Nex Machina is a top-down twin-stick shooter from Resogun developer Housemarque. Its arcade-style design harkens back to retro classics like Robotron and Smash TV, which is no surprise considering the famed designer of those projects, Eugene Jarvis, was aboard the development team.
Nex Machina demands speed and precision to the point we find ourselves playing perched on the edge of our seats, leaning into the screen with a laser-focused gaze.
That’s a lot to tackle, especially with no tutorials or hints of any kind, but by bravely leaving you to uncover its many nuances through observation and trial and error, Nex Machina ensures its self-learnt intricacies are cemented in your mind. The gameplay communicates information fluently, steadily introducing an evolving range of baddies to illustrate what attacks you can and can’t dash through, what you do and don’t have to kill to progress, or who’s the biggest overall threat and resulting primary target of a given wave. Knowing how to correctly manage enemy types to stop them controlling portions of a stage is integral to your survival, while identifying those that target helpless AI humans and dealing with them quickly will work wonders for both your score and your conscience.
That said, choosing whether or not to save humans is a constant risk vs. reward minefield; you’ll need to put yourself in harm’s way to grab them and gain the associated points to climb the online leaderboards, but, if you die in doing so, you’ll end up worse off than if you'd left them to their doom and saved your own skin.
Any single blow is fatal in Nex Machina, and death carries some significant repercussions. Not only do you lose a life and a chunk of the score multiplier you’ve worked to build - along with your all-important, trance-like flow - but you’ll also drop one of the upgrades (increased range, bullet spread, etc.) or secondary weapons (these range from a sword to a rocket launcher, with use limited by a brief cooldown period) you've collected. This often leads to multiple consecutive deaths as you foolheartedly rush to pick it back up from the spot you died, or just struggle on in its absence if it was something you were relying on. All too often we’ve been on a perfect run only to lose multiple lives and upgrades successively to the mechanic, leaving us caught in a rut and faced with besting that same difficult section now at a marked disadvantage.
You can keep retrying while you maintain a stock of continues, but when they run dry it's a legitimate game over and you have to start back at square one. Whilst that’s somewhat jarring by today’s standards - especially when you consider the fact you also can’t save, so you’re in it for the long haul when playing Arcade mode, the game's main attraction - forcing you to replay sections helps to develop your skills, which will see you glean more from the game in the long run. It might seem irritating if you don’t remember a time when this was the industry standard, but the extra practice really does make perfect.
You’ll never actually be at too significant a loss, mind, as the game only takes around two hours to play from start to finish. Despite what you might be thinking, that isn’t any real cause for concern when it comes to Nex Machina’s value proposition, as it’s massively replayable. Memorising enemy spawn patterns and the location of secrets unearthed by destroying environments is endlessly rewarding, allowing you to implement that knowledge into future runs to achieve lofty new high scores.
Arcade and Single World modes (the latter allowing you to practice Worlds out of sequence) can be played in co-op if you have a nostalgia-hungry pal to hand, which we mean literally, as it’s fittingly (though still disappointingly) local only. The suite of modes is rounded out by Arena, which tasks you with meeting gold, silver and bronze score thresholds whilst wrestling with modifiers like limited timeframes and increased tempo. They take place in the same familiar Worlds, but are just about different enough to provide an engaging break from the main thrust now and then, which is perhaps how they’re best consumed, with only eleven challenges on offer.
Housemarque proved themselves capable of keeping arcade-style games relevant in the modern marketplace with the release of Resogun, but in partnering with Eugene Jarvis on Nex Machina they’ve surpassed themselves. Filled to the brim with pulse-pounding, nail-biting and addictive action on a gorgeously impressive scale, never skipping a beat, constantly complemented by the standout, retro-infused soundtrack, the game is a modern shoot-’em-up masterpiece that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the 80s classics that inspired it.