Nidhogg review: En Garde!

Combat has become so brutish. Fighting with fists or guns is so uncivilized. Nidhogg understands what it means to settle disputes in gentlemanly fashion: by running each other through with swords until someone bleeds out pixels. That's the idea in Messhof's arcade-style competitive fencing platformer. Despite some technical hiccups, the concept proves fiendishly clever and amazingly fun.

Games begin with two players in the center of an arena, decorated with unapologetically retro Atari 2600-style graphics. The idea is to go on the offensive by killing off your opponent and running all the way to the other side of the arena, where a giant flying worm will swallow you victoriously.

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Nidhogg sessions involve a lot of fun back-and-forth. Players must switch stances on the fly, leading to intense showdowns. Once an opponent is dispatched, the game turns into a game of cat-and-mouse, as the defensive player must scramble to catch the opponent before he can run off. Players must exercise different strategies, like knowing when to scroll yourself away in order to respawn in front of the offensive player. All of the action is fast-paced, yet each round can last a fair amount of time.

I found a major issue with Training mode, as a bug would kick me out to the main menu almost immediately. That'll likely be an early impediment to new players, but learning on-the-go by jumping into single-player turns out to be fairly simple. The single-player mode is a good way to learn, though it turns out to run a bit longer than necessary and you'll quickly find yourself repeating stages against the same AI opponents.

The area where Nidhogg shines is local multiplayer. Grabbing a friend and an extra gamepad can lead to some dynamite matches, often accompanied by a healthy amount of trash talk. Strategically-placed pits, well-positioned doors, and random moves like the sword toss lead to some good laughs and the aforementioned momentum swings really brings out the competitive fire in two buddies. There's even the potential for party play, with a Tournament option available for more than two people.

Nidhogg's fun is somewhat tempered by a number of technical issues. The game menu system is about as crude as the rest of the game and navigating any of them can be a bit cumbersome. The online lobby feels particularly unfriendly, especially when a game hangs while trying to find an opponent. One other thing that stands out to me is that the game doesn't have any resolution options to speak of. This is the type of game that I'd love to be able to multitask with, but there's no chance to play it in windowed mode at all. It's not a horrible omission, but an odd one that I felt was worth mentioning.

The more bothersome issues involve online multiplayer. Just as with the rest of the menus, the lobby is bare bones and finding a public match can be an excruciatingly long process. Worse yet, online play suffers from severe lag issues. Given how timing-sensitive Nidhogg is, lag really hurts the overall expereince. I often found myself rubber-banding from a jump to suddenly hanging precariously off a cliff. Or I would toss my sword, only to find it right back in my hand a second later. While the game was playable, it wasn't nearly as fun.

Nidhogg is a simple and enjoyable package, only marred by an unstable netcode, a limited stage selection, and all-too-simple options. Messhof's latest is a good way to get the competitive juices flowing and the retro aesthetic is a novelty in a multiplayer world dominated by Unreal Engine-built games. It's a simple formula that's executed as well as a poker through a pixelized abdomen. [7]


This review is based on a PC copy purchased by the reviewer. Nidhogg is now available digitally for PC for $14.99. The game is unrated.