Game Review: Nex Machina Reigns in Neon Bullet Hell

Photo courtesy of Housemarque Arcade shooter Nex Machina is a neon ballet of voxelized mayhem and death – and it’s fucking awesome. Where many games flounder trying to recapture that “retro feel,” Nex Machina pulls it off effortlessly.  Developer Housemarque brought in twin-stick arcade legend Eugene Jarvis (Smash TV, Robotron: 2084) to capture that old school arcade feel and to sharpen to a neon-laser edge their shooter mastery.  Housemarque is definitely no stranger to the shooter genre and their expertise combined with Jarvis' has made a satisfyingly fun and extremely challenging shoot ‘em up. Photo courtesy of Housemarque A twin-stick shooter is a shooter, usually from a top-down or isometric perspective, that allows you to use one thumb stick of your controller to shoot while using the other to move.  Controller is stressed here – PC players will get the optimal experience ditching the mouse and keyboard. Moving is something you have to do simultaneously while dodging all sorts of projectiles and environmental hazards and fighting death machines over 5 worlds, each divided by multiple – sometimes secret – levels.  A “level” in this case is no more than a room or a corridor, much like the rooms from Smash TV-except they aren’t square, coming in a multitude of shapes, layouts, and hazards that fit that world’s theme. When you kill all of the enemies in one level you will advance to the next until you meet up with that world’s boss. Each world is punctuated by a large end-boss that brings its own challenges and spectacle. These bosses can sometimes be the hardest – and most fun – parts of Nex Machina. Photo courtesy of Housemarque Nex Machina is an arcade shooter through and through: there are power-ups, extra lives, and high scores.  A single hit from a projectile or an absent minded dash into a pink laser will take a life, and if you lose all of your lives you’ll use a continue.  There are power-ups such as the shield that allows you take a hit without dying, and the ever-ubiquitous weapon spread which turns your single volley into a helpful bullet spray. There are humans in each of the levels and the machines will attempt to kill them – saving them helps your score, and your conscience, and adds an extra layer of depth to the bullet-hell arcade shooter. Being an arcade shooter, you can play through the entire game in one sitting – just as it’s meant to be played. If you quit in the middle of a run, you will have to start all the way back at the beginning. There are also the options to play just 1 of the 5 worlds, or compete with other player’s high scores in the arena challenges. Photo courtesy of Housemarque The arena challenges are a series of different ways to play the levels, each with their own score rules or objectives. You can compare your scores with players on either PS4 or playing on Steam, so you can see where you stack up. Reaching certain score milestones will unlock currency you can use to apply customization to your character – change armor, clothes, and even weapon color.  All of the customization options don’t have any effect on gameplay and are purely cosmetic. Photo courtesy of Housemarque Nex Machina means “death machine” and it really is – even the easiest of difficulties can seem relentlessly hard. There are a few difficulty options to make things easier, such as unlimited continues and having less enemies on the screen but you will die a lot as you explore each world while learning its enemies, layouts, secrets, etc. That’s the way it’s meant to be – die and learn from your mistakes.  Master one difficulty before moving onto the next. You can bring a friend along in local co-operative play, but that does little to dull the difficulty as you share lives and two players dying can quickly lead to the continue screen. Photo courtesy of Housemarque There is little to complain about with Nex Machina. Lining up a charged shot to explode dozens of enemies into a shower of voxels is extremely satisfying – and playing Nex Machina is hectic fun. Many may feel the game can be unfair with its hail of bullets and waves of enemies that can kill you at a single touch, but the game does a great job of ramping the difficulty up and introducing new enemies before making you fight massive amounts of them.  Make no mistakes: this arcade shooter holds back nothing and will attempt to “eat your quarters” like its predecessors. Accompanied by a great electronic soundtrack, Nex Machina is the ultimate throw-back arcade shooter. Meet certain neon death in Nex Machina, available now on PlayStation 4 and Windows.
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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.