Nidhogg is an entry in the not-so-long line of indie fighting games that try to break through the Street Fighter inspired genre standard and all the baggage and complexity it has amassed over the years. The game is presented as a series of swordfight duels between monocolored, abstract men in front of not-quite expressionist backgrounds. The bouts don't take place in a single arena, but rather in corridoors that stretch over several screens and connect each player's target location. A fighter is killed with a single hit, but respawns indefinitely - the real goal is to reach the end of the corridor, only to be devoured by the titular serpent for the amusement of the crowd.
The fighting mechanics are seriously streamlined compared to the Street Fighter school, but the game isn't quite as braindead as Divekick. In addition to a standard stab, players can roll over the ground, jump into the air to divekick, or even throw their sword at the opponent. The central mechanic, however, is the distinction between lower and higher stance, and most of the fights revolve around the mind games of trying to break through the other player's defense first. It's even possible to disarm the opponent by getting in close above or below their sword and then suddenly swapping the stance. Even unarmed characters still stand a chance to down their opponents and break their neck on the ground, or they can pick up the sword again.
Nidhogg is a very fast-paced fighter, so players get killed in very quick succession, only to appear in front of the winner shortly afterwards. It's still a bit frustrating to have to wait and watch the opponent progress for that second each time after being defeated with a single hit. There's also a bit of an imbalance as soon as one player has the upper hand - they alone control the screen transitions, so often it is all too easy to just dodge the loser and make a run for the door, even at the danger of getting a sword tossed in the back. Therefore matches are over extremely quickly if one of the players is noticably superior, but can drag on forever if both are roughly on the same level.
There has been a lot of moaning over traditional fighting games' alleged obscene complexity, and much praise for games that strive to take it back to the supposed core of the fighting genre, the mind games. Truth is, however, once the complexity is gone there isn't all that much left, and things just aren't that interesting, anymore. Nidhogg isn't too simple to be fun, but it's just above the threshold, and becomes monotonous very quickly. The four stages don't offer too much variety, either. There are some ledges to hold onto, pits to fall down, grass to hide in, and a few clever ways to use the architecture to outmaneuver the other player, but the stages are short and it doesn't take long to explore everything they have to offer.
At the same time, the reduced complexity doesn't make Nidhogg any more accessible for new players, as the fast gameplay ensures that you have to be very good to even feel in control of the situation, and there's not much the game does to get you there. The experience is strongly focused on competitive multiplayer matches, and there isn't much in it for solitary players.
The inspired but sketchy graphics do the rest to inspire musings over how much of a step this all is above the stick figure Flash fighting games of old. The music on the other hand is an excellent dynamic score, as inciting as it is threatening.