Arena games seem to be a popular genre among indie studios these days. With titles like Samurai Gunn and Towerfall popping up and getting tons of buzz, the trippy looking Nidhogg has probably flown past more than a few radars.
But Nidhogg doesn’t only sport a unique visual style — it also has an interesting mechanic that centers around a deadly game of tug of war. It’s also one of the best competitive games on Steam right now.
Nidhogg is basically a fighting game centered around fencing, but even then that’s selling it short. Players will start off at both ends of a 2D plane, tasked with getting to the opposite side through a series of different screens and doors. Every time someone scores a kill, they earn the “right” to move towards their endgame, while the slain player plays defense. When that player earns their revenge, the cycle repeats until someone reaches the goal. It’s part combat, part platformer, and it’s glorious. For your troubles, you’ll get eaten by a serpent named after the game’s moniker, and start it all over again. It’s crazy, but that’s how Nidhogg rolls.
It’s just a game of tug of war, but a rock paper scissors affair as well. Through directional stabs of the low, middle, and high variety, you’ll have the opportunity to clash or stab your opponent at any moment with a one-hit kill strike. It isn’t random however, as you’ll have to carefully watch your opponent and judge their stance accordingly — which is all part of the tension. It would get old if all the game consisted of was multi-directional stabs, but there’s plenty of wildcards to mix things up and take it to the next level.
Players can not only jump kick their opponent to knock them down and rip out their heart, they can also throw their blade, and do a heroic roll-grab-and-stab move. When you mix all these up and put them in a blender, every game ends up playing out differently, which is part of the charm. You’ll often freak out when you’re disarmed and at the mercy of your opponent three screens deep, but if you make the right moves, you’ll be back in the game in no time.
If you’re going at it alone you’ll have the opportunity to face AI opponents in all of the game’s arenas, but it quickly goes tiring after an hour of play. Simply put, playing against a computer isn’t nearly as satisfying as a real opponent, so you’re going to want to spring for some friends if you really want to see what the game has to offer.
Unlike many other games in the same space, Nidhogg features both local and online play. Local is the way to go for obvious reasons (bragging rights and intense situations are only amplified), but there’s also a valid option for those of you who can’t gather up some friends around the fire. There’s friend matching as well as random matchmaking, so you’ll be able to keep yourself busy for quite a while as you slowly master the game’s mechanics.
But there are a few rough edges that hurt the package overall, including a spotty netcode that often has issues finding games. There’s also an issue with the tutorial, which is utterly broken and doesn’t teach you anything beyond how to move back and forth. It’s a bit odd that a game in development this long would have issues like that, but they aren’t a dealbreaker in the slightest — especially if you’re okay with playing locally.
If you’re keen on games that are easy to learn but difficult to master, Nidhogg is for you. The combat system is incredibly fun, and there are so many heart-stopping moments packed into each round that it’s tough to keep count. Once the online issues are fixed, it’ll be a source of constant competition for months to come.
This review is based on a digital copy of Nidhogg for the PC.