Nex Machina review code supplied by publisher
The wondrous joy of going to the arcades feels like yesterday for an old git like me, but the days of funneling an endless supply of coins into a game to play a bit more is practically a thing of the past (if you discount microtransactions and subscriptions, of course). At the very least, it has seen the depletion of arcade-minded tactics such as limited lives, almost unfairly tough, but compelling gameplay loops, and dazzling color and sound. This is mainly because there’s just not the same need for it now, but also because adapting those tropes to consoles got tough to expand upon in fresh ways. Housemarque’s twin-stick shooter Nex Machina sees the Resogun developer teaming with the creator of Defender and Smash TV, Eugene Jarvis, to embrace true arcade gaming whilst adding a modern spin, and the result is thrilling, short, sharp, intense bursts of pure arcade fury.
Housemarque has been swimming in the retrotastic sea for some time, with variations of twin stick goodness found in titles such as Dead Nation, Alienation, and, of course, Resogun. Those titles were effective links to the past viewed through a gorgeous modern lens, and Nex Machina follows much the same path, yet there’s something undeniably mechanically old school about the game that’s missing from the developer’s previous work. It appears to be highly likely that the involvement of those who were making games in the formative years of gaming is what makes a difference here, as there’s more than a hint of Smash TV (and Robotron, Jarvis’ other famous game of yesteryear) to Nex Machina’s set up.
The premise of Nex Machina is that you are dumped into a small arena where you must eliminate waves of robotic enemies and rescue wandering humans (a la Resogun). Once you’ve cleared the final enemy from an arena, your character boosts around to the next one, and you rinse and repeat until you reach and conquer the stage end boss. If you lose a life during an arena, you reset to the start of it, requiring you to beat the same enemies, and rescue the same humans. Each stage appears to exist on a series of cubes, with each level/arena within it featured on a side of a cube, which naturally leads to some head-twisting visual moments as you transition from one to another.
Enemies begin as spider-like bots that swarm in numbers towards you, easily dispatched, but able to corner you if you get too lax. Before you even get close to being comfortable, you’re facing burrowing turrets, laser cannons, hulking mechanical brutes, and the world’s deadliest frisbees. Nex Machina throws these robo-pests at you incessantly, very rarely letting you catch your breath as you skirt around arenas blasting away at them with bullets, lasers, rockets, and more. The frenetic pace keeps the adrenaline pumping almost as hard as the magnificent synthwave soundtrack (another gem from Ari Pulkkinen, who also scored Resogun). The boss fights are also noteworthy, all classic, multi-stage affairs that each have their own patterns, strengths, and weaknesses.
During the peak insanity of Nex Machina, it becomes a hysterical blend of arcade shooter and bullet hell incarnate, with the game giving the player less personal space than a moshpit in a bedsit. You pretty much learn on the job here, studying where the bottlenecks, power ups, and bonuses are located on each stage as you desperately scramble to avoid multiple threats every damn second. Even on lower difficulty settings (and yes, you’re damn right I tried them) sheer numbers eventually become your true enemy, and as intimidating as that may sound, Nex Machina is set up to will you into improving and mastering its smattering of stages through repetition. There are few feelings in this life quite as aggressively satisfying as clearing a horde of robo-bastards as you dance your merry way through the carnage unscathed, eyes blurry with focus, fingers sweaty with exertion. It’s exactly what you would hope for, and that’s helped no end by Housemarque’s delicious visuals.
Nex Machina may be simple in concept, but Housemarque has made sure the game translates into an eye-popping treat. From the electric neon of enemy fire, to the voxel explosion of debris as gunfire chips away at the scenery and enemies, Nex Machina is simply gorgeous to behold. It’s definitely a talent of Housemarque to get its game’s violence looking so vibrant and luscious, and here it is at its sumptuous best. It feels a lot like a best of collection of Housemarque’s previous work in a lot of ways, and the use of glowing humans, certain enemy patterns, the calming authority of the female voiceover, and the pulsating soundtrack , all borrow from the developer’s legacy, but here it’s been liquidised and poured into a vial of arcade purity that burns the fatty parts away.
Initially, you’ll be plowing through the stages one after the other in order to reach the end and set your overall high score (you can return to the last stage you got to if you don’t have the time for this, but only through selecting a single stage, and resetting any score you had), and if that was it, then you’d feel a touch disappointed as there’s only a handful of stages that a decent player could polish off in a couple of hours. But the reality is that Nex Machina has hidden depths. Each arena has something lurking underneath the surface, whether it be an hidden human, a secret level, or even a juicy power up. If you clear an arena of enemies, you are whisked straight to the next one, so you’ll naturally miss out on things first go around. This means you’re missing out on hi-score points, among other things. Adding the job of accessing secrets to juggling a hellish number of robotic gits creates a new, strategic layer to the ceaseless mechanical murdering. Do you risk getting into a situation where you could be overrun and obliterated just to save that one extra human? Is that rocket launcher really worth dodging through multiple lasers to reach it? The dash button becomes an essential tool in your repertoire, granting you those split-seconds you need to achieve and survive.
On top of that, you have arena mode, which challenges you to get a high score on set levels (which you can unlock more of by gaining coins via progress made in all modes), and sees you pit your skills against other users. Then there’s a slew of funky challenges, designed to make the player experiment with some audacious requests, and then the cherry on top is local co-op play, because bringing a pal into this just makes this all the sweeter an experience.
I feel confident in saying that Nex Machina is Housemarque’s finest work to date. I’m almost ashamed to have been worried it’d hit a peak with Resogun when Alienation was merely ‘good’ because this is the distillation of everything that is good about the developer’s work, and clearly getting Jarvis in as a creative consultant has amped the quality on offer here. I struggle to find a genuine complaint beyond its initial brevity and simplicity, as these are somewhat rectified by the game’s hidden depths. I suppose the air of familiarity and repetition is going to dull the thrill for some, but for me, Nex Machina is an exhilarating arcade masterclass.