Paper Nebula

Shoot-em-ups, or shmups as they’re called for short by people who abhor too many syllables, are another in the long list of genres that I have to confess I have no real experience of. I’ve attempted to play one or two – the original Gradius many years ago, Super Hydorah off the back of watching slowbeef stream it, and a handful of other unpronounceable titles that I got in some ancient Humble bundle – but the key word there is “attempted”. On the whole I kind of suck at shmups, which is why when Paper Nebula arrived in my inbox, courtesy of developers Pixel Bakery, I found that I really wanted to make myself get through it and see the end credits of a shmup for once.

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Paper Nebula (PC)

Released Oct 2022 | Developed / Published: Pixel Bakery

Genre: Shmup | HLTB: 3.5 hours

Review copy provided by developer/publisher

Our story here is nice and simple. We play as Vela, who opens up our game by overriding a dormant A.I. equipped to manufacture drones. We then send those drones off on a mission to break through enemy lines and clear a path for our ship to escape. It’s a pretty basic plot but it gives us a framing and gets us up and running with a drone to pilot as quickly as possible, which as far as I’m concerned is what a shmup plot ought to do. The actual meat of the writing comes in the form of the banter between Vela and the ship’s A.I. between runs as each character tries to out-sarcasm the other. There’s not a ton of depth here; our two characters are basically straightforward archetypes, but that’s still a vehicle for the writers to get a few gags in here and there.

If there’s one question I guess I wish had been answered by the game, it’s why is everything seemingly made out of paper? Your drones are designed after standard paper aeroplanes, and the enemies all look like adorable papercraft models, especially with their thick white outlines, but I’m sort of lost as to why. I don’t suppose it actually matters all that much, and my wondering might really just be academic – after all, it’s a cute idea for a game, and it gives it a place among other examples of the genre that isn’t just regular spaceships flying around, and sometimes that’s enough.

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Paper Nebula is billed as a roguelike on its Steam store page, but if you go in expecting that kind of game you might find yourself left a bit cold. Once your drones are deployed, they fly until they die, and you can’t recover them so by the strictest definitions of the term Paper Nebula does feature permadeath, but it doesn’t really feel like it. There are also no elements of randomness or procedural generation, and those to me are a cornerstone of the genre; instead you progress along a series of set levels, and this is why the permadeath doesn’t feel like it. Sure, when you die you lose your progress and must start over with each successive drone, but the set levels mean that enemy patterns and placements are entirely learnable and predictable. Bosses are the same each run and appear in the same places, as do the infrequently appearing invincibility powerups.

You can select upgrades between runs so there is a sense of progression but it’s not a consistent or constant sense of progression; there are clearly some criteria in place for you to unlock each new upgrade for your drone, but those criteria aren’t made clear to the player. I assume from my playthrough that they are milestone-based; for example, defeating a boss unlocked an upgrade, and I think that beating a threshold of enemies of a single type also opened up a new upgrade as well based on in-game dialogue between our two cast members but I couldn’t tell you that for certain. Obfuscating the unlock thresholds for each upgrade is a choice I’m not sure I’m in favour of; I feel like players are helped by knowing exactly what kind of thing they should be doing in order to progress rather than feeling it out blindly, and giving the player that agency in terms of unlocking their upgrades is another key part of roguelikes, and its absence is perhaps another mark against including Paper Nebula in their ranks.

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Now, that might sound like a lot of grumbling, but I want to stress that really it’s just semantics. Paper Nebula is really more of a classic shmup, and speaking as someone who is a mere novice when it comes to that genre, I found it to be a very accessible one. Its controls are kept dead simple (you can move about, obviously, and then there’s just one button to shoot and one to use your ultimate attack once it charges up) although I highly recommend plugging a controller in and using that rather than sticking with the keyboard, and I’d also personally recommend flipping on the togglable auto-fire option. I think I’d like to have seen an option to hold the fire button down to auto-fire as well rather than having to mash the button to fire rapidly, but it’s not a huge deal. There’s a pleasing array of enemies, each with clear and different firing patterns and structures to learn, and when the later levels start throwing waves of harder enemies at you Paper Nebula does a reasonable facsimile of a bullet hell game; it’s not quite pixel-perfect screen-filling Touhou-style indulgence, but you’ll still occasionally need to weave in and around bullets and react quickly to avoid the enemy movement patterns, and it’s here that Paper Nebula shone the most brightly for me.

When I’ve spoken to shmup fans or watched people talk about playing them, one thing that comes to the fore is a state of zen-like focus as you maneuver your ship around, reading the patterns in the shots and slipping into the gaps between them. There often seems to be an emphasis on not really paying attention to what or where you’re shooting, but only on keeping a fixed eye on your ship (or more precisely, your ship’s hitbox). Now to me that sort of sounds like an awfully stressful time, and it’s presumably why I’ve never been any good at the few times I’ve dipped my toe into the genre. With Paper Nebula I don’t think I ever reached quite that place, but instead when the screen started filling up with enemies and I was caught trying to save my ship from laser beams, fanned shots, homing blasts, and UFOs that were making a suicidal beeline for me, I found myself enjoying the frenetic chaos. In truth this was mostly at the endgame, and I’d have loved to see the game ramp up to that point more quickly, but I’m glad I kept pushing on and getting to those latter stages.

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It’s that feeling which has stuck with me after having played Paper Nebula. I appreciate its simplicity and its brevity, and both kept me playing through the initial realisation that it wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. The game brings a bright energy and just the right level of stress in the closing stages, and those are experiences that are new to me as far as shmup games go. I imagine that committed players of the genre won’t find too much to keep them going, but as a light introduction, Paper Nebula functions perfectly well.

4/7 – GOOD.

Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.

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