Waking up as a brain in a tank, I smash my squishy pink matter against the glass tube. No mean feat, but after a few good thumps, the barrier shatters, and I roll out onto the laboratory floor. A nasty little yellow robot gives me the lowdown of my virtuous–er, villainous?–task: stop my fellow robots from partying! A short jump into the destructive robot chassis of my choice, and I'm ready to make some speakers and turntables will fly!
That's the gist of Flying Oak Games' new twin-stick rogue-lite game, NeuroVoider. Published by Plug In Digital, NV sports a retro visual flare, pumping rave soundtrack, and the kind of gameplay that makes your knuckles white. But don't let that threat of high blood pressure stop you, because you'll be missing out on a winning top-down shooter with procedurally generated levels, and enough randomized guns and parts to put Armored Core to shame.
Did I mention the local co-op? It's there, up to four players, and the sparks and gears fly all the more when you add some friends to the mix. Check NeuroVoider out on Steam here.
The story is simple, but engaging as far as it goes. You're a brain in a machine directed by a spiteful little outcast robot to wreak havoc on the happy and perpetually celebrating robo-citizens who thrive under the "master NeuroVoider." There're an intro and an ending, and not much else in between (other than awesome top-down shooting bliss). The tale is told via dialogue bubbles, and some loading screen text (which is really a landing screen waiting for you to press a button, as I found the load times to be non-existent.)
The story does exactly what it was intended to: set the player up for a tongue-in-cheek ride through a cyberpunk mechanical world, broken into randomized levels with randomized hazards, items, and enemies. Oh, and the Steam page description is right: you'll die. You'll die a lot.
Gameplay is smooth as butter, or–more apropos–engine grease. If you've played a lot of NES-era top-down action games like Ikari Warriors and Commando I and II, you'll be right at home on the pseudo-isometric killing floors presented in NeuroVoider, all of which are shiny, wire-strewn, and bearing the telltale greens and purples of a cyberpunk future. You'll use a combination of keyboard/mouse or gamepad (fully supported) to move and shoot independently (meaning you can be cruising left while firing right). After trying both control schemes, I found the gamepad perfectly suited to this 16-bit console-inspired setup. In seconds, I was at ease beating back a wave of harmless (least dangerous) cannon-fodder bots, and weaving around pillars to deflect the bullets of pursuing super elite (most dangerous) enemies. Firing my first, secondary, special skill and innate ability were like riding a bike, and I didn't misstep on the controls, even in my first few plays.
Your character's innate ability is determined by your type of robot chassis–the light yet vulnerable Dash bot has a short-range lunge/teleport that prevents damage and moves your position, the Rampager (my favorite) can unleash a barrage of attacks in a burst, and the Fortress is a slow moving defensive beast that can throw up a shield around itself. In addition to your innate ability, you also select a skill at the onset of your run-through. This skill can be either a passive skill–meaning it is on whenever applicable and doesn't require a button press to activate–or active, meaning it requires a button press to utilize. These skills are radically varied, and range from the "1UP" skill that revives you once a level if you die, to multiplayer specific ones that buff or assist your comrades. Choosing different skills can radically change the game's optimal play-style, so I encourage trying out a bunch to see how they perform in action.
The two primary weapons of your bot are actually changeable gear loadouts; in addition to the Guns (Left and Right, and can actually be melee weapons such as beam swords), you can also swap Vision components (which primarily affect line of sight and visibility), Core components (which help determine hit points and other stats),and Transport components (which determine movement speed and also buff hit points). Many of these randomly generated parts, which you can find during your killing sprees or craft using Scrap, also include buffs to differing skills and stats. Scrap, which serves as currency, is received in the field or by breaking down unwanted components, and can also be used to level up your gear (though the level of each item is capped).
One of my favorite parts of the loot in NeuroVoider is completely superficial, and that's the randomized names. Whether it affects gameplay itself or not, there's an extra pleasure knowing that I blew away a swarm of elites using my "Enhanced Manic Phaser of Swagy Destruction." You can't buy that kind of joy–unless, of course, you buy the game.
Loadouts can only be swapped in-between stages, so it's super-helpful that Flying Oak Games put a demo option for each weapon in your inventory called Test, which shows the spread and projectile type of each gun (liquid, bullet, and beam are a few of the possibilities, and they affecting the speed, range, size and splash damage of the gun.) There's nothing worse than starting a tough floor with the wrong weapons for your play-style (I favor a heavy-hitter like a rocket launcher, paired with a fast bullet-type), and the Test option helps prevent just that. The loadout menus, like the minimal HUD and pause screens, are well laid-out and clear, though the type is rather small if your running on a large TV or monitor.
The levels in NeuroVoider number 16 per run-through, with a boss stage after every 4. In addition, each stage is only one of three options given, and you can choose which to play. The stats to help you decide which level to choose are Size, Elites, and Loot, and each is rated 1 – 5 (1 being the least large/amount, and 5 being the most). There are also occasional stage choices that will show "Super Elites Only," and provide much more loot while being more deadly. The actual goal of each stage (excepting the boss levels) is not to eliminate all of your enemies, but rather to destroy of a set number of Reactors, (the number of which are tracked at the top of the screen.) Often, I found several stages between bosses would be a bit easy, but only enough to lull me into a false sense of security before blasting me to game over–yes, this rogue-lite jumped on the permadeath bandwagon. Each playthrough is so different on so many levels, though, that I found myself not caring one bit (okay, maybe just one bit).
The boss fights, which are randomized, all face you off against large machines that have weak spots which you'll need to attack when a vulnerable "Weakness" indicator is shown. Some bosses are one unit, while others may be separate parts surrounding the stage. A lot of these spawn tons of minions to deal with while you're trying to down the master, and generally provide a much more "bullet hell" experience than the in-between stages.
With that said, there's a stat called EP, which acts as your stamina that is consumed when you use a weapon or an active skill. If you expend all of your EP, you suffer a smoking cooldown phase where you cannot fire until your EP is fully regenerated. Different weapons expend different amounts of EP, and different components can enhance or hinder your max EP and your EP regeneration rate. This is the best addition to the traditional top-down shooter formula, as it prevents you from letting guns blaze without a predetermined strategy. This limitation caused my first few runs to last about 30 seconds and made me appreciate component and weapon choice that much more. It also makes sure the game is overall less "bullet hell," and more move, take cover, and strafe.
graphics and sound
As mentioned, the graphics are gorgeous pixel art and are very reminiscent of the SNES Megaman X titles. This is further enhanced by the fact that the look of your chassis, as well as those of your enemies, alters with each different component equipped. The colors of the sprites stand out well against the more muted tones of the various levels' flooring, walls, and pitfalls and the various explosive destructibles scattered around are suitably differentiated without seeming out of place.
The sound of the weapons, enemies, and explosions would fit right on a 16-bit console, but what really stands out is the soundtrack by synthwave idol Dan Terminus. Dan's tracks are equal parts Daft Punk and pre-Legacy Tron, with a knot of Blade Runner bleakness driven through it. You'll be bopping along with it long after you've been blown to smithereens, and you can get the full tracks as part of NeuroVoider's Deluxe Edition Upgrade, which clocks in at around nine bucks, American. This might seem a bit steep for a soundtrack off of Steam, but you also get some wallpapers and, more interestingly, various pre-release builds of NeuroVoider to toy around with (in addition to commentary on them, which I found downright fascinating).
It goes without saying that I love NeuroVoider. Its 90's aesthetic, 80's inspired synthwave soundtrack, and tightly controlled randomized mayhem will provide a helluva lot of playtime for an indie title and will be a great addition to any Ikari Warriors or rogue-lite fiends' library.
If you're in the mood for a bit of depth with your shoot-em-up'esque top-down gameplay and don't mind contending with permadeath that will send you screaming back to the start no matter how close you get to that jerky Master NeuroVoider, I say bite the bullet and bust your brain free with NV.
|+ Awesome late 90's SNES visuals||– Permadeth, if that's a con for you (baby)|
|+ Nice controls that make each loss your own fault||– Learning curve of the EP system will slam at first|
|+ K/M and Gamepad layouts displayed in-game|
|+ Pulse-pounding Dan Terminus soundtrack|