Fighting games have historically had a high barrier to entry, with new players having to face hours of getting their butt kicked before finally getting the muscle memory required to master the complex controls and inputs. Nidhogg – if it can even be considered a fighting game – changed that when it launched in 2014, with simple visuals and an even simpler control scheme making it a couch multiplayer favourite that players of all skill levels could easily get into. Though Nidhogg has yet to appear on the eShop, Nidhogg 2 has now made its debut on the Switch, bringing Nintendo players a more visually-polished and mechanically advanced take on the indie hit. Though it’s not perfect by any means, this is some of the best competitive local multiplayer on the platform; it’s dumb, weird fun that everyone can enjoy.
The premise of Nidhogg is exceedingly simple; you and an opponent duel with each other for the honour of being sacrificed to the mighty Níðhöggr worm, and the victor is decided by whoever makes it to the furthest end of their opponent’s side first. You primarily fight each other with thin fencing swords, and a single strike is enough to swiftly escort your opponent to the gates of Valhalla. The felled fighter will respawn after about three seconds, but during that wait time, the survivor can make an unopposed, mad dash for the end of their opponent’s side of the arena. In a sense, it’s like a reverse game of tug-of-war; victory is constantly and painstakingly swapping between sides as each participant gains a temporary advantage.
There’s plenty of nuance to this setup, however, such as how your stance dictates whether your strike will find its mark. Your weapon can be in the high, middle, or low positioning, and if it meets the opponent's weapon, the attack is blocked and somebody could possibly be disarmed. There are also three other weapons you can randomly spawn with, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. For example, the bow is weak at close range but can pose a serious threat to a foe attempting to run away, while the knife has the weakest range, but can be thrown the fastest. With perhaps the exception of the knife, it seldom feels like you’re at a disadvantage with whatever you happen to be wielding, but each weapon brings with it a nice change to your playstyle.
Stages all ultimately conform to the same design of being seven screens long of mostly horizontal landscapes, but they also each introduce subtle yet important gimmicks that can enormously change the outcome of a match. For example, one stage contains conveyor belts that slow you down as you run towards the opponent’s side, and some of these belts are bookended by meat grinders that can easily surprise you in the heat of battle. Another stage is covered in ice and has you hopping between bergs that sink the longer you stand on them; not only does this difference in height make it easier to craft new strategies around throwing weapons or jumping your opponent, it also increases the chances of you missing a jump and plummeting to a cold death in the river. There may be only ten stages in Nidhogg 2, but each one is well-designed and has something unique to offer, which adds considerably to replay value.
Something that we feel must be hammered home is how frantic a standard match against a capable foe can truly be, it’s fast-paced, ridiculous and a fantastically good time. Watching the goofy characters impale each other and fall screaming into pits never fails to bring a smile to one’s face, and the gameplay is well balanced and simple enough that it becomes not a test of who is most skilled, but of who can keep their composure for the longest. It’s all too easy to resort to throwing your weapon or making sloppy mistakes in the desperate scramble to put a stop to a skilled opponent’s confident advance; this is very much a game about getting into your opponent’s head and ruining their cool. It’s rather remarkable how such a simple gameplay concept that seems like it would grow stale quickly can produce such intense competition and so many hours of genuine entertainment.
Even so, it bears mentioning that Nidhogg 2 is very much the epitome of a one-trick pony; what’s on offer here is compelling, but homogenous. Nidhogg 2 doesn’t have any extra side modes, very little in the way of unlockables, and the single-player offering – a simple arcade-style gauntlet against AI opponents – takes about thirty minutes to clear on the long side. This is very much a game that’s designed to be played with another friend on the couch; if you don’t have that, it’s difficult to give this game any sort of recommendation. Beyond that, the lack of gameplay diversity and game types means that there’s only so much fun to be had; once you get tired of the central idea to the one game mode on offer here, there’s next to nothing else for you to do.
Nidhogg 2 is primarily designed as a local multiplayer game and in this regard, it does exceedingly well, particularly on the Switch. It only takes a few seconds for a new player to pick up the controls, and the ease of using a Joy-Con each makes this a great game to show off the Switch’s versatile multiplayer capabilities. Local matches can be tweaked with new rules, such as barring certain weapons from appearing or having a round with low gravity, and you can even set up a tournament that supports up to eight people. Whichever way you choose to go, it doesn’t take long to get hooked by the simple premise and gameplay, creating fiercely competitive and hilarious battles that surprise at every turn. Although having experience certainly gives you an edge, the stripped-down nature of the gameplay makes it so that a new player almost always has a solid shot at winning; there’s not a whole lot to learn here, it’s all about knowing your opponent.
Nidhogg 2 also features an online component, but this, unfortunately, is by far the weakest aspect of the game. Though online is welcome, there is egregious input lag compared to playing locally; we’re talking a delay of a little over a second before the inputs are registered onscreen. There are times where the delays aren’t nearly as bad, but we have yet to play a match in which the performance was even close to being comparable to playing locally. It’s a real shame, too, as there’s a ranking system in which you gain points for beating opponents, and passing certain milestones unlocks new cosmetics for your characters. Alas, at the time of writing, the online play is unacceptable; which weakens the already paltry single-player offering. This may well improve over time, in which case we'll revise this review.
Visually, Nidhogg 2 is a vast departure from the minimalistic art style of the original, but it’s a change for the better that manages to craft a unique identity. This is a trippy game, with pirate ships, zombie worms, rainbows and plenty of other weird stuff being crammed into just about every square inch of every stage. The attention to detail is quite staggering in places; Nidhogg 2 is positively bursting with colour and little things like the subtle reflection of a fighter on the surface of a tranquil pool of water show that developer Messhof was keen on making this a pretty game; it’s as enjoyable to watch a match as it is to play one. Backing all of this is a similarly psychedelic soundtrack that mixes together chillstep and R&B beats for a strangely relaxing mix of songs that simultaneously feels completely out of place given the craziness onscreen, yet also feels perfect. In a word, it’s wonderful; you may want to turn up the volume a couple more notches
Nidhogg 2 is a prime example of how simplicity isn’t always a bad thing; this is a deliciously compelling couch multiplayer experience that’s both approachable and in-depth, potentially leading to dozens of hours of fun. The weak single-player offering and online lag are certainly low points, but the trippy visuals, chill soundtrack and frantic gameplay all combine to make this a recommendation for those of you looking for another great title for playing with friends; solo combatants may wish to exercise some caution, however.