Nex Machina Review
System: PS4, PC
Housemarque has carved itself a nice little niche in gaming. In an age where developers are fighting the arms race of bigger worlds and better graphics, the Finnish studio has been quietly perched at the apex of the twin-stick shooter genre. Since the release of Super Stardust HD at the launch of the PS3, Housemarque has tackled single screen high score fests with games like Resogun, while also imbuing some of their releases, such as Dead Nation and Alienation with the light RPG elements that have made Diablo a household name. Regardless of their inspirations they all delivered on the Housemarque promise: incredibly smooth action frills.
Now with the help of legendary arcade guru Eugene Jarvis – of Robotron and Smash TV fame – lending his creative juices, Housemarque brings us Nex Machina, a game straight out of the golden era of the coin-op with the hopes of cementing their legacy as not just best developer in the genre today, but one of the premier in the industry.
They just made another compelling case for that title with this arcade gem and what is one of the very best games they have made to date.
Like Super Stardust HD and Resogun, Nex Machina wears its arcade influences on its sleeve. It says, “screw the story, gimme a fucking gun and some alien scum to blowup” as it whisks you onto the battlefield only moments into the first stage. From there you are treated to a blistering fast action experience where the name of the game is total annihilation of everything the game throws at you.
The game‘s arcade mode takes you across 6 unique stages, broken up into over a dozen sub-stages, filled with dozen’s of different types of enemies ranging from your typical swarming grunts, which can be eliminated in a solitary shot, to giant mechanical automatons, which will take some heavy firepower to down, as they try to do the same to you with their own laser precision. Every time you eliminate the horde sent for you destruction, you will be teleported to the next area until you reach the end which results in a final test of everything you’ve seen so far before taking on a screen-filling boss encounter.
These bosses are as challenging as they are intimidating, presenting multiple tricky attack patterns and forms that will test even the most battle-hardened player’s mettle. They incorporate some of the most intense moments in the game, thanks to their heavy bullet hell-inspired forms, and are reminiscent of some the great bosses in the genre, most recently as last year’s Furi.
Now, this being an arcade styled shoot-em up, what kind of fun would the game be without the chase for a higher score? For those who are looking to rack up the points, you will have to do better than just survive. Much like Eugene Jarvis’ classic Robotron, your main focus is to liberate as many human survivors as you can before they become machine chow, all while tending to your own survival. Doing your good Samaritan’s duty will reward you with a bonus to your score multiplier. Rescue enough of the stragglers and the score multiplier increases permanently until you lose a life. It’s a simple system, but it really drives home the core gameplay hook of search, destroy, and rescue. It also gives great purpose to replaying each level, as scouring them for every last human – which can be deviously hidden within each sub-stage or special secret stages – becomes a challenging goal that can greatly improve your score.
If you want to go for an even higher score, you will have master the extra layer of depth the game throws your way in the form of the Human Combo. On top of having a permanent score multiplier, every time you rescue someone you will get a timed bonus that can be prolonged the more humans you rescue. This changes the entire complexion of the meta-game in subtle ways. You won’t necessarily want to rescue everyone right away, as it’ll take much longer to eliminate every last enemy before the timer runs out.
Do I go straight for the human who’s on his way to becoming fish food? Or knowing that I still have a few more seconds left on my combo, do I risk holding out so I can take out a few more enemies in the hopes of giving myself a better chance to continue my combo string into the next sub-stage? Its this constant balance between rescuing the stranded and keeping the Human Combo meter going that creates this great dichotomy of risk and reward and gives those who have mastered the game’s mechanics another avenue to continue perfecting their skills.
If this all sounds incredibly overwhelming, it’s because it is – at least in the beginning. But do not fret; you will have ample firepower to help you crush the alien machine menace. On top of your trusty default gun, which can be upgraded with better range and even a spread shot, you will be able to find a half-dozen or so sub-weapons that can really chance the course battle. They range from a rocket launcher, which can take out enemies in the distance, to a smart bomb that will initiate an AOE, pulverizing close range pests. Each sub-weapon is fun to use and has its own strengths and weaknesses so you will never get too comfortable with using just one.
In fact the game will make sure of it because of the way weapons are distributed. When you shoot a weapon pack it will drop a random sub-weapon, but it will change between two every couple of seconds. This became increasingly frustrating when I wanted a specific weapon, but even more so when I went to grab a much needed rocket launcher only for it to change to a sword the second I got it – which conveniently happens all too often in front of bosses. It also sucks that weapons drop the moment you die because you will always respawn in the middle of the screen. If you die on the far side of the stage, good luck getting it back, especially in some of the tougher sections where every single movement matters.
I should also note that the default dash they give you in the game is fairly unsatisfying due to its short range and fairly long – at least by twitch gaming standards – recharge, which made me wish that they had implemented one similar to the one they had in Furi. Thankfully there is an enhanced multi-dash power up which alleviates this, but again like the rest of the power ups, it’s a random get.
Regardless of these complaints, the gameplay is so buttery smooth, the controls so tight, the firepower so very satisfying, that these missteps don’t break the experience. It’s just a shame they exist in what otherwise is one of the best pure arcade experiences in recent memory. It’s a testament to its craft that even in its more frustrating moments of death where hurling a controller would be commonplace, I wanted to keep coming back and getting better at the game.
Speaking of the arcade, the sound design’s still got the trademark beeps and boops that are a staple of the classics, except they are now in glorious high fidelity. The firepower pops, the explosions are crunchy and we even get a return of the female VO overlay used in previous Housemarque games. The soundtrack is also quite good with a nice mixture of 80’s arcade techno and electronica. I especially love the cheesy vocals of the theme song “Let Me Save You”.
The visuals in Nex Machina fall in line with Housemarque’s MO: colorful and carefully crafted enemies litter beautifully constructed stages just waiting to be obliterated into a glorious pixel shower. It’s a veritable buffet of voxels, voxels, and more exploding voxels as far as the eye can see. Seeing the fireworks on display is an incredibly satisfying result of your efforts, but it’s this same assault on the senses that can work against this game during its more intense moments.
The screen is constantly busy with bullets flying every which way and enemies spawning as fast as you can eliminate them. This coupled with the high octane pace leads to situations where it’s hard to distinguish where enemies are on screen, let alone your own person. The game’s HUD design tries its best to alleviate this problem by including a variety of visual indicators for when human’s are about to be captured or where enemies will spawn, but with so much clutter these elements almost add another level of chaos to the sensory overload. It sucks when you are near the end of a particularly tough sub-stage, only to be killed by an enemy who snuck up on you undetected because it was cloaked by the volley of voxels on screen.
Bosses suffer from this visual excess as well with bright neon lasers, buzzsaws, and rows of skull bullets covering the screen, drowning out everything else. It makes it incredibly hard to pay attention to where your character is at all times. This is especially true during the final boss fight, which introduces flashing strobe lights into the mix. Seeing as you have to be in peak attention during this encounter it becomes a dizzying affair and an epileptic’s worst nightmare.
This visual assault is further compounded in the disappointing co-op mode. If you thought it was hard enough keeping tabs on the location on your own character already, try dealing with two at one time. Not only does it become harder to see –especially when the camera pans out – but for some inexplicable reason the developers thought selecting a similar color scheme for both avatars would be a good idea. The amount of times my roommate and I mistook our character for each other’s made playing the game in co-op an – unintentionally – harder experience than going solo. Sure you can unlock new skins for your character but that doesn’t change the fact that it was bad call to make the default characters look so similar and it ruins what could have been an extremely fun couch co-op experience.
Speaking of unlocking things, let’s finish on the game’s highest note: it’s Arena mode. In Arena mode, levels from the arcade mode are repurposed and retrofitted for score attack challenges that range from going through a stage with faster enemies, to accumulating points only through Human Combo kills. Completing an Arena challenge will level up your rank – akin to competitive shooters. Complete one with a high enough score and you might just get a medal and currency that can be used to purchase new challenges or cosmetic affects such as profile cards, new skins, and even bullet colors for your default weapon. It all creates an incredibly rewarding loop that fosters a competitive spirit in trying to beat your high score while simultaneously being rewarded in tangible ways for your efforts.
On top of that, you can even watch replays of all of other top players runs and see where you could stand to make a few adjustments to get your name one step closer to the top of the boards. I hope that over time as the community starts to grow, more challenges are added on a consistent basis and maybe even new levels sometime down the road. If anything, this is one of the few times where I think DLC would be totally worth the price of admission.
4 out of 5
Nex Machina is a newfound arcade classic and a twitch gamer’s dream. It’s fast, fluid and feels almost perfect in your hands. While it’s a shame the games overly busy visuals and poor co-op let it down, it doesn’t take away from what the game does best and that’s blistering-fun, unadulterated action. Housemarque furthers its legend in the genre and have created arguably their most compelling work to date thanks to its incredibly addictive Arena mode and community focused approach.
While it’s not for those weak of will, those looking for a healthy challenge will find lots to love, with its breadth of multi-layered systems that encourage the mantra “just one more round”.
Say hello to Nex Machina. Say goodbye to your fingers.