Nidhogg can easily be described in one word: extreme. This game does nothing half-way. While some games are embracing retro-style graphics, they only go back as far as the 8-bit era for inspiration. That isn’t nearly extreme enough for Nidhogg which has adopted an art style that is straight out of an Atari or Intellivision game. Now that is retro. And while other games may have some multiplayer features, Nidhogg takes it to the extreme and gives you more ways to play with others than you can count (assuming you can’t count past 12 or so).
But does extreme mean it’s better? Does taking everything beyond the limit help or harm the game? I think it’s a little of both. There are times when the game really shines and is a ball of chaotic fun. Then there are other times when everything falls flat.
Nidhogg is a unique fighting/dueling game that pits two fighters against each other to battle it out until one gets eaten by the titular Nidhogg. Extreme, right? Each fight begins with both players armed with a sword and a limited set of attacking options. You can stab your opponent to death or knock him down with a well placed kick before you rip out his heart. Each death will end with a fountain of pixelated blood that saturates the ground. Whichever fighter killed last gets the right away to sprint to his finish line. Once you’ve reached the end of the screen, you are ceremoniously gobbled up by a giant flying worm. You win!
The strategy involved comes in trying to out-think your opponent when you’re squaring off. You have a number of choices even if your range of attacks are few. You have the options to knock your opponent’s sword out of his hand to gain the advantage. You can hurl your sword at him in desperation. Or you can sometimes choose to just ignore him (if you have the right away) and sprint past him to your goal.
Since the goal is to get to your finish line, the dynamics of the game change from what you find in most fighting games. You can kill your opponent 100 times, and that doesn’t mean you’ll win. It’s possible to finish a match with only one kill. The strategy to jump over your opponent and keep running if perfectly viable. Or sometimes if you find your opponent sprinting to their goal and you can’t catch up, it’s actually better to commit suicide so that you will respawn ahead of him, blocking his patch. These tactics would make no sense in most fighters, but they are necessary in Nidhogg.
The game features a number of different modes. There is a single player campaign, but it is extremely limited. You fight a series of 16 different colored opponents across four different locations. It’s not very challenging and is over in about 20 minutes. There’s also no option for customization. You will always be a yellow fighter moving from left to right which makes repeat play somewhat limited.
But where the game really shines is in the multiplayer. As I mentioned, Nidhogg gives you numerous ways to play against other people. The game is cross-buy and cross-play with the PS4, so you can play against players online who may be playing it on any system. It also works with the new PS TV, so you can have Vita vs PS TV matches. The Vita features an ad-hoc mode to let you play against other opponents locally. The PS4, and surprisingly the PS TV, allow you to play with two controllers on the same screen.
Perhaps the most surprising features is that there is also the ability to play a two-player match locally on one Vita. One player will use the left stick to move and the D-pad to fight while the other player uses the right stick and the face buttons. It’s an awkward and crowded way to play, but it’s perhaps the most fun. It adds an extra layer or complexity to the game that is both silly and challenging.
Multiplayer also gives you several variants to change in order to customize the match. You can create a tournament to play with up to eight players or you can play a straight one-on-one fight with a friend. There is also the ability to change the customize each fight by changing the variants. You can choose whether to use swords or not. You can make a time limit for the match or set a certain number of kills to determine the victor. Or, and possibly the strangest variant, you can choose to enable “Baby mode” which forces you and your opponent to fight the entire match while crawling.
Probably the biggest thing to take away from this game is that it is intended to be a local multiplayer game. Under those conditions, it shines. It’s all the right kinds of crazy with it’s frantic pacing and absurd levels of death. To play it next to somebody and hear their reactions as you play is top notch fun.
Where it falls flat though is most everywhere else. The single-player campaign is too short, too easy, and too dull to be much fun. The AI often makes poor decisions and will stand around, waiting to fight instead of trying to win. The online play is a blast so long as you are talking to the person you are fighting. Random online meet ups are possible but lack the excitement of a local game. I found those random games a little disappointing because I spent a long time waiting to connect to someone and then the fight is over in a matter of minutes (or less). When the match is over, regardless if I won or lost, I found myself feeling completely unsatisfied. It just abruptly ends and asks if I want to find another match.
The controls for Nidhogg are fairly tight and pretty responsive. I did notice that when I played online it felt as though there was a bit more latency that changed things just a bit. It wasn’t bad, but it was noticeable. Thankfully the control scheme is very simple and there is the option to remap the buttons if you’re not happy with the default layout.
The presentation is also a bit of an anomaly. The graphics are such a throw back that they’re somewhat clunky and ugly, but yet I have such nostalgia for that era that I find them charming. The art is simple and sometimes it’s amazing how much they do with so little. Older gaming systems were limited in how many objects on the screen could change at one time, but that is no longer an issue here. So it’s shocking to see a screen with crawling worms, flickering torches, and fighting swordsmen all moving at the same time.
The music is composed by the artist Daedelus and provides a haunting atmosphere throughout the game. It creates an air of foreboding which stands in contrast to the zany concept of the game. It works really well to add a layer of seriousness and provides a unique tone to the game. As for the rest of the sound effects, they’re pretty limited but enjoyable as well. My personal favorite is the dying scream of a fighter after he’s been stabbed through the heart (that really makes me sound sadistic, but I’m not. I swear).
So I’m left feeling mixed about Nidhogg. As a local multiplayer game it provides a good level of fun and is great to play. Matches can be customized in so many ways to make things fresh, but at the same time you’re limited to only four different locations in which to fight. It can get a little repetitive after awhile. Then there’s the single player mode which is lacking in so many ways that it gets stale very quickly.
If you’re looking for a great local multiplayer game, then you’re going to have fun with Nidhogg. However, if you want a great single-player experience, then there is little here for you to enjoy.