Give It Up, I Have the High Ground!
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
What I Played: Over 7 hours of local multiplayer. Several online matches. Beat Arcade 4 times with my best score being 13 minutes.
Earlier this summer, living in a humid camper for months on job sites, my friend Frank, my brother, and I spent hilarious weekends playing the heck out of the original Nidhogg. The easy to learn, but hard to master two-button fencing game with an 8-bit aesthetic was as basic as any competitive game could be, and yet, likely because of this charming simplicity, it was surprisingly addictive and developed a rabid following.
With a few caveats, Nidhogg 2 is the kind of sequel I had hoped developer Mark Essen and Messhoff Games would make. It’s an evolution of what made the original great that keeps most of its best elements, and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It takes the series into more of a 16-bit style. It also mixes up the formula a little bit, with a host of lush new environments, new weapons, and silly-looking, customizable characters.
The gameplay seems simple, and you can learn the basics in ten minutes, but that’s just a prelude to the insanity that can happen in local multiplayer, especially between two people who know each other well.
It takes skill to win a battle, but brains to win a war.
In any given situation, one can switch one’s weapon stance to high, mid-body, or low, attack with a stab/swing, throw one’s weapon, roll into a tackle (or to pick up a dropped weapon), jump (and then dive-kick, advance, retreat, or empty hop), or crouch. Although it may seem like you’ve got a lot of options, most of them are likely to get you killed. Try leaping into someone when they’re weapon’s held in a high stance, and you’ll die. Roll into someone holding their weapon in a low stance, and you’re toast. Lunge at someone in the same stance, and you’ll clash. Attempt to pressure someone while too near a ledge, and you’re likely to fall to your doom. Whenever someone needs to leap, climb, or cross a gulf to advance, both player’s options are rather limited, which often leads to stand-offs.
And the game would be one long stand-off, but the goal for each duelist is to get to their respective left or right end of the 2D stage so they can have the privilege of being swallowed by the grotesque Nidhogg, whose namesake is the chaos-aligned, Yggdrasil-gnawing serpent of Norse mythology.
The duelist who drew the last blood gets to advance the screen’s movement across the level segments. And so, one duelist must attempt to advance, while the other’s goal is to hold their ground and prevent the opponent from squeezing past them. Imbalanced stage elements throw wrenches into each player’s progress - there are moving ice platforms, ledges, tunnels that impede movement, conveyor belts, scrolling lava floors, rooms with arrow-stopping doors, tall grass that obscures one's stance and choice of weapon. One’s always most vulnerable mid-jump or mid-attack, so the mindgames that come into play are a large part of what made Nidhogg such a great and addicting multiplayer experience.
Swinging For The Fences on Presentation… To Mixed Results
When Nidhogg 2 was first unveiled, the most polarizing aspect of the sequel was, understandably, its grotesque, cartoonish, heavily saturated art style. Many fans of the original had grown attached to the stark simplicity of the 8-bit sprites, although Essen did mention in several interviews that the original’s art style was done more out of indie game budget necessity than choice. Artist Toby Dixon was hired in part because the team liked how his exaggerated style emphasized both the gore and subtle humor of the first title, taking those themes to their visual extreme.
The bizarrely-proportioned, Claymation-like characters probably drew the most negative attention, and while their googley-eyed sprites will probably never worm their way into my heart, they have grown on me a bit, and I enjoy being able to customize them with silly mustaches, twin-tails, skirts, orange vests, and the like. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity. Why not allow folks to make their duelists look cool, if they so desire?
I have no complaints about the backgrounds, on the other hand, which are all gorgeously rendered. Screenshots don’t do this game justice, not by a long shot, since so much of the charm is in the smooth animation, which looks crisp on PS4. Still, there is something to be said for the stripped-down look of the original Nidhogg, which was definitely easier on the eyes. With its vibrant sprites contrasted against sometimes-jarring backgrounds and transitions, visually, Nidhogg 2 definitely doesn’t appeal to everyone’s palette.
Sonically, Nidhogg 2 delivers a decent mixture of electronic tunes. They are nothing classic, but with a few substandard exceptions, they add good atmosphere to the arenas. The sound effects are appropriately gruesome.
Successfully Adding Onto What Already Worked
The new levels are all a blast and add a lot of variety to the gameplay. There are ten maps total, and they all feel thoroughly play-tested. In eight or so hours of play, none of them feel as glitchy or imbalanced as, say, the flawed Mines or Clouds levels in the original title.
As for the new weapons, they’re all optional in multiplayer, but definitely worth learning and using. In addition to the balanced rapier (hands-down the best weapon), there’s the quick, short-ranged, and easily-throwable dagger, a hefty, two-handed broadsword (with only high and low stances), which is slow but can knock your opponent’s weapon straight out of their hands, and the bow-and-arrow, which is tough to master. It can be useful situationally at long-range, but it’s all but useless when your opponent is right upon you. Arrows can also be deflected and sent right back towards you, so expect to be playing serious mindgames with your bow drawn. Unarmed duelists can also attempt to stomp their opponents. In local multiplayer, weapons can be switched on or off at your leisure, so if you desire, you can have knife-only ninja-fests, or Highlander-esque broadsword clashes. In normal play, my friends and I preferred to have just the rapier and dagger for faster, less defensive play.
There’s also options to set various match conditions and parameters, such as Baby, which forces players to crawl, Low Gravity, which grants extra jump height, Boomerang, which flings thrown weapons back at you, and Sudden Death Only, which counts only one-hit kills. You can also set timers on matches, but I find Nidhogg’s at its best when you’re not even thinking about the clock.
Fun With Friends, Not So Much Alone
Don’t expect much of a single-player experience from Nidhogg 2. In fact, I would not recommend this game to anyone who doesn’t have a friend that would enjoy playing locally. The Arcade mode pits you against AI that are sometimes inept and exploitable, and sometimes surprisingly skilled. Either way, it’s just a quick gauntlet of all the game’s levels, with more weapon varieties gradually thrown into the mix. There are online leaderboards for fastest Arcade times.
You can play online as well. According to the developers, the netcode in Nidhogg 2 has been completely overhauled from the laggy original title. I experienced some lag online - nothing game-breaking - but that could also have been my substandard Internet. Perhaps it’s impossible for such a frame-precise game to have a perfect online experience. Still, I’m glad the option exists, even if half the fun is bantering or taunting the person right next to you as you engage in heated 20-or-30-minute-long stalemates where neither one can make much headway across that fateful gap, or squeeze past that tricky bottleneck.
Messhoff Games’ ambitions have grown with Nidhogg 2, and while not everyone is onboard with the new art style, I’m happy to report that the same gameplay fans of the original know and love remains intact. If you’re a Nidhogg nut who’s been following Nidhogg 2’s progress, you probably already know which side of the fence you’re on. For anyone who hasn’t already burned themselves out on 2D fencing, or for any curious newcomers wondering whether to buy this or the original title, all things considered, I definitely recommend Nidhogg 2. Unless you really can’t stand the art style, the new weapons, new levels, and fixed stage mechanics are worth the plunge.
- Fast, Frantic, Fun Fencing
- A blast in local multiplayer with many more levels, weapons, and customizable options
- Much better online netcode than the original Nidhogg
- No single-player replayability
- Lack of unlockable content
- Divisive art style and color palette will not please everyone