Nuclear Throne

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Kicking off this indie month all about Western Europe, I opted to play a game from my own country: The Netherlands. Few Dutch studios are as renowned as Vlambeer and I own plenty of games made by them. While I very much adore Luftrausers, I wanted to try something new for indie month and went with their biggest title so far. This is Nuclear Throne.

Be the king

This game is a roguelite, twinstick shooter in which you pick from a handful of mutant characters. Each one of them desires to reach the Nuclear Throne and rule over the post-apocalyptic wasteland, but between them and the throne stands a number of randomly-generated levels and a few hundred enemies.

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Each level randomly generates its paths, spaces, and corners, and then populates them with increasingly difficult enemies. The first few levels feature scorpions that fire a salvo of projectiles, but eventually these make room for gun-toting bird people that fly across the level, flame-spewing lizards, and highly aggressive alien police officers. You start the game with only a pistol, but red chests will drop weapons for you to use and yellow ones contain ammo, which is also dropped randomly by enemies.

Once the final enemy bites the dust, the game opens up a portal that sucks you in and boots you to the next stage. If you collected enough rads, these green, radioactive shards, you get to pick one of four mutations based on the available characters. One might give you more HP, another will turn bullets that hit you back into ammo, and yet another will damage every enemy on screen when something damages you. These are fancy upgrades, but unlike a game like Isaac or Our Darker Purpose, I didn’t really feel like these options helped shape a playstyle for any particular run and I often found myself having to decide which of the four options was the least lackluster.

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The weapons you get are diverse, but difficult to keep apart in some cases. The popgun, SMG, assault rifle, and minigun all just kind of do the same in my eyes, and lacking any kind of transparent numbers for damage output made it difficult to decide which I should be taking. You do get fun alternatives like grenade launchers, crossbows, and laser pistols, but here too it’s difficult to discern which ones are strong, plus you need to deal with different ammo types.

The top-down shooting gameplay does feel nice and benefits from good game feel. It’s satisfying to dodge projectiles and gun down enemies, especially when you then suck up all those precious rads and see the rad meter fill up. It’s just that I quickly found myself hitting a snag that was hard to overcome; a level that was the limit of what I could achieve. I tried many times, only to find that I wasn’t unlocking any new equipment, characters, mutations, or other options. Every run quickly began to feel the same and I got burned out quick.

Gameplay score: 4.5/10

A wasteland of uglies

Nuclear Throne benefits from some truly nice sprite art that goes a long way in bringing this Fallout-style post-apocalyptic wasteland to life. All the playable characters have neat designs, like the blue guy who has eyes all over his body or the fishy poster character. This makes it easy to keep them apart from the various enemies, which themselves also have detailed designs to them. I was especially fond of the bird enemies, which also have a clear sound-effect for when they are about to fly across the screen. On the flipside, enemies like the assassins and mimics are a bit lame, as the animations that betray their true nature are small and difficult to notice in the zoomed-out perspective.

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This is also one busy game, especially as you advance further and are faced with stronger and more aggressive enemies. Projectiles are large and it’s easy to get in a situation where you are dodging between bullets while explosions go off around you and some foes charge you in an attempt to get in close-range. Despite all this thrilling chaos, it’s rare for the player to lose oversight and only a few times did I die without knowing what got me.

The soundtrack is set to match, with a beautiful main theme and various background tracks to accompany you as you blast through hordes of monsters, mutants, and other bastards. All the music has mild influences from the Wild West in it, which really helps sell that wasteland feel as you try to stab giant scorpions to death. A point against the game, however, is that it’s themed levels are in a strict order, which makes replaying the game a bit dull. Each run will see you go through 3 desert stages, then a sewer, then this, then that. The layouts may be randomized, but this strict order of stages caused the repetition to weigh heavily.

Presentation score: 8/10

Verdict

The good:

  • Excellent sprite art and main character.
  • Satisfying, top-down action.
  • The soundtrack wears its Wild West inspirations proudly.

The bad:

  • Not enough options to make the roguelite structure worth it.
  • Levels are always in the same order and only randomize the individual rooms.
  • Lackluster mutations make leveling up dull.
  • Loses its appeal when you can’t seem to progress.

63/100

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