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Nidhogg - Review
To a first time player, Nidhogg is likely to look like a pretty simplistic game. More importantly, it's likely to look like a simplistic game from the early 80s, with its flat textures and player characters painted in bold primary colours. Once you take hold of the gamepad (or keyboard, for those wanting an extra challenge), all of those initial assumptions vanish.
At its heart Nidhogg is a game of risk versus reward. Playing it safe might keep you alive longer, but what if you'd gone for that daring attack three minutes early? You might have won the match right now. Playing as a small fencer, the game works essentially as a beat-'em up, albeit one that replaces martial arts with sword fighting. The goal is not only to beat your opponent but make it across several screens until you reach the end, where you'll be promptly eaten by a giant worm-dragon; or for those more mythology-savvy amongst you, Niohoggr.
Your moves are simple and easy to remember, this isn't a game of memorisation, but one of precision; a minimalist take on the fighting genre. Your sword can be moved to three different heights: high, middle and low, which determine where you'll strike your opponent. Obviously, at the same time, having your sword held high leaves you vulnerable to low attacks, so naturally the aim of the game is to psych-out the opponent whilst attempting to keep yourself safe. Think of it like a high speed version of rock, paper, scissors.
Those aren't the only tools at your disposal however, perhaps the prime example of the game's risk/reward system is the ability to throw your sword, the game's only long range attack. Doing so may catch your opponent off guard, but if they successfully deflect it you're now left unarmed and easy pickings for your opponent. Similarly, a diagonal dive kick can send the opponent sprawling onto the floor, but misjudge the distance even slightly and you're likely to have a sword right in your face. On top of all this is the ability to knock the opponent's sword out of their hands, with a well timed change in sword stance. It's possibly the most difficult move to master but rewards more better skilled players with an effective defensive manoeuvre.
If developer Messhof had simply left it at that you'd have had a interesting fighting system, but what makes Nidhogg click is the environments. Each of the game's four levels might appear simple on a graphical level, yet they add more elements to the fighting puzzle. One of the best is a patch of tall grass which renders only your characters head visible. Perfect for going for a low strike where your opponent cannot see. Meanwhile, the game's pits make for an interesting stalemate, when each player is on the opposite side of chasm. Jump and you risk being caught with a swift sword throw. You can't help but laugh when all the frenetic sword-fighting draws to a halt and each player eyes the other up in a samurai-style showdown. The person who blinks first definitely loses.
There's no denying the surprising level of depth in Nidhogg, the problem remains how long it will keep your attention. The single player, which pits you against progressively tougher A.I., can be beaten in under half an hour with reasonable skill. The first few fights in particular can be a breeze since the computer simply won't punish you for making a bee-line for the next screen, bypassing a bunch of fights in the process.
This leaves the multiplayer which is the beating heart of Nidhogg; nothing in the single player comes close to the mind games that go on when two real players face each other. There's still the issue of when the game starts to feel repetitive. The obvious solution to the this would be to include additional modes/perks to add another layer of strategy, and there are a few options that can be tweaked in the menus. At the same time though, these risk diluting the unique minimalist approach that Nidhogg takes, resulting in a game that you can appreciate for its design but one that becomes not all that interesting to play after a while.
Just like rock, paper, scissors, Nidhogg is the kind of game that's fun to play in very small doses. Play for long enough though and the familiarity can begin to grate. With only four different levels, it all starts to look the same. What Nidhogg needs is its rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock.
Nidhogg was released on January 13th for PC.
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