Grinding. In video games, it typically refers to repeating the same action over and over. Sometimes its for a player’s benefit, spending some time fighting trash mobs repeatedly in order to make your character stronger. For others, they may see it as a source of relaxation, chilling out and watching numbers go up without having to exert themselves.
What I’m about to say may color your impressions of the rest of this review, but it needs to be known: I despise grinding in video games. With only so many hours in the day, and so many years in a life, I’d rather be spending that time experiencing something new rather than doing the same thing over and over.
It’s probably why I’ve only beaten two Final Fantasy games, despite playing every single one of them.
This is particularly notable as the game we’re looking at today features grinding quite heavily. Not that I was expecting it. After all, this game was my first experience with the survival genre.
Developed and published by Ellada Games, Niffelheim was released on September 20th, 2019, for PS4, Switch, and Xbox One. The PS4 version was played for this review.
A Soul Astray
Niffelheim puts you in the shoes of a recently deceased viking warrior. Being sent down a river in a traditional ship burial, your soul is sent on the way to the Asgard.
Unfortunately, not everything goes to plan. The Gods believe you still have to prove yourself, and whisk you away to the cold, dark, and desolate realms of Niffelheim. It is here that you’re tasked with exploring and surviving these lands, appeasing mysterious creatures and trying to open up a portal that will finally lead you to Asgard.
As far as setups go, it’s simple. The game tells you what you need to know, then sets you on your merry way. There’s a bit of minor development and flavor text from a few characters you’ll run across (mostly crows), but it ain’t much to write home about. In fact, I wound up mostly skipping the dialogue of quest givers so I could just get around to completing my tasks quicker.
Nose to the Grindstone
Niffelheim is mostly a survival game, requiring you to hunt and forage to stay alive and build out your tools, allowing you to hunt and forage more, craft better tools and weapons, and occasionally go out and take down the various obstacles standing between you and Asgard.
This game was my first real introduction to survival games, and I have to say…if all games in the genre are as repetitive and tedious as Niffelheim can become, I don’t have any plans on returning to it.
You start out in front of a wooden shack, within which are your various crafting stations, free to go about the game as you see fit. A short tutorial can be called up by pressing R3, but that’s about it. The game doesn’t even mention what your end goal truly is, leaving you to wander around a small area with plants and animals.
So, I wandered the world, chopping down trees and murdering innocent woodland creatures for food. As I explored a bit, the sun went down, I found a wolf, hit it with my stick, and was mauled to death. Death doesn’t end your game in Niffelheim, though since…well, the main character is already dead. Instead, you respawn as a ghost back at your workshop and have to go find your body. Once you find it, everything is back to normal…except you get a debuff that weakens you, unless you drink a special postion. This debuff can stack every time you die, so it’s a good idea to get rid of it quick.
After a bit of experimentation with what I could collect from different things in the world, what I could successfully defend myself against, and figuring out what kind of crafting I should focus on, I decided to start a new game and take it more seriously.
In my second game, I was able to take what I learned by poking about the world in my first try to actually make some progress. Chop down some trees, build a woodworking station in my workshop, make some lumbar, make a kitchen, cook some food, go back out and collect more lumbar, keep crafting, keep collecting, keep improving…
That’s when I realized that Niffelheim is all about grinding. Grinding trees for lumbar, grinding animals for pelts, grinding in your own personal dungeon for rocks and jewels. The grinding gets me items that I can use to improve my ability to grind.
To be fair, I did get a few good hits of dopamine when, after dropping a ton of my time into collecting materials, I was finally able to craft a good set of weapons and armor and finally take down those damn wolves that killed me in my first attempt at the game. That same set of equipment also allowed me to finally explore one of the multiple dungeons available on the map, which you can play through to find special materials and fight powerful enemies.
However, all of that power came at the price of time. In order to get the materials to craft that set of equipment, I spent a good 10-15 minutes of real time tapping the triangle button to mine them out of the Earth. I mean that seriously – I did nothing but press the triangle button for a quarter of an hour.
Even fighting, the one respite from grinding materials there really is in the game, is just as repetitive. You have one attack button…and that’s about it. There aren’t multiple attacks, there’s no real ability to dodge, just tap square and see who dies first. You can craft a shield to defend (which I never actually bothered doing), and you can switch to a bow and arrow for some ranged fighting, but that’s also just pressing the square button to launch arrows.
If anything, at least Niffelheim is quite attractive to look at. Outside of the dungeons which are basically just brown corridors, the world has some surprisingly detailed backgrounds. There are number of unique and memorable structures dotted around each area, which are both occasionally stunning and very useful to remember where I was in the world at any given time.
The characters and creatures are just as detailed, but their animations are weirdly stiff. They seemed to move like paper dolls much of the time, not using all of their joints. Particularly notable is having attack animations only play partially if you attempt to attack while running.
To cap things off, the game just doesn’t run all that well on the PS4. The game stutters noticeably and constantly, which makes running around the world incredibly frustrating.
Not My Cup of Tea
Overall, I can’t say that I really enjoyed my time with Niffelheim. However, I think it’s less that the game is bad and more that survival games just aren’t for me.
As I mentioned, this was my first taste of games of this ilk, but I probably should have known what I was getting in to what with already having a distaste for grind-heavy games. I feel like I would’ve had more fun with this title if I didn’t have to spend so much time wandering around for materials or tapping the triangle button in the mines for 15 minutes at a time.
The key thing that I can say for sure, though: there’s no way this game should be running so poorly on the PS4. Yes, there’s some good detail in the graphics of this 2D game, but the sheer amount of stuttering I encountered was just unacceptable.
If you’re in for the grind or just enjoy repetitive actions, Niffelheim might be something for you (although I honestly don’t understand why). For someone like me, though, this isn’t a game that I would recommend.
Review copy provided by Ellada Games for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.