Friday, 28 February 2014

Review - Nuclear Throne (PC)

Hail to the King!

It's great to be king. At least that's what the mutated denizens of the irradiated wasteland - the setting for Vlambeer's latest shoot-em-up roguelike - believe. To lay claim to the royal seating apparatus they must navigate a set of arena-like stages, filled with a plethora of other radioactive beasties who will stop at nothing to see the heroes fail. The ever-familiar roguelike genre is unleashed again, only this time with the hyperactive, balls-to-the-wall action of a twin stick shooter attached. This is not a new concept, Teknopants' excellent game Shoot First dished up a winning combination of randomly generated stages, levelling up and Robotron 2048 style blasting back in 2010. But this is the first time the genre mashup has met the boombastic style of Vlambeer and the wonderful pixel art of Paul Veer, who also created the visuals for popular platformer, Super Crate Box.

Nuclear Throne's core gameplay is simplicity itself, featuring run and gun action that could easily have graced the smokey arcades of the 1980's. But attached to this frantic blasting are a set of interesting mechanics and ideas that make it feel fresh and new. Choosing from one of the available mutated gunslingers, who are casually lounging around the campfire, you set off through the dangerous environments, mowing down your enemies with your standard issue revolver. These playable freaks not only come with their own unique special move, but also differ greatly in appearance; from the semi-cute fish monster armed with an evasive combat roll; the steroid pumped behemoth, a dab hand at duel wielding weapons; the samurai chicken who can initiate bullet time for some Matrix-style Slow-mo carnage; to the robot who can devour weapons for extra HP or Ammo. Each one is strangely lovable, despite their often grotesque appearance, and offer a significantly different playing experience. As you move through the environments, which include the usual staple of the roguelike genre; sewers, dungeons, caves, as well as a few surprises, you must simply kill everything who resides there, before being swept to the next stage. Movement and firing is achieved via the keyboard and mouse which is incredibly intuitive and makes accurate aiming on the fly a breeze. There is gamepad support too, though using an Xbox 360 controller resulted in performance issues and crashes. 

As enemies are destroyed they drop green 'tic-tacs' that fill up a gauge in the top left. Once full, you level up, and at the end of that stage are allowed to choose from a selection of upgrades (called mutations). These range from extending your characters max HP, allowing more accurate fire, or letting some kills award extra ammo or health. It adds an RPG-lite tone to what would otherwise be a straight-up action game, adding much needed depth and replay value. Dotted around the landscapes are chests of two different colours, red and yellow. The red chests offer up new weapons, two of which can be carried at any time and are easily switched between during combat; while yellow chests grant ammo, something you have to keep a close eye on at all times. The pistol you start with is surprisingly effective, but you soon find even better options in the form of shotguns, machine guns, crossbows, laser guns, and grenade launchers. There are even melee weapons such as screwdrivers and sledgehammers for when things need to get up close and personal. 

The action heats up very quickly, and it isn't long before you are being swamped by gun-toting mummies, spread firing scorpions, angry rats, disgusting bugs that spew out maggots upon death, snipers, and the occasional large boss character who makes an appearance mid-stage. You will need quick reflexes and an active trigger finger if you wish to survive the onslaught and often the play area is so full of projectiles that it resembles a Bullet Hell shoot-em-up. Adding to the excitement is an epic soundtrack that blends the sound of classic Western movies with electronic rock and hip-hop vibes. Even in the more subdued moments, it fits the action perfectly and, coupled with the shaky camera that rocks with the blasts of your weapon and explosions, elevates the action to that of a Hollywood blockbuster. 

As with all roguelikes worth their salt, death is permanent, and all progress lost. This can be a very frustrating experience in some titles, but here it always feels as though you met your end in a reasonably fair manner, with only yourself to blame. The addictive and highly enjoyable action means you simply want to jump straight into another attempt, usually trying out a different character. Nuclear Throne may not be the first game of its type, but it certainly feels like the most accomplished to date, with wonderfully old school arcade action sitting comfortably alongside the more deeper elements seen in the roguelike genre. It offers an exciting experience, with plenty of replay value, excellent presentation and a real sense of character and charm. It may not be something you can play for hours upon end in one sitting, but it's a game that will last the long haul, hooking you completely until you finally manage the mammoth task of sitting upon the titular throne.

Note - Nuclear Throne has received many updates since I first started playing it back in 2013, with many improvements to both presentation and gameplay. The version I have reviewed is current as of the date of this article. Vambleer have also said that Nuclear Throne is coming to the PlayStation Vita, something I am very excited about.

The Good

  • Quirky visuals and charming characters
  • Epic Western-meets-electronic soundtrack
  • Tight and precise controls
  • Incredibly addictive shooting action
  • Wide variety of characters with different abilities
  • Randomly generated levels

The Bad

  • Best played in short bursts as can get repetitive
  • Very difficult

Title : Nuclear Throne
Developer : Vlambeer
Year : 2013
System : PC
Price : £9.99 / $12.99
Genre : Action, Twin-Stick Shooter