Nidhogg has always been a mysterious turbo-indie game that only the cool kids could play at secret underground events in the 13th hour (NO, I WASN’T JEALOUS). Anyway, we plebeians finally have a chance to own and play the game whenever we want! Even online!
It’s easy to see why Nidhogg has always been regarded as a game that you simply must play if given the chance, but that isn’t to say that it’s official release isn’t without some rough edges.
Indie rough edges.
Release Date: January 13, 2014
Nidhogg is a virtual sport. Not an eSport or any of that hullabaloo, but a sport with rules, competitors, and virtual spectators. Each Nidhogg match starts the same way: both competitors enter the arena, armed with fencing swords. The object is to kill your enemy, get “The Arrow,” and proceed past the various screens towards the end.
To explain that last part a bit, a player that scores a first kill gets “The Arrow,” which tells the player to run a certain direction. That player must follow that path to the end of the screen, which moves the fight to the next screen. The opponent, meanwhile, is trying to kill that player in order to get The Arrow on their side and go towards their side of the screen. The first player to make it to the last screen, wins. That probably sounds a lot more complicated than it is (it's tug of war, basically).
Fencing is as intense as it gets. The player can move the sword up and down before thrusting, throw the sword at the enemy, disarm the enemy, jump, divekick, duck, duck-jump, punch (when unarmed), sweep the leg, and rip out a downed enemy’s still-beating heart. Sword positioning and player positioning are key, as a single misstep can lead to a good stabbing. The moments when it looks like nothing is really going on is when the game is its most suspenseful; a small step here, an empty jump there, a roll and STAB! He’s off to the races!
However, death is not the end in Nidhogg. As long as the opponent still has distance to travel, the player will continuously respawn in front of them, sword in hand. Just knowing this fact helps to even the playing field, however. Sure, it’s another hurdle to get through, but a well-timed sword throw will put your newly-respawned opponent in a defensive position immediately. Or perhaps you’ll wait before a level hazard and have them spawn near a disappearing platform. The more conniving the strategy, the better.
The full release of Nidhogg comes with more modes than simply local two-player versus. Players can play the turorial, play against a series of AI opponents in singleplayer, host a local tournament, or go online to play against friends or play matchmaking.
At least, in theory.
The tutorial no longer works. I say no longer because when playing the game a day before release, I managed to play the tutorial just fine. However today, that has changed. The tutorial can no longer advance past the first step, moving left and right. This will likely be patched soon, which is great news because Nidhogg is fairly complex and the tutorial does a splendid job of introducing the various mechanics at play.
Inviting friends is evidently a gamble. I was able to invite a friend just fine, but when he clicked on my name to invite me, the invite went to someone else completely. Matchmaking is also hit-or-miss, sometimes connecting to another player and other times finding no one, claiming no one is online. While in the pre-match lobby, we also had seemingly random disconnects. The best advice I can give is not to alt-tab or use the Steam overlay while in a lobby, as it may cause a disconnect. Chatting in the lobby is also unexpectedly horrendous, as a single line can only hold approximately 20 characters before the player must hit send, and the font makes all H’s, M’s, N’s and W’s look the same. It’s best not to chat much.
The netcode while playing online is also hit-or-miss, unless you’re the host. When not the host, you can expect some slight lag or an “underwater” feeling as inputs register just late enough to make it noticeable. There have been times that I have stabbed an opponent on my screen, only to see myself dead a second later and my opponent running off towards the exit. It’s more annoying than in some other games, as precision is all that stands between you and sweet victory in Nidhogg, and lag renders precision meaningless.
Though many would argue, myself included, that Nidhogg is a game for the couch. A game best played next to someone so that your victory dance is all the sweeter. With no lag and no random lobby disconnects, local multiplayer is the true star of Nidhogg and is easily the best way to play. Grab two controllers and simply go at it. The controls are simple enough to explain to anyone, and its’ amazing to see the type of strategies that evolve from two people who know how the other one thinks. There’s even some game variants to be played with, like disabling swords or forcing players to always crouch, if you want to get silly.
Playing against the AI is a decent way to get used to the game, but that’s about all it will amount to. The AI, like most fighting game AI, is easily exploited in certain situations. Sometimes the AI will perform an incredible 5-input move that could probably only be done with computer-esque precision, and later it will stand on a disappearing platform and wait for death. It just isn't as satisfactory to play against robots.
There are four levels, and each is completely unique. That may seem like an inadequate number, but they’re so varied and contain so many possibilities on each screen that it’s hardly noticeable. My only concern is the first screen of the Clouds level, which makes it nigh-impossible to actually see your characters, especially for us colorblind players. It’s easy to lose your on-screen avatar or an airborne sword, but feels cheap rather than interesting.
The game’s music and animation are the true stars of Nidhogg’s aesthetic. Seeing these single-color pixelated characters move so fluidly makes them come to life despite a lack of any real defining art. It makes them feel real in a very virtual world. The music, courtesy of Daedelus, dynamically shifts around the action and is a perfect fit for the game. I only wish I had the time to enjoy it before I get impaled through the groin.
Nidhogg is a perfect game wrapped in a not-so-perfect package. When playing locally against another human, it is the epitome of competition. Playing online is a mixed bag of lag, disconnects, and a weird chat system. Hopefully some of the bugs get ironed out over time, especially whatever stopped the tutorial from functioning, to make everything more functional as a whole.
Regardless of all that, Nidhogg stands as one of the true kings of competitive gameplay, and that doesn't need to be patched one bit.