Preview: Nuclear Throne Alison Fleming April 10, 2014 Previews I’m a big fan of roguelikes (and all derivative genres, roguelites included, to briefly address that elephant in the room), and have been greatly enjoying this roguelike renaissance that the indie scene seems to be going through at the moment. From the more traditional fare of Dungeons of Dredmor to more action oriented stuff like Rogue Legacy and The Binding of Isaac, there’s stuff for just about every mood. Nuclear Throne falls far closer to the action end of that scale, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to get my hands on for a while. Nuclear Throne, previously known as Wasteland Kings is an action roguelike with definite shoot-em-up elements to it. It’s by Vlambeer, the company behind the likes of Ridiculous Fishing and Super Crate Box. The world has ended and all that remains is a cliche ridden radioactive wasteland populated by mutants and far too many guns. You take one such mutant on their quest to find the titular Throne and become the ruler of the wasteland. Assuming you survive past the first level. This is a roguelike after all. The game itself is pretty simple – you run through a number of randomly generated arenas and shoot hordes of enemies to death. Along the way, you’ll pick up tons of different guns and unlock a bunch of different perks. It’s a fairly standard mash up of top down shooter and roguelike, but it works extremely well. The action is very frantic and fast paced, and often extremely chaotic. Enemies fire tons of bullets, the environment can explode, and hordes of lesser foes streak across the wasteland towards you. On your side, you can hold up to two weapons and some of the late-game weapons have a fire rate that can make even the most rapidly attacking enemies jealous. The screen can get so cluttered that it can verge on bullet hell territory at times. Also feeding into this is just how difficult the game is. You have a very limited amount of health and your foes can do a devastating amount of damage. There are also deathtraps and exploding objects present in a lot of levels. With bullets, monsters and other hazards filling the screen, survival is never guaranteed. The controls are nice and tight though, with every action feeling extremely precise. It’s a great feeling dodging through a hail of bullets and shooting the offending enemy to death. Or even better, smashing them with a melee weapon – shooting or hitting with a swing makes the screen shake. It’s very satisfying feedback, and makes even the most cruel of floors a joy to blast your way through. Enemies also drop radiation, which looks remarkably similar to cartoonish dollar bills, which flies towards you when you’re nearby. The ding of a level up and the ethereal crown that temporarily floats above your head is exhilarating. What makes roguelikes and games with roguelike elements so satisfying and replayable is how much variety they can pack into different playthroughs. Nuclear Throne is no different in this regard. It has a ton of weapons available for pickup, for instance. There are about half a dozen different types of ammo – bullets, shells, bolts, etc – and countless types of guns for each, as well as a load of melee weapons. These guns range from the obvious, like revolvers and shotguns, to the weird and wonderful like plasma cannons, wave shotguns or Vlambeer’s trademark disc-gun. Even several hours in I’m still uncovering new weaponry. Beyond that, there are several other things that can influence how a run plays out. For instance, there are perks, generally called “mutations” in game. These are gained by collecting enough radiation which acts as the game’s currency and is dropped from enemies. Usually you gain about one level every floor and a half or so, excluding bosses and modifiers which can change this drastically. When you proceed down to a further floor after levelling, you’re presented with a choice of four perks. These vary in usefulness depending on the situation, and some are generally better than others. Things like improving energy weapon damage won’t mean much if your loadout consists of a shotgun and a sledgehammer, for instance. Usually among the most useful is the amazingly named Throne Butt mutation, which improves or changes your character’s special ability. This is perhaps the thing that impacts the way you play the game most, the character variety. Beyond simply looking and sounding different, the various different mutants in Nuclear Throne also play pretty differently. This is often on a basic and passive level. For instance, some characters start with more or less health and ammo than standard, some characters get technology (which translates to late game weaponry) at different rates and characters can start with different weapons. Some differences are even more pronounced than that – take Chicken, for instance. When she dies, she enters a second wind state where she runs around as, appropriately enough, a headless chicken for a short while. This lasts a few seconds before death sets in, but picking up health in this state will restore her to life. This makes her totally different from, say, Fish, who gets the amazing and wondrous power of having slightly more ammunition. The special abilities can be really cool, though they’re ultimately a bit mixed. Some are really good starting out, like Crystal’s ability to turn into a huge shard of rock and deflect bullets or Steroids’ ability to shoot with both weapons at once, and these generally continue to be viable. Some take some more getting used to and are difficult to master, however, and the Throne Butt mutation can change the way it works entirely. Take Fish’s dodge roll, which is very hard to control at first, or the character of Melting in general. He’s a definite glass cannon and dies in a single shot from most enemies, but he gets 50% more radiation and his ability allows him to blow up all the bodies around him. He’s currently one of my favourites because his ability is so useful, and because he embodies the whole risk-reward dynamic that fills Nuclear Throne. It’s all presented in a charming fashion, with tongue firmly in cheek. Every pore oozes character. The apocalypse and radioactive wastelands aren’t new fixtures for fiction, and the game seems to be aware of the well-trodden ground its covering here. In fact, it absolutely revels in it. From things like your experience being radiation that gives you perks in the form of mutations, to little things like one of the characters being a cop who was one day from retirement before the end of the world, every little detail makes the game more fun and, in a sense, silly. It’s just all done with a lovely layer of wit and charm that keeps things flowing nicely, even in the face of your rapidly climbing death count. Of course, for all the good things, it’s not perfect. This being an Early Access title, it’s still a work in progress. And that shows in some areas. Most immediately evident among these is that it took a bit of fiddling around to actually get started. Initially the sound wouldn’t work and the controller wouldn’t register with the game. There was a simple enough solution to this, sure – running it in admin mode seemed to sort it out. However it was still an annoying error to have to deal with, and will hopefully be sorted out as development continues. Still, being in development isn’t all bad. It’s interesting to see the game develop and change, for instance. When I first saw the game, when it was just fresh out the door, it only had three sets of levels. Since then it’s been in constant development, and the number of levels has more than doubled. There’s been a huge increase in the number of mini bosses, characters and just general cool little things present in the game too. That’s one of the best things about Early Access, honestly, the ability to watch games evolve. Nuclear Throne is a strong addition to Steam’s growing library of roguelikes. Even ignoring genre monikers, it’s a great game that can keep you entertained for hours, regardless of the relatively early state of development. As the game continues to evolve, the extra content and polish can make it into something genuinely fantastic.