Messhof's Nidhogg is a game that combines gameplay as finely tuned as any triple-A title's with a stylish retro art style and a short but catchy soundtrack. The gameplay is easy to learn but difficult to master, but the lack of map variety hurts its replayability in the long run. However, as a party game, Nidhogg is hard to beat with its lively, competitive, gameplay and fun variants on a simple formula.
There is no story as such, but some might argue that would detract from the purity of the gameplay; I like its semblance of one, however slight. In the guise of a medieval tournament, two fighters kill each other repeatedly using epées, a type of fencing sword, and then are eaten by the eponymous Nidhogg. In Norse mythology the Nidhogg was a large dragon that ate the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasill. In the game, it is a large pink snake. Its inclusion seems like a deliberate non sequitur to highlight the game's lack of emphasis on story. The two fencers are fighting in order to sacrifice themselves to the Nidhogg and that is all you find out.
Although it is largely possible to jump into the game without a tutorial, the game does supply a simple one to explain the workings of the basic mechanics and the controls. The options section of the main menu contains the standard music and SFX controls, but a glaring omission was the lack of an option to change the player character's colour. Although it sounds like a minor niggle, the overall lack of customisation beyond the controls means that it is harder to form a bond towards the game. Iconic as yellow is, most people have other favourites. Saving was unlikely the issue because control changes are carried on between sessions.
The game only has one single player component beyond the tutorial, where you face off against various AI opponents of varying styles and tactics on all of the maps. The multiplayer is more developed, with a tournament mode designed for groups and a standard multiplayer mode that also supports online play. In addition, there are various permutations on the standard gameplay that allow players to experiment with, say, super-speed, boomerang swords, and glowing, epileptic trails coming off their characters. Players can also choose to play any of the four maps in the game.
Gameplay on the single player mode is a good way of learning various tactics, but the AI quickly becomes predictable, if quick-witted, so finding some real friends to play with is advisable. Humans possess a much more exciting, if erratic, play style that makes them more challenging to face off against. The AI also cannot swear when you kill them. When in person, the tension of rivalry is palpable. It also helps that games of Nidhogg can be finished in as little as two minutes or, for skilled players, well over fifteen: enough for a quick game in a coffee break.
Nidhogg is a game of cat and mouse, where the mouse and cat can swap in a moment. What starts as a duel quickly becomes a race when one player gets first blood. They are then pointed with a large arrow towards the exit of that stage of the level and have to escape, all while attempting to avoid being killed by the opposing player, who constantly respawns in their path. Every time a kill is scored, that player then goes on or continues his advancement. It is frenetic.
Unlike with many other fighting games, the gameplay in Nidhogg does not require casual gamers to memorise the contents of the instruction booklet under the covers at night to have a chance of victory. Aside from WASD to control movement and stance height, the only other buttons are F and G, which are used to jump and attack. The concept of stance height is important in Nidhogg: high allows you to block aerial attacks, while low means that you are safe against rolling, but you can react more quickly in the centre. There is also the ability to disarm your opponent with a well-timed flick. By combining the six buttons in predictable ways Nidhogg presents an accessible but challenging game, fraught with depth. Movement comes through rolling, cartwheeling, jumping, running, walking, and jump kicking. Each has its own advantage. Learning how to adapt your tactics and predict the moves of your opponents is key to victory.
Although there are only four maps, each is simple but satisfactorily varied: Clouds has falling walkways and a pale art style that allows you to blend in; Wilds has grass to hide in, and platforms to hop over. Each has enough flat ground to allow for dueling, but enough variety for repetition and sneaky tactics. However, while they are certainly enough for playing on, you can still play each of them once in a fifteen minute session which means that you are left feeling that you have already finished the game in that time. The fact of the matter is that aside from AI considerations, it would not be difficult to create more maps, beyond requiring more music and artwork. Indeed, a simple level editor could have worked here for creating multiplayer-only maps.
The art style of Nidhogg is decidedly retro, with bold colours and a pixelated design. For some people, this reliance from Indies on appealing to nostalgia through stylised games is an example of laziness, but here it suits the mood. If you do not go for a brutal representation of the mediaeval landscape, a stylised version is the best option. For Nidhogg, which does not take its world too seriously, the stylised route is best. Many of the maps are beautiful, and they are all crammed with life: from the swinging chandelier of Castle to the cascading waterfalls in Wilds. This contrasts with the cheery, bright blood that seeps through the ground throughout the game as kills rack up. Persistent scarring is only carried on while you are in that stage: move to a different room and it all disappears. It is still an exciting and cool feature when it shows, and one that more games should take advantage of.
The music of the game is composed by Daedelus, a Los Angeles based producer who has been working since the early 2000s. Although there are only four tracks, one for each level, each is satisfyingly unique and long, with Clouds and Mines being favourites. As you play, and go on your streaks and pushes, the game will adjust its music accordingly to give you an extra push, or your opponent. Moreover, the game includes the soundtrack for free, so there is no reason not to give it some of your time.
To wrap up, Messhof has created a very enjoyable and competitive game and still in the process also made it easy to appreciate and get into. With stylish art and good music, the game is pleasant and happy-go-lucky. What it lacks in variety for the single player and customisation it makes up for with an excellent multiplayer experience. However, its lack of variety could be its downfall, because with only four maps the game is not suited to extended gameplay sessions.