When I think of twin-stick shooters, it wouldn’t be the genre of game I’d associate with mental health advocacy. Yet, to my pleasant surprise, here we are! Nebula Within takes the arcade action we love from a twin stick shooter and wraps it up in mental health mantras. It is one of the best surprises I’ve had in indie gaming for a while.
The core gameplay of Nebula Within is heavily inspired by Geometry Wars. Abstract shapes are enemies that fly, charge, slink and roll around the screen for you to shoot in your ship. These enemies come in waves and each wave has a written mantra attached to it. These are negative statements where you shoot the blocked words to turn them into positive affirmations instead. It is a sly way to introduce you to the mental health side of the gameplay mechanics.
Your lives are will points and power ups are things like ‘strength’ or ‘confidence’ which give you blast waves or double shots. You’ll also get enemies grow twice their normal size too. These come with speech bubbles saying negative inner monologue thoughts like ‘I’m not good enough’. It isn’t subtle but I really appreciated how it all came together. The levels which you unlock from chapters in a diary can be completed in any order as long as you’ve unlocked them. Each have their own end boss although these are largely the easiest part of each level. They do look pretty though. As you unlock chapters, your diary starts to fill up and you can scroll through different affirmations you’ve unlocked in the extras menu.
All of this would be worth nothing if the game handled like a pig and this is where Nebula Within impressed me the most. Your ship handles smoothly, enemies are plentiful and everything feels responsive and dynamic. The game is quite happy to throw challenge at you – something many mental health games usually avoid. This is a full on, arcade attack game which handed my own ass to me over and over. I could only complete four levels in a row without a game over and there’s plenty more to discover – each tied to an emotion. You also have endless mode where you can’t die and local co-op for up to 8 players, although I haven’t personally tried it. One other points I’d like to make is that wave based enemies come when you kill a certain amount of the previous wave. This means that you can choose to take your time and therefore have a slower, calmer experience if you wanted to. I preferred my all guns blazing approach even though it cost me lives, The only minor gripe I had with the game is that you don’t get much warning when enemies spawn on top of you and kill you. I had this happen quite a few times, notably when I’m right at the edge of the screen. It is a minor annoyance though.
You get all this for £3.99 too – which is a low price point for the excellent content you get. I always worry with games badged with mental health in mind as they often mean well but feel a bit… tepid. Nebula Within does mental health in gaming proud and right by offering a proper full on game that meets the player where they are at.
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