Nidhogg desperately needs a “record that” function.
Long in development from developer Messhof, the combination fighting/football/volleyball game has its share of moments that leave mouths agape, but the total package is lacking in an unfortunate way.
Nidhogg is, on its face, a two-player dueling sword-fighting game, in the spirit of the classic Bushido Blade remixed through a modern indie style. Nidhogg is reminiscent of contemporaries Towerfall and Samurai Gunn, but while those games focus on the pure combat experience, Nidhogg is more than that. Unfortunately, the specific rule-set of the game isn’t really spelled out due to the currently-broken state of the tutorial. It can, however, be discovered with some trial and error.
I’ll make it easy for you: the ultimate goal of any Nidhogg match is to run right through multiple screens until you reach a giant worm that then devours you (don’t ask). The only problem is that there’s an opponent preventing you from advancing. In order to move on you have to get past your opponent by either killing them via sword or with your bare hands, or by out maneuvering them through the game’s 4 environments.
However, you can only advance after killing your opponent (there’s an indicator in the top left which points toward you while you’re on “defense” or away from you while you’re on “offense”), which is the impetus behind the most thrilling moments of Nidhogg. Making a break for the next screen, only to be killed by a thrown sword at the last possible second, losing your progress and any advantage you had is genuinely exciting and something worth hollering over.
Matches have an intense give and take, with many decisions having to be made on-the-fly by each player. For example, after killing your opponent there is a slight opening before they spawn again, typically at the far edge of the screen. Timing this respawn is critical to a match, as leaving too late can cause you to be defenseless as you run right into the sword of your opponent.
Timing in general is critical in Nidhogg. When you’re not trying to outmaneuver each other, the one-on-one battles are intense exercises in deception and reflexes. At any point, you can place your character in one of 5 poses: low, middle, high, throw, and crouch. The lower sword typically wins any direct exchange, but is susceptible to thrown swords and jumping attacks. Direct encounters in Nidhogg are long, still periods of inaction and sword adjustment, followed by decisive action that results in a quick death. Occasionally, sequences between skilled players can play out in a multi-move ballet that is as exhilarating to see as it is to accomplish.
That’s the thing. Nidhogg is designed to be seen as much as it’s designed to be played, despite its aesthetic, which is rough even though it sports a striking color palette. However, in a home environment, especially for the solo player, there just isn’t much to do. Sure, there’s a singleplayer mode that serves as a good replacement tutorial-by-fire, but it’s short and designed for speedruns. The environments aren’t varied enough to keep this mode interesting, especially considering the inconsistent AI, which is as likely to not recognize that it’s on a moving platform (thereby willingly falling to its death) as it is to perfectly-time a sword throw at you.
The online multiplayer suite doesn’t help much, either. The netcode has serious flaws, including a decided host-advantage and a tendency to report back far fewer players than are actually available to match with, the chat window doesn’t wrap words and has a hard character limit, and the font choice makes certain letters look the same.
What is here then is obviously made to be played locally or at some type of event, with these other aspects shoe-horned in, which is fine for people who have access to independent game events or a group of friends who might find something like Nidhogg worthwhile. It offers decent controller support (although, not supporting the Xbox 360’s D-pad is unfathomable), and it does support Steam’s Big Picture Mode with little trouble, so tournaments via the game’s built-in tournament mode could be exciting and fun, but there’s not much meat on Nidhogg for anybody else. It’s a commitment that just doesn’t make sense for many potential consumers.
Go to PAX on either coast (or Australia!) and you’ll probably find a group of people there waiting to have a blast playing Nidhogg with you. In any other situation, it’s not really a strong recommendation.