Review: Nuclear Throne (PS4/PSV/PSTV)

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Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • PlayStation Vita

Extras:

  • PlayStation TV Compatible Yes
  • Cross-Buy Yes
  • Cross-Save Yes**
  • Cross-Play No
  • Cross-Chat No
Title: Nuclear Throne
Format: PlayStation Network Download (PS4 342.1 MB) (PSV 157 MB)
Release Date: December 5, 2015
Publisher: Vlambeer
Developer: Vlambeer
Original MSRP: $11.99
ESRB Rating: E10+
Nuclear Throne is also available on PlayStation 3 (Release Date TBD), Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux.
The PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita download versions were used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

** Editor’s Note:
Cross-Save is not currently available but is being implemented in a future patch according to Vlambeer.

Gameplay:
Nuclear Throne is a true and brutal rogue-like. Everything can be going perfectly, the stars are aligning, and in a matter of seconds you are dead. There is no leveling or progression that carries over after you die. Make it to the third area and die. Congratulations, now start from the first area again.

Each run is completely fresh and new. You cannot even rely on always finding your favorite weapon and knowing the level, as all drops are randomized and each level is randomly generated.

The game does not have an overly difficult learning curve but it can feel unfair at times. After your first deaths, you start to get the hang of the mechanics, but then you get surprised by a boss.

After the boss, you move on to new areas with new enemies and new environmental objects. Many of these will most likely kill you on your first encounter simply because you are not familiar with them. Normally this would not be a big deal. However, since progress does not carry over to the next run it becomes more frustrating.

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Despite the difficulty, the gameplay loop is really fun. Each run starts off by selecting one of twelve characters, of which only two are available in the beginning.

The level starts and you immediately begin running around avoiding enemy fire while trying to clear out the area as quick as possible. At times it can even feel like a bullet hell game as you are so focused on avoiding enemy fire you can only blindly return fire in hopes of hitting something.

… die and start the cycle all over again …
As you kill enemies you collect rads (experience points) until the last one is killed and a black hole appears and swallows the player. If you collected enough rads to level up, you will be able to select one of four random mutations in between levels.

Start the next level and repeat. Survive three levels and you will move on to the next area. Eventually, die and start the cycle all over again. The gameplay loop of running around avoiding enemy fire and shooting may seem simple or shallow, but there is also a layer of depth that really makes the game addictive.

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There are numerous strategies and combinations to experiment with. Each of the twelve playable characters has different active and passive abilities, such as more max health, more ammo from drops, level up quicker, see in the dark, and shield.

Add the layer of mutations on top of that, including more chest drops, +4 max health, homing bolts, and increasing damage from the laser pistol. Then the cherry on top, the weapons.

There are five ammo types, each with multiple weapons for that type and different variations on those, plus melee weapons. For example, the shotgun fires a random spread of projectiles while the slugger fires one large slug, both only use one shell per shot.

… gameplay is king …
For the most part Nuclear Throne is the same on the Vita as it is on the PS4. The Vita version looks great and runs smoothly with no framerate issues. The big difference is having to use the thumb sticks on the Vita. They simply do not allow for the same accuracy as the DualShock 4’s sticks.

As of this review, Nuclear Throne is Cross-Buy with Cross-Save coming later. Not having Cross-Save is not a huge loss as nothing carries over from run to run anyway. Any characters unlocked on the PS4 will just have to be unlocked again on the Vita.

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Visuals:
There is nothing special about the graphics. After all, with Nuclear Throne, gameplay is king.

If you stop and look at your character equipped with a wrench, he is not even holding the wrench. It just floats in the middle of the character and moves side to side. But when you are constantly running and dodging enemy bullets you never notice.

… the Desert and Sewers quickly become old as you play them over and over …
There is a nice variety in the different areas you will visit on your journey including the Desert, Sewers, and Frozen City. Each new area is a nice change of pace and includes new hazards. Without the right character or mutation, you will be less prepared and have to take a different approach.

I really enjoyed the variety in each new area but the Desert and Sewers quickly become old as you play them over and over again. It would have been nice if Vlambeer had designed the game so that order of the areas was also randomized on each run.

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If you look at the screens in this review, you will notice there is a black border on the sides. It is a minor complaint, but I found the border annoying. It adds nothing to the game playing in 4:3 instead of full screen.

However, for those of you that like variety, there are a bunch of different options in the settings to replace the solid black border with something different.

… the constant and chaotic movement …
Audio:
It’s the little touches that make the audio great. The music in the menu and the sound effects from starting or finishing a level, shooting your gun, leveling up, and when you die, all contribute to the overall feel of the game. The disappointment from dying is quickly overcome by the sounds of a new run pulling you back in for one more try.

Nuclear Throne also features more than fifteen tracks from Jukio Kallio, the musician behind the Luftrausers score. The upbeat tempos of his music perfectly match the constant and chaotic movement as the player runs around the map.

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Online/Multiplayer:
Think you have what it takes? Prove it. There are daily and weekly challenges. See how you stack up against your friends and in the world rankings. The challenges are the same as the normal game except with the weekly challenge you do not get to choose your character.

It should also be noted that as of the time of this review there have been server problems. After completing the daily and weekly challenges there is sometimes an error with the server and it kicks you to the menu screen. You do not get to see how your run compares to your friends.

… forces you to adapt and really explore new styles of play …
You can redo the challenges, but after an amazing run it really is disheartening when it’s not recorded. When the servers are working, the challenges are a lot of fun. The leaderboards keep you coming back every day and week to see if you can top your friends.

I especially enjoy the weekly challenges. Not being able to choose your character forces you to adapt and really explore new styles of play.

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For those of you who do not wish to depart on the journey to the throne on your own, there is local co-op. Be aware, however, that this only doubles the chaos.

In co-op, when your partner goes down, you have to quickly revive them. Reviving your partner costs you health, but if you do not do it quickly enough your own health will start draining away.

To top it all off, there are no extra chest drops just because you are playing co-op so ammo management can quickly become a problem. The increased chaos can be a lot of fun with a friend and it’s a great break from trying to reach the throne on your own.

… Nuclear Throne nails the gameplay loop …
Conclusion:
Nuclear Throne is an easy to learn and hard to master rogue-like. At times it can feel like it depends more on luck than skill. In some runs, enemies will not drop health, you level up three times with no good mutations to choose from, and two out of three of your favorite weapons do not drop.

Despite that, Nuclear Throne nails the gameplay loop and is highly addictive. The variety in each new area keeps it feeling new and fresh. All the sound effects and level music perfectly match the style and tempo of this great game.

Score:
8.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Matt Engelbart

Matt Engelbart

I love all things video games. When I am not gaming I am watching the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, BBQing, and reading.

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