NeuroVoider is a bit of a weird one if coming into it without any prior knowledge of its development or release. All you’re told as you boot up the game is that it’s a rogue-lite cyber twin-stick shooter, so I was expecting something akin to 10tons superb Neon Chrome from last year. However, although the assets and controls are in place to provide what should be a great arcade shooter experience, that’s not quite what we get here, thanks to several unexplained and initially confusing features, as well as some contradictory design choices.
After choosing to start a new game, you’re given the choice of three game modes: Arcade, Rogue or Voider. These are essentially different levels of difficulty, but across all three modes you only get one shot at glory. Regardless of the difficulty selection, you’re then asked to select one of three different classes of bot – a melee focused speedy one, the archetypal tank and a heavy weapons specialist. Having made your choice, you’ll be dropped into a procedurally generated level without any explanation for it’s existence. Some of the levels are dark and claustrophobic, akin to something you’d find in Space Hulk or Alien, but others are frozen rooms with slippery floors, strange locations full of bass speakers… Even graveyards make an appearance. Finish the level by finding and destroying its reactors, and you get to hold down the ‘Y’ button to teleport out to the intermission, where you can upgrade your bot and equip it with new parts: guns, transport, chassis and vision parts all go to upgrading it’s stats, affecting it’s overall power levels and hit points and the damage it can dish out.
When you die, and you will, it’s game over. NeuroVoider being described by the developer as a ‘rogue-lite’ game rather than a pure ‘rogue-like’ means you have an opportunity, after death, to find where you last perished and regain some of your lost power by defeating your ‘Nemesis’, a doppelgänger mini-boss who now resides on the same level at which you died. Although the stages you play through are chosen from a random pool of tile sets and layouts, if you die on, say, level five, you’ll find your Nemesis on level five in the next game, regardless of what form that level takes. With responsive controls, good-looking pixel art and effects, a plethora of weapons to discover and upgrade and one of the best synth soundtracks I’ve ever heard in a game, all the ingredients are here for a great experience. Having put several hours into each mode and with each robot class, it’s with an overwhelming sense of disappointment I move onto describing why my experience didn’t match those expectations at all.
The first issue is just figuring out what the hell is going on. The (up to four) players start out as mobile, sentient brains encased in a suspension gel inside glass vats, which have to break free and take over a robotic killing machine to begin their journey to freedom. There’s clearly some sort of back story and plot involved here. But beyond a short tutorial given by a little robot, humorously named Fat.32, you’re thrust into a world of low-res pixel art top down shooting action without any knowledge of the enemies, stages and weapons which will be upcoming. I don’t have a problem with a lack of plot per se, but it would be nice to know exactly where I’m meant to be breaking out of. With the strange selection of levels mentioned previously, it’s difficult to feel a sense of place or purpose to your journey, and thus difficult to care about your progress along it.
Gameplay is solid and the controls are tight, but instead of ammunition or reload times to add a layer of strategy to the shooting, the developer has made the ultimately foolish decision of having every shot or melee attack eat up a hefty chunk of an arbitrary energy bar. In between shots this refills, but your energy bar is depleted so quickly that you’ll often empty it accidentally. When this happens, you’re forced to wait for the entire bar to refill before you can make any further attacks. It only takes three or four seconds, but the pace of everything else is set to hyper mode: Enemy numbers can be vast, and gameplay can often feel like a classic Japanese ‘Bullet Hell’ title. It’s so counter intuitive to have to pace your shots or risk being offenceless that levels become a game of cat and mouse, trying to aggravate a single enemy to separate it from a group that would otherwise overwhelm you. After just a handful of levels this begins to already feel like a chore, and renders the outstanding soundtrack and good looks redundant – any feature which takes away the players desire to play is bad game design, period.
To further disrupt progression through the game, the intermission screen where you upgrade your robot between each and every level is a mess. A small box in the centre of the screen, with an unintuitive set of controls and bad layout will leave you feeling confused about equipping, forging (random crafting, basically) and scrapping. Something as simple as equipping the new gun you looted from a dead enemy on the previous level and scrapping your old one for forging materials is a painful, tedious exercise. Even when you’ve figured it out, it never becomes second nature, and I found myself wondering what the hell was going through the devs mind when he decided this was the model he was going to ship. Several hours later, and I find myself reeling at the major design flaws in both this and the energy bar mechanic.
NeuroVoid defied my expectations by letting me down from ‘Wow, I’m a bouncing brain!’ to ‘Hang on… What the hell? WHY?’ in a matter of hours. I started out by feeling it was an above average game, but every new discovery and new level of progression revealed more frustrating design across both the gameplay and user experience. There are good foundations here for something more, something better – and the soundtrack is phenomenal – but as it stands, this sits uncomfortably between awful and below average.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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