In today’s race to create games that immerse players in vast, beautiful, diverse experiences, it’s easy to lose sight of the age-old sign of a well-balanced game: Does it achieve what it set out to achieve? After watching match after frustrating match intrigue and excite my interest in Nidhogg, it was plain to see that this game accomplishes a great deal. The hours that followed were simply a study of what Nidhogg accomplishes, and how it accomplishes this. Here are my findings.
My first impressions were admittedly technical and don’t have much to do with stabbing or ripping hearts out; we’ll get to that in a moment. Utilizing bold 2D geometry and minimal shading, Nidhogg should run well on the vast majority of PC’s, and though it lacks support for Mac and Linux systems, performance is pitch perfect. Controller support is seamless and the painful process of a game’s first-launch graphics setup is nowhere to be found. Within moments of launching the game, I felt confident and quite prepared to do something, whatever it might be. The main menu offered a non-mandatory “How to Play” option, whose sole presence – and what I’d already seen of the game – seemed to warrant investigation.
Thrown into a blank level with a non-hostile enemy, I immediately jabbed and jumped incessantly until the game ordered me to knock down the opponent with my bare pixel fists and then rip his heart out. “How could I?” I asked myself, before reluctantly gutting the man and proceeding to learn swordplay. But by the time my first real match was over, all I could think of was the satisfaction of ripping my enemy’s heart out. Nidhogg will do that to you. In fact, it wasn’t until slaying each and every one of the single-player baddies that I realized I’d done it all in one stressful sitting – and it felt good. To say that Nidhogg is as rewarding as it is challenging would be a gross understatement; both aspects of play are rewards in themselves.
In Nidhogg, each player essentially spawns armed with a sword and super-agility. Both tools prove to be equally valuable, as kills are often earned by using both in succession. Mechanically, the game is rock-solid, as each offensive movement has a disarming counterpart. For example, a player with his sword lowered is able to easily stab an enemy with his sword raised, but with his sword raised a player is ready to defend from a downward jump attack. These offensive components come together much like a game of rock, paper, scissors – only one where players’ intended moves are visible before they’re played out – so that being good at the game boils down to understanding the controls and your enemy as thoroughly as possible.
When one fighter defeats another, turning them into colorful liquid confetti with just one stab or hands-on excision, he or she gains the right of way, and can make progress toward victory by running in the direction opposite the side on which they spawned. This dynamic heavily influences the way kills contribute to actually winning the game: manslaughter is technically no more than a means by which the right of way is earned, and a handy method for getting your enemy out of the way. It also adds something for each un-stabbed player to do while the other respawns, which often results in sweaty palms and angry yells right up until the match is over (and maybe a little after that, too).
The game’s lightning-fast motion is accompanied by visuals and audio that harmonize in a way that’s simple and appealing. It seems using map and character components out of a relatively small number of solid colors left room for animation that’s perfectly on point, featuring rolls, flips, dives, and even and end-of-match worm-dragon (perhaps the Nidhogg itself!). The maps are each unique with several moving parts (a few of which are deadly), dynamically shifting color palettes, and their own BGM selections. Music by Daedelus includes tracks that fit the levels’ varying moods, from chill, synth-led ensembles to hyperactive breakbeat, and sound effects are short and sharp… except for a character’s occasional dying cry.
So what does Nidhogg set out to achieve? One can expect visceral, dynamic dueling at speeds never made possible in such a brutal arena, with single-player, local multiplayer and online multiplayer modes. I feel compelled to mention that, while playing online is very doable, it’s nowhere near as fun as stabbing your best friends in the face – as long as you can keep the stabbing in-game – and because the maximum number of concurrent players is two, a tournament mode allows for a total of eight players to join in on the carnage.
Nidhogg landed in our category for great indie games, but fell shy of the ‘Amazing’ tier because it lacks story-driven content and its difficulty may turn away gamers looking for no more than a bit of mild, friendly competition. All in all, though, indie gamers who enjoy fierce, solid dueling would regret not getting their hands on Nidhogg. As long as competition exists among us, strong titles like this will inspire countless hours of blood-pumping rivalry.