Nidhogg is best described as a game where you fight for the right to be eaten by a giant, hideous worm-like monster. Why anyone would risk their lives for such a fate befuddles me. But the process of getting there is so damn tense and exciting that the conclusion hardly matters. It’s the thrill of battle, crossing swords in a seemingly never ending struggle, outwitting your opponent through whatever means necessary that’s important. And it’s glorious.
The premise is simple: it’s a one-on-one sword-fighting game where your goal is to push to the end of the right side of the level (or the left if you’re player two), doing whatever you can to slay or avoid your opponent all the while. You each have a handful of moves that range from simply thrusting your rapier or throwing it to acrobatics like cartwheels, summersaults, and even divekicks. A strike from the sword is an instant kill, whereas melee attacks merely stun or knock the other player down, at which point you can proceed to end them by ripping their spine out. Brutal stuff. Even in spite of its bare aesthetics, it still feels graphic and raw, in large part of the massive pools of pixel blood that erupts from a fallen opponent and the bloodstains that quickly soil the ground.
This goes on and on, your character respawning in seconds, until either of you pass the final screen of the level. Then it’s a simple matter of walking toward the edge and being devoured by the aforementioned worm. Getting there, however, seldom comes easy. Each of the game’s four maps are littered with choke points and other devious obstacles (tall grass in the wilds that conceals you should you remain stationary, for instance, or corridors in the mines where you can’t jump or throw your sword) to help prevent simply jumping over your opponent and running for the exit a go-to strategy; assuming your opponent uses the environment intelligently, that is. They’re all symmetrically designed, ensuring no one part of the level is easier to exploit than the other.
Fast as Nidhogg is, however, there’s a very calculated, methodical undercurrent to it. Just running up and stabbing people only gets you so far. To truly excel, you have to master the game of wits, to learn how to mislead and outsmart your opponent to gain the upper hand. A good portion of each match is spent merely staring each other down, waiting for an opening to present itself as you cautiously move back and forth trying to coax the other player into attempting a strike to ideally create an opening. Whether to try a stab, disarm, or jumping over them to attack from behind is up to you. This all occurs at lightning fast speeds, though, so you have to think on your feet quickly.
Online, this all works well most of the time. Latency is clearly present, but it doesn’t cause too much disruption. The worst it’s ever been for me is when it overrides a kill I made with that of my opponent, which is extremely jarring. Seems like a case of the host having the advantage when it comes to lag. Even then, it hasn’t happened often. The game’s still very much playable, which is quite the achievement given the importance on smooth play. Only, it doesn’t seem like there’s many people online, so unless you’ve got friends, the odds of finding an opponent through matchmaking is slim. Luckily Nidhogg also offers a basic but enjoyable single-player mode. Here, you fight through a ladder of 12 opponents, each increasingly harder and more aggressive than the last. The AI’s no replacement for a human player, but it puts up a strong fight all the same, serving as a fine place to hone your skills if nothing else.
Nidhogg distills sword-fighting down to its purest form. It captures the thrills, the elegance, and the brutality of the art and turns it into a supremely fun, incredibly deep game. Even though the focus lies on multiplayer, the simple single-player mode imparts plenty of hours of enjoyment, the AI providing a more than ample challenge for whenever human opponents can’t be found. For such a simple fighting game, Nidhogg more than delivers.