We've dipped in and out of Vlambeer's post-apocalyptic wasteland during the last few months, but as with all Early Access games, we prefer to wait until they're finished before we fully commit. Since the game launched properly (not only on PC, it recently landed on PS4 and PS Vita too) we've notched up a few more hours with the title, and what we've experienced during that time is a challenging, colourful, addictive roguelike-like shooter.
Perhaps our favourite thing is the roster of characters, unlocked after reaching particular milestones, and each bringing to the table their own nuances and abilities. Some are better suited to particular play-styles than others, and getting to the titular throne at the end of the game will require a level of mastery over your chosen wastelander. Not only that, but you'll need to get familiar with the various systems that are working away in the background, and exploit them wherever possible.
The assembled cast are quirky band of little mutants, and there's fun to be had in discovering each of their strengths (don't worry, it won't take you long to find their respective weaknesses). As you blast your way through the different stages your enemies will drop radioactive energy that you collect until you're ready to level up. When you've got enough it's time to learn a new skill, and between stages you have the opportunity to choose a new ability. Some are more subtle than others, but each will inform your approach and push you towards playing in different ways and exploring new tactics.
At first, while still a relative noob, we found it helped our progress to increase the effectiveness of health packs, boost the rate at which they dropped, and then reduce the health of our enemies and thus make them easier to kill. With these three (or similar) perks selected you can make great inroads before eventually succumbing to the elements. However, it should be noted that the various perks appear randomly, so there's no guarantee that your preferred options will appear - it's all about making the best of what you've got, and then playing to the strengths of your ad hoc build.
Making the best of what's given to you will only get you so far, and there's plenty of skill required if you're going to make it to the throne. You start off with a basic pistol, but have ample opportunity to grab weapons from crates found dotted around the world. Machine guns and the like will eat up your ammo, crossbows will fling deadly bolts, shotguns hit hard, grenade launchers have a decent area of effect. There's lots of different options, and it's not unusual to switch out weapons as you find better options throughout your adventure.
Your choice of mutant will also affect your moment to moment decision making, and so unlocking them all will give you even more options to play around with (that said, we're still fans of sticking it on random and playing the hand that's dealt us). Once you've found your favourite character and you've got them on screen, weapon of choice in hand, you'll waft carefully through procedurally generated stages. The refreshed environments mean there's no comfort zone and each level requires total concentration; you never know exactly where you're going, and even the tiniest maggot will eat away at your precious health bar.
True to the genre, there's perma-death, and as such Nuclear Throne sits on hard side of brutal, but for most part it feels totally fair; only very occasionally are the odds stacked against you in a way that means you've no chance. However, because each pass feels fresh thanks to the cleverness of the procedural generation, it'd be harsh to make a serious criticism out of this one minor flaw.
Vlambeer has done it yet again. The studio excels in crafting brilliant, replayable arcade experiences, and this is without doubt their finest work to date. The pixelart visuals are stylish and detailed, the audio work is great, and the game controls brilliantly. Fans of the roguelike genre have been treated to some fantastic games in the last twelve months, with Downwell and Galak-Z standing out above all others in 2015. You can add Nuclear Throne to that list.