doing. Some of these pop-up quests require you to provide a ransom of sorts or else be subject to an attack which is described as one that will “destroy your domain.” However figurative this threat may be, hours into a playthrough with your character it is enough to drop whatever you are doing and work towards appeasing the quest-giver before the timer runs out. This can be annoying if you are deep within the mine or getting into the groove of a hunting expedition, and feels like a cheap way for the game to direct your efforts.

While fast travel is possible, traversal in Niffelheim is generally a slow process. There is no run button and walking left or right are your only options until you encounter a doorway of some kind. Once you do enter a door, or choose to “fast” travel, you encounter one of the game’s most unforgivable issues: loading times. Each time you enter a building or move between worlds, you are met with a loading screen that lasts three to five seconds. This is a serious hindrance in a game whose nature involves repetitive tasks and frequent trips to the workshop.

Niffelheim is a massively deep, complex game. If the fact that 320 separate stacks of items can be stored in your workshop is not a clear enough sign of depth, then maybe having four workstations at your disposal with five upgradable levels each and several new items per level makes that clear. The sheer volume of possible resources and coordination of tasks necessary to produce what you need to survive is enough to make your head spin. While this overwhelming at times, it is also what makes Niffelheim creep into your psyche in a way that lesser survival games do not.

Visuals:
The hand-drawn visuals of Niffelheim are beautifully detailed and make the Norse setting come alive. Buildings and stations in the workshop expand instantaneously as you upgrade them in satisfying and creative ways. The appearance of your castle becomes more grand and well-fortified in a way that is rewarding after all the time put into gathering and processing the resources necessary to do so. Small details like the hatched roof of your chicken coop and the horned helms of high-level armor feel authentic to the time and show that a lot of care was put into the game’s overall aesthetic.

Enemy designs are varied and push the bounds of Niffelheim‘s fantasy setting in a way that adds some fun levity to an otherwise weighty experience. Armor-clad skeletons, ravenous bears, and giant trolls all roam the lands of Niffelheim, often protecting ornate chests or elusive pieces of the Portal of Valhalla.

The presentation of the menus, which you spend a considerable amount of time in, is done effectively in a way that conveys a lot of details without being overwhelming. Small pictures of resources help distinguish them and sometimes make them easier to target out in the wild. Descriptions of various objects may seem sparse at first, but with time they become punctuated versions of all the key information that you will need.

Audio:
Niffelheim’s audio design is often as barren as its fictional setting. There is very little music in the game and there are actually long stretches of near-silence. Sound effects of mining, chopping down trees, and other various actions all sound accurate but minimal. As a long-lasting survival game, it would be nice to have some dynamic music serving as a backdrop during some of its more mindless tasks.

Online/Multiplayer:
The PC version of Niffelheim has multiplayer but at the time of this review the PlayStation 4 version is one player only with no online component.

Conclusion:
Niffelheim is not a quick and casual survival game. Beneath its folkloric, 2-D aesthetics lies an incredibly deep experience that requires a great deal of careful planning and efficient execution. The lure of the game’s cyclical nature of collecting resources, upgrading the workshop, and crafting higher-level items becomes stronger the longer you survive. Patience is a virtue when it comes to playing Niffelheim, especially with frequent loading screen interruptions and slow traversal, but that patience is rewarded increasingly throughout your journey to Valhalla.

Score:

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Brock Arnett

Gamer since the NES days, Boilermaker, Colts and Pacers fan. I can’t wait until my two boys are old enough to play games with me.

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