It takes consistently satisfying gameplay to offset the aggravation of dying in a video game repeatedly, but Vlambeer’s post-apocalyptic top-down shooter Nuclear Throne delivers that in spades (despite being technically unfinished at this time). From the moment you’re thrown into action as one of 8 mutant avatars, you’ll shred wasteland beasties with gratifying weaponry while customizing your play style using a creative selection of “mutation” abilities. You’ll die often, yes, but it’s all the more opportunity to try another weapon set or mutation build and come back deadlier than ever. The action’s so fast-paced and visceral that you’ll often want try something new anyway.
Nuclear Throne’s delightful pixel graphics are colorful and well-animated, and they never obscure gameplay so it’s always easy to see the constant onslaught of danger. Unfortunately, the stages currently feel rather sparse with only 3 or 4 decorative object types in each (cacti, tires, barrels, etc) and the tilesets lack any real detail. Gun fire and explosions sound loud and destructive, especially as they get stronger, and the soundtrack compliments the wasteland wanderer setting. Stylistically, the game oozes desert gunslinger from every pore, which perhaps makes it easier to swallow the dearth of visual flair.
The playable mutants, however, offer notable charm and would fit snugly in Nickelodeon’s Aaahh!!! Real Monsters universe. Take for instance the guitar-strumming bipedal fish, or the walking mound of eyeballs, or how about a wall of muscle or a hungry robot, each equipped with a unique ability such as dodge-rolling, corpse detonation, dual-wielding and even instant invincibility. They all have their own edge and play differently than the rest. Even the strategically unappealing avatars are still fun to play, despite their exceptionally short lifespans.
Complimenting unique avatar abilities is an imaginative suite of mutations gained through experience drops. Mutations award additional attributes, the variety of which goes a long way in extending replayability as well as survivability. For example, you can choose to replenish ammo through kills or even your own missed fire, or both if you survive long enough to be given each option. Other mutations smash enemies around the map with annihilating force, or award additional health, or increase the reflective range of shotgun bullets. It’s important and gratifying to carefully match them to your play style each time.
The in-game arsenal is rather verbose already and includes standard fare such as shotguns and SMG’s at the low end and laser swords, noxious arrows and hyper rifles at the high. Acquiring the best weapons, however, is rarely an easy task. But once you get them, it’s worth it: the sticky grenades demolish huge portions of the map while hyper rifles and Gatling guns tear through waves of enemies like paper. Melee weapons allow you to deflect bullets, giving them some appeal alongside crazier choices like the bazooka. Dual-wield two powerful weapons and you can easily ruin a few giant scorpions’ day.
WASD and mouse-aiming allow the necessary degree of speed and accuracy for a game like this, so the controls are dead-on. Later firefights often devolve into seemingly unavoidable bullet-hell, yet many abilities and mutations easily mitigate the chaos. Thankfully, character movement is also fast and responsive meaning you won’t often be overrun by otherwise easily avoided projectiles. When you die, it rarely feels like anyone’s fault but your own.
There is additional pressure in that experience, ammo and health drops must be collected before they disappear, which isn’t easy as walls of bullets meander your way. Ammo and health don’t vacuum towards the player either, making them even more difficult but no less necessary to collect. On top of this, opening a weapon chest after the stage has been cleared awards better prizes, but you also have to reach it without being inhaled by the exit portal, which, depending where the last enemy fell, isn’t always possible. Even after the stage has been cleared, Nuclear Throne always feels like it’s forcing you ahead, never forfeiting that drastic pace.
The engine’s random level generator manages to offer a fair amount of variety in stage layout, but hardly enough to truly satisfy. Stages sometimes force wide-open melees and others progress through tight hallways and rooms packed with foes, yet it feels like more could be going on, such as additional traps or destructible objects. As far as spawning is concerned, it’s rare to be truly screwed from the get-go, but cheap deaths do happen and especially in the 3rd stage. Also, there are bugs: I have crashed repeatedly after defeating the second boss, and elsewhere as well. However, it hardly feels much different from the incessant dying, so the impact, albeit annoying, is relatively reduced.
Vlambeer released Nuclear Throne through Steam’s Greenlight program, and it can also be purchased from the NuclearThrone.com website using Amazon or Paypal. Although the game isn’t a complete product, it plays like one at its price. Really, it’s easy to forgive the minimalist character selection screen and lack of endgame as part of its focused charm. There are more than enough weapons and characters, with the developers promising more on the way. New enemies, abilities and areas have already been implemented in short time via a weekly auto-update, and as a whole there’s certainly already enough fun here to justify $15.
Still, it would be nice to see features extending game time between deaths, like more starting health or larger maps with more enemies. Greater progression and customizability would do the exceptional replayability immense favors. The combination of arsenal, mutations and abilities offers lots of variety already, but the level and monster types recycle after only 4 short tile-sets. The maps then become overloaded with so many foes that only super powered weapons offer any survivability (and even then only a bit). Regardless of whether or not you’re doing well, few mortals can manage a session longer than 10 or 15 minutes. This feels like a damn shame because I’ve recycled enough times to know I want so much more.
Nuclear Throne is an easy “Buy” priced at $15, and the promise of more to come is just tasty gravy on top. Many will love it for many reasons: casual gamers, action lovers and twitch players alike will appreciate the fast-paced, no bullshit gameplay. Fans of Vlambeer’s previous games will also appreciate the cameos from past titles. Keep an eye on Nuclear Throne’s Greenlight transformation and be sure to check out the NuclearThrone.com website for more about the game. For more about the developers, visit Vlambeer.com.