The beauty of Nidhogg was in its simplicity. Its minimalist style and two-button gameplay fed into what was a wonderfully streamlined and focused experience. With Nidhogg 2, developer Messhof has attempted to expand the multiplayer fencing game with more maps, different weapon types, and a busier art style, with mixed results. Some of the changes–particularly the weapon selection and grotesque aesthetic–prove to be distractions from what is otherwise an excellent party game.
Nidhogg 2’s concept, as with the first game, is to stab your opponent and race past their decaying corpse onto the next screen. Your enemy will respawn on the new screen within a couple of seconds to once again impede you from reaching your goal–a giant hungry worm. You can jab your sword at any of three heights–head, torso, or… below the torso–or throw it for a long-ranged attack. Of course, flinging your sword leaves you vulnerable, as does attacking at the wrong height, which creates openings for your opponent to counter.
You’re often left frustrated that your attempted swipe of a sword failed because you happened to reappear holding a bow instead.
This was the meta-game driving the original Nidhogg’s competitive gameplay–except now there’s more pieces to the puzzle. The sequel introduces three new weapons: a thicker broadsword, which can be swung from either top or bottom to bat your opponent’s weapon away but leaves you vulnerable in the middle; a dagger, which has a much shorter reach but allows you to stab more quickly; and the long-range bow. Arrows can only be fired in the middle or bottom and can be hit back in your direction, but they’re by far the longest ranged weapons in the game that don’t leave you defenceless afterward.
The expanded arsenal is of course designed to add depth, and it does: wielding a dagger for a few seconds can be a refreshing change after three years spent playing Nidhogg with just the same old rapier. But the game’s fast-paced nature and its lack of warning as to which weapon you’ll spawn with next means that you’re often left frustrated that your attempted swipe of a sword failed because you happened to reappear holding a bow instead. You can change the order of weapons you’ll spawn with in Tournament Mode, but even there the speed at which matches unfold makes adapting in the split-second respawn window a struggle. In addition, those customization options are not included in Quick Play, Arcade, and online multiplayer–a minor but strange decision given some may wish to turn the new weapons off entirely.
The introduction of weapon variety also impacts balancing. The uniformity of map design and character types creates a level playing field, but this serves to further emphasize each weapon’s weaknesses. The dagger in particular feels very underpowered–it’s tricky to use its speedier stab when your opponent has a much longer sword keeping you at bay. Similarly, arrows take too long to fire, meaning a quick opponent can easily gain the upper hand. Even if they don’t, arrows are pretty easy to dodge, and you’ll be too busy hammering the Square / X button out of frustration to take advantage.
The pulsating electronic soundtrack helps each stage feel as enjoyable, as varied, and as weird as the last.
Messhof has taken a similar “bigger means better” approach when it comes to Nidhogg 2’s art style. The minimalism seen in the original is gone in favour of a style that, while still retro, is noticeably noisier. At times, the lighting is lovely, and the greater color range allows for much more varied locales than the original’s monochrome level design. But the style also makes it harder to immediately see what’s happening on-screen, and this lack of clarity is representative of the sequel overall. Possibly the only area in which the increased amount of content has benefitted Nidhogg is in those added maps. The original arenas have been rebuilt, and they’re accompanied by a number of all-new locations. They contain a number of environmental hazards such as pits, moving ice, and long grass–as well as a pulsating electronic soundtrack–helping each stage feel as enjoyable, as varied, and as weird as the last.
Despite all the distractions, however, Nidhogg 2 can be brilliant. The original’s tense, frantic, hilarious nature has not been diminished, and local matches offer some of the best same-room multiplayer around. I think my ear is still ringing from a friend shouting so loudly (repeatedly) after he beat me (also repeatedly). Nidhogg 2 becomes a sport: even onlookers get swept up in the tug of war the game evolves into, and you’ll cheer or cry more in each swing of momentum than most video games manage to muster in a whole campaign. It effortlessly creates moments of nail-biting tension and in the very next room uproarious hilarity: in the moment, simply batting an arrow back at an opponent can seem like the most daring maneuver ever attempted, while falling into a pit immediately after a momentus kill can paralyze a room with laughter.
You’ll cheer or cry more in each swing of momentum than most video games manage to muster in a whole campaign.
Each strike is lethal, and every inch of ground gained over your opponent feels like a huge step toward victory. The controls have remained as natural as they were in the first game, allowing you to plan and execute strategies with ease, making it perfect for group sessions even if some haven’t played before. And when you figure out your opponent’s strategy, exploit it, and just before they respawn you reach the finish line to win a tournament, it’s exhilarating. I just hope my ear stops ringing soon.
Nidhogg 2, then, adds a lot without really adding much at all. The new weapons and busy aesthetic can frustrate, making the overall package feel less refined, but the core gameplay still shines through. Despite its problems, Nidhogg 2 is spectacular, engrossing, funny, tragic, and dramatic in equal measure, and it will no doubt become another party game staple. Nidhogg 2 sacrifices simplicity for more options, and it doesn’t prove to be a good trade. But when the underlying action is this good, I’ll put up with the odd unwelcome dagger.