Nidhogg is a pure experience. It’s the kind of game that sets out to do one thing, and it does that one thing exceptionally well. This makes for an excellent game when you’re in the moment, embracing that one exceptional thing, but it also means the game doesn’t have much to offer other than its one very well-executed mechanic.
Nidhogg is best described as a fencing game, save for one important rule change. The basics: Two pixelated fighters face off against each other with swords on a 2D plane. You can step forwards or backwards, lunge in to attack, duck, jump, or divekick down at an angle if you attack in the air. These simple controls are explained in a good tutorial, and the buttons for each movement can be remapped on a controller or keyboard as you see fit. It’s important that you feel comfortable with the controls because Nidhogg is built around split-second decisions. You have to understand the controls as an extension of yourself, so that you act based on split-second predictions rather than spit-second reactions.
Nidhogg is similar in spirit to last year’s Divekick in that it plays like the last five seconds of a fighting game match. All it takes to kill someone is the slightest prick of a sword, so death comes fast, often, and unexpectedly. It’s fast paced to the point where seconds seem like an eternity, and every little flick of a control stick, every single pixel of movement, carries the weight of victory or defeat. It’s an exhausting game, the kind that can’t be played for long periods of time, and your sigh of relief at the end of every match is rewarding regardless of whether you win or lose.
For as much as Nidhogg sells itself on the fencing, fighting is not always necessary. The game throws in a tug-of-war twist in which you fight for “the arrow,” which allows one character to pan the screen while the other fights to stop him. If you have “the arrow” then it’s not actually in your best interest to fight. You should instead find a way around your opponent so you can keep running to your goal, the end screen. If you don’t have “the arrow” then you want to engage your opponent at every opportunity so that you might kill him and earn “the arrow” for yourself.
This arrow introduces a whole other level of strategy to Nidhogg. Victory isn’t just about sword skills, but also knowing when to run, when to go for the kill, and when to cause distraction. It also adds a fun narrative to each fight, as both players push and pull their way across the battlefield. It’s a literal back-and-forth to match the metaphorical back-and-forth of sword fights themselves.
There’s a serviceable single-player mode that pits you against increasingly difficult AI opponents, but multiplayer is the real draw of Nidhogg. The AI can be difficult and challenging, but even the best AI can’t match the excitement of fighting a real human player. Real players have quirks that make them exponentially more fun. For example, one of my online opponents tended to keep his sword held high, so that I would impale myself if I tried to divekick him. Another tended to keep the sword low, preventing me from rolling under and stabbing him from below. These are strategies born from experience, and they give each online player a distinct personality. Victory against a human is as much a matter of learning the player as it is learning the game. You try to get into their head, and they try to get into yours, waging a nerve-wracking two second psychological war before one of you steps forward and stabs the other in the face.
That’s why it’s heartbreaking to see the online community in such a sorry state. Granted, I was always able to find a game, but the number of online players never reached past single digits. Most of the time, there were just two other players online, and I had to sit at the matchmaking screen waiting for one of them to quit so that I would be matched with the only other player. It makes you yearn for more single player content—or at least better AI.
This is the inherent limitation of Nidhogg. It’s a game built for parties, where opponents can be seated side-by-side. Taken out of that context, the game loses much of its charm and excitement. The online multiplayer is a fine consolation, but only for now.
Nidhogg is an excellent sword fighting game and an excellent competitive game. It’s more proof that swordfights are better than gunfights, but also, sadly, that swordfights are less popular than gunfights. I always felt bad quitting an online game, like I was abandoning my opponent to some virtual wasteland—a warrior with no one to fight, a gamer with no one to play. That’s a special kind of hell and one that Nidhogg doesn’t deserve.