Finnish developer Housemarque has been perfecting the twin-stick shooter genre for years now, innovating in a multitude of creative ways. They are best known for the signature launch PS4 title Resogun and the almost-as-good Dead Nation and Alienation games. In a way, Housemarque is going back to the roots of what makes a twin-stick shooter great with their next foray into the genre with Nex Machina, collaborating with esteemed Smash TV and Robotron: 2084 creator Eugene Jarvis.
Violence: Being as this is a bullet-hell/twin-stick shooter there is plenty of mayhem going on. Most of the carnage is against mechanized enemies with only a few alien variants scattered in. There are green glowing humans that can be saved; at the end of every level “set,” the aliens will take them away However, if you allow one of the larger enemies to attack one, a gush of blood erupts vertically like a volcano as they die. Note that the on-screen action is so frantic that if humans die, you are probably moving too slowly, and this is doubly true if you notice the blood gushes.
There is no story to speak of in Nex Machina—just the thrill of taking out hordes of enemies in a bombastic display of color and bravado. You are thrown into the action immediately with no tutorial and no warning at all of the dangers which await you. To put it simply, Nex Machina can be summed up as a top-down Resogun. It’s a bullet-hell shooter in which you face (optionally) increasingly more difficult enemies while also saving green glowing humans from being destroyed by the alien machines.
The core action of Nex Machina, like many twin-stick shooters, is to simply point the right stick at enemies and you automatically fire away with no necessary trigger-holding. This will send an endless barrage of bullets at the mechanized alien force and it’s nice to not have to worry about ammo management or other resources. The game differentiates itself from other twin-stick shooters by featuring a dash move that can save you from being overrun, an upgrade system that makes you stronger the longer you stay alive, and a variety of sub-weapons which have cooldowns to prevent players from spamming a more powerful attack. The advantage of dashing is that it gives you temporary invincibility, which you will need to use to move past an impenetrable barrage of bullets or around a blockade of insurgent alien machines.
You make your way through six worlds, all of which are varied/unique in presentation and in layout of enemy positioning. Each world is separated into fifteen stages and each world ends with a boss battle. The robots always have the numbers, but you have the firepower right at your fingertips, literally. There are other objectives, too, such as discovering secret areas and neutralizing certain targets before they exit the level. All of this requires you to perform a serious amount of multitasking, something that is a huge challenge in a game where death is only ever a few pixels away. Luckily, Nex Machina controls like a dream and is not hampered by slowdown or an encumbrance of other gameplay systems. It’s quite a joy to behold.
Speaking of a joy to behold, the colors are vivid and varied and when something explodes, which happens quite often, it’s usually followed by a burst of voxels spraying across the screen. This makes for an impressive spectacle of carnage, although it can sometimes make it hard to see the difference between an actual threat and decoration. While all this is happening, everything is underlain by an energetic electronic soundtrack by the acclaimed Ari Pulkkinen, which is reminiscent of his work on Housemarque’s Resogun.
The standard arcade mode is where most of your time will be spent in Nex Machina. This is the only way to unlock the game’s six worlds to use for other modes, and offers the best way to chase high scores. You can also change the difficulty with several options to choose from. The easiest difficulty lets you have unlimited continues while the higher difficulties limit the number of continues, as well as make the enemies move faster, fire faster, fire bullets after dying, and increase the number of enemies on screen.
Outside of the arcade mode, there’s arena mode which tasks players with playing the levels under certain conditions, such as a reduced time limit or with certain unlocks. These add more variety, but there isn’t too many of them and they still take place on the same stages. Perhaps to make up for its lack of levels, Nex Machina instead offers plenty of incentives for you to aim for with dozens of challenges available to work towards as well as some very taxing trophies. Also, when you beat a level, a video of your run is uploaded to the online leaderboards along with your score. This is quite a neat feature which allows you to watch the best players’ replays in order to pick up some hints.
Needless to say, this game is difficult, and it is my recommendation you start on the rookie difficulty selection. This brings me to my main complaint with the game: it’s just too darn hard to the point of not being fun to play. While you will learn enemy patterns and will become better at managing the chaos, the random powerup drops and small stages can lead to some very frustrating moments. Also, even though Nex Machina looks gorgeous, each stage usually only takes about ten minutes to beat. If the game wasn’t so difficult, you could probably finish a single run in less than an hour. Fortunately, the leader and ranking boards should thrive for a long time after the game’s release.
Overall, Nex Machina is another hit from Housemarque and further establishes the developer as one of the most underrated game makers in the business. It’s not quite the classic Resogun was, but for a bullet-hell style twin-stick shooter with an optionally gradual increase in difficulty, there’s very little on PS4 that can challenge it. Just don’t go in expecting a semi-difficult gameplay experience. This is as hardcore as it gets.
The Bottom Line
Nex Machina does not disappoint in providing an exhilarating gameplay and presentation experience. The lack of content and insane difficulty hold it back from being a classic, but there is no denying Housemarque crafted another memorable title.