Nuclear Throne

I feel like most reviews of Nuclear Throne would start with the words “I hate you”, and this one is no different. I hate you, Nuclear Throne. You’re an unhealthy relationship that I can’t find my way out of. Time and time again I feel like things are going really well and then you slap me down and remind me that reality is here to ruin the day. I’m not good enough for you, I’m not what you deserve but damn it I’m going to keep trying until you accept me for who I am!

This is the kind of emotion that Nuclear Throne evokes from me when I play it. It’s a top-down roguelike shooter with procedurally generated levels, incredible depth, and a difficulty scale that will make players throw controllers. Made by the folks at Vlambeer, known for Ridiculous Fishing and Super Crate Box, Nuclear Throne sports a pixel-esque look that seems to be more fitting to a mobile device than a console or PC, but still manages to work well on both. Players choose from a roster of mutants that have different special abilities, drop into a world populated by enemies, pick up different weapons, and kill said enemies using dual joystick aiming and the trigger for firing.

The controls, at first, feel odd. Moving and shooting with two joysticks is nothing new but you don’t shoot with the right joystick, you just aim. On the PC you can use a mouse and keyboard and from what I’ve played of the PC version I have to say that it’s the way to play. Unfortunately, the mouse and keyboard give you expert-level precision that you just can’t get from the PS4 controller. This makes the PS4 version feel sub-par when compared to its bigger brother. The reason for that precision being such a big deal is that Nuclear Throne is filled with a lot of enemies and bullets.

After the fourth level the game really starts to pick up. You have enemies coming at you from every direction and they’re all firing weapons, too. That means you’re doing your best bullet-hell dodging while also taking cover and firing back when you can. The left trigger is reserved for special abilities that are unique to each character. These simplistic controls ensure an easy pick-up-and-play experience with a ridiculous learning curve if you want to get good at the game. With a mouse and keyboard, Nuclear Throne is still challenging, but it feels more doable than with a controller. There are times when the PS4 controller feels like it can’t keep up, though thankfully that is not often enough to be too big of a detriment. Still, if you consider yourself a hardcore player of these kinds of rougelikes, I suggest you pick up the PC version.

To take care of all those nasty enemies you have a large arsenal of different weapon types. Some shoot bullets, some shoot shells, others shoot explosives and still more shoot energy. The different ammo types encourage different play styles and I found myself adjusting and adapting depending on what guns I found in the world on a playthrough. On one run I was completely comfortable with my revolver and shotgun combo, which is rather basic and typically only available in early goings. On other playthroughs I made it a point to get a grenade launcher and precise lightning pistol to vary up my chances of success. The different weapons give the game legs by way of varied runs, an important quality in roguelike games. Most of the weapons I found in my time with the game were great; I only ever disliked one type of weapon and those were the crossbows, which just weren’t for me. Melee weapons also exist, and watching someone pull off a successful melee run is a thing of beauty.

To make special runs like a melee run possible, Nuclear Throne has “mutations” that take place when you collect enough experience points, or rads. Mutations grant abilities such as damaging enemies that touch you, regenerating ammo or health upon killing an enemy, or an additional four hit points. Each ability has its uses and some abilities I thought to be useless turned out to be incredibly important to a successful run. I highly suggest watching some YouTube videos on the game to see what type of builds work for your play style.

Just the fact that Nuclear Throne has these build options is a testament to its hidden depth. At first, I thought the game was a simple matter of kill enemies, get more health power-ups, and try not to die. Over time I realized how different combinations of mutations could really change the game entirely. On one play through, for instance, I finished a handful of levels without firing a weapon or swinging a melee weapon. On another run, I went for movement abilities and became an untouchable ninja of death and chaos.

Nuclear Throne plays by its own rules and they’re for the player to find out. Some enemies explode upon death, killing you instantly if you’re too close. Other enemies play dead and pop up at the last minute to end your run in a flash. These rules also apply to the diversified roster of player characters. The large roster of mutants means you’ll have plenty of choices and each one can pull off useful abilities. Crystal, who starts with higher health than the other mutants and can turn into a crystal that deflects bullets for a short time, is a great starter character. Other characters like Melting are for the more hardcore as it doesn’t have as many hit points but can make corpses explode and gains XP at a faster rate.

There’s a great sense of style in Nuclear Throne and its one that gets realized to the fullest degree. Every enemy and asset feels like it belongs in whatever world you’re playing in, whether it’s a desert, an icy tundra, or a pyramid cyclops’ mansion. The only time the game felt iffy was when it slowed down during massive explosions. These momentary slowdowns felt awful in a game that requires precision and control at every turn. Luckily, they never seemed to be a problem when I was mid-run and were never responsible for a death. Nuclear Throne is a tough but fair roguelike, that much is true. My other odd gripe with the PS4 version is the pause menu. The pause menu defaults to the main menu button as the button you’d press if you were to press X. Typically if I pause mid-run it’s because I needed to answer a call or let someone in. If I didn’t remember to move the cursor to “Continue” I would accidently hit X and be sent back to the main menu without any “Are you sure you want to quit?” text boxes. It’s an odd thing to complain about in 2016 but it happened on several occasions.

I had a lot of fun learning the ins and outs of each character and weapon and, like a good fighting game, I found the character I’m going to stick with. I played many hours of Nuclear Throne and I expect it to be the game I come back to the most in 2016. Nuclear Throne knows what it is and makes no bones about it. It’s a difficult, stylized roguelike with a clear vision of what it’s trying to achieve. Everything from the unique art style to the tough-as-nails gameplay makes it a rollercoaster of emotions whether you’re playing it for 15 minutes or 15 hours.