Genre-bending games that bolt together several mechanics always have the danger of falling into the “jack of all trades, master of none” syndrome, and it’s rare that developers are able to strike a balance in which one genre amplifies another. Case in point: Niffelheim, which is one part crafting and survival, one part side-scrolling 2D RPG, the whole stitched together with some thread torn from Dark Souls. Although it has a unique and appealing visual style, Niffelheim is not entirely successful in combat, crafting, or survival.
Indie developer Ellada Games has been working on Niffelheim for several years and it has moved from Early Access to full release. You play as a fallen Viking warrior — male or female, in one of four, not very distinct starting character classes — who must find pieces of an ancient artifact in order to craft a portal to Valhalla. Doing so means exploring the map and its many dungeons and hidden areas, which in turn means crafting better weapons, traps, armor and potions…which in turn means building forges and workshops…which in turn means gathering resources by killing enemies and harvesting items from the world. With a few variations, this is the de facto standard mechanic for crafting and survival games, from Minecraft to Conan Exiles.
Although its art style — muted, painterly and moody — is initially appealing, Niffelheim’s landscapes become repetitive, and it recycles elements continuously, with some small variety coming from exploration across its four main lands. Though its musical score is often effective at mood and scene setting, overall its palette of environmental sounds is limited, with the clash of weapons being particularly undistinguished.
In general, combat is one of Niffelheim’s weakest areas, with a single combat control button and virtually the same animations for battling toxic skeletons as whacking bunnies or felling trees. In addition, hit detection and placement in combat is frustratingly imprecise. Although ranged weapons fare slightly better, Niffelheim’s bland combat combined with brutal and unforgiving enemies makes for quite a number of unpleasant and fatal encounters. Death means that the character must run to the point of death as a spirit to re-inhabit his or her body, a mechanic that is time-consuming and in no way fun.
Speaking of mechanics that are not terribly enjoyable, Niffelheim’s optional multiplayer gives invading players the opportunity to loot and destroy player base structures, but given the time it takes to research, gather and build it was not something I wanted to risk. Like many crafting/survival games the ramp-up to building impressive or really useful defensive structures or high end anything takes a very long time and isn’t well explained, but there is a ton of stuff to make, provided the correct tools and upgrades and materials are available. A lot of Niffelheim goes unexplained, tool tips aside.
I enjoyed the moments in Niffelheim when it was focused on Norse mythology and its specific insights into dramatic and familiar characters and locations. I almost never enjoyed its combat, which includes a variety of weapons and tough enemies but almost no excitement. There is a lot of time consuming busywork in Niffelheim, whether foraging, crafting, completing quest events or running back to a fallen corpse. Crafting games can be relaxing time sinks, but the presence of deadly enemies makes crafting cumbersome. 2D action games can of course be a lot of fun, but the necessity of time-consuming crafting ruins the flow of combat. Niffelheim looks impressive but hasn’t quite figured out the magic balance between two competing mechanics.