My hands ache, palms are sweaty. I let out a huge sigh of relief as the final boss explodes into a confetti of voxels and vibrant particle effects. How many lives did I throw at that thing before I finally managed to take it down? A few dozen? Sounds about right. Although the journey was exhilarating romp, it was also draining test of hand-eye coordination and reflexes. That about sums up Nex Machina: an addictive arcade shooter with a blistering challenge that occasionally gets too tough for its own good.
Housemarque knows how to craft arcade shooters that keep players coming back for more. The studio’s past works, Super Stardust HD and Resogun, are among the best modern takes on the genre. With Nex Machina, the studio has assembled perhaps its most arduous game yet by teaming up with Robotron/Smash TV mastermind Eugene Jarvis. The influence of those arcade classics are immediately evident. Players mow down waves upon waves of enemies from a top-down, third person perspective. Clearing one arena teleports players to the next, and so on until you reach the world’s boss.
Nex Machina is a fast-paced, no-nonsense affair right out of the gate. I died within the first few seconds thanks to how swiftly enemies swarm players from all sides, sometimes in Galaga-esque serpentine patterns, other times in messy groups. If fending off a dozen hostile creatures wasn’t enough, you’re often doing so while simultaneously avoiding spinning laser beams, screen-filling projectile waves, and long-range mortar fire. Nex Machina revels in throwing everything but the kitchen sink at players and letting your guard down for even a nanosecond results in an explosive demise The game is demanding, sometimes to a fault, but it’s supremely satisfying to outmaneuver and outgun seemingly insurmountable opposition. Watching targets burst into tiny cubes adds to that thrill thanks to the crisp voxel graphics and destructible environments.
Multiple secrets lay within each arena, most within objects like breakable cubes and boulders. The game lacks a tutorial, betting on players to blast away everything in sight and discover things on their own–an assumption quickly proven accurate. A fun and devilish layer of challenge comes in seeking out these collectibles. Since eradicating foes automatically warps you to the next room, completionists must intentionally stay their trigger finger in order to stick around and thoroughly inspect an area. However, doing this increases your likelihood of getting killed. So do you quickly mow down foes in the name of swift progression or put everything on the line for maximum points?
The best example of this decision-making comes from rescuing humans from the clutches of aliens ala Resogun. Gathering them all feels awesome, but going out of my way to do so cost me countless lives. Sometimes I was forced to abandon humans in the interest of completing a merciless zone–a decision I always hated. No matter how frustrating this task got, I felt compelled to perform better just to spite Nex Machina and prove that I could not only win but do so in style, even if that didn’t always work out.
While I found Nex Machina to be generally fair despite its difficulty, cheap deaths weren’t a complete non-factor. Some questionable respawns occasionally drop players directly in harm's way, such as in front of turrets, killing them before they have a chance to react. This problem rears its head most in busy situations where’s there’s no real safe spot to drop into. The small character can easily be lost among packed crowds, creating an infuriating game of Where’s Waldo that made me feel cheated when I failed due a loss of visuals rather than a lack of skill.
Another issue is the lack of saving in the arcade campaign. Once started, it must be completed in one sitting, otherwise players start over from the beginning. I learned this the hard way after I completed the third world and closed the game, assuming I’d be checkpointed at the beginning of world four upon my return. To my horror, I was greeted by the first world’s opening motorcycle sequence. I get the old-school arcade mentality behind this design, and, thankfully, worlds can be completed in roughly 10 minutes (depending on how much you die). However, it's annoying to be forced to commit like that. I hit several rough spots that caused me to tap out for a breather, forcing me to leave my PS4 in rest mode for long stretches since I couldn’t shut off the game entirely.
Nex Machina does a nice job of accommodating each skill-level of player without dumbing down the core experience. Rookie allots unlimited continues for those who want to see the entire game with the freedom of failing as much as required. Experienced grants 99 continues (which burn away far quicker than believed), Veteran grants a mere 10 continues and tougher foes, and the unlockable Master difficulty sports 5 continues, quicker enemies and movement. Other modes include local co-op through the arcade campaign, a Arena mode where players compete for leaderboard rankings under increasingly tougher stipulations, and a Single World mode that allows players to cherry pick individual levels.
Those itching for new twin-stick arcade shooter to sink into, or Smash TV/Robotron fans curious about a modernized take on that style, should definitely give Nex Machina a look. Offering an enjoyable, pulse-pounding experience layered with a satisfying, if not sometimes overwhelming, challenge, it's a quality shooter that successfully invokes the glory days of arcades. No matter how infuriating Nex Machina becomes, you’ll find yourself continually picking up the controller you just threw for one more run. Just be sure to bring a Gandhi-level of patience on top of Spider-Man-like reflexes and everything should be gravy.
Nex Machina was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and is also available now for PC.