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