There have been quite a few attempts at making solid melee combat games in recent times. Many of these are set in medieval times, as it is one of the most iconic eras for swordfighting. The latest of these games is Griefhelm, a side-scrolling melee combat game in which players take on the role of medieval knights and either attempt to fight their way through a randomly generated campaign or duke it out amongst themselves.

At a glance, Griefhelm plays a lot like Nidhogg. There are three stances: low, mid, and high. Simply putting yourself in a stance allows you to automatically block an incoming attack, whereas attacking will attack from whatever stance you are currently in. You can also jump, further augmenting your attacks or deftly dodging incoming attacks, and hit your opponents with your elbow to stagger them and break their block, as well as parry their attempts at staggering you. Additionally, there are a small variety of weapons that you can use, each with its own quirks, but generally following two rules: whether it is fast or slow and whether it is a sword or not, with those that are not swords largely requiring you to hit your opponent with the end of the weapon to successfully land a hit, the lone exception being the spear.

Unfortunately, there are two design choices that make Griefhelm a much less comfortable experience than Nidhogg. The first is that leaving your joystick in a neutral position does not represent mid. Instead, you have to press either forward or back on the right joystick to block or attack mid, whereas up and down on the right joystick represent high and low, respectively. The second is that you have to manually turn yourself around by pressing a button. This would make sense, given that there are multiple opponents that can come at you from different sides of the screen, except that leaving your joystick in a neutral position does not represent mid. It would have made much more sense if you had to hold a button to enter a stance and were able to freely move back and forth when not in a stance.

It doesn’t help that the control scheme is incredibly awkward. It was a necessary decision based on the fact that the joysticks are consistently used simultaneously, but it is awkward nonetheless. The right bumper is how you stagger, the right trigger is how you attack, the left bumper is how you jump, and the left trigger is how you turn around. There is definitely some streamlining that could have been done there. Perhaps attacking with the joystick in the neutral position could have been how you stagger. Perhaps the right joystick could have been used to turn around, rather than both ends of the X axis representing mid. No matter the case, there was more that could have been done.

However, there are much more significant problems with combat. It’s far too easy for a combatant to feign attacking from one stance, only to attack from another without warning. Multiple times, I watched as the AI would, for example, be in the high stance and then attack from the low stance without any sort of telegraph that they were swapping stances before I attempted it myself. I then succeeded in doing so almost effortlessly. This one issue alone calls the integrity of the combat system into question, as there very well could be situations where players simply cannot predict their opponent’s next move.

I also mentioned previously that there are weapons that require you to hit enemies with the ends of them to connect, such as halberds and hammers. If you are too close to your opponent, it will just go right past them, dealing no damage, as only the shaft of the weapon made contact. The existence of these weapons seems to indicate that, in theory, combatants would stand at a healthy distance, swords clashing in the center as they inched ever closer for a hit. If someone gets too close, you can just stagger them and hit them while staggered.

In practice, that’s only how it works against players—and not even all the time, as I’ll explain later. In combat against AI, you are taught very early on that the most viable strategy at any given moment is to rush as close to an enemy as you can and attack from different stances until you land a hit. Essentially, just rush them down as fast as possible.

There’s an important reason that this strategy works: the aforementioned non-sword weapons cannot land hits if you are right up next to them. The exception to this is the flail, which can hit an opponent that is right next to them from a low stance, but that is also coincidentally one of the only moves that is telegraphed in a way that is readable by said opponent when they are right up next to you, rendering it useless against this strategy.

Shockingly, that’s not even the only way that you can easily exploit the AI. When the AI runs at you full speed, you can simply look at which stance it’s in, pick a different stance, and attack right as it comes into range of your weapon. There are also certain scenarios in which you can confuse the AI by rushing at them and jumping repeatedly. Furthermore, AI of Adept difficulty and lower struggle to deal with a player that jumps and attacks low.

As alluded to before, these problems don’t exist when playing against players that have an idea of how to play the game. The aforementioned strategy is easily defeated by staggering the opponent who dares to rush you and then hitting them with your weapon. However, the AI easily fall victim to such simplistic strategies, which puts a pretty severe damper on the experience as a whole.

Looking beyond the AI presents another major problem, which is that the combat system simply does not seem to be designed for encounters that utilize teams in any way. For example, in a 2v2 encounter, the two teams of two start on either side of the screen, facing each other. When the two in the center become locked in combat, there is no way for the other two to get past them safely and engage in combat, leaving the two on the outside with only two realistic choices: stand still and wait their turn or try to attack the opponent attacking their friend through their friend. In my experience, the latter doesn’t work very well and only serves to unnecessarily open yourself up to being attacked, which leaves only the former. This is not a fun experience.

The most significant problem, however, is that combat rarely feels consistent, especially in terms of staggering. In specifically testing that the strategy mentioned above does not work against players that attempt to stagger, we found that staggering will sometimes knock an opponent out of range for an attack and sometimes not, with there being no way to tell before you would have to attack anyways. This often leaves you open to attack, even though you did what you were supposed to. The recovery times on staggers are also fairly nebulous and, often, I found that staggering an AI did not provide me with an opening to attack, the AI instead striking at me during what should have been an opening. This even happened in player-vs.-player combat far more often than it should have. It’s clear that the game wants you to stay at a certain range, which is why it’s disappointing that staggering can fail, leaving you unable to punish your opponent for getting too close to you.

This feeling that something isn’t quite right extends into all of combat, albeit to a lesser extent. There were times when I was using the one-handed sword that it simply didn’t connect with my opponent, even though it did visually. For other weapons, the exacting effective range that you have to attack from due to the way that they’re designed simply makes combat uncomfortable—more so when your opponent has a weapon with a vastly different effective range. Furthermore, when two attacks made from the same stance at the same time collide, the intention seems to be that they will automatically parry each other, but that rarely happens. The game’s varying weapon types often simply don’t collide with anything when not used from their effective range, which takes quite a bit away from the feel of combat.

Griefhelm offers players several modes to test their skills in battle. There are standard elimination-style modes called Free-for-All and Skirmish, the latter of which is the team version. A Horde mode puts you up against increasingly difficult waves of opponents. Lastly, there is a mode called “Tug of War” that is similar to Nidhogg’s core game mode. In it, you kill your opponent(s) and then run towards the side opposite the one you started on. Once you reach the other side, your opponents enter “Last Stand” mode; they start glowing and, if they die, they lose.

None of these modes are particularly interesting. In fact, one of the main issues with them is that they’re almost aggressively bland, especially for a game that supports up to four players. It doesn’t help that the only rules that you can change are whether or not your equipment’s stats are taken into account; the damage multiplier, which hardly matters if the stats aren’t taken into account, as the standard number of hits you can take is two; how many rounds you need to win to win the match, in the case of Free-for-All and Skirmish; whether friendly fire is on, in the case of Skirmish and Tug of War; whether there is a time limit, in the case of Tug of War; and what color and associated faction each “team” is, in the case of Horde. 

In general, there’s not a lot of room for customization beyond your equipment, which is a shame. All of the game’s levels are fairly flat and only one offers the unpredictability of high grass. It’s clear that effort was made to make them visually interesting, but the visuals do little to hide the fact that every level is a large, mostly flat arena. It would have been nice for the lack of interesting environments to be offset by some interesting modifiers in multiplayer combat, but there are none to be found.

The campaign does little to offer much-needed variety. In essence, the campaign mode is a roguelite mode. In it, you work your way through a map with several branching paths that are the same each time, the only difference being the “encounters” that take place at each node. These encounters are essentially just player-vs.-AI versions of the modes that you play in multiplayer, pitting you against random and largely unimportant opponents. Each of these is of a random difficulty that starts on the lower end of the difficulty meter and works its way up as you complete more encounters. You start with three lives and, if you run out of lives, it’s game over.

Each encounter offers a different reward and the idea is that you’re supposed to plot your course based on the rewards. If you need new armor, you go this way. If you need another life, you go that way. At the end of each “zone,” you fight a “Leader Battle” against a much harder opponent for a much more significant reward.

A more significant consideration, however, is perks. Many encounters offer perks as rewards, granting you new ways to deal with what might otherwise be difficult encounters ahead. These vary fairly drastically from an attack speed increase perk to a life leech perk to a perk that allows you to start an encounter on a mount that absorbs a set amount of damage before dying and leaving you once again on the ground. Oddly, rather than be a permanent fixture of your character, they are essentially consumables that can only be used for a single attempt at an encounter. You have to manually activate perks when choosing an encounter, after which beginning the encounter causes them to be consumed.

Interestingly, a perk is also how you permanently unlock new equipment for the campaign mode. Along the way, you can get a perk called “Preserver” that saves the gear you are wearing when you successfully complete an encounter. However, while this is interesting, its randomness, rarity, and requirement that you successfully complete the attempt at an encounter that you activate it on make it more frustrating than anything. The requirements are so incredibly specific and only grant you the gear you’re wearing, rather than all gear you’ve obtained in a campaign, which can feel less than rewarding.

Unfortunately, while the campaign initially posed a challenge, due to the aforementioned AI exploits, I rarely felt a need to go a specific way. When you can simply exploit your way through with the weapon you start with and practically any armor, there’s no need to target specific equipment or perks. The added armor was certainly a nice buffer, but it was rarely necessary due to the fact that you can have more than the three lives that you start with. My exploit-ridden playthrough eventually afforded me 10 lives in addition to the armor that I had specifically targeted with the intention of unlocking it.

The campaign also offers little in terms of story. There’s clearly an overarching narrative of some sort—culminating in a visually striking final fight, which incidentally presents the only AI opponent that can’t be exploited—but the seemingly randomly chosen bits of text before and after each encounter do little to present that story meaningfully. Even read one after the other, they rarely seem to form cohesive fragments, much less a cohesive whole. As a result, it does little to make the repetitive process of playing through encounter after encounter of a small number of modes feel worth it.

There are also a number of other problems with the campaign. At times, it seemed that the armor that I had equipped wasn’t visually reflected in encounters, especially when I was placed on a team with an AI companion. Tug of War encounters that pit you and a companion against a single opponent are painfully easy, even at Master difficulty. Horde encounters are always three waves in length, meaning that each wave is extremely short. Several encounters during the campaign randomly did not play sound effects.

The most egregious problem, however, was a bug that I encountered regarding progression. Every now and then, I would load up an encounter only to instantaneously “win” it. I would then progress forward unimpeded until it happened again. Once, I failed the final fight and then loaded it up again to make another attempt, only for the same error to occur and me to be sent back a level because the game simply had nowhere else to send me on the map and, for some reason, did not let me simply complete the campaign. Having to replay the second-to-last encounter before attempting the final fight again was quite frustrating.

It’s hard to look at the campaign and not feel as though it was simply thrown together. The layout of the map never changes. It simply reuses the existing modes, always using the same rules, and tries to extend playtime with later encounters that would be excessively difficult if not for the fact that the AI is extremely exploitable. The equipment that you unlock doesn’t carry over to other modes and I question why perks exist in the campaign, but there are no modifiers of any kind for the other modes. It’s simply not an engaging experience.

While you don’t unlock new equipment for other modes through the campaign, the way that you do unlock new equipment for those modes is fairly interesting. After a session, regardless of the mode, there is a seemingly random chance that you will be challenged to a duel by an AI opponent. If you win the duel, you get their equipment. However, while I do find this interesting, I would like the way that you acquire new equipment to be a bit more predictable.

Fortunately, for all of the game’s issues, its online mode doesn’t seem to be one of them. In our tests, gameplay was perfectly stable and there was no notable desync. I don’t know how it would fare in higher-ping environments, but low-ping environments don’t seem to present any issues.

That being said, the overall online play experience is somewhat awkward. During our time playing, we could not get the Friends Only match setting to work; we simply couldn’t find each other’s lobbies. Furthermore, the match setup interface is set up in an inexplicably bizarre manner. You start a session by having anyone who’s playing locally join and choose their armor as they would in any other game mode. Then you’re thrown into a lobby where you can walk around and fight other players. If you press start, you can choose the game mode and rules. Then, once you’ve set those up, you hit the oddly titled “Begin Match” button to set how many bots are in the match, after which you choose a map to actually begin the match. The screen with the bot and map settings is shared with the offline custom lobbies and it is awkward there, as well, but the online version is exceptionally awkward.

If you’re looking for a game that is somewhat similar to Nidhogg and find its art style off-putting, Griefhelm might scratch that itch. However, it comes at a cost. It is slower and more unwieldy than Nidhogg, with more awkward controls. Combat feels inconsistent. Its maps are wholly uninteresting, consisting largely of flat stretches of land. What’s more, its campaign feels patched together from other parts of the game and inexplicably keeps one of the more interesting systems, perks, to itself, not allowing players to make use of it in custom lobbies. The most egregious problem, however, is that the AI is extremely exploitable, easily falling victim to simplistic tactics. Despite all of its problems, you may yet find enjoyment here, as the core that its combat system is based on is a proven winning formula, but it just made me wish that I was playing Nidhogg instead.


PlaytimeDid we receive a press copy?PricePlatform(s)
3 hoursYes, two from Renaissance PR$19.99Steam

Author

Ari is the founder of Two Credits. She is a transgender woman who has been gaming for most of her life, having started her gaming career on the N64.

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