Review: Nex Machina
The current gaming landscape is dotted with open world epics and narrative driven experiences, but it’s always heartening to find the spirit of arcade enduring. My favourite titles are those that function on ‘twitch gameplay’ (and I’m not talking about the streaming channel) to create flow state. You know, that special place where each player action seems to follow on perfectly from the last, the game pushing your skills to the limit and creating a sense of existing outside time and oh my god it’s 5am and I forgot to put the bins out.
That’s the kind of immersion a good flow-state game can produce. The twin-stick shooter is a title that stands and falls on it’s ability to hook the player into gameplay loops – this is no easy task. Consequently, the genre has a long and storied history of both classic titles and spectacular misfires. The developers of Nex Machina have brought legendary Smash TV creator Eugene Jarvis on board to help update the gameplay of old for the PSN stores of today. I’m happy to report that it seems to have worked, as Nex Machina has all the makings of a minor classic.
The game is arcade to the very core and benefits from wholeheartedly embracing that ethos. Case in point; it is advisable to try the lower difficulty settings first to figure out powerups, enemies and level layouts. There is no tutorial explaining how each element of gameplay works, which means you have to adapt on the fly. Whether you’re learning to time your attacks with a charge up beam or trying to take out as many enemies as possible with a shotgun spread, the game encourages you to think on your feet. It all adds to the sense of urgency and excitement that a good twin-stick should be cultivating.
The pace is frantic and the forwards momentum is maintained by having several hostages available for rescue in each section. The game forces you to make quick decisions to reach them in time and keep that high score ticking over. This is where the dash ability is vital. Allowing the player to quickly cover a short distance (while becoming temporarily invulnerable), it’s a great way to get out of trouble pronto and it comes with a cooldown bar as to prevent overuse. The same is true of the secondary powerups, so savvy management of your cooldown skills is required, which adds a tactical component to the gameplay that elevates it above mere bullet dodging.
In between dodging the manifold projectiles and melee enemies you’ll probably find yourself discovering secret areas and secret hostages, of which there are many hidden within the game. It’s all about the joy of pushing for that higher score. Accompanying your laser spewing, high score chasing mayhem is an excellent synth-heavy soundtrack that gets the adrenaline pumping and offsets the crazy sound effects rather nicely.
The one area keeping the game from greatness is visual design. The art direction certainly works on a functional level by ensuring that it is always clear where the player is and what is happening on screen at all times, even when things get properly manic. However, it would have been nice to get something a little more stylised and a little less generic. In a world where indie titles are outdoing themselves with distinctive visuals and inspired art direction, Nex Machina leans a little too heavily on nostalgia. On a positive note, the enemy bosses are as visually outlandish as you would expect, with giant Terminator-style skulls being par for the course. The battles themselves are challenging and require expert dodging skills to avoid the maelstrom of bullets spewed by the various bosses.
If you’re thinking of enlisting a friend for the co-op mode you’d best bear in mind that it is an offline only affair. Whilst this will undoubtedly be an issue for some, this reviewer found it refreshing to see a game that prioritises the personal approach to multiplayer. Couch co-op is all too often an underutilised feature and Nex Machina is the sort of game that is crying out for friendly/boarderline hostile banter between good friends.
Mastering the higher difficulty levels and unlocking all the secrets will take some time, ensuring that Nex Machina has a fair amount of replay value that more than makes up for the shortness of the main game. Refreshingly straightforward and deeper than it looks, Nex Machina proves that old school gaming can still kick it with the big boys.