Nightmare Reaper Review: Reaping Nothing But Rewards
Seeing a pixellated mess of blood and gore with my gun centered in the lower middle of the screen, my first steps into Nightmare Reaper brought back memories of playing Doom or Quake on a white CRT monitor with a trackball mouse. There’s a special kind of crude nostalgia old-school shooters bring forth, a heyday of violence and gunplay that paved the way for a generation. I went into this game hearing that it was a rogue-lite, old-school FPS inspired by the pioneering games for the FPS genre, but what I got was so much more.
At Hell’s Gate
Nightmare Reaper’s plot is straightforward enough. You are a lady confined to what appears to be a sanatorium after experiencing a bloody breakdown. As you progress the story, some papers on your desk start piling up, drip-feeding you backstory. When you aren’t messing around in your small room, you can take a nap to get to the real meat of the game. In the protagonist’s dreams, she slays countless legions of the undead in strange, fantastical environments using well-placed kicks and a seemingly endless barrage of weaponry. You’ll make your way through randomly generated levels, taking on undead hordes and demonic creatures, dodging traps, and collecting guns and tools to help give you a fighting chance. When you finish a level, you’re given the option of keeping one Level 1 weapon, and forced to sell all the others.
Nightmare Reaper’s core gameplay loop happens in the dreamworld, where you’ll start in an enemy-free spawn room. There are rogue-lite aspects where the map is semi-procedural, the enemies and weapons you’ll find are randomly generated, and the same goes for the traps and power-ups. You’ll head into a room, start messing up the enemies in there, collect random weapons and rinse and repeat until you find the purple pentagram that will end the level. Some secret rooms contain false walls concealing treasure troves. Other times, you’ll find challenge rooms (with no enemies) you can run for weapons and loot, and there are even a couple of Easter eggs here and there. A lot of the fun comes from the gunplay, which is smooth, fast, and just varied enough to keep things interesting even when rerunning levels. Killing enemies makes a gory mess (which you can adjust if you want a tamer experience), and, though it’s pixellated, it’s still satisfying to see, especially when you pierce their jugular and watch them stand and spew blood for a few seconds before keeling over. Is it needlessly violent? Probably. But that’s the fun of it! The gameplay loop as a whole may seem juvenile and basic, but I’d argue that’s where its strength is. It’s based on old-school games where really you get a bite-sized overview of the plot and are set loose to ravage enemies in varied arenas; simple and fun. And this game nails that in spades. It helps that once the combat cranks up, so does the music. Nightmare Reaper features a brutal, heavy metal soundtrack courtesy of Andrew Hulshult (the composer behind Doom Eternal’s The Ancient Gods DLC soundtrack).
However, the real highlight here is the weapons, ranging from magic to guns to swords and even shields. The arsenal the game puts at your fingertips is vast, with a class system consisting of your typical Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Legendary. Higher class weapons can be outfitted with a variety of modifiers to augment their capabilities. You also aren’t strictly limited to just standard guns here. You can pick up Gemstone Staffs, Buzzsaw Launchers, Orbital Strikes, and even Strange Alien Artifacts. Or, if you aren’t great with aiming, you can opt to use melee weapons such as katanas, whips, and even a sword and shield, all also having something attached to their alt-fire. Seriously, I was coming across some over-the-top weapon I hadn’t seen before on almost every level. There was even a point where I found a gun that shot homing bees at people. I can’t make this stuff up! Every weapon also has an alt-fire, meaning they aren’t one-trick ponies; they have versatility in the field. For example, the Buzzsaw Launcher lets you use the buzzsaws as a melee weapon, so you have a melee weapon and a ranged weapon in one razor-sharp package. I cannot stress enough that the weapons are this game’s bread and butter. I could write a whole essay here on the crazy stuff I found in this game. If you like wacky and wild weapons, you will have a blast with Nightmare Reaper. I will say this, though, if you can, test your new toy in an open space. I can’t count how many times I turned myself into a black smear on the ground because the gun I found was highly explosive.
Beefing Up Bit By Bit
Something that helped sell this game to me was its very unique progression system. See, the in-game menu is accessed via a Gameboy Advance SP-esque handheld console. Your first “skill tree” is literally called “Skill Tree.” If this sounds confusing, don’t worry, it got me a bit mixed up too. You pick it up off the ground and insert it in the back of your Not-Gameboy like a cartridge. As you can guess by now, the Skill Tree is actually a mini-game called Skill Tree set up like Super Mario Bros. 3. You visit various worlds for some old-school platforming action. Complete the stage, and it’ll net you a buff or perk.
The best part? This wasn’t the only game. You eventually come across the Topaz Tree that’s a Pokemon-lite monster battling game, complete with an overworld you can interact with NPCs to get. Battle your Not-Pokemon with other trainers and level yourself up! The third and final mini-game is a horizontal shoot-em-up that, while definitely the most repetitive of the bunch, was still really neat. The fact that Nightmare Reaper turned something as flat as getting some number buffs and random perks from a skill tree into an adorable mini-game like this brings some lovely charm to this adventure that I wasn’t expecting and love it all the much more because of it. And if you should decide these little mini-games aren’t doing it for you, you can go into the settings and turn them off and return to the tried and true method of spending currency for upgrades and leaving it at that.
With this game, the level-up system becomes quite a bit pivotal, as Nightmare Reaper will often and rapidly reap your dream self. Just like the days of old, while the combat is manageable, there will be some circumstances where you will enter a room that is your worst nightmare, get locked into it thanks to a trap that locks the doors, and you will get wasted. Death results in you waking up and needing to restart that part of the level. While you probably could beat this game without touching a single upgrade, for the best experience, it’s advisable to keep up on those. Even if you get ejected from a dream, you keep any currency you earned that run, so you can grind up to get upgrades to make the next run easier. With the upgrade system in place (and the fun little mini-games that come with it), even when I got myself reamed, I was never mad, and just saw it as an opportunity to level up more and maybe even find more new guns to play with.
A Pounding Headache
While I’d love to say this hellish ride was worth every mile, there were a few potholes that I’m going to imagine will be worked out over time, but did hamper my experience. First of all, there’s no title menu at all. Everything you need to adjust as far as settings are there, and save management is in the in-game menu as well, but there’s no official title screen, it’s all in-game. There’s not much in the way of tutorials either. You just drop in and are given some tooltips here and there. There are also no instructions for the weapons you pick up, so you kinda just screw around with them and find out what they do. For the most part, you’ll figure it out just playing with it, but there were a few that, even at the end of my experience, I never really understood how the hell it worked. Later levels make this a bit harder on the player too, as there’s rarely just a couple enemies around you can test the weapon with. It’s not easy to test a new toy when you’ve got a horde nipping on your heels. Even just a little tooltip would help here and there.
Another issue is that there needs to be just a bit more variation in the RNG for the rogue-like aspects of the game, especially in the mapping department. While this never advertises itself as a full-on roguelike or rogue-lite and only has some degree of procedural generation, I do feel it could beef up what generates and how sometime down the road. I didn’t notice it earlier on, but later levels start to be a bit same-y. Later levels also love spawning in mobs of enemies, which sometimes can screw you over if the weapon you carried over from the last level runs out of ammo or doesn’t fit the environment. I carried around a Legendary Semi-Automatic Rifle (okay, let’s not mince words, it’s an M1 Garand) that is fantastic at medium-sized rooms for picking off armed zombies thanks to the extra power from its class. Not so much in very long-range (due to a lack of scope or ADS) or in short-range (the alt-fire bayonet can be imprecise). If you have groups of enemies bunched up in tight corners, all it takes is a couple of good shotgun blasts to tear you apart and you won’t have what you need to take it out before it shreds you. I feel it would’ve been good to include at least one extra kept weapon that you can get early on in the Gold Tree mini-game. The game wants me to tote around a bunch of weapons, but if I die before I can get any to use, it can defeat the purpose. The picture above was taken after getting hit not even one second after opening the first door of a level, and I barely made it out with 5 health. I don’t mind a little bit of a rush here and there, but it’d be nice if there was a way to at least tone down the amount right out of the gate so I have a chance to get another weapon or two before flooding me with demons to kill and only whatever gun I have left over from the last level.
One last thing to keep note of, while this game looks pretty basic and shouldn’t take up much power for your computer, it can and will start eating resources, far more than you’d expect. I didn’t notice how much my computer was working on this game until I started seeing a few frame skips, audio lags, and other signs that my computer wasn’t quite happy processing all of this. That said, to this game’s benefit, there are a bunch of settings you can fiddle with to keep the game running smooth and steady, so please do go check through the settings if you notice a few hiccups pop up.
Reaping A Bloody Harvest
When I have to struggle to pry myself away from a game to actually write my review, you know it’s done something very right! Minor gripes such as the lack of a proper title screen and the procedural generation skipping leg day here and there are completely outweighed by how much raw fun can be had from blasting demon hordes away with some of the most creative guns I’ve seen in a long while. With a rocking soundtrack, addicting gameplay loop, and creative progression system, Nightmare Reaper delivers a bloody and bountiful harvest. If you’re a fan of old-school shooters, there’s no reason to miss out on this one.
Final Verdict 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Blazing Bit Games; Developer: Blazing Bit Games; Number of players: 1; Released: March 28th, 2022; MSRP: $24.99
Full disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy.