Nidhogg 2 is the very definition of an iterative sequel, in that it makes no changes to the core mechanics of its predecessor. You and a single opponent attempt to run towards opposite ends of a large 2D arena in order to be eaten by the giant cosmic worm known as the Nidhogg. It's probably going to take until Nidhogg 15 for us to fully accept that premise.
In order to pass your opponent, you have to engage them in combat using a system that feels like the delicate marriage of fencing and a rugby scrum. Your weapon can sit on three different levels, and at the beginning of a bout you and your opponent will battle wits in an attempt to glean each other’s strategies. Once combat proper starts, however, things quickly devolve into a mad scramble.
Weapons on the same level deflect each other, while weapons on different levels hit depending on their length. Add jumps, wall jumps, rolls, throwable weapons, and disarming dive kicks into the mix, and suddenly the combat offers a huge range of strategic opportunities.
Despite this, it doesn’t feel overwhelming when you first start playing. What’s more, the battles are always tense, but also often incredibly hilarious. There’s something endlessly funny about staring someone down for twenty seconds, only to run in and immediately be stabbed because of your poor judgement.
When you best your opponent, you’ll be allowed to run towards your goal for a few seconds before they respawn. Interestingly, the screen will only move in the direction of the person who scored the last kill. This means that if the screen’s moving towards your goal, simply jumping over your opponent and making a run for it is a viable strategy.
Thanks to this structure, rounds of Nidhogg have a fantastic ebb and flow. You’ll make it a screen or two towards your goal, only to be out-jousted, and then have the action move back. There’s also no time limit on standard settings, so bouts can last for upwards of twenty minutes if the two players are evenly matched.
Ultimately, the most impressive thing about the game’s flow is that it manages to feel both chaotic and controlled. Its brawls move at a dizzying pace that demands precision, but never forego the visceral pleasure of wildly swinging a sword around. With that said, death is almost always a direct result of a mistake you made, either strategically or mechanically. And even if it isn’t, quick respawn times mean that you’ll never feel particularly sore.
As mentioned, this should all sound familiar to anyone who played the first Nidhogg. The main difference in this sequel is the addition of new weapons, including a short dagger, a bow and arrow, and a broadsword. These make the gameplay even more dynamic. Suddenly you not only have to consider how your opponent is approaching you, but also how your weapon can be used to counter theirs.
Broadswords, for instance, more easily knock weapons out of your foe’s hands, but can only be used in the top and bottom stances. This obviously leaves your mid-section open for attack, so you might decide to simply make a break for it instead. Similarly, the bow and arrow takes a few seconds to draw, but the range it offers allows you to control the battlefield. The game doles these weapons out randomly, forcing you to understand the purpose behind all of them.
There are ten levels in which to battle, each more ridiculous than the last. One sees you jousting inside a medieval dance club, while another has you facing off in the bowls of an airship used primarily for meat-packing. Each level offers an interesting twist on both the core mechanics and the game’s lore, and discovering these twists for the first time is an absolute joy.
Before every match you can alter which weapons are available, as well as implementing a bevy of ‘cheats’ that slightly alter the fundamental mechanics. The title only supports one vs. one play, but there is a tournament mode for up to eight players. There are also single player and online modes, but these are significantly less enjoyable than their couch multiplayer cohorts. Nidhogg simply isn’t as fun when you don’t have your opponent sitting beside you.
In a slightly controversial move, the game’s visuals are in a completely different style to those of its predecessor. For our money, these changes are actually an improvement. The bright colours and detailed backgrounds are beautiful to behold, but never distract from the action. In particular, the character models are a triumph; watching their bulbous bodies running, rolling, and jumping is never not hilarious.
Nidhogg 2 doesn’t change the core gameplay of its precursor in any Earth shattering ways, but it does introduce enough tweaks and refinements to make it well worth a second trip to the cosmic worm’s hideous belly. While the single player component isn’t especially interesting and the visuals might not be to everyone’s taste, as a couch multiplayer experience its immediacy and depth is utterly infectious.