Review Copy Provided by Ellada Games and UberStrategist
Ellada Games’ Niffelheim reminded me exactly why I love indie video game development, warts and all. It’s an incredibly ambitious title that has a genuine stylistic flair thanks to a prominent art direction and an underlying respect for the player. There are some fantastic and jaw-dropping moments that will make you feel as if you had somehow stepped into a 2D version of Bethesda’s Skyrim only with Vikings. Its orchestral soundtrack booms and stuns at these admittedly cherry-picked sequences as your personalized RPG avatar fights through a tactile onslaught from countless enemies, but that’s just it. These moments come too rare in a game that lives or dies by them, and it doesn’t help that its fundamental gameplay mechanics are masked by hideous technical issues on the Xbox One port.
But tying these moments together is what seems to be some strange combination of a variety of genres, from Minecraft to even No Man’s Sky (at launch), developer Ellada Games has created what is a rather layered and contextualized RPG system for players to dream and realize some fantastic castles and cities. But getting to that point is undoubtedly tedious, requiring long, desolate hours of simply collecting wood with just a simple tap of a button, and once you do get to that final finished product, there’s a strange hollowness that other titles like Minecraft were able to avoid, and hollow is unfortunately how the rest of the game could ultimately be described as. There’s a lot going for Niffelheim here, including some of the best replay values for any RPG on the market, but it’s overshadowed by the unwieldy gameplay loop and frustratingly boring moments in between. It’s a meticulously crafted work just plagued by its own incompetence.
After viewing a brief exposition-heavy cut scene of some truly stunning sketches, Niffelheim throws the player immediately into its deep RPG elements. Or so it seems. Sure, the fact that the player can choose from four unique classes of characters is exciting, but it isn’t much different from the norm. On the other hand, the option of stationing your castle, essentially the hub, in four unique regions lends itself into why Niffelheim is just so enticing to experience multiple times, mostly because you’ll be tempted to start a new load a few hours thanks to an endlessly dull gameplay loop. Indeed, it’s perhaps the most exciting idea that the game has to offer, and while not perfect, it’s also the idea best executed.
What makes comparisons of Niffelheim to other titles like Minecraft or even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild reasonable isn’t necessarily because of its overall quality, but rather its ingenious opening act. Unlike titles that bring the pace to a grinding halt in the tutorial sections like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess or games that instead make the tutorial as bombastic as humanely possible (ex: Gears 5), Niffelheim follows in Minecraft’s and Breath of the Wild’s path by doing completely away with any sort of tutorial. Basic controls and actions are cleverly tucked away in un-intuitive UI widgets to where the player is directed to figure everything out for themselves. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling as you press all the buttons to figure out what is a massive puzzle for yourself.
Originally released on Steam back in September 2018, it’s clear that Niffelheim has had a lot of pains on the transition to Xbox One. For one, there are countless loading screens. Even simple actions like opening the world map require a loading screen of about ten seconds. In addition, after these loading screens, when running on a base Xbox One, there’s a delayed shutter as the game tries to catch up to where it is. There are also frequent frame rate dips, particularly when accessing and exiting UI or when a combat section begins. It’s not necessarily that I entirely blame Ellada Games for the poor optimization. After all, Niffelheim marks their very first commercial title, and as the very first, it’s pretty much the equivalent of a home run. But in such a competitive landscape like indie video game development, it’s still necessary to point out the flaws of the work even if the work is still such an achievement for the team that created it.
In the end, it’s clear that a ton of passion and love went into Niffelheim which I would still describe as an enjoyable experience, but it’s also just as clear that Ellada Games may have been stretching themselves here as their first commercially released title. Their overly ambitious goals quickly devolve the game into something of an identity crisis, particularly halfway through the game. It’s clumsy no doubt, marred by technical bugs and mishaps, but there’s still something about it. Something about its gorgeous world and setting that’s incredibly enticing. Something about its developer’s relentless ambition. Something about its ingenious design ideas and conception. There’s something there that’s glimmering with potential; Ellada Games just needs more time to get there.