Let’s call it choreographed chaos. Sure, Nex Machina’s enemies fall in familiar patterns, but things never quite seem to pan out the same way twice. Perhaps, we may have to concede, that’s just the way we’re playing it – desperately searching for space wherever we can find it, frantically firing off our subweapon, fretting rather less about optimal paths than the simple act of staying alive. Not that doing so is ever simple in this fiercely absorbing twin-stick shooter, you understand, but it’s all relative in a game as demanding, as ceaselessly combative, as this.
A partnership between Housemarque and Eugene Jarvis always felt like a natural progression for a studio that has often seemed to be collaborating with this pioneering designer without his prior knowledge. Indeed, a more mischievous observer might wonder if Housemarque didn’t engineer a role on Nex Machina for Jarvis so that he might consult on the game rather than with his lawyer, given the similarities with his past work. Beyond the obvious Jarvis influence on games like Resogun – a modern-day Defender in all but name – the two parties clearly share similar ideas when it comes to challenge. Though it’s unclear just how far his role extended, the results suggest Jarvis, accustomed as he was to relieving unwitting punters of their quarters in his arcade heyday, has lost little of that flinty edge. Housemarque is working with his company, Raw Thrills, to produce a Nex Machina arcade cabinet, which is surely its natural home; still, PS4 or PC will more than suffice for now.
This is, at heart, a straightforward, single-minded game. The setup is as meat-and-potatoes as they come: the machines are trying to kill us, and it’s humanity’s job to fight back. But though you might not see it at first, Nex Machina steadily becomes a more layered, complex experience the more you play. For your first few tries – and the next few, too – you’re focusing almost exclusively on survival. You’ll be aware that part of your job is to save the humans wandering around each level, but you’ll also be happy to let them be harvested if a rescue attempt means putting yourself in harm’s way. Though given the way these oafish survivors blunder around, constantly getting themselves in dreadful trouble, the machines surely can’t want them for their brains.
As with any good twin-stick shooter, it’s all about crowd control. And what crowds. The smaller machines swarm like insects, circular drop points alerting you to their imminent arrival so you can move out of the way – not that there’s much space to move to. Alongside them, bulky monstrosities make a beeline for the humans, while others are akin to static WMDs. Later variants include robot wheels that accelerate toward you before exploding, machines wielding stretchy electric whips, tanks firing payloads that wouldn’t look out of place in a Cave shooter, and a hulking giant who keeps crawling toward you even after you’ve blasted his lower torso into a thick mist of voxels, per the house style.
Despite those cascading cubes and the studio’s fondness for lurid pyrotechnics, the action is easy to parse, even at such an unrelenting tempo. Housemarque’s trick is to paint its environments in relatively muted hues, and then give the vital elements a bright outline to ensure they stand out. Power-ups get a cyan glow, while it’s green for the humans, an ominous red for enemies, and a shocking pink for projectiles. Strips of chevron guide you towards the remaining survivors if they’re beyond the fringes of the screen, while laser-shooting enemies telegraph their attacks with a thin aiming line before they fire. Secrets are naturally presented less ostentatiously, but over time you’ll acclimatise to the telltale visual clues – though you might need an explosive sub-weapon to access a few of the hidden exits and survivors. Finding these is key to climbing the leaderboards; likewise, killing the three special types of machine within each world. Beacons are usually tucked away behind an obstruction or a seemingly ordinary piece of scenery. The scuttling Disruptors race away from you as soon as a new stage begins, and must be taken out before they can make their escape. And then there are the Visitors, centipede-like robots that seem to be merely passing through before disappearing into a portal: before they do, you’ll need to destroy every segment of their bodies.
That’s a lot to think about in a game that’s keen to put you on the back foot and keep you there, and there’s more. Those bumbling humans, you see, are more crucial than they may seem. Saving them is a good deed that doesn’t go unrewarded, but how – or rather, when – you rescue them is more vital still. For each one you successfully recover, a combo meter will start to deplete; reach another before it drains entirely and your multiplier will build. As such, racing to them as quickly as possible is often the wrong tactic, especially when you’ve still got more than a dozen enemies to kill before you can warp to the next stage. By the same token, you can’t leave them too long, so you’ll either need to grab them just before they become machine fodder, or else take out the enemy that presents their greatest threat.
Which, of course, might not be the same one as in your previous game. Enemies arrive in formation, but your presence is a disruptive influence to their plans. As much as pattern-learning helps, you’re an unpredictable variable in the equation, and as such you’ll still need to think on your feet, adapting and reacting to dangers you might well have avoided on
Enemies arrive in formation, but your presence is a disruptive influence to their plans