“You did not reach the Nuclear Throne.”
This obvious, if rather unhelpful sentence is probably going to be to be what you take most from your time with Vlambeer’s latest title – as it is what greets you when you fail to complete the titular objective. Which you will. Repeatedly.
This is by design of course; those affable Dutch developers – best known on Vita for the fabulous Luftrausers – have crafted a “top down action rogue-like shooter” which features an incredibly brutal learning curve and some incredibly frustrating gameplay. Roguelikes are notorious for their very short-lived experiences, and Vlambeer are well known for their easy to play, short-burst games – so marrying the two up was always going to be interesting. If patience isn’t your strong point with games, this may well not be the experience for you, and for a while I wasn’t sure if it was for me either. Thankfully, I persevered.
The quest to the Nuclear Throne is simple in premise. Fifteen levels across seven worlds stand in the way of your mission and along the way you’ll encounter post-apocalyptic desert wastelands, sewers, scrapyards, caverns, mansions and eventually you’ll discover – and destroy – the throne.
You begin by choosing a mutant from the default roster. You’ll initially have only Fish – an anthropomorphic Fish who can roll and utilises extra ammunition, and Crystal – a living, walking block that has more health and can shield itself from harm. These aren’t the only characters, and as you progress through the worlds you’ll soon add a mutant with many eyes (better visibility in the transitional areas), a zombie (ultra low health, explodes enemy carcasses), a plant (faster, entrap enemies) and many more. In fact, there are a total of twelve playable characters to play with once you have met their unlock requirements (and most of these are through simply reaching the required level).
It is more difficult than simply bombing through the game however, as no level is ever the same twice. Your environments are randomly and procedurally generated as you go; with layout, enemies, weapons and drops never being quite the same – although it follows a basic theme. This makes you constantly on your guard and although you’re presented with a basic familiarity, you are never quite sure of your surroundings. You also do not have unlimited supplies of ammunition, so great care must be taken to conserve your supplies. Running and gunning is simply not going to cut the mustard here, and being avoidant will leave you severely impeded should you run out of weapons.
Thankfully, new weapons are supplied across the wasteland in chests and you will be encouraged – and required – to become familiar with many (if not all of them). With no guarantee to what you’ll find each time, being proficient with many types of weapons will certainly suit you well. You can carry a maximum of two with you at a time, with ammunition shared between the different classes – and though you start off with a trusty revolver you’ll soon find assault rifles, shotguns, laser pistols, grenade launchers and much more alongside a variety of melee weapons. Physical tools trade off the range and dependence on ammunition with an increased likelihood of meeting your doom, so you’ll have to make care what you pick in that regard.
The further you progress through the game, the more difficult it will become. Eradicating the enemies from a level will unlock the portal to the next zone, and then increases the base game difficulty by one. Thankfully, almost everything you can kill will leave “Rads” – which serve as Nuclear Throne‘s experience system. Accumulate enough Rads and you’ll level up, allowing you to select a new mutation for your character. There are more than 30 to choose from and these can offer all manner of benefits, such as extra ammo and health drops, additional chests, enhanced aiming (more on aiming in a second) or even kills regenerating your rounds or health.
One of my personal favourites – and the one I hope for each time – is the ability to reduce your opponents health. You will soon develop some favourites and tailor the character to how you want to play. Well, for as long as you survive on your quest, and lose it all!
The game controls as you would typically expect; a top-down twin stick shooter to play, with movement controlled by one stick, aiming from the other, and the right trigger shooting. The left trigger will execute your chosen character’s special ability, as mentioned earlier. Triangle switches weapon and Square will act as your pick-up and activate button. From there it’s all down to you. If the default controls are not for you, then you can tweak them in the settings along with other options like the screen shaking, and how much aim assist you’ll need.
Ah yes, aiming, one of my biggest annoyances with the game was with the aiming. Cranking that aim assist in the menu will help if – like me – you suck, but Nuclear Throne’s aiming has a bit of a learning curve. Tinkering and practicing – as well as repeating the same level repeatedly – will obviously help, but initially it is enough to truly test your patience. Thankfully, severe perseverance yields reward, and the ensuing satisfaction you’ll experience when you begin weaving around and dispensing projectile justice on the landscape is second to none.
Whether you enjoy the game’s look will very much depend on your appreciation for pixel art. Personally I like the look, and really enjoyed the representation of the world and the characters. Enemies and bosses all have their own look and style and are very well designed, courtesy of regular Vlambeer collaborator Paul Veer. The game passes you by at such an alarming rate, and doesn’t really give you the chance to appreciate the amount of detail that has gone into the game, with explosions, dust trails, spent shells and so much more happening around you. This level of carnage and detail does have implications, and unfortunately at times does make the game’s framerate grind to a halt – usually during the death throes of a boss, or when there are significant amounts happening on screen. It’s over very quickly, but seeing the game stutter so much demeans the experience somewhat.
The game also possesses a great little soundtrack from another regular associate of the Dutch studio, Jukio Kallio. If you are a fan of this developers’ previous projects then you are bound to feel that familiar charm. What isn’t familiar is the use of a 4:3 style in a modern game. I have been told that the official reason for this is to reduce “horizontal bias” with your movement, giving you a balanced movement area to traverse… or something. This is a game which relies on precision, so having an almost square movement area, field of view and so on ensures that the experience is balanced.
If you are looking for reasons to avoid Nuclear Throne, then the first place to start is the difficulty. It is insanely brutal and requires a lot of patience, and (dare I say it) fortune in order to get through the game. This could of course be a positive too for those that love a challenge, but I needed to mention it. Thankfully your forays do not take very long in themselves, so you’ll very soon be back in the thick of the action.
I must also mention the pause menu, and that default highlighted option is to quit rather than return to the game. You’ll be wanting to pay attention should you stop the game at any point, as many times I accidentally lost my progress due to leaving the game.
Another niggle is a lack of multiplayer on the Vita version. Other versions get a two player co-op mode; which although raising the stakes a little, also spreads the load between two. I’m sure it’s great fun, but as it’s not here I wouldn’t know.
Finally, those frame rate issues. I must stress that it is infrequent (the vast majority of the time the game runs consistently), but those times when you reach the boss and die from a stray bullet during heavy chugging are incredibly annoying – not least because it’s probably going to take to a while to get to that point again.
Despite these issues I love the game. Nuclear Throne is easily Vlambeer’s most ambitious title yet, and once it clicked with me I found myself completely addicted to it. I didn’t enjoy it as much a Luftrasuers, and that remains my favourite Vlambeer experience but still I couldn’t put Nuclear Throne down. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to try to get to it.