Shoryuken review: Nidhogg II is a bizarre, hilarious, and fun indie fighter

By on August 15, 2017 at 2:00 pm
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Return to a world of glory, sacrifice, and divekicks.

Full disclosure: the original Nidhogg is one of my favorite games. The blend of simplicity, accessibility, and technical play, with the stark old-school visuals and moody soundtrack — it won me over immediately. So, while I have some positive bias toward the game’s concept as a result, that also means I had pretty high expectations for the sequel. It just hit Steam and PlayStation 4 today… Does Nidhogg II from MESSHOF prove to be worthy of sacrifice to the great wurm?

An all-new Nidhogg?

Nidhogg_20170815121952This game is essentially the core gameplay mechanics of the original Nidhogg, transplanted into a completely new, vibrant world. As a reminder to those unfamiliar with the original: Nidhogg‘s gameplay is based on one-on-one fencing combat. The levels are comprised of multiple screens, mirroring each level’s terrain from the center point. It utilizes only directional inputs and two buttons — attack and jump. You fight using a number of attack options (thrusting, guarding, throwing your sword, melee attacks) and movement options (walking/running/crouching/crawling/jumping/divekicking), and your attack/guard system is based on holding your sword at one of three different heights — attacks at the same height are guarded, while sword interactions at different heights result in disarming, or death. All sword attacks are one-hit lethal, and killing the opponent allows you to run forward along your side of the level to get closer to the end goal — until they respawn in front of you, to fight again. This tug-of-war continues until a fencer has reached their end screen, proving their worth to be sacrificed to the glorious Nidhogg.

This gameplay system is retained almost to the letter in Nidhogg II, with some slight adjustments that I’ll go into more detail about below. The biggest change is the visual presentation, leaving behind the bare-bones retro aesthetic for a much more colorful and richly-detailed look. If Nidhogg‘s look was Atari 2600, then Nidhogg II is Super NES.

With the simpler pixel art left behind for this bright new gooey and comical look, some fans will be immediately put off — I was too, to a degree. But once you get into the game, see it in motion, and start exploring the new levels, you quickly see that the original’s grim sense of humor remains — now even weirder and more surreal than before. An incredible amount of detail is stuffed into every screen — and where the original retained a medieval theme throughout, Nidhogg II exists in some bizarre timeless world of cruelty and wurm-worship. Surreal is a fitting word for it: it’s a cartoony, gory, bright and shiny — but dark and twisted — mess that somehow comes together to form its own weirdly coherent universe.

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Evolution of the wurm.

Aside from the graphical facelift, the gameplay in Nidhogg II still feels like the original: easy to pick up and play, but precise and technical as you get more familiar with it. The new graphics and background make the combat feel more frenetic, as there’s so many on-screen distractions now that it can make it more difficult to stay focused on the fight. But mechanically, the heart of the Nidhogg is unchanged — although perhaps slightly improved with some new mechanics.

Basic movement options have been tweaked — you can now run and slide into your opponent to surprise and disarm them. The ledge grasping-climbing mechanics are more forgiving. The jump and divekick are a little more floaty, making them easier to control but easier to dodge as well.

The way weapons are handled in Nidhogg II is the biggest change to gameplay. There are now four different weapons: the rapier, the broadsword, the dagger, and the bow. Arcade mode introduces them to you gradually as you progress, but versus modes let you use all (or none) of them immediately, cycling through in that order as you get killed and respawn. Each has different properties that require you to adjust your gameplay to attack and defend with them.

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The rapier is the same as the sword from the original game, and is the “default” weapon. It has three guard/thrust heights, and can be thrown. The broadsword is slower, and is swung in an upward/downward arc. It has only two guard heights, making it tricky to defend lighter weapons with it — but it crushes opponents, always disarming or smashing them on contact. The dagger is similar to the rapier in controls, but is very quick with short range.

The bow is the most interesting new addition — I didn’t like it at first (and the CPU can be wicked with it) but I came to appreciate it after more practice. It can’t guard (unless your loosed arrow intercepts an attack), and is very vulnerable at close range, but your arrows provide unlimited ranged attacks, at two heights. You need to press the attack button to nock your arrow, and release to fire. But arrows can be deflected back at you by your opponent’s attacks — even other arrows! Throwing the bow is also non-lethal, working as a melee attack on contact.

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On losing your weapon, you have to rely on unarmed combat techniques until you can retrieve one (dropped weapons remained on the stage to be picked up at will by either player, one of the interesting back-and-forth aspects of Nidhogg‘s gameplay!) or die and respawn. All melee attacks cause a disarm effect if they hit in Nidhogg II; and the arrival of new weapons comes with weapon “continuity” between screens. In the original, even if you lost your sword, it would return when you ran forward to your next screen. Now, you keep whatever weapon you’re carrying — and if you have none, you don’t get a new one automatically. All melee attacks have also been changed from the original game; rather than desperate punches and a neck-break if you manage to knock down the opponent, all fighters in Nidhogg II have become Taekwondo experts. Melee attacks are now a flurry of super-fast kicks, and they will knock weapons right out of your opponent’s grasp at certain heights. Score a knockdown, and you’ll be stomping your opponent into a fine pulp.

The mix of new weapons — and the changes to melee attacks — add an extra dimension to the combat, and accommodating them into your game plan provides an extra challenge. As a result, Nidhogg II‘s gameplay feels more interesting overall, though less tightly-focused as the original.

The fencer is no longer a generic pixel person — now you can customize your fighter’s color, outfit, and gender before the fight. The options are fairly varied, and allow a little bit of extra self-expression.

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Back to the gorgeous (and bizarre, and sometimes rather gross) stages, Nidhogg II has a total of ten locales, over the original’s four. Some are updated versions of the originals, but most are all-new forays into madness.

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The game offers a few different playable modes; Arcade mode is a straight run through all ten stages; it isn’t tough to beat, so the goal is shaving down your completion time, like in the original. You can play local versus of course, and adjust the fight rules to your liking. The original game’s eight-player tournament mode also returns. Online versus consists of one-on-one lobbies by invitation, or a new Ranked mode. I found the online play generally stable (only one unexpected disconnect), and without any noticeable lag.

A different kind of monster.

There is something lost in the transition to Nidhogg II from the original; the simplicity of the gameplay and the visuals (which were still actually quite detailed, in its own style), combined with Daedalus’ spooky electronic soundtrack, created an otherworldly atmosphere unique to Nidhogg. The revamped dark-comedy visuals take center stage in setting the mood for the sequel, with a much more subdued (but still enjoyable) soundtrack to compliment the new tone. This is not really a bad thing — another game that stayed fast the original’s formula in all respects would have made for a less-compelling follow-up. To warrant a sequel, changes had to happen. And as dramatic as the atmospheric changes appear at first, they are a natural extension of the first game’s creative concepts, at heart.

This game has the chops to carry forward its refined version of the Nidhogg gameplay formula, and deliver it to both returning and new players. While the original’s simple “purity” is lost, the gameplay in Nidhogg II is fast-paced and fun, with a bit of extra freshness. I’ll still be going back to the original now and then, but this new wurm has chewed its way into my heart as well. All glory to the Nidhogg.

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Score: 8/10

Nidhogg II is available today on Steam and the PlayStation Store. This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version.

Additional source: messhof Editor-in-Chief. Street Fighterin' since there was only a "II" in the title.