What even is Nightmare Reaper. Like, what is this. When the boomer shooter revival hit, you probably expected things to stay mostly nostalgic, tired and true formulas with some updates here and there. Project Warlock did this, DUSK did this, ect. Enter Nightmare Reaper, a little game that has been in early access for a few years that has finally reached full release at 1.0 and about a billion new features. It is a large beast that uses roguelike elements without going full roguelike. The classic FPS formula with about a hundred asterisks. A looter shooter where instead of minor number changes, you can potentially get a double barreled shotgun that spews exploding fire balls that turn every single room into a wildfire. It is a lot.
It might also be one of the most innovative and downright thrilling FPS games to see the light of day since ULTRAKILL first appeared with episode one.
The story is that you are playing as a girl being housed at a mental institution. Notes you can read after each level from your doctor (voiced by Gianni “Forum Weapon Arms Dealer” Matragrano) inform you of further context, that he is trying to help you with serious trauma with an experimental procedure. Your role in all this is to go to bed and dream out wicked sick FPS shooting fantasies as you take down monsters, demons, and all sorts of other nasties.
Nightmare Reaper informs you pretty quick this is going to be a bit different from any of its contemporaries. You have your basic shooting and kicking as a universal melee move, alongside jumping, and over time, dashing, double jumps, and much more. When you start getting weapons, though, you’ll be limited to being able to keep a single level one weapon to carry to future levels, everything else you picked up from drops and chests sold at the end for coins. You may also notice they have rarity levels that decide how many modifiers go on them, like elemental effects (fire, ice, shock), buffs, debuffs, burst fire, auto fire, and even a random projectile effect that changes what the weapon actually shoots, even including flaming poop.
There a ton of weapons to find, all of them a delight in their own way. Alongside the usual stuff like pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, SMGs, ect, you get weird and off beat stuff. Magic books, shurikens, staffs, axes, swords and shields, a Blake Stone laser pistol, a talking Judge Dredd pistol, a smart gun that lays turrets, bows, grenades, harpoons, peg legs, mops (that you can use to mop up blood for gold coins), railguns, a pot of souls, a skull that summons skeletons, trap boxes, katanas, miniguns, rocket launchers, a weird eyeball that latches onto people and explodes, various energy guns, a black hole gun that does what it says, and you should get the idea by now. Oh, and attributes are nearly universal so yes, you can get a knife with burst fire that slashes three times on press, or a chainsaw that has kickback that sends you flying backwards a full mile when you try using it.
Also, if you die and re-enter the level, you’ll be surprised to discover the layout is completely different. As RNG decides weapon drops and attributes, it also decides room and map layouts, keeping things fresh, which seems almost unnecessary at times due to the wide variety of area themes. It is appreciated, though, as it makes defeat a slap on the wrist, and a ridiculous room of monsters that got you won’t be back the second attempt. You even get to keep money you earned before you died. It also helps with episode two, which does get a bit samey with sewers and urban areas blending a tad.
The gameplay loop comes from the three skill trees. Yes, three of them. They are all shown as game boy advance games, the skill tree being a Mario style platformer, the topaz tree being a Pokemon style game, and the jade tree being a space shooter (complete with music by Lee Jackson of all people). They are all feature complete and surprisingly challenging, though you can turn them off in options if you don’t want to bother with them and stick with the core game. The skill tree is especially impressive, with some clever and challenging platforming challenges.
Beat levels in the skill tree for buffs and moves, complete trainer fights in the topaz tree for smaller buffs and bonuses, and purchase a variety of bonus skills and goodies in the jade tree while scanning for stations and levels. You need gold coins for the skill tree to do levels, topaz coins to do trainer battles, and jade coins to buy upgrades. The first two come from just completing main game normal levels, but the final one is only gotten from the jade tree game itself, and in much larger number in arena fight challenges unlocked by sleeping in a bed in another room.
Oh right, the asylum. Between levels, you can explore the asylum, new keys and events appearing overtime, unlocking new elements of the game. It also works great as a simple way to keep the context of the game’s dark story present, especially because you’re powerless here. It’s where the game messes around with you, shifting in light horror elements that while very rarely scary, but it’s an appreciated bit of flavor. As you can imagine, there is a lot of game here, the developer saying up to 40 hours (!) if you keep the minigames on. It’s a grind, yes, but it’s one that rarely feels stale.
The game has vibes for days. Crunchy, build engine style sprite and environment work, matched with a brutal, violent metal soundtrack. You can thank Andrew Hulshult for that, who comes out of his hole in the ground whenever he senses a new retro shooter being developed to create a soundtrack for it, much like the Shovel Knight devs who appear to add him to your indie game. He also did the sound work for the game in general, and not enough praise can be heaped on him for it. Nightmare Reaper is one of the best sounding games you’ll play in the indie scene, a loud, impactful scape of sounds and carnage, perfectly giving important information to the player while making even the easiest fights feel like bloody wars.
It’s a kind of brilliant balance of tones, a blend of realistic horror with edgy flairs to make it a bit more palatable, alongside violent power fantasy and childish gaming nostalgia mixed in. It fits the idea of the lead girl trying to escape her own mental anguish, using escapism to distance herself and also keep herself going, the story even having a pretty interesting turn later that makes great use of this concept. Most importantly, it is all in service of the core game.
The best way to describe this strange concoction is a retro shooter of the build engine era mixed with a layer of Borderlands and another of the roguelike format used widely in the indie scene, with a bunch of indulgent flourishes that are simple enough not to distract from the boom and shoot. It’s like if you took Duke Nukem or Blood and put a bunch of other parts from other games onto them, but with intelligence with what compliments the core game and gives it longevity. Basically, what keeps it from being stale in a long total playtime.
Playing the game, as a result, always feels like you’re making progress, no matter what you do. Everything unlocks more things, including more extremely useful moves or buffs. Most importantly, however, is all of these touches are additive. At the very center of what this game is, before anything else, is a classic style FPS. It is very good at being that. The loot, the skills trees, they are not supplements for skill like they would be in more number based looter shooters. No, they are a spice to a very strong combat core that keeps piling up complexity the more you progress and the more you learn to do.
Episode two throws in a game changer with a permanent hook shot, which was previously an exclusive alt-fire for the chained saw weapon. You can grapple around walls and ceilings, even hanging in place, and can use this in combat for additional mobility. Alongside you having a dash and double jump by then, the game gets more comfortable throwing huge, varied mobs at you, with a ton of different enemy types with unique gimmicks that require some thought to mitigate.
Do you go after that sorcerer summoning skeletons, or the litches teleporting around and shooting fireballs at inopportune moments? Or maybe you deal with those orges trying to drag you in with their own grapple hooks? Things get even hairier when elites come by, large enemy variants with unique qualities like durability, elemental effects, and exploding on death. Are the numbers the problem, or the bruisers supporting them?
As things get more ridiculous, so do you. It’s not just doing more damage, it’s having the tools to be dangerous and risky and survive more often than not. You can go into danger and completely flip a situation on its head, using a mixture of quick thinking, aim, and reflexes to create an extremely satisfying core gameplay that becomes the lifeblood of the whole experience. Levels are small enough too that it creates an addictive loop, similar to Project Warlock using short and simple structure and adding to it for variety and excitement.
Instead of a large arsenal, however, the girl herself becomes the core of why this is so fun. The ability to move around like a demon, weaving through mobs to take out priority targets or chewing up the mooks, whatever fits your play style or the moment best. The RNG factor keeps changing things up, often when you least expect it, even making failure hilarious from time to time. The fact you just keep getting stronger and stronger just means so can the enemies, so can the odds, so can everything. The foundation is rock solid, and allows for a ton of touches that just make that core experience shine.
This does make when the RNG gives you something genuinely broken just a cherry on top, a little treat as a reward for your show of prowess. It’s a great cycle of challenge and nonsense, and everyone will have a different overall experience with that randomization. Nightmare Reaper is somehow both tightly designed and a loose comedy simulator that is both fun to play and fun to fail at here and there. It is a unique Frankenstein monster of a game, and one of the freshest takes on the retro FPS you’ll find. Don’t sleep on this one. Heh.