When Nidhogg 2 was first revealed last September, I was one of those folks who was taken aback by the drastic shift in the game’s appearance. Sure, like the first Nidhogg, it was still a 2D one-on-one sword fighting game, but the Atari 2600 homage visuals had been replaced by what appeared to be grotesque Homer Simpson fanart. And seeing the reveal trailer in a little YouTube window, I thought Nidhogg 2 looked downright ugly. Boy, was I mistaken.
In leaning into grossness, Nidhogg 2 is visually transfixing in a way the original never was. The title screen features the game’s logo set against a hypnotic wall of flat-colored orange grime pouring down the screen with disturbing velocity. The game itself is a Ren & Stimpy marionette pantomime of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. There was a certain shock value to the minimal look of the original Nidhogg in that even though the characters were stacks of yellow pixels, the brutality of the violence still registered. The characters in Nidhogg 2 animate like puppets (you can even dress them up like dolls before the match), seemingly built for dismemberment, exploding into piles of goo and bones after taking a dagger in the shin. It’s not shocking that they explode, but the cartoon disembowelment has achieved a new level of visceral eccentricity.
The visual overload of Nidhogg 2 can distract from playing the game well, but obfuscation feels like the point, asking players to hyperfocus on character movements and stances to ratchet up the difficulty and provoke errors of judgment. The first game’s trademark castle stage is recreated in the sequel, and likewise features a bridge over a pit of flame on the symmetrical pre-endzone areas. In Nidhogg 2, these fires swirl with a mesmerizing tenacity and at a scale that threatens to envelop the bridge and the players whole. It also makes for a dramatic ramp-up in tension as a match teeters on the verge of victory and defeat.
The look of Nidhogg 2 may be the biggest change from the original game, but the revamped level design and addition of three new weapons also open up the core fencing system into a much more varied possibility space. Adding to the rapier, there is also a broadsword that swings vertically, a quick drawing dagger, and a bow and arrow for ranged attacks. There’s a bit of a paper, rock, scissors thing going on with the weapons, but anyone can beat the other given the right timing and positioning. There’s also a greater emphasis on disarming opponents, which leads to manic scrabbling and swinging as one player attempts to recover while the other seeks to finish the job. The implementation of multiple weapons and attack strategies makes the stage design variations much more interesting in the sequel as well. For example, the broadsword can swing through certain ceilings. So, just because one player is on an upper platform and the other below, there’s still risk and the potential for combat.
Still, having praised Nidhogg 2 for its new weapons, I simply do not like the bow and arrow. I’m sure with more practice I could figure out a way to use it effectively, but it has a slow draw (a serious disadvantage when you spawn right in front of someone) and the possibility of arrows being reflected back at the shooter makes the tactics of combat one step too complex for what I want out of Nidhogg. It’s also the only weapon that doesn’t kill, but merely stuns an opponent, which makes sense, but doesn’t make me any more inclined to enjoy it. And, yes, the bow and arrow can simply be taken out of the weapon rotation, but it’s a shame not to implement the entirety of Nidhogg 2’s default offering.
There’s also a single-player Arcade Mode, which faces players off against AI opponents across each of the game’s stages. The AI is fairly predictable and quite generous, often waiting for you to come and fight instead of running off-screen. The way to play Nidhogg 2 is still ideally with someone sitting next to you, but it’s nice to at least have some kind of solo option this time around. You can also play online, which is subject to all of the typical lag issues one might encounter there, but as of this writing it’s perfectly functional for those times when you can’t convince someone to come play in person.
At its core, Nidhogg 2 is still Nidhogg. And you can turn off the new weapons and still fence your way across a castle stage if you so desire. But unless you’re a hardline hater of Nidhogg 2’s sludgy aesthetic, the sequel enhances the formula across the board. Don’t be put-off by Nidhogg 2’s rainbow slop, there’s still a silly white-knuckle, slay-your-friends action game underneath the mess.
Nidhogg 2 was developed and published by Messhof. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for PC and Mac.
Dan Solberg is a digital artist, writer, and professor, producing works about videogames, music and art. You can check out more of his work on his website, dansolberg.com, and see his not-work by following him on Twitter.