Kali Ma Shakti de.
In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an evil cult carries out human sacrifice. Indy and company stumble upon the ancient ceremony just as obvious-bad-guy Mola Ram pulls the still-beating heart out of a man's chest. To this day I've never forgotten that ceremony. The chanting, the pulsing spirituality, the violence—it all adds up to a shocking moment of gore. Now, another ceremony offers the opportunity to rip the heart out of your opponent's chest, and somehow it's managed to match the trance-like horror I felt watching Temple of Doom as a child.
Nidhogg pits two players against each other in a brutal grind to what I can only call sweet release, or death by flying worm ingestion. In creating a competitive ceremony best shared by two people looking at the same screen complete with trash talk and thrown elbows, developer Messhof has captured the kind of sensory shock normally reserved for passive entertainment and made it into a white-knuckled sport.
When you start a new game in Nidhogg, you and another combatant have nothing more than a fencing sword in-hand and the cold ground underneath your feet. You can move backwards and forwards, jump over your opponent, or do what comes naturally and stab the enemy straight in the face. Each can raise and lower their swords in order to block an attack, but you can also swat your opponent's sword away and jump-kick him or her to the ground.
Knocking the enemy down is the only way to tear out your opponent's heart, and as awesome as that feels, surviving combatants should be more focused on running forward towards their own end-zone for the win. See, the enemy respawns within seconds of death, meaning a win isn't a win until you've thoroughly bested the opposition. This constant tug of war might ultimately satisfy more than any first-person shooter or head-to-head sports simulation.
Nidhogg's rules and the abilities you have at your disposal are clearly communicated, extremely easy to learn, and always entertaining to explore. With every screen creating a fresh conflict between two players, you'll get repeated chances to try the move you couldn't pull off in the last battle. It's not as simple as a fighting game where you whittle health down until you've earned two KOs and a jubilant shout from the announcer.
Instead, Messhof fills screens with pulsing colors, a kick-ass electronic soundtrack, and enough variety to keep you on your toes. Designing the overall layout with symmetry and ensuring that even victorious combatants have some distance to run to the next screen means there's always another opportunity to use your opponent's momentum against him or her.
Push aggressively and you might find yourself spurting pixelated and neon blood, but respawn and react in time and you can still catch your opponent with a thrown sword. Nidhogg offers up countless clutch plays in an exhilarating war between left and right. Bumping shoulders with your opponent or talking trash on your way to the top of a tournament ladder makes these moments some of the best gaming you can find anywhere.
Unfortunately, not every aspect of Nidhogg's transcendent competition is capitalized on in its current release. The net code struggles to keep up with the gameplay's furiously fevered level of engagement, resulting in experience-breaking lag at times. Further, PC gamers without a controller featuring a solid D-pad and face buttons might be left wanting. I didn't like playing with the wired Xbox 360 controller's chubby directional pad and the analog stick felt unsatisfying too.
Years ago, Nidhogg appeared in GDC’s indie area with little explanation, two NES controllers, and a pretty big crowd around it. The air of competition and showmanship was thick and ultimately it was the best environment for a first grasp at the game. At home, by yourself, you’ll miss a lot of the grandstanding that makes Nidhogg so competitive. Sure, you might want to gloat over the corpse of a fallen enemy, but the experience certainly feels less alive without an arcade-like atmosphere around it.
If there weren’t dozens of others chanting Kali Ma in the Temple of Doom, would the image remain so strongly in my mind? Probably not. The same is true of Nidhogg. Under the right circumstances, Messhof has established a new and shocking blood sport that’ll captivate audiences and players alike. At home, by yourself and frustrated by searching for a multiplayer opponent, you might tear your own heart out.
Code provided by publisher. Available exclusively on PC.