“What if Nidhogg had a roguelite campaign mode?”. I’d bet money that’s exactly what developer Johnny Dale Lonack was thinking when conceiving Griefhelm.
For those who haven’t played the stickman party swordfighter, Nidhogg (and by extension, Griefhelm) is a 2.5D side-scrolling dueling game. As in any clash of blades, the aim of the game is to slice up your opponent before they do the same to you. This is achieved through a three-directional stance system and executing differing strikes. High stance produces an overhand attack, low stance a leg sweep. If you guessed that mid stance produces a mid-height strike, you win a no-prize. Combat is tense and brutal, and the controls strike that fine balance between easy-to-learn and difficult-to-master; ideal for a game where you may want to invite friends for a quick foray.
Only a Flesh Wound
Griefhelm takes that basic premise and makes it its own. There are no stickmen exploding in showers of color here; instead, realistic-looking medieval knights chop off arms and sever heads. Blood flows, and the screams of tortured agony echo out over misty, snow-topped mountains and burning villages. The first time a decapitated head flies at the screen, it’s clear this isn’t a game designed for Friday family fun night. It’s less party-fodder than Nidhogg for sure, but this self-serious take on the genre lends itself to a full campaign of customization elements.
Griefhelm is unashamedly roguelite and borrows elements from that genre to lay out its campaign mode. The campaign overview map is a series of nodes, each one representing a battle ‘encounter’ with different difficulties and rewards. These come in one of three game modes.
Skirmish is a traditional best-of-three fight against one or two AI opponents. This is the most straight-forward battle mode but also the least interesting. Load times between victories start to feel tedious after the pace of respawning enemies in other modes.
Tug of War will feel familiar to Nidhogg players. It forces both sides to endlessly respawn until one or the other has succeeded in running to the far edge of their opponent’s half of the 2D map. This leads to a back and forth that can be intense and protracted (or one-sided and immediate if the opponent catches you off-guard!). One major change that sets Griefhelm’s Tug of War apart from Nidhogg is the Last Stand mechanic. This gives the losing side one final opportunity, becoming a shadowy-looking silhouette for their final respawn. Defeat during Last Stand means the game ends. Only by running through all of the opponent’s respawns without dying can they claw the victory back. Last Stand is a nice touch — it prevents the never-ending see-saw of some of Nidhogg’s longer exchanges.
The third mode in Griefhelm is Horde, which like horde mode in any game, means waves of enemies approaching from both directions. The ensuing gauntlet has players fighting for survival, minimizing damage in order to last the duration. Horde is the most interesting and unique encounter type, forcing players to make full use of the game’s parry mechanic, matching stances to the opponent’s to block incoming blows, and the Shove, a close-range melee attack that creates openings in the opponent’s guard.
A loose story ties the campaign together, but it’s mostly just flavor text. Griefhelm tells a fairly traditional story of knights of honor (and of dubious honor) going to battle for their kingdoms, all told through the medium of on-screen text in loading screens and cutscenes. For the most part, these are skippable window-dressings that don’t in any way frame the encounters to come.
The atmosphere is better realized by the game’s array of maps. Whilst there are definitely some plain fields here, others such as Campsite are a beauty to behold and do imaginative things with the visual aesthetic. Dark-lit levels provide their own challenge, but moments where foreground scenery blatantly obscures the player’s vision feel unfair, especially against an AI bot that has no such impairment.
Victory in any of the campaign’s encounters grants rewards. Equipment consists of new weapon types, armor that soaks damage, and helms and plumes for cosmetic changes. Boosts take immediate effect (such as replenishing lives), and Perks act as single-use consumables to provide bonuses in the upcoming encounters. These Perks range from minor effects, such as Ire, which grants extra damage, or Leech, which draws health from damage inflicted, to more major gameplay changes. For example, Mount provides an actual horse for horseback combat, allowing players to ride past enemies at pace whilst jousting their heads clean off from the elevated position of advantage. It is perhaps a little overpowered in its current form, but it’s damn fun.
Defeat in an encounter extinguishes lives until the final loss leads to game over. This being a roguelite, that translates to a loss of all current progress bar a couple of items that can be handily stored if the player finds a Preserve perk along their journey.
Leader encounters act as boss fights at the end of each area, though in practice a player with a decent armor and weapon loadout (and a handful of Perks) shouldn’t struggle too much with any of these. Especially in two-player co-op play, even Master difficulty nodes don’t provide an immense challenge.
A co-op partner can lock up an enemy, allowing players to make an unblockable attack whilst they’re preoccupied. This makes the game a lot less risk/reward, and despite the increase of foes on-screen, the AI is not smart enough to isolate you and your partner into individual fights. This is especially problematic in matches such as the 2v1 encounters that let the player team outnumber the AI opponents. There is no challenge to these fights, and they feel like an obvious choice on the campaign map for “free” victories.
Co-op would also benefit from changes to character models (or even colors) for differentiation. Reading the screen can be challenging in the midst of heated battle. Unlocking armors and helms only goes a small way to easing this difficulty and, bafflingly, color options already exist outside of campaign mode.
Outside of the campaign, Griefhelm allows players to do individual encounters and tournaments with up to four players. Both of these modes are best used in group settings for local play or online with friends. These quickplay modes are also great for practicing with weaponry and loadouts that would otherwise need unlocking at random in the campaign, such as the polearm, which offers extended reach, or the mace, which is a faster short-range weapon.
The Pointy End
Roguelites live and die on their replayability. Griefhelm’s combat is addictive in its simplicity and tension, but there’s a lack of depth in its campaign that makes successive replays feel too similar. Regardless of game mode, the game ultimately boils down to a loop of ‘see opponent, block opponent, hit opponent.’ Perks grant such subtle changes that, outside of riding a horse, they don’t really affect the core gameplay. Weapons provide more obvious changes, but their main effect is to cause you to adapt to differing attack speeds and range; ultimately, you still stick them with the pointy end.
If you enjoy the gameplay loop of Nidhogg and fancy trying another game in this vein or have always wanted a more rewarding campaign experience from it, then Griefhelm is for you. Played solo or co-operative, Griefhelm will entertain for a good handful of hours, but replayability is limited beyond that. As a party game, though, there’s not enough new content here to recommend picking Griefhelm up over the tighter experience of Nidhogg II, which offers a wider palette of party options, customizations, unique attack styles, and laugh-out loud moments that simply aren’t present in Griefhelm’s more serious set-up. There is a definite lack of boomerang swords and spine-pulling here.
Developer: Johnny Dale Lonack
Publisher: Thorrnet Publishing
Release Date: 20th August 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Griefhelm was provided by the publisher.