What do you do next after you’ve helped bring a modern-day classic like Dead Cells into the world? That must have been a consideration for Sébastien Bénard, a leading designer of the aforementioned Metroidvania-influenced mega-hit. Well, if the whole ‘difficult second album fear’ was a concern for Sébastien, it certainly needn’t have been. His latest game, Nuclear Blaze, is red hot.
Nuclear Blaze seeks to fulfil the fantasy of every young kid and young-at-heart grown-up; to be a firefighter. Not just any firefighter, though, as our intrepid and unnamed pixelated hero is an elite firefighter. One who needs to tackle a ferocious blaze burning through a top-secret underground facility. Despite initial appearances, Nuclear Blaze is not a Metroidvania, nor is it a roguelike. No, this is a straight-up action-adventure puzzle game and its old-school simplicity is just one of the many reasons to love it.
Your firefighter is tasked with making their way through a series of 2D environments, each effortlessly evoking 90s action-film nostalgia. The levels might only be a few screens in length, but are cram-packed with flames for you to battle with. These flames can quickly spread throughout the environment, so it’s up to you to use your firehose to extinguish them as quickly as possible.
It’s a furious and intense endeavour. You must keep the flames under control, whilst also navigating the level to activate sprinklers, discover key cards, and refill your water tanks at handy pumps in order to survive. It is, plainly and simply, exquisite fun. The gameplay is fast-paced and thrilling, with sumptuously tight controls that mean when you die – and you will die a lot – it is only ever your fault, not the game’s. It ensuring an addictive ‘just one more go’ gameplay loop that gives a deep feeling of smug satisfaction once you finally crack the level’s action puzzle and extinguish every flame.
As you play through the game, abilities will be unlocked at a pretty much perfect pace. You’ll soon be using the spray from your hose as a shield, rolling out of the way of falling debris, and hacking apart obstacles with a handy axe. These abilities really open up the tactics available to the player and enables the developer to play with various mechanics, combining different elements to great effect. Some levels must be completed within strict time limits, some have a narrative focus, whilst others feature a surprising cast of enemies to be squirted to oblivion. And some all three. Each level proves a perfect slice of gaming pie.
If all that firefighting sounds too dramatic then be assured that the game never takes itself too seriously. Nuclear Blaze knows how to be silly, featuring hidden cats to rescue and probably the most ridiculous end boss of all time. Despite this merriment, the game manages to still ooze atmosphere, providing a genuinely intriguing mystery for the player to solve, revealed in a series of hidden notes and clues. The sound design is immense too; from the satisfying crash as your firefighter kicks down an obstinate door, to the gorgeous retro 16-bit music that accompanies your exploits.
What pleased me the most about Nuclear Blaze though is just how accessible it is. It might look like a rock-hard indie game – and it can be – but the difficulty can also be tinkered with to an impressive degree. The speed the fire spreads can be customised, as can hose power, armour, lives, and more. The game even tracks the anticipated difficulty as a percentage, enabling those who want an easier time can have it, whilst those demanding a masochistic experience can get that too.
When Nuclear Blaze was originally released on PC and Mac in 2021, it was criticised for being too short. Now, I have no problem with short games. They often prove a vital respite, a balm for the soul, when I find myself getting bored pushing through the latest 80-hour AAA open-world slog and need a break. But for those who are bothered about that kind of thing, the console version of Nuclear Blaze has added the ‘Hold my Beer’ mode, which doesn’t just fiddle with the difficulty, but remixes the entire game with new baddies, new abilities, and loads of enticing secrets to discover. The plot and the environments themselves mostly stay the same, but the experience and gameplay demands are entirely different. Hold my Beer mode is like a great sequel to a great action movie – more of the same, just bigger and better.
But maybe, and I feel bad saying this, maybe it’s not quite different enough? This is a game that can still be polished off in five hours or so. Yet, whilst Nuclear Blaze burns, it burns bright.