Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Videogameopolis: Nuclear Throne First Impressions

Independent game developer Vlambeer is no stranger to pain. The tiny two man team, along with occasional collaborators, have witnessed their best efforts stolen by unscrupulous rivals. Until recently, these clones of their games have also found a decent amount of success, discouraging these brilliant creators with a heavy dose of despair. Their fortunes have begun to turn recently, but it seems that they've decided to inflict some of that pain on others. Nuclear Throne is that pain, and it's exhilarating.

Nuclear Throne is the latest game to take inspiration from the "roguelike" genre, which is known for heavily randomized levels, high difficulty, and permanent death of game characters. These types of games give no quarter and no mercy, and only once chance to complete them. Traditionally, it's been a niche genre, due to the high skill level and time investment required. Recent games have taken the principles of these games but quickened the pace and shortening the experience. You can realistically finish in a couple hours, once you've played enough to not die within the first few minutes.

Vlambeer takes pride in experimenting with old genres and aesthetic styles to create games that feel timeless but are decidedly modern.  Nuclear Throne continues the development of the roguelike by being deceptively accessible. The gameplay, aesthetics, and lack of unnecessary complexity all make for an alluring experience that masks the great difficulty underneath.

Nuclear Throne is currently on Steam Early Access and is still in development, but the experience itself already feels like a nearly complete product. Every update brings new adjustments and additions to the game, but what is missing still is some form of narrative. Some basic story is planned, it seems, but for now everything must be implied from the excellent art design.

The game stars a small band of mutants attempting to survive a hostile, post-apocalyptic wasteland by reaching the titular Nuclear Throne, which is not yet implemented. Characters include a bipedal fish, tiny robot, walking slab of muscle, and even a samurai chicken. There are nine in total, and each one features both a special ability as well as an advantage of some type. The chicken is the latest addition, and there is a definitely possibility of more mutants emerging.

Gameplay is action oriented, and utilizes mechanics similar to classic arcade shooters. Each mutant can hold up to two weapons, with the majority being different guns. There are also a few melee tools, though they're currently a bit too difficult to utilize by most characters. Action is extremely fast paced, requiring constant movement and the dodging of projectiles. Everything seems to want the starring mutants dead, and the only way to survive is to be the last one standing.

Each level starts with the mutant emerging from a wormhole portal into a randomly generated environment. While the exact layouts always change, general rules for each level are the same. The first few levels are themed to a desert, then a sewer, then a junkyard, with a steadily more difficult group of enemies. A boss fight always appears on the third level, and each level is guaranteed to have at least one weapon crate and one source of extra radiation, which is the experience points of the game.

Radiation provides the gameplay with a strong risk/reward mechanic. Glowing radiation, as well as ammunition, only appears for a few seconds after enemies are defeated before disappearing. Since most combat is ranged, this means the player character must charge recklessly into hostile territory in order to gain enough points to level. Each new level provides a choice of several random benefits, like increased hit points or replenishing ammunition, which become essential for surviving later levels. Fights with the enemy then become a balance between avoiding unnecessary risks and obtaining enough resources to continue.

Levels are short, but most players will only complete a few before dying to the first boss, repeatedly. After a while he seems barely challenging, but the next level then feels near impossible. Most games that feature such drastic increases in difficulty feel overly punishing or draining, as progress for the player feels slow. In contrast, the fast paced nature of Nuclear Throne always feels satisfying, with each attempt giving it's own little adrenaline rush. Even the first few levels are highly lethal, which avoids the problem of boring introductory gameplay getting in the way of more interesting content.

The game's excellent art and sound design go a long way to making a constantly engaging experience. Pixel art can have mixed results, but here it gives the perfect balance of the adorable and the grotesque. Both ally and enemy mutants are rendered in a style that wouldn't feel out of place in a classic Nintendo game, if said game happened to be struck by a nuclear warhead. There's a surprising amount of detail as well, down to the tiny little shell casings from automatic weaponry.

The sounds are vital to the game, and provide an amazing amount of feedback to the player. Each weapon makes a satisfying sound, with suitably loud firing and impact noises. This makes every shot fired feel tactile, and even the initial pistol feels suitably dangerous. The music is also well matched to the environments, with a nice fusion of rock and Ennio Morricone style western themes.

In its current state, Nuclear Throne is incredibly engaging with a high replay value, but there is definite room for refinement. The game is surprisingly stable, but there are occasional glitches, and some enemy balancing is still necessary. Certain enemies feel unfairly lethal, and occasionally players are spawned into near instant death.

However, the rate of new additions is staggering, and the developers are even streaming some of their work live to the internet. Little bonuses and secrets are already appearing, like altered costumes and the mysterious crown vaults, and more seem to be planned for the future. Incentives for long-term play, like statistic tracking and unlockables, are also in the works. What is already better than many finished games has a chance to be truly spectacular. It's already managing to make extreme challenge extremely fun, something that is itself an achievement.

Nuclear Throne is currently available through Steam or from the Humble store via the game's website. Early access costs $12.99, but the game will most likely retail for less. It's definitely worth the price even in its current state, and any sales help this small team create even more brilliant works.

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