September 24, 2007 // 7:05 pm
- Every six seconds, a new dual-stick shooter in the vein of Robotron is released on a console download service. At least, that's what it feels like these days. While every one of these games has its own spin on the genre, few go as bananas as Nucleus. Nucleus is like some weird combination of Robotron and the movie Fantastic Voyage. You control a "remote unit," a sperm-looking robot...thing that fights viruses and nuclei inside some sort of living organism. Along the way, you blast away at, drag around, and push various cells for a variety of purposes, from blocking enemy shots to collecting power-ups for your special weapon. It all sounds kind of interesting, but in execution, it's actually quite dull.
The problems begin with your remote unit, which is about as speedy as a snail with a brick taped to its back. You can dart forward for a quick moment, or "squirt" as the game refers to it. Squirting, however, still feels a bit sluggish, and you basically have to hammer on the button several times to get anywhere quickly.
After you realize you're in control of a sperm that couldn't make it to the urethral tract without stopping for a breather, you'll discover that combat isn't much better. You start out with a rather piddly default shooter (that eventually upgrades into more powerful weaponry), which, like Robotron, you fire by pressing the right analog stick in any direction. Enemies are viruses, starting with small, mostly harmless types and eventually evolving into mutated types that fire lots of different viral bullets. Your unit has a health bar, so you can take a fair amount of damage, but as the game progresses, the difficulty eventually becomes so stacked against you that you might as well just die from a single shot. It actually doesn't take very long for things to get ridiculous. The game's got more than 40 stages, but by the time you're out of the training levels, you'll be deep in the hurt locker.
One thing Nucleus does have is a bit of variety. You aren't just jumping into every level, killing everything, and then moving onto another stage. Objectives vary wildly. Sometimes you have to survive for a specific time limit, while at other times you're tasked with destroying a certain number of enemies and collecting every power-up. However, periodically, the game ignores destruction altogether and turns you into a glorified mover. Every stage is littered with cells, little spherical globules that can be shot, dragged (via a beam you can shoot), or pushed by squirting.
All these cells like to attach to one another when they get close to each other, which can make for a neat little barrier between you and enemies. At times, these cells become the focus of a level. You'll have to move them around a level while avoiding getting killed. Shooting the cells releases collectable proteins, which feed into a meter that, when full, lets you shoot a protein bomb. This weapon is pretty much the only thing you can use to kill the boss nuclei, and if you use it to kill a bunch of viruses at once, it gives you a score bonus. You basically have to keep this meter full if you want any shot at surviving, but it's quite frustrating to do since enemies like to gobble up the floating proteins.
While the variety is there, the fun really isn't. Tractor-beaming cells at a sluggish pace certainly does provide break from all the shooting, but it's not a particularly enjoyable one. And the shooting itself just isn't very interesting. Enemies are mostly indistinguishable from one another, save for size considerations, and the nuclei actually have a bad habit of blending directly into some of the backgrounds. This makes it difficult to pick them out as they swim around--that is, until they start shooting you over and over again. On top of those blending issues, the graphics are just sort of muddy and generally uninteresting-looking. The only audio of note is the glitch-happy soundtrack, which sounds like what would happen if someone scraped the Aphex Twin "Drukqs" album against a cheese grater and then tried to play the disc.
Really, all Nucleus has going for it is the whole cell manipulation thing and its irritating difficulty. If the gameplay were enjoyable enough to make persevering through the insanely tough later levels worthwhile, that'd be one thing, but it isn't. And while yes, you can play it with a friend, adding another person to the mix does little to make things more interesting. In the end, Nucleus earns itself a few creativity points for its design, but none for fun.