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Review: Nidhogg is Brutal, Glorious Swordfighting

You spawn, a yellow or blue figure with a white stick. The level is a rough approximation of a dungeon, your Atari 2600 days inform you as much. Your opponent spawns on the same screen, opposite side. Something immediately tells you that you are enemies. You inch towards each other, maybe ducking, maybe trying to sweep their legs. Inching closer and closer until there’s a sharp metallic clang. Your swords parry each other, a clumsy ballet, until one of you figures out that if you move your sword down or under your opponent’s, you can disarm them. Their sword flies helplessly away as the two warriors scramble for control.

Then there’s panic. And stabbing. And swearing. And lots of digital blood sprayed across the 5 screens you’re desperately fighting to control. And also great chiptune music by Daedelus. There’s only one stated objective, a pointing arrow that appears after each brief victory: go. After you’ve savored your moment of victory, and to the sound of applause, the end of each level involves you jumping into the jaws of the titular Nidhogg, a disturbingly phallic worm that devours you whole. Then the next match starts.

I am victorious.

Nidhogg is a game about frantic confusion and constant action, the same addictive pace that makes a Call of Duty match go far into the night, or the “just one more turn” obsessiveness of Civilization jacked up to a feverish pace. Made by a single developer named Mark “Messhof” Essen over four years, it’s the most inventive and violent version of Tug of War ever created, with each player attempting to head five screens in their respective direction. It’s a constant battle with a match lasting mere minutes of palm sweating terror. The white-knuckle nature of the swordfighting comes from a bare-bones tutorial, intuitive controls, and an immediate sense of feedback as to how you are doing. The same technique doesn’t work all the time. You need to strategize, predict, and attack with precision.

Mistakes are costly. I laughed out loud when I discovered a new technique, the duck-roll-and-stab, executed when you’re sprinting, press down to roll forwards, and slam on the X button at just the right moment to drive your rapier into your enemy’s guts. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, fueling the “success by failure” motif. My opponent’s screams of agony are sweet and delicious to me like love is sweet.

The moment this game steps out from being a fun curiosity to a genuine delight is the “couch tournament.” For all the crap I give Nintendo for their recent sins, they certainly knew how to craft a way for friends to love to hate each other playing games together. There’s no points or trophies, just a simple bracketed ladder where the losers sits and sulks. Nidhogg seeks to revive the drunken screaming and joy that accompanied Goldeneye, Power Stone, and Mortal Kombat 2. My main complaint is the high asking price for something that’s truly fascinating, but not a burning deal for $15, unless you’re looking to establish drunken cash tournaments to recoup. You can play the singleplayer campaign or online, but that feels cold and uninteresting, and won’t have the same raw intensity as trash-talking your buddies/gal pals when you land that perfect divekick and as they lay helpless on the ground, and you scoot over to rip out their still-beating heart. Good times await.

Welcome to Nidhogg, available now on Steam for $14.99.

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The Author

Carl Wilhoyte

Carl Wilhoyte

Carl Wilhoyte is the Video Games Editor of a class warrior poet who writes about all things video games. He's sure everything is not under control and is not going to be okay. For a good time, follow his angry rants and smart thoughts on Twitter: @carlwilhoyte.