Of all games that use elements from the roguelike genre, it’s my firm belief that the best ones are the ones that make failure part of the fun.  Since a state of perma-oblivion is inevitable in such games,  player death must be spectacular, it must be quick yet determinable in order to leave the player wanting more, and most importantly, it must leave the player with some sort of sense of progress, so that time does not feel wasted even as our avatars lie decomposing amongst the pixelated dust.  Too often, roguelike inspired titles miss the mark on these particular elements of design, and worse still, the field is quickly becoming crowded with pretenders to the roguelike throne.  How fitting, then, that today we discuss a a game about what is arguably the most important roguelike throne of them all, Nuclear Throne.

I first got wind of Nuclear Throne by playing its predecessor, Super Crate Box, another game by Dutch developers Vlambeer.  I’ve spent significant amounts of time messing around with Super Crate Box, in which you blow away waves of endlessly spawn baddies with an increasingly devastating arsenal.  Super Crate Box is not only a good game, but it also happens to be free on Steam.  It’s also surprisingly addictive despite its simplicity, and it certainly made me take notice of Vlambeer’s follow-up project, Nuclear Throne, which first emerged as an Early Access title.  Nuclear throne was in Early Access status for a considerable amount of time, and blossomed into a full release shortly before Christmas of 2015, though fairly quietly and without much fanfare.  Perhaps the release was a little too under hyped, because months later, it seems to have fallen short of claiming the recognition it deserves in the indie gaming community’s consciousness.

In Nuclear Throne, the player chooses a character from a gang of mutants, which are first seen gathered around a camp fire in a remote wasteland in the far-distant post-apocalyptic future, where mankind has been all but exterminated.  in its place, unrecognizable aberrations roam the land.  Each character has his… hers… its… (?) own passive trait and active ability, and after choosing which mutant will aid them most on their journey to the eponymous Throne, the player immediately spawns into a procedurally generated world, played from an overhead perspective.  Nuclear Throne’s level themes are generated in the same order every time, matched up to sets of biomes, enemies, and the occcasional boss, but the layout varies randomly with each playthrough.  The goal is simple (or is it?):  blast your way through the irradiated wastelands with a brutal arsenal and find, and hopefully sit on, the Nuclear Throne, a fabled artifact which is rumored to have the power to heal the broken world.

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A short intro cinematic plays when a boss is encountered, featuring stylish pixel art.  

The arsenal plays a particularly central role to the gameplay.  Generally speaking, two weapons can be carried at a time and can be switched between at will.  There are a few different classes of weapons, and each class pulls from it’s own class of ammo pool.  The player will have to make strategic decisions about which weapons are currently most appropriate, about how much ammunition they have left, and whether its time to ditch an old workhouse for a more powerful iteration. After each level has been entirely cleared of enemies, a portal opens nearby which sucks in nearly everything in close proximity, including weapons, power-ups, and players, shunting all to the next level.

One may think that this design sounds fairly straightforward, and at first glance, I could understand if some gamers wonder what distinguishes this game from any other indie twin-stick shooter available.  Well, first of all, the shooter side of the gameplay is done extremely well.  Battles flow fast and furious, and players may be forced to take both tactical and guns-blazing approaches to challenges laid before them.  The enemy design is diverse and interesting, and continues to keep me on my toes.  The gameplay is deceptively challenging, and should satisfy the types of hardcore players who seek out punishing titles in the era of Dark Souls.  The unique passive and active abilities of the twelve characters are surprisingly well-balanced and interesting.   The amount of varied weapons to choose from is ludicrous, and after dozens of hours of gameplay, I would still find myself opening a chest to find a weapon variant which I had yet to come across. Control is tight, whether using a gamepad, or a mouse and keyboard, and player movement feels fluid and responsive.  Sound effects are loud and meaty, the music is excellent and original, and the pixel art is well-done and distinguished by its own style.  Additionally, Nuclear Throne deserves a hefty pat on the back for its implementation of the roguelike influence.  Through utilization of the best parts of roguelike design, the game does a great job of keeping each playthrough refreshing and unique, and accomplishes this in several different ways.

Most notable is Nuclear Throne’s approach to a progression system.  As enemies are slaughtered, they drop “rad”.  Think of rad as experience points, but rather than automatically receiving them, the player must venture forth to the spot where they lay to actually collect them.  Rad fades quickly from the battlefield, and players must act quickly to collect the precious resource from fallen foes.  This leads to some particularly difficult situations; mostly when a powerful enemy has expired and dropped a big lump of rad in the midst of a heavy firefight.  This situation happened quite often in my playthroughs, and I found myself often making mad dashes for caches of rad when the coast was far from clear, leaving precious cover in order to ensure the advancement of my character.  At least half as often, these desperate rad grabs led to my downfall.  However, the risk needs to be measured, because each time a player levels up, they’re presented with a choice of four random upgrades, or mutations, which persist until the end of the player’s run.  Some of these mutations are quite useful on their own, such as “Laser Brain” which makes energy-type weapons more powerful.  Where things get really interested is with mutations which combo well with other mutations, certain weapons, or character’s abilities.  For example, the character “Melting” has a starting maximum health value of two. If Melting acquires the “Boiling Veins” mutation, which removes damage from explosions if the player is at four or less health points, then he may use explosive weapons with impunity, never fearing death from friendly fire or splash damage from his own weapon, no matter how close the quarters.  After several level ups, and with a little luck in the selection of mutations given, I can turn my character into a customized, efficient machine that worked off the systems I had constructed out of my mutation selections.

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Melting’s activated ability, which detonates dead bodies and destroyed bits of scenery, can be particularly devastating.

Nuclear Throne also manifests its roguelike mantle through a healthy helping of clandestine design.  Though it’s a simple game which can be enjoyed straightforwardly, Nuclear Throne is laden with secrets, and plenty of “rules” to learn.  Some secrets are fairly direct; for example, there are only two characters unlocked at the beginning of the game.  Most are unlocked simply by progression.  Some rules are equally direct; like when I came to learn that the manifestation of an end-of-level portal will also cause any nearby cars to explode in the junkyard levels.  However, there are enough obtuse secrets and rules to make a nostalgic Nintendo Power subscriber shed a tear.  This could be viewed as a negative or a positive, but Nuclear Throne hides several choice cuts of gameplay meat, and an impressive amount of world-building lore, behind tricks which can be discovered through deduction, intuition, plain dumb luck, or an impulsive wiki search.  I can’t share much at all without spoiling some of the discoveries which await players in the game, but I will say that even though I’ve sunk over 100 hours into a game which can be “beaten” in less than a single hour, I’m still occasionally learning and discovering things about the game during my runs.  This gooey “mystery filling” lends the game longevity and replayability it wouldn’t otherwise have, and is an appropriate and deft use of roguelike elements.

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Hmmm… what might this diamond-shaped object be?  It looks suspiciously like a door…

For those who completely plumb the depths of Nuclear Throne’s secrets and manage to complete, within reason, all avenues of progression (which would be one hell of a feat that I’d love to see), even more bang for the gaming buck can be found in a local co-op mode, as well as a Daily and Weekly Run mode which uses online leaderboards to compare your skill.  The single complaint I may have with the game is the implementation of the local co-op.  Friendly fire from weapon explosions cannot be disabled, and having two people pulling the camera perspective in different directions often results in being killed by off-screen enemies, something which doesn’t occur too terribly often in the single-player variant.  This unforgiving design may be in keeping with the game’s challenge level, but it also seems to place a gateway on the co-op game which makes certain amounts of progress nearly impossible.

With few flaws, Nuclear Throne is successful as a roguelike game, and beyond that, stands triumphant as one of the more polished and enjoyable indie games to be recently released, standing proudly shoulder to shoulder even with the likes of a modern twin-stick classic such as Hotline Miami, or a roguelike legend such as Binding of Isaac.  Unfortunately, if SteamSpy is to be believed, despite mountains of merit and tight design, Nuclear Throne seems to have fallen short of receiving the same sort of acclaim and sales as some of its indie peers, both in the roguelike and twin-stick arenas, though it has seemed to achieve moderate success.  My recommendation to you, as a gamer, is to do your part to rectify this immediately, and venture forth to claim your seat on the Nuclear Throne.

RATING

Pull Both Triggers: A Must Play

 

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