Wot I Think: Nidhogg 2

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Abstract multiplayer fencing game Nidhogg didn’t need its minimalist style to be buried under a splatter of aggressively grotesque paint and gore. It didn’t need extra weapons to upset the perfect balance and precision of its two-button combat. It certainly didn’t need its titular wurms to chew the air with stumpy rotten teeth.

All a Nidhogg sequel really needs, to justify its existence entirely, is better netcode and maybe a couple of new modes to play with. By messing with the original formula, particularly with that divisive visual switch, Nidhogg 2 [official site] risks proving that more can sometimes be less. Here’s wot I think.

The original Nidhogg is tense and often hilarious. Every round, both players start as equals, and then they push and pull and stab and flail in an attempt to move to the left or to the right. The fight is a combination of fencing and tug of war. The fencing part is obvious – your’re both armed with stabby swords (as opposed to slashy swords), but the tug of war part is just as important.

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Fights start in the central area in a series of symmetrical corridors, tunnels and paths. The immediate goal in each area isn’t to kill your opponent, it’s to reach the point at which the screen stops scrolling and flips to the next stage. And you’re always going to the left or the right, while yor opponent is trying to go the other way.

There are no points for killing your opponent and it’s more a delaying tactic than anything else. Dead fencers can’t make any progress, or prevent your own, but they’re only down for a couple of seconds before respawning nearby.

Sometimes you die because you ran into the point of a sword held at eye level, and sometimes you end up in a brilliant stand-off, blades occasionally clashing as you struggle for supremacy. It probably lasts around six seconds but it feels like you just re-enacted that one swordfight from The Princess Bride or the elegant brutality of The Duellists.

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Time a swish of your weapon just right and you can disarm an opponent, flicking the sword out of their hand. It spins through the air and clatters onto the ground, and then you stick them through.

Nidhogg is fast and sometimes frantic, but it’s always precise. Blades connect with one another, or with flesh, and the timing of every parry and poke is vital. Nidhogg 2 does not always feel precise. In adding a variety of weapons and scenes that require clambering and negotiation of conveyor belts, it has become a less predictable game.

You and your opponent still start as equals but there are four weapon types where once there was only one, and these work on a cycle. Kill your opponent and he or she will spawn with the next weapon in line, then the next, and so on. This means that you begin as equals but soon one of you has a bow and the other has a knife, and then there are different weapons littering the floor, and somebody falls down a pit.

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I played a few rounds with Graham and afterwards described Nidhogg 2 as Super Smash Nidhogg. It’s nowhere near as chaotic and erratic as Nintendo’s beat ’em off (the edge of the screen), and characters don’t have special moves of their own to fit with their wonderfully weird designs, but it isn’t as refined as the original and, for me, that takes away a lot of the appeal.

Nidhogg 2 is no longer a fencing game. It’s a hacking and slashing and shooting and stabbing game. Five minutes can go by without a single parry or smooth disarm as daggers play off against bows, and hulking great broadswords smash opponents into pulp. Instead of a thumb war, it’s rock, paper, scissors.

That’s a little unfair, as there’s no hard-coded system of counters with the weapon types, but they introduce enough variables to chip away at the core sword-on-sword simplicity that made the original such a joy to play. Occasionally you’ll still have a brilliant round because the fundamentals of the two button combat are the same. You can jump, slide, parry, kick, stab and (now) slash and shoot – it’s a tactical twitch game. The action is so fast that you can’t quite believe you ever have a chance to react intelligently, so when you do there’s a sense of having mastered swordplay mixed with a suspicion that blind luck was on your side.

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And that’s as it should be. For all my complaints, Nidhogg 2 still manages to make me laugh and smile and occasionally curse. A fight can collapse into a farcical chase or a sequence of drop-kicks and head-stomps, or it might go off the rails as both competitors insist on throwing their weapons as soon as they spawn and then dance toward each other, kicking and jumping.

Nidhogg has always been a silly game but the weirdness of the victory animation, which sees the winner devoured, no longer feels like an odd punchline because the whole game has become a grotesque parade. I hated the screenshots when I first saw them and I wasn’t alone, but in motion I quite like the new look. It’s deliberately ugly in a way that I rarely see in a game, like a nineties platformer that got sick or a claymation scene that’s gone horribly wrong.

The worms are no longer exclusive to the finale of a fight and have a similar role to Dishonored’s whales. They’re butchered, hanging from hooks, but also destroying airships and generally being a nuisance. Sometimes you’re running along their guts and sometimes you’re in a volcano or up among the clouds. The stages are packed with detail, and have some tricksy elevation changes and traps, but even though I’m not dead set against the graphics, I still prefer the simple style of the original.

That’s true of the combat as well. Nidhogg 2 has more to offer but it all feels like a distraction from the perfection of the central fencing mechanic and melee feels so overpowered, rewarding proximity and button mashing rather than the careful poise of the duelling. You can add modifiers to games, including a ‘Baby’ mode which makes both characters crawl and slide and hop, but you can’t strip out everything new and just play the original. There will always be at least one extra weapon variant.

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Well, you can return to the original by…playing the original. But Nidhogg 2 does have the one thing that a sequel needed. Better netcode. I’ve had a fine old time playing with friends and strangers alike,and that’s enough to make Nidhogg 2 a better proposition than the original if you’re not playing with people in the same room. And that beats playing against the computer, where there’s nothing more than a brief arcade mode introducing the levels and weapons.

It’s slightly more cluttered and distracted than its predecessor, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had. Much as I love it, Nidhogg never lingered on my playlist for long, partly because the netcode wasn’t ideal. Nidhogg 2’s changes to the formula would, I suspect, start to irritate me more over time, and I can’t imagine I’ll be going back to it a few months down the line. If you’ve never Nidhogged before, this might be the best place to start since you’ll almost certainly be able to find a non-laggy game much more quickly, but it’s missing some of the original’s elegance, and not just in the visual department.

Nidhogg 2 is out now for Windows and Mac, and is available via Steam for £10.99.

18 Comments

  1. Ben Damage says:

    NIDHOGG!

    I think I agree wholeheartedly with the article. The art style is the obvious first point of contention but it does seem to settle once you’re into a playthrough, and the jump-kick-quadraspaz-pitfall-sword-throw-me-downs are where I feel the combat becomes mushy.

    I think the fencing is still sharp, and a classic mode would be a great way of giving us the whole… hog. Nid. Nidhogg.

  2. TheAngriestHobo says:

    This raises the question: when is a sequel justified? This seems like a situation where a company based the decision for a sequel on strong sales figures and positive feedback for their first game, which, on paper, makes good financial sense.

    However, based on this review, I get the impression that no one ever raised the question of why they were making a sequel. Civ does it to refine systems and stay relevant as the genre develops. Dragon Age does it to continue telling a story that millions of people are invested in. FIFA does it to keep up with changes in the sport (minor and inconsequential though they may be).

    But Nidhogg… Nidhogg was already a great idea diluted down to the fundamentals. Releasing a sequel for a game like that reads as either being out-of-touch with your audience, or driven mostly by the money.

    To use a Simpsons metaphor, it seems a little like putting speed holes in an otherwise nice car before trying to sell it.

  3. GeoX says:

    Nidhogg is a kick. Here’s what I want from a sequel, or possibly just an expansion: double (or more!) the number of levels, and maybe add some optional funky visual effects and gameplay options. THAT IS IT. This distinctly fails to be what I’m looking for.

  4. rgk says:

    I have had the opposite experience of this review

    The gameplay is much better. The first Nidhogg was just a race, it was much more efficient to consistently run and avoid than to fight. This time the movements and abilities make it easier to counter this sort of behavior, and there are tons of cool interactions between the weapons (claymore does not have a middle stance, but can disarm the opponent’s weapon). Although, I really dislike the dagger and the bow, I wish they could be deactived online.

    Then the netcode. For me and many others, online is unplayable. Too laggy or stuck in perpetual “connection”. This is better than the release of the first Nidhogg, still not a success.

    The pits in the level are part of the fun, if everything was too predictable it would get old quickly. The first Nidhogg’s maps were too small, one death was sometimes enough to move to the next screen and it did not allow intense back-and-forth. This time, the scenes are much longer. There are 10 levels with subtle differences in design (high grass, moving icebergs, conveyor belts, many doors) so here the game is much better than the first although I would have wished for more dangerous environmental hazards to spice things up. There is a lot of nice environmental story-telling going on in the backgrounds.

    tl;dr It plays much better than the first Nidhogg, but online play did not get enough love and it’s a shame that it happens again.

    • Elusiv3Pastry says:

      Although, I really dislike the dagger and the bow, I wish they could be deactived online.

      You can enable/disable weapons in the Rules option when you’re setting up the game (press the menu button on an XBone controller).

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      > The first Nidhogg was just a race, it was much more efficient to consistently run and avoid than to fight.

      Not really. Only the last player to get a kill can advance the screen in their direction. If you jump over your opponent and make a run for it, you’ll be stopped at the edge of the screen. It only works if your opponent is a newbie who tries to give chase, advancing the screen for you.

  5. poliovaccine says:

    I’m going to be calling every “beat em up” game a “beat em off” from now on, thanks, haha

  6. Shadow says:

    A sequel which adds more purely for quantity’s sake, adding but fat to what was previously a perfectly cooked steak.

    Oh, and they blew it with the trippy new art style, too. Hard pass.

  7. DasBilligeAlien says:

    I played the original nidhogg only a few times but was bored of it pretty quick. It boilded down just running away pretty fast.
    The new artstyle on the other hand makes it very interesting to me.

  8. Herzog says:

    Why would you hire the art director from Arcen? Strange decision!?

    Anyways I thought Nidhogg was fun for half an hour. Didn’t understand the praise it got. An updated version with more game mechanics is actually a good idea, but I will give the sequel a pass. Should have sticked to the original art style.

    • Ben Damage says:

      Try it with friends locally. I enjoy it as a party game, and shouting “Nidhogg!” at your friends when you win becomes some kind of manic ritual.

      • GeoX says:

        I like trash-talking thusly: “YOU’RE not going to be eaten by Our Lord Nidhogg! That’s MY honor!” “Hah! So you SAY! You don’t even WANT to be eaten! Just the other day I heard you saying, ‘oh, I want to live a long, full life!'” “Vicious lies!” Etc.

    • CMaster says:

      “Why would you hire the art director from Arcen?”

      Harsh.

  9. errantknave says:

    Not feeling the gross new art or imprecise balance of Nidhogg 2? I can’t recommend Eggnogg enough! link to madgarden.itch.io – it’s a more fluid, fun, and physical dueler than even the original Nidhogg and it’s FREE!

  10. haldolium says:

    I like the new art direction. Not sure about the game, but the style is fitting imo and welcoming weird.

  11. ECHtoplasm says:

    Wow… I literally just got done typing up all the reasons I hate this game, only to find that the ‘recent news’ section of the game on steam already had an article that expresses exactly everything I had been saying.

    link to reddit.com

    Nidhogg 2 didn’t improve upon Nidhogg in any way at all, and if anything, it harmed it.

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