Chance and Asymmetry in Nidhogg 2

I called the original Nidhogg a game of fanatical symmetry—and when Nidhogg 2 feels radically different from its predecessor, that’s due mostly to the sequel embracing asymmetry and chance. The levels are still symmetrical, and both players still respawn infinitely as player one tries to progress right and player two tries to progress left, squaring off in microduel after microduel, every hit a one-hit-kill, gaining ground, holding it, skewering or disarming or deftly evading each other again and again and again.

But this time the épées from the first game are just one weapon among several. There are knives, broadswords, bows and arrows. And this time, when you respawn, you don’t always know which weapons you’ll come back with. The standoffs that result can range from frantic and gruesome to balletic and gruesome, but in any case there’s an enormously increased emphasis on adapting to chaos. The split second between you (and your opponent) realizing what you have and you using it is about as tense a game of quick-draw as you could ask for.

You can, of course, play with just the original fencing blades, which is more or less like playing the first Nidhogg, symmetry restored. And you can also adjust the rotation of the weapons, preserving variety without sacrificing predictability. But regardless, in dialing back the first game’s symmetry and minimalism, Nidhogg 2 emphasizes the other two qualities that made Nidhogg at once a go-to party game and an indie tournament darling.

First, there’s the bizarre gladiatorial spectacle of it all. Toby Dixon’s claymationy pixel art expands on something that was always true about Nidhogg, with its candle wax blood drips and near-constant stabbings: namely, that the whole game is premised on some hyperlethal eldritch bloodsport. Here that strangeness and rampant winking horror comes to the surface and overflows from every image.

Second, Nidhogg was always a game that rewarded high-level play, but that simply moved too quickly for any but the best players to get too cerebral about its proceedings. A game of interesting tactical decisions made at impossibly high speed. Nidhogg 2 doubles down on this idea, forcing you to fight like Robin Hood one moment and Sandor Clegane the next, changing your fighting style entirely from life to all-too-short life, and perhaps even more frequently as the battlefield gets littered with weapons to pick up, wield, and maybe even throw. (Throwing a bow is a weirdly wonderful feeling).

At once nonsensical and nuanced, frighteningly smart and unapologetically stupid, Nidhogg 2 is one of those sequels that takes the design of its predecessor and runs with it, full tilt, in one carefully chosen direction, shedding some of what made the original what it was specifically in order to explore what made the soul of its design worth exploring in the first place.

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