Focused, intense and hugely replayable, Nex Machina is the best twin-stick shooter in ages.
What the hell just happened? Your first go of Nex Machina will leave you feeling pleasantly dazed, as this exhilarating and ferociously tough twin-stick shooter from Finland-based Housemarque sucks you in and spits you back out almost immediately. It’s the kind of game to make you shuffle forward a little in your seat, as you take a deep breath and prepare to dive in for another attempt.
It dispenses with the niceties to get you into the action that much quicker. All you need to know is that it’s sometime in the future, we’ve all been too busy gawping at our phones to notice the machines getting smarter than us, and lo and behold, they’re keen to assert their authority over humans by wiping us out. As the game starts, your brave little warrior rides into the fray on their futuristic space bike, leaps off, and mayhem subsequently ensues.
The default difficulty setting on the main Arcade mode is called Rookie: That name alone will encourage a certain type of player to scoff and start on the next level up, Experienced, but Nex Machina tells you this is the ideal place to learn the ropes for a reason. You should take that advice—not least since Housemarque pulls off one of the hardest tricks in games. Often, with this type of game, the lowest difficulty can feel slightly patronising, as if it’s going easy on you. That’s not the case here. The action is still intense. The arenas are still cramped. Enemies still march toward you relentlessly. The point of difference is that they move slower and explode quicker, so you don’t quite get that why-won’t-you-die horror as you retreat, furiously unloading into a spider tank that’s soaking up the best you can dish out, and asking you if that’s all you’ve got.
Even so, you’ll still get those moments where your back’s against the wall, and you’re barely a pixel’s width from death when an aggressor falls, and you yell out in relief and stroll forward straight into a bright pink projectile has been floating lazily towards you for the past several minutes (in reality: Two seconds). Complacency is ruthlessly punished.
But daring? Now daring can get you somewhere. NexMachina is tailored towards moments of mad heroism, as each level gives you a number of humans to rescue before they’re harvested. Your high score depends on how many you save, but also on the timing of their retrieval: After grabbing one, a combo meter will drain, refilling when you rescue the next. Then again, worrying about your own survival is priority one.
Still, even here you’re encouraged to take the odd risk. Rather than having to constantly back away from waves of enemies. You can press the left trigger to dash in whichever direction you choose. When all seems lost, this can get you out of the tightest of squeezes, not least once you’ve collected a pickup which triggers a small explosion for each dash. Pair that with a triple-dash power-up, and you’re laughing.
There are optimal routes through the mayhem, but they have to be teased out over dozens upon dozens of attempts. Until then, you’re adapting, improvising, desperately trying to control the flow of enemies while attempting to prioritize threats.
It’s a lovely game to watch, too, the dashes adding dynamism to your character’s movement, the bright, color-coded outlines ensuring the action stays readable even when things are exploding into thousands of voxels around you. Even the transitions between stages are glorious: The six worlds take place on complex superstructures, which your hero navigates by jet pack.
To some, six worlds might seem a shade on the slender side, especially since a single run takes less than an hour. Beyond tackling the Arcade mode on higher difficulties, there’s an Arena mode for individual worlds and variants where bullets and enemy spawns move faster, or where your score only increases while your human combo is still running.
For the voracious consumer, who sees games only as something to devour and tick off rather than savor, that might not seem like good value. Everyone else, however, should buckle up for a breathless modern arcade classic that delivers more thrills per minute than almost anything else out there.
Nex Machina is tailored towards moments of mad heroism