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NEED TO KNOW
What is it A hectic hybrid of twin-stick shooter and roguelike Influenced by Spelunky, Super Crate Box, Borderlands Alternatively The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Luftrausers DRM Steam Price 9.99/$12.99 Release Out Now (full release TBC) Publisher/developer Vlambeer Website Nuclear Throne site Multiplayer 4-player co-op
Vlambeer has been tinkering with Nuclear Throne for over a year now, but you wouldn t think so to play it. Early Access games tend to start off shonky and get gradually more refined over time. This, however, remains thrillingly rough-hewn; it s an anarchic thrash of a roguelike where everything goes boom or splat—or, more frequently, boom and splat.
Formerly known as Wasteland Kings, the title now seems to vaguely allude to a horrific toilet incident. Maybe that s because it reminds me of Edmund McMillen s scatalogically-obsessed The Binding of Isaac, but then it often sounds like one, too, in the wet splats as a bullet connects with a squidgy opponent and the thick, mucosal squelch of a larger enemy bursting into a cascade of bright green pickups that you ll gleefully hoover up for XP. The action s too chaotic and the art s too basic for it to be really repulsive, but it s all so wonderfully scrungy; it will make you go eww with the same kind of horrified glee as when you first dissected a frog in science class.
In truth, its brand of mayhem is difficult to get a bead on at first, not least given the fact that the screen-shake effect is so pronounced it s like you re battling on shifting tectonic plates, or triggering an unseen avalanche. The juddering that starts as soon as you pull the trigger is such that you ll begin to fear for the safety of your monitor, as if the action is going to spill loose from the screen, or cause a tremor that tips it over and breaks it. It can be turned down, but why would you want to? Once you ve acclimatized it helps if you ve played a Vlambeer game before - it s such a thrillingly kinetic sensation, and so empowering when you get your hands on something big and explosive, it s all you can do not to loose off all your rounds immediately.
That would be a very bad idea, mind you, though it might take you a couple of goes to realize that. At first, you ll do well to last much more than a minute or two before dying, even given that you re eased into the action with a comparatively gentle couple of opening stages. You ll start playing it like a traditional twin-stick shooter, sprinting everywhere and shooting wildly at everything that moves. But the first time you run out of ammo with five mutants left and no crates to break open, the penny will drop. Nuclear Throne takes an unexpected cue from survival games in the sense that resources are scarcer than you might expect, and so you ll need to be more careful and precise. It is, believe it or not, something of a cover shooter in disguise—or at least it shares some of the same rhythms: you ll find yourself hiding behind little bits of scenery before nipping out to fire off a round, and ducking back into an alcove to avoid the volley of projectiles heading back your way. To paraphrase Kipling, it s about keeping your head while all about you are losing theirs, though presumably he wasn t thinking about sentient fish firing laser-guided crossbow bolts at machine-gun-toting crows at the time.
Indeed, while Paul Veer s sprite art looks rudimentary in stills, his designs are also enormously characterful, particularly the game s playable cast of misfits and oddballs. I imagined Fish to be Perry The Platypus s crazy uncle who just came out of prison, while the muscular Steroids resembles nothing so much as a malignant tumour. Each has their own perk and an additional skill bound to the right mouse button: Crystal is a chunk of purple ore with higher HP who can create a temporary shield to deflect incoming bullets, while Plant (a Pok mon gone feral) can move faster and snare more mobile enemies in a vine trap.
Then there are the mutations you can apply when leveling up, from refills to ammo and health to more permanent augments, like the ability to damage enemies who collide with you, or to run through walls. They all give you a greater chance of surviving just a little longer, but they also encourage you to adjust your tactics accordingly. Likewise the weapons: melee attacks are satisfying but risky, but when you can extend the range of your swipes, a shovel can be as devastating as a grenade launcher - and you re less likely to die from an unexpected rebound.
Procedural generation means the stages throw up different challenges every time: you ll relish finding a generous weapons cache until they all stack in the same place and you struggle to pick up the one you want, and there are hidden stages and I m sure I managed to warp to a later level at one point, but I haven t done so since. It s unpredictable in the best way, and yet over time you ll grow accustomed to every character s foibles, and the weapons best suited to your personal play style - and how to improvise when you don t get what you need.
Whenever new features are added, they re labelled as work in progress , as a warning that they might not be perfectly functional. Yet everything here feels like a work in progress. I don t mean that as an insult: that raw energy is what makes Throne so exciting. At this stage, I wonder whether an official release is necessary—perhaps Vlambeer can just keep updating it forever, adding new verses to a permanently unfinished symphony of bangs, buckshot and bleurgh.
A roguelike on fast-forward, offering procedurally generated chaos at a blistering pace—and Vlambeer s constant updates are keeping it daisy-fresh.