Fans of Shin’en’s Nanostray series on the original DS are in for a multi-dimensional treat when they strap in for their latest microcosmic shooter, Nano Assault, now on the 3DS and in stunning 3D. From the flashy box art it might be easy to mistake this game for the latest space shooter, and in many ways the game does play that way, but with wholly unique environments ripped right from sci-fi movies like Fantastic Voyage, Nano Assault is an experience like no other and is quickly becoming one of my showcase games when I want to show people the power and potential of the 3DS as a viable next-gen handheld system.
The story is short and sweet - stop the deadly Nanostray virus from spreading and contaminating civilization by piloting your microscopic Nanite ship inside the dangerous virus to fight off infections, navigate through alien cell clusters, battle bosses, and ultimately analyze and destroy the virus' core to save humanity. The experience is broken down into two main type of play, a 3D tunnel-shooter not unlike Star Fox, and explorable 3D worlds that reminded me of those Mario Galaxy rotating planet missions.
The gameplay is fast and intense, often reaching insane levels of difficulty quite early on, especially with the challenge boss fights. Sadly, some of this challenge is directly related to the controls. By design, this is a twin-stick shooter but having only one analog pad you are forced to aim using the four buttons (or combinations of buttons if you want to shoot diagonally). This can be problematic at times, even with selectable fire patterns you can cycle through with the LT. You’ll often be at the mercy of your secondary weapon (RT), which usually delivers great damage to multiple targets, a great way to get out of a sticky situation. Ammo is limited but you can collect refills and extra lives by defeating organisms within the levels. You can choose your secondary weapon from a list of any you have previously unlocked prior to each mission, and proper weapon selection for the upcoming level is often crucial, so there is a bit of trial and error to learn what works best.
There are 32 levels in the Story Mode, all split between the more casual explore, collect, and shoot stuff 3D rotation levels, and the super-frantic tunnel shooters. Again, the controls are the weak point here since you are constantly moving your ship to avoid incoming fire which also happens to be moving your gun sight off the target. Trying to circle-strafe around the perimeter of the screen while targeting an enemy in the center is nearly impossible. It would have been nice to have a shield or a spin-dodge move or even a target lock so I could track my target and avoid getting hit so often. Thankfully, the game self-adjusts the difficulty, so if you are dying a lot the game eases up…just a bit, and the game auto-saves after each section and each level – very nice!
Once you conquer the Story you can check out the never-ending challenges waiting for you in the Arcade Mission Mode where you can play for best score or best clearing time, and if you are a real glutton for punishment go up against all 10 bosses strung together in the Boss Rush mode. Post your results on the online Leaderboards and brag to your friends. There is also a healthy dose of bonus content, mostly data profiles for the enemies (Nanopedia) with tips on how to beat them and music that can be unlocked through gameplay or by spending your 3DS coins.
Nano Assault is a gorgeous shooter that truly shows off the power of the 3DS and the 3D technology. It takes a bit of fiddling with the 3D slider to find the right setting (33% worked for me) but once those graphics pop you won’t believe your eyes. The 2D screenshots don't do the game justice. My only issue was that when the game gets frantic I tend to get fidgety which causes me to lose my 3D tracking, but even if you end up playing the game in 2D this is still one of the best looking titles currently available on the 3DS.
The visuals are totally enhanced with an epic soundtrack that will have you scrambling to find a good set of earbuds. The music is so good in fact that you can unlock the tracks and listen to them from a separate menu selection in the game. The sound effects are pretty awesome too with cool futuristic gun effects and explosions and some surprisingly spacial effects, even when listening on the 3DS speakers. This is dangerously close to a console experience in the palm of your hand.
So if you love a fun and challenging shooter with a clever mix of styles and a killer assortment of boss battles then Nano Assault is definitely worth checking out. While 32 levels might sound like a lot, they are surprisingly short and fast, and competent gamers can blast their way through the Story Mode in 3-4 hours, but with the endless appeal of Arcade and Boss Rush modes there is enough addictive old-school arcade goodness to keep coming back for more microscopic carnage time and time again.