Wot I Think: Nex Machina

I can’t think of a better collaboration than the one that’s brought Nex Machina [official site] to life. The blindingly-fast twin-stick shooter is the spawn of Resogun developer Housemarque and the creator of the entire genre, Eugene Jarvis. It has a great deal to live up to, then, and the legacy of Robotron, Smash TV and Resogun hovering over it. Clearly the pair were up to the challenge.

All of the above games are inside Nex Machina. They are in both the foundations and the bricks — the teeming swarms of robots, the linked rooms, even the voxels. Combined, however, the construct something new; something that’s full of its own tricks and quirks, challenges and surprises.

Chaos reigns, at first. It’s the end of the world, a machine apocalypse, and the odds are appropriately stacked against the nameless hero (or heroes, if you choose to play in co-op). Each room is a disco death trap, blinding lights and neon explosions erupting to the beat of the electric soundtrack. Enemies pour out of gates and teleport in at an alarming rate, while laser traps and turrets ensure that there’s no breathing room. Sweaty palms and unexpected deaths dominate.

It’s a clever illusion hiding the fact that every moment is a choreographed puzzle. I was fighting my way through the second world when it finally clicked, though I won’t pretend that I didn’t waste a multitude of lives and use up many continues afterwards. Even now, I still suck. But at least I can look at the screen and know exactly what’s going on.

Each enemy type has a pattern, a set of behaviours that simultaneously create a distinct challenge and also reveal its weakness. Giant walking tanks can murder from range but have to stand still to fire. Swarms overwhelm with their vast numbers, but they’re mindless homing missiles that gleefully walk into gunfire. There are machines that can only fire in specific directions, deadly but fixed turrets and harvesters that completely ignore everything else when there’s a human — every room contains a few for you to rescue, some standing around, some hidden — waiting to be munched on.

Blow them all up, sure, but if you want a respectable score at the end you’ll want to pick your targets and perfect your timing. It’s all about combos, chaining both kills and rescues until that glorious moment when the cold, distant announcer lets you know that all the humans have been saved, or when there are no more robots left and you jet off in a pyrotechnic display, heading to another plane, another room, where it begins all over again.

Eventually, the optimal routes and the best order to murder each robot in becomes clear. You might want to take out that pesky turret that’s filling the room with orbs of deadly energy first, but maybe you should wait because you know there’s a harvester who will kill one of your feckless human pals if you don’t save them straight away. And you’re making these decisions between breaths. There’s no time to think, so instead you’ve got to train yourself and then go by pure instinct. These are puzzles for the most primal part of your brain. You’re Luke, turning off the targeting system and listening to the voice in your head.

Your tools are speed, in the form of a life-saving dash that can be just as handy when you’re on the offensive as it is when you need to get the hell out, and destruction, that never-ending spray of gunfire. Augmenting both, as well as providing shields, are a robust list of special weapons and power ups. Triple dash, rockets, explosives, even a sword. A robot-slaying sword. Never would I have thought that I would love using a sword so damn much in a twin-stick shooter, but dashing towards a bot, slicing it up, rescuing a cowardly human, and then dashing out of the way of a sniper’s bullet all in two seconds… well, it feels amazing. And it — all of it — feels effortless. Nex Machina is tough, but it’s easy to play. It’s intuitive and precise and these things foster confidence. Even when all hell is breaking loose, it never quite stops being manageable.

It’s a short game, but still generous. And its modest size is by no means a bad thing. It’s not a one playthrough and you’re done type of game — it’s a ‘play and play and play until you rescue every human, find every secret, and maybe, if you’re good enough, manage to run through the entire thing on a single life’ type of game. And then you do it again on a higher difficulty.

There’s a great deal of variety in the six worlds. Each is bursting with character, from the menacing enemies, glowing red with ill intent, skittering, flying and rushing towards you, to the individual rooms that suggest Earth is being consumed by the machines, with nature and cities being swallowed up by alien-looking tech. And at the end of every world, a huge boss to fight, bristling with weapons and nasty tricks that reveal themselves with each stage of the battle.

Beyond the arcade mode there’s an arena mode, tasking players with simple things like getting high scores, or more complex challenges where you can only score under special circumstances or where everything moves faster. And then there are the feats — hundreds of them, achievable in arcade, arena or just by selecting a single world to play through. Finish a world without saving any humans. Kill 10 enemies with one sword slash. Defeat a boss 100 times. There’s enough here so that this seemingly short game can go on for hundreds of hours.

There will be more twin-stick shooters, probably excellent ones, but if time stopped and all we were left with was Nex Machina, then that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. Housemarque and Eugene Jarvis have created something very special, and I suspect, enduring.

Nex Machina is out now on Windows via Steam, GOG and Humble for £12/$16/€16.

30 Comments

  1. Banks says:

    I love Housemarques’ bullet hells. Won’t miss this.

  2. UncleLou says:

    This game is ridiculously, spectacularly good. There’ s a parallel universe somewhere where games developed in a more linear fashion, and after 40 years of honing, fine-tuning and polishing the earliest arcade and home console shooters and new breakthrough knowledge about how our brains work, Nex Machina was released as the game to end all games. It was useless to try and make something better, so everyone quit.

  3. noodlecake says:

    I think John should have been made to review this game. It certainly would not have gotten the “RPS recommended” badge. :D

    • Beefenstein says:

      I asked John Walker to review me once. He kicked my tired, revved my engine, inspected my dash for dust. “10 out of 10 would spend time with again,” he said.

      JOHN WALKER IS A GOOD PERSON
      AND HE DOES GOOD THINGS
      I LIKE HIM

    • Viral Frog says:

      Anytime John posts a negative review, the game is almost always worth buying. Probably 90% of the time.
      Anytime John posts a positive review, the game is almost always worth ignoring. Probably 90% of the time.

      Reading John’s reviews is like celebrating Opposite Day.

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        Don Reba says:

        John panned the best cyberpunk story in gaming — Binary Domain. I’m saying this as someone who has seen just about every film in the genre.

    • noodlecake says:

      I like his articles most of the time. I just meant because he often gives harsh reviews to games with fast paced twitch gameplay cause they stress him out.

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        MajorLag says:

        It’s almost as though different people like different things and that should be taken into account when reading reviews or something.

        • Ghostwise says:

          If we start admitting that different people might like different things, then we’ll be but months away from a sweeping Communist takeover, societal collapse and total protonic reversal.

        • Thirith says:

          Taking John out of it for a moment, though, a good reviewer should still be able to differentiate between a game that’s just not for them and a game that fails to do what it sets out to do.

          • LennyLeonardo says:

            A good reader should be able to do the same.

          • noodlecake says:

            There are definitely games that are fantastic that I wouldn’t be able to give a reliable review of because they are so outside of what I like. I couldn’t give a reliable review of an RTS game, for example, as I don’t enjoy them at all. I would struggle to give a reliable review of a brown shooter as all I see when I play them is bland boring characters and generic FPS gameplay. I wouldn’t be able to give any of them 9/10 or 10/10 because the innovations would go completely over my head and the bland boring characters and world would be too much of a negative vs the new cool things that people who like those games would love about them.

        • oyog says:

          That’s now how Games Journalism works, Games Journalists have to be absolutely objective at all times, ugh, otherwise you’re just describing a glorified blog.

          • Janichsan says:

            Watch the Jimquisition’s “100% Objective Review” and you’ll see that this stance is nonsense.

            Games are a form of entertainment. Entertainment is by its nature a completely subjective matter. Objective “reviews” are simply impossible.

          • jayda says:

            Art cannot be reviewed objectively or should the good folks of RPS write their reviews as if they’re reviewing a fridge or a toaster?

  4. aircool says:

    Migraine simulator!

  5. hypercrisis says:

    Seems to be a bit of influx of twin stick shooters lately, any decent controllers for them?

    • Caiman says:

      I’m using a 360 controller with this and other twin stickers like Assault Android Cactus, works great. I’m using Grip-It rubber pads over the analog thumbsticks, makes a massive difference (my thumbs don’t slip off them when they get sweaty).

  6. Caiman says:

    I really think this game is a masterpiece. I would say that Eugene hasn’t lost his sense of what makes a classic game, assuming he got Housemarque to tweak the hell out of this until everything just clicked.

    Curiously, I always get a much better score when I play this on my 15″ laptop screen, compared with my 27″ desktop screen. Perhaps the smaller screen gives me a better awareness of my surroundings.

  7. GomezTheChimp says:

    It`s good, great even, but for me nothing (in twin-stick shooters) will surpass the perfection of Geometry Wars 2: Deadline. 3 terrifying minutes of nerve-wracking tension repeated over and over again. GW2 isn`t just the best twin-stick shooter I`ve ever played, it has a place in my top 5 video games ever made. And I`ve been playing these things since those pesky Space Invaders first landed…

    • Alexander Chatziioannou says:

      Agreed on all counts: this is a fantastic game (even though the visual noise can be a bit too much at times) and clearly superior to even some of the most accomplished examples of the subgenre (Assault Android Cactus comes to mind), but does not reach the pure perfection of Geometry Wars (though I’d go for Pacifism even more so than Deadline).

      It would take a very, very long time on a remote island with nothing else to play for me to get bored of this but, eventually, it would happen. Not so with GW2.

  8. Morcane says:

    It’s the best game I’m really bad at.

  9. c-Row says:

    This makes me wish I didn’t suck at twin stick shooters so much.

  10. inmotion says:

    That ending reminds me of a review in a Finnish game magazine “Pelit”. J&P Piira (brothers if I remember correctly) said that if Chaos Engine (Amiga)would be the last game on Earth they wouldn’t complain. That’s a powerful statement right there. Loved Chaos Engine, maybe I’ll take a look at this too. :D I like illogical logic.

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    MajorLag says:

    While it makes sense with the fast pacing that internet games wouldn’t be an option, I am somewhat disappointed that there isn’t a network option because LAN speeds should be able to handle even a deterministic lockstep netcode model, which is pretty much the easiest model to implement. I can’t seem to find any information in 5 minutes of looking about how many players can play in co-op either. I presume then that it is only 2. That’s kind of a shame because had this been 4 player and something I could play on a LAN it’d have probably been an instant buy. Now I have to weigh it’s costs against my diminished desire to play something like this in single-player.

    Still, the game looks really great and sounds like it has solid design behind the mechanics, plus the price is very fair.

    • Da5e says:

      Yes, when I’m looking for arcade thrills and fast-paced shootybang action I too often ask ‘but does it have a deterministic lockstep netcode model?’

      Stopped me buying Dodonpachi Saidaioujou, that did – it didn’t even feature basic GPU pipecache sprocket modalities! Imagine!

  12. trjp says:

    Bought this and liking it – only real surprise is that neither mouse nor XBOX pad really feels quite as tight as I’d like (I find it hard to believe they designed/played it with those things)

    As it’s on PS4 I’m wondering if a PS4 pad is the way to go – they are fucking terrible for most things but if that’s what they designed it around, it might just be the sweet-spot?

  13. NumerousJellyfish says:

    Just wanted to say I thought this was a great review! Got me excited for a game I know I will be terrible at, which is no easy feat. Glad to see the RPS Hivemind is growing ever stronger :)