Nuclear Throne Review
It’s level 3-2 and your triple machine gun is out of ammo, but your wrench just isn’t going to cut it on the next boss. Backed into a corner, you furtively mash buttons and trigger your special ability, a reflective shield that pops a few errant blasts back toward the boss, taking him out. Sucked into a portal, you lose your last point of health when a random explosion takes you out as soon as you enter the next floor. You’re back to 1-1, but hey, maybe you unlocked a new character to try this time.
Vlambeer’s take on the twin-stick shooting roguelike is Nuclear Throne, a procedurally generated romp through a variety of levels and enemies. Players begin with only two options at the character select screen, but as they progress, new characters with new abilities are unlocked. These unlocks are important even if the player doesn’t switch characters, as each comes with a set of specific “mutation” or level up bonuses that can be chosen from a randomized pool between levels. This progression loop is fairly satisfying as you unlock tweaks and bonuses to draw from to keep things fresh.
Players have access to tons of weapons to find and learn how to use (you can swing the wrench through walls, so that helps a lot!) and ammo conservation is of utmost importance. If you find yourself out of bullets on a boss, you’re probably headed back to the character select screen. It’s a balance that’s frustrating at first, but learning to conserve your best weapons and ammo comes fast. Screens get loaded with bullets and baddies, leading to unfortunate mistakes with exploding cars or other environmental disasters. You have little room for error in terms of your health pool, as even the heartiest of characters can only take a few hits.
As with the weapons, this can be rather frustrating as you ram your head into the early levels over and over, waiting for the right mix of abilities and weapons to drop in your lap. As you discover enemy patterns and attacks, the action becomes more balanced – but it still doesn’t feel great. Overcoming a new encounter is rarely satisfying; you simply had the right blend of abilities pop up or guns appear. I’m a huge fan of roguelikes that feature non-linear progression like FTL and Binding of Isaac, but the gameplay loop of Nuclear Throne falls a bit flat in comparison. I felt rather deflated from attempt to attempt rather than inspired to take on the stages again. Even when the mistakes were clearly my fault, the times when random factors just killed me instantly made me considerably less excited for the next round of running for the throne.
Once you’ve got some serious chops and have learned the game in and out, the entire ordeal can be completed in under an hour. Fear not, plenty of challenge and variety await players by engaging in local two-player co-op where you can toy with weapon and ability interactions, and daily and weekly challenges are available as well, meaning that your procedurally generated journey has plenty of longevity even after the standard game is bested. Nuclear Throne somehow manages to be both fun and frustrating at the same time, making for an interesting roguelike shooter that will keep you coming back for more.