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Nidhogg (PC) artwork

Nidhogg (PC) review

"Even the very act of attacking often feels like a gamble."

Nidhogg asset

Fighting games are one of the very few genres that I tend to actively avoid, so I'm unsure as to whether or not Nidhogg even qualifies as one. What I can tell you is that most fighting games absolutely baffle me, whereas I understand Nidhogg perfectly well. It's a one-on-one dueler presented in the most bare-bones of packages, and between its two-button control scheme and 8-bit visual style, it's nothing, neither technologically nor logistically, that couldn't have been done on the NES.

But, as with any game that's simple in nature yet satisfying in practice, Nidhogg's worth is in its ideas. If this is a fighting game, then it's a fighting game with only one attack button, and in which it takes merely a single strike to bring an opponent down. When there's violence in Nidhogg, it happens swiftly and with little complication – one player stabs the other, and the latter player dies. What makes this particular game unique is everything that leads up to each kill: the footwork, the parrying, the acrobatics, the defensive back-and-forth. Developer Messhof's wager is that watching two skilled swordsmen trade blows and play mind games can be just as nerve-wracking as seeing them shed blood, and it pays off.

For as simple as the controls are, there's a surprisingly extensive moveset to familiarize yourself with. For one, you can hold your sword at three different heights. You'll automatically block any blows delivered from the same height, but it takes a moment to switch stances. Killing your opponent is a matter of getting the first strike past a parry, and sometimes it's as simple as being quick on the button – you'll run headfirst toward the other player, swing your sword, and bring him or her down without so much as losing a step.

More often, though, Nidhogg rewards patience and versatile use of the game's additional abilities, as well as a thorough knowledge of when to use them; it's a perfectly balanced fighting system in that everything can be countered by something else, and everything is a risk. A successful dive kick will disarm your enemy, but if the other player has his or her sword positioned high, you'll just wind up with an impaled gut. Throwing your sword can take the enemies surprise – from a distance, no less – but if they deflect it, you'll be left without a weapon until you pick up a new one. Even the very act of attacking often feels like a gamble; since it's so easy to die, much of your time in Nidhogg will be spent trying to psych other players out, tricking them into launching foolish assaults or letting their guards down.

The one other thing that makes Nidhogg's flow unusual is that while it's easy to be killed, dying is only a mild setback. The objective of a match is not necessarily to slay the other player, but to reach the goal line at the end of a perfectly symmetrical side-scrolling level. Nidhogg actually unfolds quite a bit like a sport; there's even a figurative "ball" in the sense that only the player who delivered the last killing strike can advance forward. If you die, you'll respawn a couple dozen meters back, defend and look for an opportunity to go on the offensive. It's actually possible to win a round by slaying a character once and then just jumping over the person repeatedly until you reach the end, if the player is incompetent enough to let you do that.

The AI certainly is, and that's one of the few major complaints that I have against Nidhogg. As a single-player experience, this thing has absolutely no value. The "campaign" essentially consists of several runs through the same four levels against AI-controlled foes who go from being laughably gullible to having robot reflexes in the blink of an eye. While Nidhogg's handful of arenas are reasonably varied – one's got collapsing floors, while another is covered in wheat stalks that deter visibility – the game loses a lot of its appeal when you're not fighting opponents who are unpredictable and can be outthought. Thankfully, Nidhogg supports both online and local multiplayer, so finding human players will never be a problem, providing that the matchmaking isn't getting quirky on you (which it occasionally does).

Having online multiplayer kind of clashes with what I said earlier about how Nidhogg technically could have been released on the NES, but the comment certainly holds true for the very pixelated visual style. As with the mechanics, though, the simplicity of the aesthetic masks disarming depth and charm. The levels are vivid and animated extensively (you could almost say excessively) to look like moving watercolor paintings, while the player characters themselves are represented by bright silhouettes. Adhering to the "less is more" rule, mortal wounds aren't depicted in explicit detail, but the geysers and pools of blood, all vibrantly colored to match the person from which they came, evoke images of horrific violence nonetheless. It's a spectacle, and makes Nidhogg's bursts of straightforward action all the more satisfying.

I'd have perhaps hoped for a more substantial package here, but I'm not sure what else you'd be able to do with a core game that's so narrowly focused on delivering a tense one-on-one competitive experience. A few more levels may not have hurt, but the emphasis with Nidhogg was clearly on mining as much flexibility as possible out of a relatively simple combat engine, and I'll give the game this: every match felt unique, and I was absolutely on the edge on my chair for every single one of them. It's a sharp, fierce, unique multiplayer title with some serious legs. I recommend it.


Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (January 16, 2014)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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If you enjoyed this Nidhogg review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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EmP posted January 16, 2014:

Oh, I see -- started working on sleepy underground indie games, eh? Well, maybe I'll go ahead and review current-gen AAA titles. See how you like that.

Annoyingly, you do a very good job with this. It's always tricky with simplistic games not to over-sell what it does offer in some grandiose effort to fill the game's brevity of options with your own writing, but you don't do that. You don't do that at all, so well done.
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Suskie posted January 16, 2014:

Thanks! That's actually very reassuring to hear since, as you said, this is very much outside of my comfort zone. I'm not even sure if I would have taken this assignment if I'd actually read up on Nidhogg beforehand, but hey, whatever works.

Thanks for reading. Much appreciated. And I would non-jokingly like to see AAA coverage from you, so promptly get on that.
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yx posted June 11, 2015:

I think this Steam game discussion ( complements the review well.

I have to say I am sorry to see that no "professional" review at all, anywhere on the Internet, has mentioned the technical misery, and the abudance of technical issues, that plague the game and render the central online multiplayer experience barely accessible.
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yx posted June 11, 2015:

(See for instance how hard it uses the VGU/VGA and CPU. It's insane, considering this is na 8-bit game under every audivisual regard, and bespeaks a lot of the developer's publisher. As it does that they had discussions were players complained at the game's malfunctioning removed from Steam community, at least in the aftermath of release.)
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yx posted June 11, 2015:

It's also frightening (to me) to read that "images of horrific violence nonetheless. It's a spectacle, and makes Nidhogg's bursts of straightforward action all the more satisfying."

(I apologyze for the triple post, but have no idea whether posts can be deleted/edited, so, sorry)

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