It seems like every third game released at the moment is an indie roguelike title, and every fourth game released is in Early Access on Steam. There's a plethora of options if you're interested in unfinished roguelikes on PC, which we are, which goes some way to explain why there's so many of them sitting in our Steam account waiting to be played.
The unfinished indie roguelike that we've been playing most recently is Nuclear Throne, the latest game from Vlambeer, and one that's currently available to download now via Steam Early Access (for just shy of a tenner). It started life as Wasteland Kings, with the first prototype of the game created in three days at Mojam last February. It's come a long way since then, including undergoing a name change after comparisons were drawn between the original name and that of a certain post-apocalyptic isometric RPG currently in development at Inxile Entertainment.
There's another remarkable thing about Nuclear Throne, and that's the fact that development of the game has been an open experience for the developer and the gamers who are playing it. Every Tuesday and Thursday the studio broadcasts via Twitch.tv, and the ongoing show offering insight into the development process has attracted a sizeable following.
But that's a sideshow, and a distracting one at that. We're here to talk about the game, and to give a brief insight into how the action-orientated roguelike is shaping up. It's emerging from a crowd of games that are all offering something fairly similar; permadeath, procedurally generated levels, and frantic gameplay. What, if anything, sets Nuclear Throne apart, and is it enough to warrant an investment considering it's not even finished yet?
The first thing that impressed us was the soundtrack. In short, it's top class. Guitars strum gently underneath psychedelic and eerie hooks before kicking off into something more substantial, and the mood is set in an instant.
After the positive first impression is established via the soundtrack, we're introduced to the roster of mutated characters, each with their own special powers that completely change the way that you'll approach the game. It's in this one design choice that so much of Nuclear Throne's replayability will come from. You must choose your character, and then take them on a brutal mission to get them to the end of the game and the titular Nuclear Throne. We think. We've not got that far yet. Not even close. It might not even be in the game yet for all we know.
Characters like Fish and Crystal offer newcomers a gentler introduction to the brutality of the game's post-apocalyptic wasteland. Crystal can become invulnerable to certain attacks for a time, whereas Fish can do a handy duck and roll out of harm's way. Each of the available characters - there's (currently) ten - has a different ability and a different starting perk. Fish can roll out of trouble, but he/she/it also gets more ammo from crates looted throughout the levels.
I'll not tell you too much about the different characters here, because much of the enjoyment of Nuclear Throne comes from exploring and experimenting with the different special powers, finding out which ones best suit your play style, and discovering new ways of playing the game and approaching the same scenarios with different tactics.
As you blast your way through the level you pick up radiated XP which allows you to level up and add new skills (done between levels). The level cap isn't sky high at the moment, but as you progress through the game you'll be able to add more special powers - or mutations - further building your effectiveness as you shoot the crap out of giant scorpions, huge maggots, rats, and other such grotesque enemies.
To get through each level the task is blissfully simple, you must kill everything, meaning you can't be overly conservative with your approach. Aggression is a necessity. Taking down the last enemy opens up a portal that sucks you through to the next when you approach it, so grabbing the gear you need en route is essential, because once it latches on to you it's on to the next level, regardless of whether you're ready or not.
So it's a simple enough setup, but the variety in the gameplay is what really appealed to us. Not in terms of the opening levels or the enemies you'll be facing along the way, but rather from the differences you'll experience thanks to the various abilities of the characters. That and the soundtrack, which is brilliant.
Subtlety and nuanced abilities would mean nothing if the game didn't control well, but the combat is satisfying and well weighted, and we played with both a mouse & keyboard and with a control pad, and enjoyed the experience equally with both (which bodes will for the game as it's going to be released on both PlayStation 4 and PS Vita later down the line). In fact, we'd probably default to controller because it makes it a bit easier to sit back and relax as you get into the game, instead of being hunched over the keyboard as is the norm with unfinished roguelikes on PC.
So far, even though the game is just a work-in-progress, it's very easy to recommend for genre fans. The transparency of Vlambeer (through their livestreaming of development) ensures it's an essential experience for those those that are interested in game design. For the rest of you, those who just like blasting away through roguelikes, it's also well worth a look. There's enough polish already in place that it doesn't feel like a game in transition, and there's updates coming at regular intervals. The latest, Update #12, introduced a new playable character called Rebel (that can spawn allies in exchange for a few HP), the basic framework for the character unlock system, new sounds and flame-based weapons.
Despite the polish already present and the new features being added, and despite the praise we and others have lavished on the game, some people like to wait for the finished article before they part with some cash. For those of you who feel that way about Early Access and its ilk, we can only recommend that you keep an eye out for this one, and as soon as it's finished we'll get our review done. Based on everything we've seen so far, expect it to be positive.
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