Review: Nano Assault Neo is gorgeous and difficult, much like a supermodel girlfriend
It’s great that Nintendo has a console that’s sort of on the same footing as its competitors again, because it means there’s going to be a lot of “me too!” games that are going to come out for it to try and match popular bestsellers on other platforms. Nano Assault Neo tries to be the Wii U’s killer downloadable twin-stick shooter, in the vein of Xbox’s Geometry Wars series, or the Super Stardust series on Sony platforms, and it sure is fun, but though it seems almost impossible, this might be the very first game of its kind to not be completely showered with praise at every turn, because in an effort to outdo the competition, it has bogged itself down with a bunch of clunky new features that don’t totally work in its favor, and it doesn’t quite have the same level of polish as its more established brethren.
Rather than a spaceship or a neon shape, Nano Assault Neo places you in a microscopic vessel that moves from cell to cell, eradicating bacteria and viruses as you go. It borrows the spherical planet dynamic from Super Stardust and moves it into Super Mario Galaxy territory, with each cell being a different odd shape, and having its own distinct style, environmental hazards, and enemies. Each level sees you purifying three cells each, and culminates in a fourth boss cell. In the first cell, your mission is to find the four satellite guns that increase the power of your basic attack, and then it’s up to you to use them to defeat enemies, and collect credits and power-ups until you’ve done enough damage for the game to declare the cell purified and allow you to move on. You do this entire cycle four times, once for each level. Assisting you with navigation is the Gamepad screen, which has an interactive map, and grants you the ability to position your guns around you in any configuration you see fit.
Technically, the game is a real beast. It’s the first game I’ve played on the Wii U that’s really made me remember that this thing’s trying to push some graphical boundaries. The textures and lighting both look great, and the framerate is locked at an unwavering 60fps. The art style of this game is also very enjoyable. Nothing feels half-finished, and I think the game the developers over at Shin’en wanted to you have is exactly what you get. The soundtrack is well-done and appropriate, but nothing really stood out to me about it, and the interface is useable, but it’s a little dangerous to use anything on the Gamepad because you either have to pause the game look at it, or risk getting hit by something onscreen. The ability to switch between the TV and the Gamepad on the fly is also a nice touch. All in all, it’s a really well-made game, and most of the problems with it have more to do with game design flaws than any sort of technical shortcoming.
It has a simple premise, I realize, but it enables extremely fast-paced and satisfying play right off the bat, and the first two levels aren’t so hard that you’re immediately turned off from the rest of it. The main problem, however, is that as you move around these awkwardly shaped cells, the camera has trouble showing you enough of what’s going on, especially for a game where there’s bullets flying at you from every direction at all times. Compounding this claustrophobia is that between all the bullets that you and your enemies shoot, the power-ups flying around, the shininess of all the textures, and the fact that the enemies often times just teleport to you out of nowhere, it’s not uncommon to just totally lose track of yourself and die over and over again for reasons other than skill. Also the inexplicable “sun” peeking over the horizon gets in your eyes and obscures your vision way too often. This is extremely frustrating. On top of that, after two fairly innocuous levels, once the third level begins, it’s like you moved immediately from the kiddie pool to the Arctic Ocean of bullet-hell shooters. It gets way harder without any more explanation or warning, and while I did end up beating the game without too much trouble, it might be frustrating for more casual gamers to encounter such a huge and unexpected spike in difficulty.
Beyond this, the game has a few extras that sort of help to justify its $10 price tag. First of all, the two player mode is fun, with one player on the TV and one on the Gamepad, and the game is much easier to beat this way, but without a Wii U Pro Controller, you have to use a Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo, and using the d-pad to aim is not the most elegant thing in the world. There’s also a short list of achievement-style missions, but most of them can probably be completed within two playthroughs for the hardcore gamer. There’s also arcade mode with online rankings where you can compare your score with worldwide leaderboards as well as your friends list, and an unlockable survival mode where you play through cells in a random order with only one life.
All in all, I hesitantly recommend Nano Assault Neo. The game is beautiful and extremely polished, and it’s fun to play, but it’s short, and the amount of annoying situations you can find yourself in is literally unacceptable. Still, it’s fun with a friend, and it’s a good game to quickly load up and blow off a little steam with when you’re not ready to commit to several straight hours of gaming. You probably won’t play it much, but you’ll keep coming back to it for years.