Nex Machina



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

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