Version tested PC
I really don't want to know how they made the audio effects for Nuclear Throne. Some curtains should not be lifted. I'm not talking about the weapons effects, which are loud and clean and gavel-hard with it. No, I'm talking about almost everything else - the munching, the slobbering, the wet, the membranous. Strip away all the punkish ingenuity piled on Nuclear Throne and, for the first few levels at least, you're left with this: a skin-fidgeting, hair-tingling battle of textures. Hard meets sticky. Bang meets squelch.
But why would you want to strip any of that other stuff away? Nuclear Throne's Early Access incarnation is game design behaving like accretion theory. The core has always been glinting and spiky and extremely promising, but every time I come back to it, something more has been drawn into the orbit, something new is waiting to be discovered. This is a game that's updated every week, more or less. It's getting richer with each addition. Forget accretion theory - it's basically ludic gumbo.
At heart, it's actually a roguelike, and an extremely fast-paced one. Choose a class, then blast through some tightly compressed procedural levels grabbing and dropping weaponry as it presents itself. Dust and bandits and sewers and carnage!
What a life! Level up at MOBA speed, stumble across a secret level, make mistakes that are hard to recover from and then die in a vast scattering of Vlambeer bullets. How far did I get? How much did I kill? No matter: the breakdown screen's been swiftly dismissed by the trigger finger and I'm already headed back out there again, out where the slobbering and the munching is starting to grow deafening once more, where the wet and the membranous saunter and play and snort sand through unlikely gills. The very opening riff of the very opening levels sounds like Here-we-go-a-GAIN. This is a game that completely understands its headachey, 3am appeal.
There's not much scene-setting, but Paul Veer's chunky, melty art makes it strangely wonderful nonetheless. We're all irradiated horrors in this toxic wasteland: chicken carcasses, bandanged thumbs, toasties with eyes leaking cheesey goo as we stumble around. We're all fightin' and fumin' across a series of post-apocalyptic settings as we aim to secure loot, legendary status and a spot on the Nuclear Throne. What's the Nuclear Throne? I don't really care, to be honest, because I'm still so busy trying to get there, shooting away as scorched desert canyons give way to scrapyards, crystal caves, worse...
As with Spelunky, your progression from one zone to another is unshifting, even though the rhythm's been altered somewhat with three levels of one tile-set followed by a sort of transitional palate cleanser before the next three. And, as with Spelunky, the whole joint is crawling with vermin that wants to do you in - shawl-wrapped bandits, fat-bellied albino grubs, untidy birds with automatic weapons, gem-bodied spiders, robot wolves.
This is a shooter rather than a platformer, though - the shootiest of shooters, judging by the screen-shake and the shell casings and the echoing, metallic pounding of lead. It handles like a twin-stick shooter whether you're on mouse-and-keyboard or pad, and instead of finding each map's exit in order to progress, you conjure your own exit from nowhere by blasting all other life to pieces. Boom, boom, boom and rest - and then you're sucked right into the swirling time-tunnel vortex that leads to the next hellhole. Hopefully without leaving any promising loot behind.
But even here there's more to it - more that only emerges over repeated plays. Nuclear Throne, scrappy and buggy and unfinished as it is, already feels like developer Vlambeer's most luxurious game, and its perhaps the team's most demanding and multi-layered, too, throwing a tactical, almost strategic element into the mix behind all that shooting.
And the tactical stuff lies with the loot. This comes in the form of weapon drops and ammo for the most part. Weapon drops that get steadily more powerful the longer you live, and ammo spread across the five types of weapon the game offers - good old standard bullets at one end, pure sci-fi energy at the other. There's a Halo-style two weapon limit that forces you, as ever, to make difficult choices, and there are an array of treats waiting to tempt you: machine guns, pistols, hammers and shovels. There's a laser gun that sizzles the air as it draws a keylime-green line across the map, and there's the disk gun from Super Crate Box, as deadly in its rebounds as ever.
The catch is this: on the early levels, the enemies fire slow-moving bullets and you have a lot of time to aim your shot and conserve your ammo. But you won't at first, because it's a Vlambeer game, and they're generally about blitzing everything and holding down the trigger until you're ready to pass out. As the game draws onwards, though, you get speedy snipers, you get baddies with their own insta-lasers, you get enemies that are increasingly as fast on the draw as you are. Suddenly you realise it isn't enough to spray lead, or grenades, or laser fire around like there's no tomorrow, because tomorrow's already here and your chamber is empty. You never have quite as much ammo as you would need to feel truly comfortable; every shot matters. Nuclear Throne lures you in with glorious excess, but it's ultimately a game about managing relative scarcity - health, ammo, hiding places. It's the scarcity that makes it so special.
Nuclear Throne already feels like Vlambeer's most luxurious game, and its perhaps its most demanding and multi-layered, too
Not that you'd always know it's about scarcity, of course, when the game chucks triple-machineguns and double shotguns and flak cannons your way as you reach the mid-levels. Even when Nuclear Throne's being generous, though, it's wise to suspect trickery. The best weapons are a lure - a prompt to get you into trouble. Sometimes trouble bubbles up immediately: it turns out a single word can lie between life and death when the word in question is Bazooka. Sometimes, though, trouble arrives much more deviously. That triple machinegun shreds the opposition, but it shreds your ammo too. For all the pretty lights it provides, a lot of those bullets are going to miss.
Do you like spotting patterns? If so, you're going to excel in Vlambeer's wasteland, where success isn't only about a quick eye but an innate ability to match weapon, threat and environment together with wit and imagination. It turns out a shotgun's the perfect weapon for sewers, where narrow corridors allow your shells to bounce around corners, but a sledgehammer's not bad either, just as long as you find a nice cul-de-sac to lurk in while the mutant rats come to you. Equally, the scrapyard stages, with their nimble ravens and long-range threats, are going to need something a little more precise, while the Crystal Cave will require something much heavier. The right weapon can open a level up and see you fighting along the grain instead of against it. The eternal wrinkle is the fact that you can't be sure of what you'll have to choose between because, you know: roguelike. Nuclear Throne encourages you to ad-lib from the off, but it also encourages you to get smarter at ad-libbing as you proceed.
It's not all about shooting. It's also about learning the classes, another of Nuclear Throne's real treats. Each comes with a secondary power that's unique to them alongside a certain aptitude that prompts you to play in a certain way. Crystal's born with more health than everyone else, for example, and can shield herself for a limited period, bouncing bullets back in the direction they came from. Fish can do a neat little combat roll, and he gathers more ammo from the environment.
There are 10 of these guys to choose from, and they're all interesting, viable choices. Rebel's my favourite, her face hidden, her scarf flapping rakishly in the wind. If Rebel takes fire, she shoots out a corona of big red plasma blobs to thin the ranks, and she can split herself into clones who fight alongside her. All characters level up by collecting the toxic neon green fragments spilled out from defeated enemies, and each level you gain allows you to choose from a random assortment of perks, all of which are tied into the fiction. Want to boost your melee range? You've mutated with longer arms! Want weaker enemies? You've grown a scarier face!
Beyond all that lie regular bosses and the Inter-Dimensional Police Department who start to warp in with slightly wearying enthusiasm as you reach the middle of the game and can decimate you in seconds. There are also vaults to explore, offering up a series of crowns which modify the game in nail-biting ways, giving you an HP boost with each level, say, while cancelling all other HP drops. Then there are all those secrets to uncover. Like Spelunky - like any great roguelike - you learn to juggle a range of potential objectives as the nature of a specific run becomes apparent. If I'm low on health but I've managed to hold onto a certain melee weapon, for example, I know what I'm going to aim for, and it's a different target than if I was tooled up with ranged gadgetry and high on HP.
It's exhausting to play, but in all the right ways - and each weekend, a new patch builds on the madness and makes it richer. How far will Vlambeer take it? That's impossible to tell, but the basics are already so good that it will be hard not to tag along for the ride.
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