Nex Machina roughly translates to Death Machine in English, and I couldn’t think of a more fitting name for this game. It’s an incredibly fast-paced twin-stick shooter developed by Housemarque, whose previous projects have proven them to be the king of this particular genre. After stellar titles such as Alienation, Dead Nation, and Resogun, it almost goes without saying I was very eager to see what they’d cooked up this time. And, as suspected, Housemarque have once again outdone themselves, with a serious amount of chaotic fun to be had as you blast your way through Nex Machina’s addictive, vibrant, and challenging gameplay loop. With Eugene Jarvis as a creative consultant, the game takes heavy inspiration from games such as Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV which makes this experience feel like a true callback to arcade shooters.
Nex Machina has no real story mode or narrative to speak of, just a simple premise and reason to do what you’re doing. You play as a single, unnamed hero who is tasked with the tall order of saving humanity from a robot apocalypse. Beyond that, there are no other dialogue, story beats, or characters to speak of, aside from a few humans that run around stages aimlessly, waiting to be saved. There’s a lot in the game that’s up for interpretation, but much like Housemarque’s other titles, the narrative isn’t the focus, the gameplay is.
Nex Machina has two main modes: Arcade and Single World; both of which are scored, very challenging, and playable in local co-op. It’s disappointing that there’s no online functionality here, so unless you have someone who’s willing to jump into the game with you, you’ll be diving into the fray alone. There are six different worlds with various stages to complete as you gun your way from stage to stage across five difficulty levels, two of which cannot be accessed until you complete the prior ones. The game is very hard, and you’ll definitely need to put some time into the lower difficulty modes to get a grasp on the mechanics and to naturally improve your skill. The different difficulties give you a set amount of lives when you go to tackle an arcade run or just single worlds. Each environment is themed, ranging from a techno-forest to a space station, and each area is unique, well designed, and filled with their own quirks, enemies, and humans to save. Each one also culminates in a challenging boss fight that will test your reflexes, timing, and general skill as they throw out wave after wave of projectiles that demand you dance through them while still dishing out the damage.
Compared to other twin-stick shooters developed by Housemarque, Nex Machina is no deviation from the arcade fun you’d expect, but it does have its own unique mechanics and small additions. Getting hit by any enemy or projectile will instantly kill you unless you have the shield power-up. However, to combat that, you’re equipped with a short range dash that provides you with invincibility for a brief time. Alongside this, enemies drop side weapons and power-ups to use that vary from increasing projectile spreads to upgrading your dash to cause a small explosion when it ends. Becoming fully powered up in each run is a highly gratifying feeling of empowerment, and, upon death, you’ll drop one of your abilities that you can pick back up if you’re quick enough. It makes for some exciting octane-inducing moments when you’re trying to get past a particularly tough stage, and it never fails to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Each stage in a world has a number humans to save that will eventually be attacked and killed if you aren’t quick enough to get to them. Some are hidden and can be found in most stages as well, rewarding the inquisitive players who take the time to somewhat explore the levels amongst the chaos that quickly unfolds. This leads to Nex Machina’s greatest hook, which is obtaining new high-scores for each new run you do. Whether it be a single world or arcade mode, there’s nothing more satisfying than improving on your own skill and your score along with it. Racking up multipliers, saving humans, and killing robots all increase your score, and going for all of them at the same time makes for some incredibly fast-paced split-second decision making that will have you grinning with joy or face palming once you realise what you could’ve done instead. You can always get better in Nex Machina, and beating old scores makes for some very impressive replay value.
If there’s one thing you’ll notice about Nex Machina, it’s that it screams Housemarque through and through, and it is wonderful. The worlds fill up the screen with vibrant colours and neon blasts from projectiles, as the developer’s unhealthy obsession with voxels fills up the screen in grand fashion. It’s got an incredibly appealing visual style that’s bursting at the seams with style, attitude, and arcade goodness. As if that wasn’t enough already, Nex Machina goes the extra mile and has a fantastic soundtrack to compliment the already excellent presentation of the game. It’s full of techno/dubstep tracks, but they suit the look and feel of the worlds and gameplay incredibly well. It’s tough not to get pulled into the game as you’re playing it, and the music will undoubtedly get you in the mood to mow down some robotic menaces.
Nex Machina is undoubtedly another win for Housemarque. They prove yet again that they are the kings of the arcade shoot ’em up genre, with gratifying gameplay, fair challnge, beautiful visuals, and a fantastic soundtrack that couldn’t fit the concept of the game more. The lack of online co-op may sour the deal a little bit for some, but the game is a must play if you’re fan of bullet hell, twin-stick shooters, and the developer’s other work especially.