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Nidhogg Review: Swordfighting With Style

Platform: Windows PC
Developer: Messhof
Publisher: Messhof
Release Date: 1/14/2014 


Nidhogg is an indie game with an intriguing history behind it. It first debuted at indie showcases and earned the much-coveted IGF grand prize in 2011, then disappeared for a number of years before finally being released earlier this week. Regardless of whether it’s been worth the wait, I can say that Nidhogg is one of those rare games that strikes the perfect balance between absurd simplicity and a rare kind of mechanical depth.

The premise of Nidhogg is as simple as it is arcane. Two players must fight their way past each other with swords in order to reach the end of the level and be eaten alive by a mythical Norse creature called a Nidhogg.

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While each of the four distinct levels offer a number of hazards and quirks, they all play out roughly the same. Every round of Nidhogg begins slowly with both players fighting within a locked stage until one of them triumphs. At that point, the screen becomes dynamic and the player who scored the last kill is capable of scrolling by walking left or right (a detail the game helpfully illustrates with a giant colored arrow that appears on the screen). The action then becomes a sort of tug-of-war as one player desperately tries to bypass or overcome their opponent while the other tries equally as desperately to deny them and steal back the initiative.

It’s commonly accepted in video games that regardless of their modern-effectiveness, swords are pretty darned cool (for a recent example, check out our Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance live stream -ed). Nidhogg takes that lesson to heart and provides players with a sword fighting system that’s probably second to none. You can aim you strike at different heights, parry incoming attacks, disarm your opponent or even throw your sword at them (an action made all the more fun with the ‘Boomerang Swords’ variable in multiplayer). While these mechanics might sound a little daunting at first, the controls only really utilize two buttons (jump and attack) and the tutorial clearly explains how to get the most out of those two buttons. Where most games settle for providing players with the binary choice of heavy or light attacks, Nidhogg goes above and beyond and attempts to recreate something actually akin to real fencing rather than a scene out of Ninja Assassin.

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While the heart of Nidhogg is its brilliant fencing and swordplay systems, it’s the myriad of alternate tactical options that make it so dynamic and exciting to watch and play. Players can duck, roll, jump, divekick, walljump and (once they throw their sword away) engage in some pretty brutal melee combat. The best part about all these moves is that they provide both an alternative and supplement to the game’s swordplay. You can rely on them entirely or not at all – part of the game’s distinct charm is how it gives you a toolbox of skills and actions and encourages you to develop your own playstyle with them.

While it was this mechanical brilliance that built hype around Nidhogg all those years ago, the final release also features some impressive presentation elements. The engine utilizes a distinct and crisp lo-fi style that is backed up by the dynamic soundtrack composed by Daedelus that truly helps the game design nail its unique tone. The gallons of pixelated blood that spurt from the bodies of slain opponents was a nice distinctive visual detail of unexpected brutality, similar in effectiveness to something like Limbo or the PS1 classic Heart of Darkness.

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The short single player mode runs you through a gauntlet of differently colored opponents, but the true selling point of Nidhogg is multiplayer and the options it presents are nothing short of definitive. Both offline and online multiplayer are supported and while the offline mode is the kind of party-multiplayer experience that Nidhogg thrives upon, the online community is quite robust. The game features support for tournaments through the conveniently named Tournament Mode and for those less competitively inclined there are a number of fun variants that can be toggled for offline play such as boomerang swords, sprite trails and low gravity.

The one real niggle I have towards Nidhogg is while it’s one of the most fresh fighting games to be released in a good while, the low number of stages and short-single player content can feel like a bit of a hard sell at the $15 price-tag – especially considering the game’s lengthy development cycle. That said, I think it’s important that this review focus on what Nidhogg is, rather than what it isn’t or what it could have been given it’s prolonged development.

To label Nidhogg as just some fighting game would sell it short and fail to capture just what makes it such a unique and special game. It takes the ideas that make a great fighting game and filters away all the genre’s conventions to build something new, sharp and shiny. It is a both a game that blurs the lines of what a fighting game is and isn’t and redefines digital swordplay for a new age, and a silly party game that anyone can approach and try their hand at. If you can understand that bigger doesn’t always mean better, Nidhogg is a game that you will be able to love and one that was well worth the wait.

A copy of the game was provided by Messhof for the purposes of this review.