Griefhelm review: Saturday knight’s alright (for fighting)

Griefhelm is a game that has a lot to admire about it. The work of lone developer Johnny Dale Lonack, it puts a more realistic spin on Nidhogg-style side-scrolling medieval duelling. In terms of gameplay then, it’s big lads in armour twatting each other with lumpy bits of metal. But there’s more to it than that.

You play as a warrior out to prove themselves. What exactly you’re trying to prove or why is deliberately unclear, but the method for doing so is multiple fights to the death. These fights are spread across a series of visually striking environments, with victory providing various perks or items which can be used in later battles.

The exact nature of the fights is randomly generated each time you start a campaign, and there’s an element of choice as to which fights and environments you undertake. The structure is similar to FTL: Faster Than Light, where you decide which route to select, albeit with limited information.

The battles themselves generally take one of three basic forms: a best-of-five wins ‘Skirmish’, a wave-based ‘Horde’ mode (requiring you to defeat multiple enemies without falling) and a ‘Tug-Of-War’, where combatants need to reach the opposite end of the map. The Skirmish and Tug-Of-War are usually 1v1 duels, but they can also be 2v1, 2v2 or 1v2 handicap fights (which can piss right off, quite frankly).

The individual duels within each battle are usually over quite quickly. Neither you nor your adversaries are able to absorb many hits. Attacks are made by adopting either a high, medium or low stance, and they’re parried by doing the same. If your defensive stance matches your opponent’s attack, you parry their strike. If not, then it’s a hit. This mandates an amount of tactical awareness.

There are various weapons to collect, each with their own characteristics. Crucially, they’re all held and animated differently. This often means it’s not obvious which stance your enemy is in. As the most challenging enemies can move rapidly between stances, successful parries can be difficult. I tended to prefer moving out of range then darting in after my opponent had swung their weapon.

This is about as one-sided as it gets…

Items can be earned to improve your chances. Better (or at least different) weapons and armour are available, as are single-use ‘perks’. These perks can range from increasing health or attack speed, to letting you ride a horse into battle, which is fun, but an almost embarrassingly powerful advantage.

You can also earn additional lives. Permadeath is a feature of Griefhelm; you start with three lives and once you run out, it’s back to the start with you. Any earned perks or equipment are lost, although there is one perk which permanently makes your current equipment available for future attempts.

Griefhelm is a well-presented game. There are multiple environments and the majority look great, particularly those outdoors. The fighters are well animated, although they do seem able to jump remarkably high considering what they’re wearing. It sounds good, too. The music is an appropriate combination of mournful and bombastic, and the weapons clang and thump in a satisfying way.

My biggest gripes regarding the game’s fundamentals though are with the controls and attack speeds. The two complaints are linked; weapons in Griefhelm appear designed to feel hefty. While that’s realistic, it does make attacks seem sluggish at times. That can get quite frustrating, given even a slight hesitation can be the difference between a hit and a miss.

The controls sometimes feel a bit unresponsive too. I’m not sure if that’s because of, or as well as, the attack speed. Turning around in particular was noticeably unreliable, to the extent that I actually tested my control pad to make sure it was working properly (it was). Maybe I was subconsciously mashing too many buttons at once, or perhaps my character was mid-animation. Regardless, I can’t help but think that a faster pace, although less realistic, might have been more enjoyable.

And that is really my biggest issue with Griefhelm. I said at the start that there’s a lot to admire here, and there is. However, I’m not sure I ever really had fun playing it.

The single-player campaign is not long; once you’re up to speed, you can theoretically reach the end in under an hour. That will vary depending on what fights you encounter though. In my experience, my current skill level means that at least the first 20-30 minutes is something of a formality, as I carve through hopelessly outmatched opposition. After that point, there’s an increasing risk of coming up against an extremely difficult fight.

Herein lies the problem. I tended to cruise through for half an hour or more, then encounter a foe (or foes) who repeatedly smashed me into the dirt. Then I run out of lives and had to start again, no better off than when I started. For that pattern of gameplay to be sustainable, the attempts have to be fun. For me though, there isn’t enough variation or challenge during the earlier stages for that to be the case. Too often, Griefhelm is either easy or very hard.

It’s a bit of a shame. Griefhelm is by no means a bad game. There were a couple of bugs and some design decisions I don’t particularly agree with. For instance, some of the environments put objects or cover between the fighters and the camera; I think in order to add an extra layer of challenge. The effect though is that you can’t see your enemy unless you move – even though the AI has no such issues.

Don’t go into the long grass!

On the whole though, there’s not much I can definitively criticise beyond the fact that I didn’t have a great time with it. It should be noted that Griefhelm will also support four-player co-op and PvP multiplayer, both locally and online. Our illustrious editor and I gave the online PvP a go. In terms of results, let’s just say my practice really paid off. However, lopping your mates’ heads off is always a laugh and I would prefer to play more of that rather than have another run through the campaign.

All in all, Griefhelm is a solid game, albeit one I didn’t especially enjoy. It’s an impressive bit of work for a one-person developer though. The multiplayer is quick, knockabout fun too. Admittedly, Nidhogg does that trick better, but then Griefhelm has more depth. If you’re interested in a tactical fighting game with a dose of realism, then maybe give it a look.

Griefhelm was developed by Johnny Dale Lonack and published by Thorrnet, and it’s available on PC.

Disclosure statement: review code for Griefhelm was provided by Renaissance PR. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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