DROWNING IN EXCESS
The category of games that have fallen under the broad purview of the "Rogue-Lite/Rogue-Like" category have exploded in recent years. Even in the space of one year, 2015 saw a veritable deluge of games released on Steam, Humble Bundle and GOG. While the flood of new games in the genre has arguably resulted in a plentiful array of interesting and innovative titles, it's made it all the more harder for new games to stand out. Compounding this challenge is the fact that quite simply, people are seemingly sick and tired of Rogue-Likes and Rogue-Lites.
The closing end of 2015 saw the finalized release of Nuclear Throne: Yet another game to fight for the attention of what might be seen as an increasingly fatigued gaming market, that may be close to "Peak Rogue". Fresh off of their public success with Luftrausers, developer Vlambeer's eagerly anticipated game has already benefited from the immense amount of momentum built up from a long, successful stint on Steam's controversial Early Access program. After two years in Early Access, how has Vlambeer decided to tread upon a well-worn and beaten path?
WELCOME TO THE FUTURE
Using a quasi-low-res pixel-art aesthetic, Nuclear Throne puts the player in a post-apocalyptic, ruined world worthy of the Wasteland or Fallout games. It's a thoroughly post-human world; the levels (at least the ones I could get to under the power of my underpowered abilities) are populated with a smorgasbord of irradiated monstrosities; mutated scorpions, giant rats, and misshapen birdmen, to name a few. There's a refreshing variety to the enemies, and they and the levels they inhabit are rendered with a very colorful and vibrant color palette, despite the seemingly drab nature of their appearance.
The same can be easily said for the player characters. The initial roster unlocked within the first three levels are just as colorful and just as varied as the enemies, each with their own unique secondary abilities (bound to the right mouse button). In addition to giving extra depth to the combat, the variety of the available characters invite players to change up their playstyle for extra replayability. I do feel that the fast, frenetic nature of the gameplay naturally leads one to pick a faster character such as Plant, but I've had a surprising amount of fun and success (well, relative success, given how much I suck) with characters like Crystal and Eyes.
It's these characters (in addition to later, unlockable characters) who you have to guide, guns blazing, through each of the game's seven areas (including a secret special area) to the ultimate prize: the eponymous Nuclear Throne, a seat of apparently immense power. Gameplay-wise, reaching the throne gives you the option of either finishing your run, or actually going through the game again, in a sort of New Game+ mode.
Both a symbol of faith and a tall tale told as a story to young mutants, the Nuclear Throne is a device supposedly with the ability to reshape and reform the world. (However, it's true purpose that may not be what it seems to be at first glance.) There's actually an interesting amount of lore surrounding the Nuclear Throne, and it's world -- if anything, my only real misgiving about the the game is that it doesn't offer the player more opportunities to explore it in-depth throughout the game (One possibility could have been unlockable diary entries or images from past mutants seeking the throne). Of course, one could argue that one doesn't really play a twin-stick shooter bullet-hell roguelike for the literary value of its narrative.
A Rogue-Like or Rogue-Like game arguably lives or dies on the strength of its combat, and here it is easily apparent that Vlambeer has polished the combat and gameplay of Nuclear Throne to a mirror shine. Regardless of the player character, the overall player controls are crisp and responsive, even on lower-end hardware. Player weapons correspond to four general ammo types (bullets, shotgun shells, energy, crossbow bolts, and explosives) but the sheer variety of weapons across these categories adds yet another layer of depth to the combat. What's most important is that many of these weapons feel well-balanced for the gameplay: whether its a slow-firing but super-accurate laser pistol, a ricochet-happy disc launcher, or a good old-fashioned assault rifle, I quickly found that all of the guns I encountered had opportunities to shine as my go-to weapon of choice. While I've found that some guns are better suited to my general style of play (e.g. "spray and pray") I haven't yet encountered a weapon that I would truly consider utterly useless.
On top of that is the level-up mechanic; XP has been replaced with "Rads", little glowing green units of radioactivity that can be collected to give your character special mutations during play. Akin to passive perks, these mutations can bestow a wide variety of interesting abilities, ranging from an ability to harvest health or ammo from kills, to extra damage or range bonuses for certain classes of weapons. When combined with the weapons themselves, they encourage players to be more fluid and flexible with their playstyle. Many times I started out thinking I was going to play as a burly, damage-soaking tank, only to find myself turning into a expert sniper towards the end of my run. On other occasions I started playing as John Rambo, machine guns blazing. A few mutations and weapon pickups later I found myself transformed on-the-fly into a post-nuclear Conan the Barbarian, shovel swinging mightily into my hapless enemies.
Even though the levels are procedurally generated, there's a good variety of opportunity afforded by the level layouts to actually take a methodical, approach to combat. You can take advantage of cover to adopt an almost guerilla-like hit-and-fade approach to fighting, especially with tougher enemies that spawn waves upon waves of bullets. In addition to this, the enemy AI is actually quite competent, often being content to place themselves behind cover, waiting for you to come to them. Some enemies will actually hang back and try to engage you in small groups, while others will actively hunt you down or charge you in a large wave with their buddies. Some will actually burrow through the ground or even fly over obstacles in the map to try to get to you. Taken together, these give the game more dynamic moments during combat that actually rewards a slower, more tactical approach to killing enemies. These break up the many moments of fast-paced, frenetic combat that are more akin to bullet-hell shooters, requiring players to quickly devise ways to avoid enemy attack patterns.
All of these elements makes a combat experience that I found thoroughly satisfying. Melee weapons like the shovel or baseball bat strike with a gratifying sound that can be only described as the deep pounding of flesh; volleys of machine gun fire quickly fill the screen with a shower of bullets sending dead bodies flying in all directions. I hadn't had this much fun running into a room of pure insta-death since my time with Brutal Doom.
And this is all despite the game's punishing difficulty and brutally hard combat. Because of course, a game like this has to be punishingly difficult, with brutally hard combat: combat where even lower-level enemies can pose a significant threat if not treated seriously. If you stop paying attention or let your guard down even for a split second, a few missteps and mis-dodged bullets can make a seemingly successful run go South in an instant.
Nuclear Throne may still not be the game for those burned out or soured on the Rogue-Like/Rogue-Lite genre, but it still is a bucket-load of radioactive, blood-soaked fun for gamers wanting a game in the genre that truly respects their time and attention. In a genre where games are expected to carefully tread a line between player frustration and the desire to go "one more round", Nuclear Throne succeeds in beckoning me to keep coming back to its corpse-strewn, radioactive wasteland, where death is always but a split second away.