If the end of the world as we know it means I can jaunt across the hellscape alongside sentient crystals, a mutated fish, and a chicken with a penchant for slicing creatures to ribbons, then bring it on — sounds like a legendary shindig. However, the world is uneventfully spinning on it’s axis so the only way anyone’s likely to experience such eye-swiveling lunacy in the next few years is through the crooked lens of video games or, to be more specific, Nuclear Throne.
Name ring a bell? Well, it’s far from surprising as Nuclear Throne spent two years germinating in the crucible of Steam Early Access before finally landing on PC, PlayStation 4, and Vita. At first glance however, it can be hard to see why. Anyone passing over a screenshot or trailer would think it’s yet another attempt to reinvent the twin-stick shooter wheel without changing anything. While the former sentiment is complete nonsense, the latter is as salient as they come. Nuclear Throne firmly grips onto the fundamentals of twin-stickery like an obsessive cover band, sublimely hammering every important note without feeling the need to add bloat to an already exceptional gameplay model.
One thing you learn right away about Nuclear Throne is that it doesn’t like you. The game views you with the same passionless-contempt exhibited by the neighbour’s cat when it won’t stop peeing on your lawn. Nuclear Throne doesn’t hate you, it just doesn’t respect your fresh face and eager attitude. You have to earn its respect by battling through its roguelike-like sensibilities.
Nuclear Throne’s central gameplay loop is the same we’ve seen a hundred times over: Select a character, run off into the wilds of warfare, die, repeat. If that were all the game offered this would be the end of proceedings. Luckily, this isn’t the case at all. Procedurally generated locales – while following a prescribed order of tile set – go a long way to ensure the continuing unpredictability of whatever the game will be throwing at you next. The same too can be said to a lesser extent about enemy layouts and the challenges faced.
One of the earlier stages for instance takes place in a city ravaged by whatever radioactive mess ended life as we know it. Sometimes you’ll be greeted with a flock of flying raven-type monsters which descend like a feathered storm cloud. Other excursions, however, will lead you into an incredibly narrow experience filled with explosive vehicles, explosive barrels, and explosive enemies, demanding you change up your methods in coming out the other side victorious.
That’s where Nuclear Throne really excels in all honesty. Due to the semi-randomised nature of threats, not to mention the unpredictable selections of weapon and ammunition procured while playing, no element of this bullet-fest is ever certain. Well, apart from the unique ability of whichever character you’ve chosen, ranging anywhere from a crystalline shield whenever you want to being granted knowledge while making corpses go boom (note: this is so much fun).
Instead of drip-feeding you overarching passive upgrades (although you can collect short term ones that last until you die by collecting Rads to level up) created to open up the gateways to later stages, Nuclear Throne relentlessly challenges you. Sounds malevolent, but in actuality the game is more interested in training your mind and it is brilliant. Through some dark magic of some description, Vlambeer has manufactured the equivalent of an endless training simulator which maintains compelling gameplay throughout itself. Edutainment sucks, but having a game teach you about itself as well as unhitching the reins of experimentation sure as hell doesn’t.
Without realising it, you can go from a bumbling buffoon who dies within the first two stages to looping the game (that’s to say finishing, turning around, and heading back) all because of that inherent compulsion brought on by Nuclear Throne. If you’re looking for a game to test your mind, your body, and your patience to the limits while rewarding you with extraordinarily overwhelming surges of satisfaction every time you skillfully avoid a bullet/laser/fireball emblazoned with your name, Nuclear Throne is definitely one to consider picking up.
Then again, it’s not all perfect. Credit where credit’s due, the sound design is sublime. Very few other games holding a price tag like Nuclear Throne’s nail the wet squelching of a bandit being blown apart or bullets ricocheting off walls like it does. Visually, there is one factor worthy of ire. The game may be bright and colourful but in high-octane situations where survival depends as much on your ability to kill enemies as it does dodging bullets, the similarity of many projectiles to their surroundings or the hue of friendly gunfire is egregiously infuriating. Whether it be on a 32-inch TV or PlayStation Vita screen, following the action can echo walking through a swarm of insects while trying to avoid getting one in your mouth; you can see them coming, but there’s too many to track down because they all look so similar. It’s a double-edged sword really because when you’re not being frustrated by how difficult differentiating between bullets and floors can be, the hectic nature of Nuclear Throne also makes it so much bleeding fun.
It should also be noted that Nuclear Throne doesn’t like it when you make thing explode on Vita. On PlayStation 4 and PC, the frame rate is seemingly unshakable, however on PlayStation Vita anywhere with large explosions (such as stage 3-1 and further) stops just short of coming to a complete standstill. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, especially seeing as the handheld is more than capable of playing games with graphical demands magnitudes in excess of those Nuclear Throne should exhibit.
The game does also get a tad repetitive at times. Sure, randomised challenges are presented to you more often than sushi on one of those awesome conveyor things due to the fickle nature of luck or the passive perks you can purchase. Problem is, every time you take that first step into a new game, you’re presented with the same desert-looking area. Move a little further on and there’s the darkened rat-infested sewer. Finish that off and there’s always a– okay you get the drift. Presenting the same theme of locale over and over to players is undoubtedly a brilliant way to let them know when they’re doing better or worse than previously. It’s just plain irritating to see the same sandy expanse for a good hour simply because you’re having a bad day of it.
For its handful of niggling issues, Nuclear Throne has the power to enthrall you after one attempt to reach the throne. Rarely do we see games demonstrate a feedback loop even close to the precision on display in Vlambeer’s latest release. Yeah, it’s not perfect and can be shallow, but if you’ve got a spare few dollars left to throw at a fantastic pick-up-and-play game, you could do much worse than putting them down on Nuclear Throne.
Nuclear Throne revels in its own madness as a twin-stick shooter that could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with any other in the genre. While the repetitive nature of locales does grate after a while, it’s still difficult to not come back for one more game time and time again.