Couch multiplayer games are special. Games that don’t require hundreds of hours, and can just be played in short matches with friends locally. Couch multiplayer may be dying out, and COVID-19 isn’t doing it any favors, so getting a game that recreates that feel is always a welcome addition.
Fighting games are the ultimate couch game player versus player experience. But if you don’t like long, drawn-out battles and want swordplay with little margin for error, and one-shot kills, games like Nidhogg II and now Griefhelm probably pique your interest.
I bring up Nidhogg and its sequel specifically because Griefhelm feels like a clone of those games, but with its own twist on the subgenre, and with a little more meat on its bones. Griefhelm is a side-scrolling action game where you can play solo against bots or join up to three friends to fight in player versus player combat, or through a campaign that sees you fighting in multiple different scenarios.
There’s a tug of war game mode that closely matches Nidhogg, without the level hazards. You spar with an opponent, and each defeat of that opponent allows you to run forward. There’s a slight twist on the end, though—once you or your opponent is forced back to their end point, it enters into a last stand mode for that person, meaning death will instantly end the game if the person on their last life—signified by appearing to be on fire—is defeated, even if they drove their opponent back several screens. But tug of war isn’t Griefhelm’s only mode—there are skirmish and horde modes as well. These are straightforward battles.
Griefhelm is recommended to be played with a gamepad, so I played it on my Xbox controller. You can swing your sword, turn around, jump, and change between high, middle, and low stance. You automatically block an incoming attack if it matches with the attacker’s stance. It tries very hard to be a tight, skill-based affair—but many fights are settled with lucky blows. It’s possible, I’m sure, with practice to master this swordplay, but Griefhelm’s controls feel loose and imprecise. It turns out it’s more about timing than wielding the weaponry effectively.
There are multiple weapons to get ahold of in Griefhelm. Unfortunately, none of them really feel that much different than the starting long sword. Weapons don’t really have weight, even though they hit an enemy with inordinate force. A little poke to the leg can sever it and cause your opponent to go flying—with the same force as if you came down on their head with a war hammer after taking a running leap.
Campaign mode is probably Griefhelm’s best feature, but even that feels incomplete. You go across an overworld map, choosing battles, fighting opponents, and collecting gear and perks as you go along. You have a limited number of lives, and once you’ve exhausted all of them, you lose all of your progress, and must start over, something that is daunting if you fail near the end of a long run. The thought of going through all of those matches again with Griefhelm’s dreary environments is almost too much to bear.
A lot of the art in Griefhelm reminds me a bit of Demon’s Souls. Gray, dreary, and somewhat mysterious. Even the music in the overworld reminds me of the dream-like music you sometimes hear in that game’s soundtrack. But Griefhelm is only dreary, and rarely interesting. Levels are a smattering of battlefields on beaches, fields, campsites—but almost always gray and hazy.
Griefhelm does not feel like a complete game. If it were in Early Access I would praise it for its potential, and talk about its future. The developer has laid out a roadmap for post release plans, but it’s to add features that should have been baked into the version 1.0 release. Griefhelm may improve in the future, but it really just needs more time in the oven.
And that’s where I stand on it. Griefhelm is fun for a few hours, but it wears thin. Even with friends it doesn’t have the staying power as the much simpler Nidhogg and its sequel. The combat isn’t as tight as it could be, the weapons mechanics are uninteresting, and it ultimately feels like an incomplete game. Go play Nidhogg II instead.
Griefhelm is available now on Steam.