Griefhelm is what you get when you play Nidhoog and reckon there should be considerably more cutting off of limbs and decapitations. One man developing army Johnny Dale Lonack has put together this entire game on his own, a feat worthy of admiration. And I want to be clear on that, because the tough thing about reviewing a game from a small team or indeed a single person is criticising the game feels a lot harsher than tackling something from, for example, Ubisoft. So, to be upfront I don’t like Griefhelm. But I respect the hell out of Johnny Dale Lonack and hope he continues to make games, because despite my problems with Griefhelm there are flashes of greatness.
In Griefhelm knights collide on a 2.5D plane of existence in an eternal struggle to bash each other’s brains in. The graphics are basic, but that means they don’t distract from the action. Compared to the bright stylings of Nidhogg, Griefhelm is grittier and more realistic. Admittedly, the more serious and gritty tone of Griefhelm is somewhat damaged by the insane ragdoll physics. It’s a common sight to chop of a leg and watch as the body rockets into the sky, powered by high blood pressure and a desire to bring the holy crusade to the moon. I can only assume this isn’t intended, but it’s bloody hilarious, nonetheless.
The game suggests using a controller, so that’s how I opted to play. Basically, you have three stances: high, mid and low. You swap between these by holding the appropriate direction with the right anolog stick, and then with a tap of the right trigger you can swing your weapon. To block an incoming attack you need to match the direction of the incoming danger, so if the opponent swaps to a high stance to deliver an overhead smash you need to push up on the stick. Easy. It takes a bit of time to get the hang of it. But once you get into the swing of things (YAY, TERRIBLE SWORD HUMOUR!) it’s satisfying to block a flurry of attacks before launching your own.
However, in a game like this being able to read an opponent is vital, and so the animations need to be spot on. Unfortunately, Griefhelm struggles here. Overhead attacks are typically easy to see coming, but the differences between a mid strike and a low strike are too easily missed, and it only becomes worse with weapons like the spear. It doesn’t help that the environments occasionally block your view, turning what’s meant to be a game of skill into one of pure luck. Even wearing the heaviest armor you die quickly in Griefhelm, so it’s frustrating to get stabbed because mid-stance and low-stance with a spear barely look any different.
Positioning is key, too. Attacks are quite slow and the recovery time fairly long, so misjudging the distance is akin to giving the enemy a free hit. I like this element of it, because it means just swinging wildly typically won’t work – the opponent will just back up, launch into their own attack and end your miserable excuse for an existence.
The problems I have can be wrapped up in one word: inconsistent. Let me elaborate, my bloodthirsty reader – there are a lot of times that attacks fail to hit even when it looks like they should have, and equally as many where they do register despite prior experience suggesting they shouldn’t. A lot of the game comes down to memorizing the hitboxes for the various weapons because judging them visually is unreliable. Even the speed of blocking and whether or not you can launch straight into a counterattack feels wildly inconsistent with no discernible reasons why.
There are also cases of inputs failing to register, be they blocks, attacks or even the turn command.
The same inconsistencies apply across the rest of the game. Sometimes you can jump straight past an enemy to get behind them, but sometimes you can’t. Sometimes the shove command staggers an enemy and sometimes it won’t. Perhaps they blocked it, but a lack of visual feedback makes it hard to tell if that’s the case. Even the A.I. difficulty feels inconsistent, with one “master” difficulty battle being a breeze and another a painful lesson in how to get your arse kicked across the screen. A Horde battle can be a stream of opponents who stand there and get killed, or you might run into one that is a parrying God.
The singleplayer campaign takes the form of an overworld map where you move from node to node, taking on battles across three game modes. Horde has you fending off a trickle of foes that can come from either side of the screen, and taking too long to defeat an enemy can mean having to deal with 2-on-1 scenario. Then there are straight 1v1 battles, which are mechanically the least interesting but do show off the combat in its purest and best form. Finally, Tug of War will be familiar to Nidhogg players and has you fighting to get from one end of the map to the other while the enemy tries to do the same. Both you and the opposing team get a few respawns along the way, so it can lead to some fun back and forth melees. If either team is pushed to the final spawn point the Last Stand kicks in, giving them a final chance to fight back, but if that final character/s are killed at any point it’s game over. I had a couple of great online battles where a team was pushed back, only for their Final Stand player to make a heroic come back and fight their way to the other end of the map.
Along the way you’ll also pick up new armor that can provide more health at the cost of speed or vice versa, and weapons like a warhammer and halberd. Given the fact that Griefhelm is fairly grounded in reality there isn’t a massive selection of weapons and armor to gather up, but it’s enough to give the game some variety. You also also get helms and plumes, both of which are purely cosmetic. so that’s a nice touch.
There are also perks to gather up like a heavily armored squirrel preparing for winter. Perks are single-use bonuses, the most interesting of which is a flaming weapon or being able to fight from horseback, which is currently vastly overpowered. Like the armor and weapons they help spice things up a bit.
You get five lives for the campaign, and can earn more by beating certain nodes on the map. But if you happen to lose all three lives then its game over. Any armor and weapons you’ve acquired along the way are gone, and you have to start from scratch. Each time you restart the nodes are randomly generated, so there’s some light strategy in looking ahead and picking your path to gather up perks and gear.
Overall, the campaign mode is okay. The A.I. can be quite easily cheesed through a variety of methods, but if you can resist the urge to be a dishonourable cur (I think Ghost of Tsushima has brushed off on me) then it’s fine. Johnny Dale Lonack has also promised that the campaign will be getting expanded upon down the line.
Brilliantly you can play through the campaign using local co-op with three of your chums. Personally I recommend finding some replica knight helmets to wear for added immersion. However, if you want to play online things aren’t so simple. There’s no standard online option, instead Griefhelm supports remote play, meaning one person who owns the game can share it via streaming with their friends. This brings a whole host of its own problems, and it’s weird not to see a regular online built into the game considering player vs player game modes outside of the campaign do.
If you can get a stable connection going up against a real person can be quite fun despite the fundamental flaws in the combat system. But outside of the straight 1v1 fights everything falls apart because the way the game is built was clearly never intended to handle multiple people running about. You can’t defend against attacks from behind, nor spin around quickly enough to deal with two opponents on either side. Even if you have to face off against two people coming from the same direction there’s no friendly fire, so they can stack up and hit you with attacks coming from two different stances, which you can’t do anything about. But the worst comes in free-for-all mode where four players duke it out. Inevitably that means whatever poor sods end up sandwiched in the middle are nothing more than cannon fodder.
Ultimately, I like the idea of Griefhelm and with some work it could be fantastic. However, it also feels like a game that would have been better served launching in Early Access to iron out its kinks. If you’ve got a group of friends willing to jump in with you then there’s fun to be had provided you don’t take it too seriously.