Nex Machina PC Review
You would think that a genre as old as the twin-stick shooter would be done with, but I am finding developers are able to bring something to the genre that exhilarates the fun that can be had with one of the most standard ways to shoot up enemies. This year, Serious Sam’s Bogus Detour managed to incorporate its first-person shooter background into a great twin-stick shooter, 2015’s Assault Android Cactus is simply one of the best I have ever played in the genre, and now Housemarque, a studio that has excelled in bringing fantastic classic style shooters – mostly to Sony consoles – is back again with another impressive title that is very arcade focused in design and heritage.
This is because Eugune Jarvis, a guy who has an impressive arcade portfolio of titles behind him, such as Defender, Stargate, Robotron, Smash TV, acted as a creative consultant with Housemarque – the first time since Cruis’n USA that he has decided to work with an outside team – to blend his old school arcade background with today’s tech. Jarvis asked the perfect question when deciding to join up for this collaboration – “What would happen if we teamed up? Mash up old school arcade with mad voxel tech and crazed nouveau Helsinki gamers… All I know now is that it is going to be explosive.” And he wasn’t wrong, from the get go, this game throws players right into the thick of the action, freely sending voxels showering across the screen in droves like a mastered choreography act.
Story is stripped away from Nex Machina, leaving a general plot that humans are in a world where machines have gained a conscious and decided that they are the dominate species on the planet. These machines are fed up being servants, so they go on an all out war to eradicate human life on the planet. This is where you come in, a one man army who needs to save humans, collect power ups and blow shit up to save what is left of the human race. Straight forward as a story can be, and that goes for the gameplay as well.
There is nothing complicated in Nex Machina, as simplicity allows players to focus on what is going on screen, as it truly can become a colourful blast of hectic action when in full force. The controls, which I recommend using a controller for over a keyboard and mouse, are the two analogue sticks (move and aim/shoot) and the left and right shoulder buttons (triggers replicate the shoulder actions) to perform a dash and use the equipped special weapon. From the get go, Nex Machina drops the player into the first stage of the starting world and the robots start coming, and it never stops. Armed with only a machinegun, the default weapon that sticks with the character throughout the game’s six worlds – 15 stages per world plus some secret stages to find within them – it’s an instance response from any player to point and shoot at all the robotic sentient forms and save the green humans that appear in some of the stages to earn bonus points. That is all people need to know to be able to play this game, and the controls are spot on to let you dodge, weave and shoot without any resistance.
Nex Machina is void of any gimmicky features, this is straight edge shooting, but while it is easy to pick up, this is a game that thrives on delivering a challenge. Rookie difficulty, which the game happily informs is the standard setting, and could define as easy in other games, comes with unlimited continues and allows to learn the game’s mechanics and level design. The next step up, Experienced, drops unlimited continues and gives a very generous 99 continues to beat this setting. Experienced is a clear step up in difficulty over Rookie. Where as the latter I managed to beat within three continues on my first attempt, the former upped everything and drained me of over 20 continues to finish it, which demonstrates how much harder it is after I had learned the gist of the game and its enemy patterns in the Rookie setting. Veteran and Master make up the last two settings that adds more enemies and makes them faster and more aggressive, while reducing the continues to 10 for Veteran and 5 for Master.
There is more than surviving to the end in Nex Machina, as at its heart this is a score based game. Staying alive is one of its demands, but to make name for oneself on the leaderboards – these are shared across both the PS4 and PC to truly show who is the best – requires building up a bundle of points, done by saving each human and keeping the timer up to combo collect them for added bonus points. This is all while enemies are firing giant laser beams, shooting out blobs of energy or making a dash towards you – they are various strategies these mechanical monsters have to make life hell – so attempting to pick up a human before they meet their demise is risky business. It’s an entirely optional objective to achieve, but one that is compulsory to get great scores and adds tension to the fight when humans are flashing red to alert they are about to die. Do you risk the score bonus or drop the combo and play safe?
It is possible to rinse and repeat death and brute force through the six worlds with the 99 continues in the Experienced difficulty, but each use of a continue resets the score back to 0, so it is ideal to learn the game’s mechanics and become accustom to enemy spawn locations and patterns, because it isn’t going to help you on Veteran or Master.
Nex Machina offers the tools to stay alive through power ups and the incredibly helpful dash. Dashing offers quick movement and invincibility to dash through laser beans, bullets and even enemy bodies for a quick get out of jail moment. Power ups help further, such as the two for the main weapon that extend its shot reach or apply bullet spray, but having a shield or the triple dash is much more handy for zipping around out of danger. The cooldown on the dash isn’t long, so after a couple of seconds you are good to go again.
The last pick ups are special weapons, which differ from power ups, as only one special weapon can be carried at once – picking up another replaces the current held item. These weapons offer some form of big damage, be it the laser that stays out and burns through robots or the sword that enables to cut through incoming bullets or destroy most robots in one hit, but the downside is to use the sword effectively means the player has to be close to the enemy to deal the deathblow.
It’s inevitable that death will come often, but it’s not as punishing as you would expect, because the game will let you keep all powers equipped bar one that will randomly drop into the stage, with the character spawning back to the beginning of the current stage with the power up available to reacquire. Losing the last life is a little different, as then you will lose all power ups when using a continue, but will remain on the current stage just like a normal death.
Stages never overstay their welcome, lasting anywhere within the spectrum of 60 seconds. meaning you can blast through a world in 6-12 minutes. The design of each stage never gets excessively complex, keeping its layout easy to follow. You’ll get unlocked zones that connect bridges to unreachable areas after killing certain enemies, find hidden stages or secrets sneakily placed behind destructible environments or have to avoid such hazards as the rolling boulder that chases the player through a short pathway before falling off the end, but the stages never go out of their way to be crazy, unlike some of the exceptional level design in Assault Android Cactus – each stage in that game gave it personality and built that into the gameplay as a means to make things harder. In Nex Machina, it’s the enemies and their abilities to block sections with huge lasers, sheer numbers and the chance of being hit by the one hit kills to spoil a personal record combo that are the threat, with stages acting as arena themes filled with destructible objects, colours and shapes to let these death machines run wild. Once a world begins, there is never any downtime. It is a full on assault until the world’s boss is taken down, and the bosses themselves are exhilarating fights that can quickly end a run in seconds if not paying attention to their patterns and bullet hell-esque assault.
Purely as a one off experience through Arcade mode, this game is short on content, but the idea of Nex Machina is to get better at it, repeat the runs and increase the scores. For something a little different, outside of the main Arcade mode sits Single World that enables play on individual worlds, which is handy to learn them without the need to repeat previous worlds in Arcade mode. Arena is the other mode where it offers a multitude of challenges that reward with coins, which can be used to buy new outfits to use on the avatar or unlock new game features inside Arena that puts a twist on the standard formula (faster bullets, faster enemy spawn, score only increase with human combo). Arena is neat diversion from the main Arcade mode and has its own leaderboard. Both Arcade and Single World can be played in local cooperative, but bizarrely, there is no online play supported, which sucks if you want to play with some online buddies. Maybe DLC will arrive to add online coop and more worlds to the game,
Nex Machina is an great twin-stick shooter that stays close to the roots it has inherited from designer Eugune Jarvis to bring a modernise, hyper speed take on this classic genre. It does not try to reinvent the wheel, and its lack of online cooperative action is a disappointment, but it offers simple, exceptional controls and has enough going on within its mechanics that it never feels shallow. With beautiful voxel visuals, challenging gameplay and piercing colours, Nex Machina is a combination of striking graphics and addictive gameplay that never stops for a break. While it might not be the best twin-stick shooter in the past few years, there is no doubt that this is still another great arcade shooter from Housemarque’s ever growing library of quality shooters.