Nu­clear Throne

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Vlam­beer For­mat PC, PS4 (version tested), Vita Release Out now

PC, PS4, Vita

Soon, we won’t be able to move for Rogue­likes – or, for that mat­ter, Rogue­like-likes. Things are al­ready get­ting a lit­tle crowded, in fact, ever since Derek Yu’s Spelunky ap­par­ently caused the in­dus­try to col­lec­tively catch on to the no­tion of the struc­ture be­ing in­her­ently com­pul­sive, and to the pres­ence of an au­di­ence hun­ger­ing af­ter flintier chal­lenges. The likes of Rogue Legacy prove th­ese games don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to do any­thing par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing me­chan­i­cally so long as they have a half-de­cent hook. Nu­clear Throne’s hook is dis­arm­ingly sim­ple but blis­ter­ingly ef­fec­tive. In short, it gets a move on.

Speed isn’t ev­ery­thing in Nu­clear Throne, but com­pared to its con­tem­po­raries this is a short, sharp shock, a de­fib­ril­la­tor pad­dle to the chest of any­one jaded with the con­cepts of sky-high dif­fi­culty and per­madeath. The av­er­age game of Nu­clear Throne takes a few min­utes; on your first few goes, it may even be sec­onds. There’s noth­ing cere­bral about it, but it ex­erts such a firm grip on your lizard brain you may find it hard to ex­tri­cate your­self. Rarely are you given time to pause for breath. Even af­ter killing ev­ery­thing on a level – your sole ob­jec­tive – you’re dragged to­wards the black hole that will carry you to the next. Like a com­pet­i­tive dad in the fa­ther-son race at sports day, it’s not con­cerned whether or not you can keep up as it ac­cel­er­ates to­ward the fin­ish line. For most play­ers, that will ar­rive well be­fore the ac­tual end­ing.

It’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing stuff, en­livened by the year’s best ex­plo­sions. Just Cause 3 might have the edge in sheer spec­ta­cle, but Nu­clear Throne’s feel big­ger. There’s a pal­pa­ble im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment when a grenade lands or a red bar­rel shat­ters, and each boom is am­pli­fied by a vi­o­lent screen shud­der. On the de­fault set­ting, it’s not merely a jolt; rather, the cam­era shakes so hard you half ex­pect film sprock­ets to ap­pear at the edges of the dis­play. You can tone it down, which helps make the ac­tion more read­able, but so much sen­sa­tion is lost that you’re urged to dial it back up. That the Game Over screen de­tails your cause of death speaks vol­umes: it gets so hec­tic that it can, on oc­ca­sion, be hard to gauge the hows and whys of your demise.

Ev­ery­thing is out to kill you, from what look like squat Tusken raiders to in­fu­ri­at­ingly eva­sive rats to crows tot­ing ma­chine guns and worse. Larger en­e­mies, in­tro­duced by name and with a splash of art, burst into view and sud­denly trans­form the game into a dan­maku shooter, forc­ing you to weave be­tween a cur­tain of bul­lets or re­treat into an al­cove to avoid the bar­rage. Flight is only a tem­po­rary op­tion, of course, but you might not al­ways be equipped for the al­ter­na­tive: ammo is a lim­ited re­source, and of­ten it’s only when you’re run­ning low that you’ll find more rounds drop­ping. It’s usu­ally worth hang­ing onto a melee weapon in one of your two slots, then, but can you really re­sist the triple- fire ma­chine gun in that nearby crate? As much as Nu­clear Throne is about ac­cu­rate shoot­ing, it’s also about making split-sec­ond de­ci­sions like this on the fly.

You’ve got other choices to make while swirling in the vor­tex be­tween stages – as­sum­ing you’ve vac­u­umed up enough of the lurid-green XP pick­ups to have gained a level. Here, you’ve a se­lec­tion of mod­i­fi­ca­tions to tune your mu­tant’s build. Blood­lust, for ex­am­ple, will give you a small chance of re­gen­er­at­ing HP af­ter a kill, and Boil­ing Veins nul­li­fies fire dam­age while pre­vent­ing ex­plo­sions from harm­ing you on low health – an in­cen­tive, per­haps, to go nuts with a grenade launcher. Th­ese mu­ta­tions af­ford you such breadth of ap­proach that two suc­ces­sive runs, even with the same char­ac­ter, can feel al­most en­tirely dif­fer­ent. And while ar­cane un­lock­ing cri­te­ria holds back some of the best mu­tants, within an hour or two you’ll have ac­cess to most. They’re so dis­tinct in na­ture that you’re bound to pick an early favourite that suits your spe­cific playstyle, but you may find your­self adapt­ing to ex­ploit the strengths of an­other. Y.V. takes some ef­fort to lo­cate, but with an ac­tive skill that boosts dam­age out­put and a pas­sive that al­lows him to fire and reload quicker, he’s a solid pick for any­one strug­gling to reach the later stages. Give the nim­ble Plant a long-range weapon and his snare abil­ity makes him a deadly sniper. And if Melt­ing’s pif­fling two hit points make him seem like the masochist’s choice, his faster lev­el­ling means play­ers who strug­gle through the ear­lier stages can trans­form him into a po­tent force.

Even as you grow bulkier and more ver­sa­tile, the odds are still per­ma­nently stacked against you. And as in­vig­o­rat­ing as sur­viv­ing yet an­other chaotic scrape can be, at times the fates can con­spire un­fairly. Such is the way with games that de­pend upon the caprices of RNG for their un­pre­dictabil­ity, but that doesn’t make the odd near-im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion any eas­ier to take. In one game, we got three spit­ting scor­pi­ons on the very first screen, with one guard­ing the lone ammo crate, tucked away in a tiny al­cove. An­other promis­ing run was brought to an abrupt halt by an un­seen enemy, holed up in the one spot that en­sured he was fully masked by the scenery. And when low on rounds and health, mim­ics – crates that grow teeth and at­tack as you draw near – feel like an un­nec­es­sar­ily cruel trick.

In the heat of the mo­ment, how­ever, all this is soon for­got­ten. Nu­clear Throne is a game that throbs with un­tamed en­ergy, from its de­lib­er­ately scuzzy mi­lieu to the un­re­strained ord­nance and the dev­as­ta­tion it al­lows you to wreak. It’s a dumb game made by smart peo­ple, a de­ranged, cathar­tic thrash that car­ries you into a mael­strom and spits you out, leav­ing your head spin­ning, your synapses buzzing, your fin­gers twitch­ing, ready to dive back in.

Nu­clear Throne’s hook is dis­arm­ingly sim­ple but blis­ter­ingly ef­fec­tive. In short, it gets a move on

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