22 Jan 2014 Orion 2
You’ve either heard the buzz, saw the release on Steam, or you’re still in the dark on the odd but elegant Nidhogg. It might not look like it has much going for it – graphically, it’s not even as rich as other low-res pixel-art games like Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery EP. The environments and avatars aren’t enough for promotional materials to grab the eye. Once in motion, however, the game’s speedy action serves to entice, and once you get behind the controls, you’ll find that Nidhogg is a quick and rewarding competitive experience that will hook some players and alienate others.
Nidhogg’s rules are simple. It works like a reversal of tug-of-war, where pulling is replaced with pushing. You are placed in a 2D sidescrolling environment against your online opponent, each of you brandishing a fencing sword. Once you manage to kill your opponent, you are allowed to travel past him, pushing on through to the next screen. After a few seconds, your competitor will respawn in your path, giving him or her an opportunity to push back, and forcing you to attempt another duel or dexterously move past to further your progress.
It feels a lot like the mechanics of most real-life sportsball games, especially American football or ultimate frisbee. It does away with the ball; instead of delivering a football into the endzone or dropping the rock through the hoop, you only need to bring your body past the finish line. Instead of knocking the ball out of your opponent’s control, you knock him to the ground and then quickly strangle them in order to gain the offensive. Or, more frequently, you can simply impale him on your foil.
The actual mechanics of Nidhogg are a delight for dexterous players, as it essentially boils down to fast reactions to your opponent’s moves. You can move your sword to three different heights to thrust at your competitor and parry her jabs at your fragile pixel body. Knowing how the thrusting and blocking works is important, as this can be used to disarm your opponent, giving you a huge advantage. But there are more advanced techniques that can be used in a pinch to gain a surprising upper hand. Jumping is paired with a jump-kick to the head if he doesn’t block it. The opposite movements will give a fast-paced tuck-and-roll to get past him unharmed. A risky but powerful move is to fling your sword at your opponent’s head. Don’t miss, though, because then you’ll be bringing your fists to a sword fight. Once a kill is performed, the winner is able to make as much progress as she can. If she is good at jumping or rolling, she can easily move past her opponent’s respawned avatar, but at this point that opponent can run in the opposite direction to respawn in her path again.
The fast, fiercely competitive gameplay is wonderfully complemented by the environments. Several maps are available for matches, and the aesthetics are surprisingly well-suited for each one. A claustrophobic tunnel map includes one screen that is so tight it doesn’t allow jumping. A duel in the clouds includes trick disappearing blocks, so jumping frequently is necessary to avoid a falling death. My absolute favorite map was a forest-themed environment that included a few sections with tall grass that will hide the duelists from view, only giving quick glances with each movement. Playing this map was honestly the moment that brought the game up from a flavor-of-the-week curiosity to an exciting and addicting experience.
The faults of the game are mostly its sparse graphics, which may be a turn-off. Some interesting choices are made graphically. For example, each kill will mark the ground with something reminiscent of of blood-splatter, except the color is that of your yellow or orange avatar. This paints the arena with the short history of your violent match, giving you a visual reminder of each encounter. The sound is not awful, but it’s not anything memorable, and might even turn people off in the same way the simple graphics might. I feel that animations can save a game with such low-res graphics (I think they helped save Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery EP), but the animations are only as good as they need to be to service the gameplay. With the avatars and even large chunks of the environment only featuring one color, the animations are hard to understand.
Although this type of action is much more fun with a gamepad, a keyboard is actually better if you want to be really good. A large part of the quick-reaction strategy is moving your sword up and down, and one keystroke is much better than hitting the joystick up or down. I preferred the ease and fun of the controller, but if you get really into it, you’ll want to use the arrow keys. Although the Steam page claims it can be controlled completely with a gamepad, I was stuck on the menu unless I put it down and used my mouse and keyboard.
Nidhogg is only a competitive game. It doesn’t need a story or even much of a theme, so it doesn’t really bother with either. A lot of the bells and whistles are surprisingly lacking. A chat window while waiting to start a match has a devastatingly small character limit. The victor of a match is (spoilers) welcomed by a cheering crowd and then eaten by a large, titular, wyrm-dragon for no reason. I’d enjoy it if it embraced either the wtf ridiculousness of the goal screen or the serious epic face-off of the beginning screen, but it doesn’t seem to care much about either one.
Overall, the competition is fun. Despite needing only two buttons and directional input, the moveset is incredibly large and complex enough that this game is as much about strategy as much as it is about dexterity. Thematically and graphically, Nidhogg is understandably lacking. I don’t think it is worth the $15 price tag at all, but it’s sure to find a lower price during the next Steam sale or show up on a Humble Indie Bundle in the future.
RelatedOrion (64 Posts)
Orion grew up playing well-known Nintendo 64 games and cult classic PC strategy gems. He is excited about the potential video games have as a storytelling medium. That said, he really enjoys board games and wants nothing more than some friends who feel the same way. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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