NieR-ly Amazing

Yesterday I finished my playthrough of NieR: Automata, completing all five of the primary endings and seeing the “true conclusion”. It was a really enjoyable experience and, overall, a great game. It’s receiving a lot of positive feedback from many sources, including a number of friends and other people I chat with about such things. Some people are quick to call it Game of the Year material, but personally I wouldn’t even call it the Game of the Month — that title rests with Horizon in my eyes. That doesn’t detract from its quality or the fact that I’m glad it exists, and I’d highly encourage most to play it.

So let’s talk about it. First: gameplay. It’s got a fairly enjoyable combat system which is drawn from the standard Platinum Games formula – flashy and dynamic action combat with an emphasis on timing evasions in order to execute retaliation combos. Unlike Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising, however, the combat is somewhat basic. It’s fast, it’s fun, and it generally gets the job done nicely, but ultimately it lacks a lot of the depth and complexity of those games.

Instead, it combines the top down shooter aspect that Yoko Taro is so known for to add bullet hell elements to the game, both for you and for enemies. That keeps you pressing the R1 button in addition to your combos, but said combos are relatively sparse and don’t require too much in order to maximise them, tapping the dodge button just in time from the well telegraphed attacks in order to dodge and retaliate.

The combat is further simplified by the fact that it’s not merely an action game, but also an action RPG. As such, with so much of your power and survivability derived from numerical stats, it’s pretty easy to outscale enemies in the process of exploration and side quests. This is further compounded by the ability to customise your “programming” (you are an android character, after all) to supplement it with extra buffs and effects. In my case, I just combined the ability to heal when my HP gets low, gain HP regen after not taking damage for a few seconds, and gaining HP based on % of damage I dealt, and from then on combat was a simple matter. I was only playing on Normal difficulty though; I hear it gets pretty brutal on the higher settings, but that’s normally not my focus and I was satisfied with the gameplay.

Besides, the gameplay is largely the side dishes and condiments to the plot and narrative in NieR: Automata compared to the reverse being true in the average game. I’ve dabbled in Yoko Taro’s writing before with the first game and he’s been held in well regard before, but this was the first time I dove headfirst into it. It’s a fairly common theme in a lot of Japanese fiction to experiment with concepts of existentialism, but Taro clearly enjoys taking it even further, combining this with general weird situations and questions that you likely won’t encounter in your average video game.

Let me give you an example: I witnessed a constantly spawning pile of machines pouring into the arena with me, screaming “THIS CANNOT CONTINUE” repeatedly until they all suddenly stopped, started moving to combine into a strange egg-shaped structure… which then cracked open like an egg, spitting out strange fluid within which was a naked genital-less man that looked like Sephiroth from FF7. To say that scene was expected and typical to things I have encountered before would be a blatant lie.

There are a lot of strange and unexpected scenes like this, with a large number of interesting set pieces and encounters that are both enjoyable to play through and fun to contemplate. Much contemplation is had, too, since the writing asks all kinds of philosophical, existential questions. After all, you’re playing as androids fighting as machines, both of which have aspects and responses that you wouldn’t expect of them. It asks questions about what makes you guys so different, what makes humanity so different, and how one can define a life or many lives in certain contexts.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I have with the game is that while many of these philosophical questions are presented, it quite rarely takes the time to explore them fully. If I were being disingenuous, I’d say that it’s more or less setting up a dart board of philosophical concepts and throwing darts at them until it sticks, but I don’t think that’s the case. Rather, I feel like these could have been explored but there simply wasn’t the time or budget in order to make it so. Or, perhaps, NieR chooses instead to handwave those with the comment “Not all questions need to be answered”, which appears as a direct quote in the game; I’d like to think that the quote was merely used in the present context at the time, however, rather than applying to the whole game.

Instead, a number of cool ideas are brought up, and a number of plot twists or events occur that both intrigue the player, but only a few are properly dove in to or expanded on. This means that a number of interesting side characters (and even some bosses!) get lots of exploration, but others are just left by the wayside almost as soon as they’re brought up.

Still, you could say that it’s a credit to the quality of the writing that I wanted more of it by the end, but ultimately I did enjoy what I experienced. There were some logical inconsistencies between character reactions in between events — lead characters such as 2B and 9S will take turns considering the machines as more than enemies while the other reminds them that they’re just soulless foes, only to swap stances a few minutes later. In addition, some of the characters were kind of flat, with the lead character 2B coming off as aloof and standoffish with little in the way of personality. While there are definitely plot reasons for that which are elaborated on, it still ends up meaning that you have less direct attachment to her (and instead people on the internet are relying on the physical aspects instead).

By contrast, 9S is an extremely interesting and believable character, even if he occasionally comes across as whiny… but when he does, it makes perfect sense, and you really feel for the guy by the end of the tale. I’d say that the game focuses on him more so than even 2B, and a lot of people underrate 9S in the process.

Nonetheless, the game presents a lot of interesting and emotional scenes, and touches on or elaborates a lot of elements from the first NieR that returning fans will be extremely pleased to see. I wasn’t always sold on what was happening, but I did get quite invested and want to push on to the end, and the ending left me quite satisfied. In fact, the final “true” ending culminated in one of the better conclusions to a video game I remember in recent times. So many games are kind of abrupt or half-hearted with their endings, but NieR: Automata goes out of its way to touch at the player’s heart strings, even reaching out to them through the fourth wall and drawing them into the process. If you decide to play the game, it is absolutely worth pushing on to the E path ending, just for the combination of satisfying conclusion, excellent music, and other elements that would be spoiled to elaborate on.

So overall, it should be clear that I quite liked the game and enjoyed it greatly. It’s not perfect in any sense, but I’m glad it exists and I’m really glad I played it.

And it’s kind of surprising that it DOES exist, when you think about it. Yoko Taro’s games have largely been mediocre affairs developed by a B-team of Square Enix devs and carried by left of centre writing and dark, philosophically driven plots. NieR was generally received with less than stellar responses, but developed a cult classic following based on the stories it offered. Yet somehow, it was given a sequel in a collaboration of the well-loved but “in a slump” Platinum Games and built on not a huge budget provided from the dregs of Final Fantasy XV development, released in the wake of that massive launch. And despite all these strange and unlikely circumstances, a really surprisingly good, enjoyable, and thoughtful experience has emerged.

It might not be the best game of the year/month, but it’s nonetheless a real surprise and I’m truly glad it exists. More games like it need to be made; games from well known and not-indie developers that are willing to break the mould and try something experimental or touch on different and interesting narratives.

So, with NieR finished, I’m more or less just dabbling in other games and filling time with Final Fantasy 14 until Persona 5 is released. Less than a week left, and then that’ll be my primary focus for a while I’d imagine. It’s finally starting to sink in that it’s almost here, and hype is beginning despite my best efforts to the contrary. Exciting. Soon!~

Over the Horizon

Contrary to the tone of the post title, I’m actually only over Horizon: Zero Dawn because it’s finished. It was more than strong and compelling enough to drag me away from Torment and ultimately kept me there throughout, being the only game I’ve really worked on for the past two weeks.

I finally completed the game a few hours ago, with just under 70 hours of playtime logged. All major sidequests and plots are completed, all collectibles save world datapoints found, and the only two things I can think of that need doing are retrieving one last Power Cell to get the ultimate armour (I missed it first time through the plot area) and tightening up some of the Hunting Ground times for all the rewards. There’s also knocking over a few target dummies for an achievement. I might go back and do all that in an afternoon, but for now it’s done.

It’s a really good game and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s been well received by most establishments and is quite deserving of those, I feel… even if it’s being a little overshadowed by the insanely high praise that the new Zelda is receiving. From what little I’ve experienced of Zelda, I can say that it’s a great game, but I can’t say yet if it’s deserving of quite all that.

I’ll get to it soon, but having just thrown myself into a huge open world action adventure game regardless of tone and style differences, I need something to break it up so I don’t burn out. As such, I’ll probably divvy up my time between resuming Torment and playing NieR: Automata now that that’s out. There’ll still be a chunk of time dedicated to FF14, I’m sure, though I did finally reach 60 so that grind is slowing somewhat.

Anyway, Horizon. I liked the combat with the machines, having to learn all their parts and weak points to better plan my attack (or else at least strip their armour in order to hit them hard). I liked that the vast majority of options were available to me from the outset, and the skill tree didn’t unlock whole new playstyles so much as slightly improved or gave me alternative approaches in styles of play that I enjoyed. Towards the end, this might have made combat feel a touch same-y, but generally that’s hard to avoid in as long a playtime as I gave it.

The world is absolutely gorgeous, with some great designs and features as well as standout landmarks to keep me interested in exploring and being a part of it. Coupled with the machine designs, and it was a very easy game to get engaged with… and then the plot and characters kept me engaged. It was a very interesting mystery to unravel, digging into the ruins and memories of what is effectively near future for me, but a thousand years in the past for the main characters. They don’t understand the technology and terms that are being presented fully, but I do, so it’s an interesting layer of subtext there for the first half of it. In the second half, the characters have grown to learn enough to be on board with it, but it’s still no less compelling to find out the truth of what happened.

The characters were also very well acted, with the most serious but well-delivered voice work I’ve heard Ashly Burch give. She’s done a bunch of roles, with some quite hit or miss, but this is probably the most subdued and serious character performance she’s given with Aloy, and I think it suited quite well.

Aloy was a very interesting character – curious, quick-witted and intelligent in a world that absolutely doesn’t recognise those traits anymore, yet still possessed of the strength and willpower to stand up in it. There’ll be plenty of character discussions regarding Aloy as a Strong Female Lead Character by a host of publications eventually, I’m sure, so I’ll let them handle it. I’ll just say that I liked her and most of the supporting cast.

What really struck me about the plot and characters was the memories of the past, however – the titular Zero Dawn project that is crucial to the story. I won’t spoil things, but the post-apocalyptic nature of the current world is delved into quite heavily, bringing up the records and memories of the time right before and leading up to the apocalypse. And what an apocalypse – we’re talking complete biosphere destruction and mass extinction of all life on Earth, in remarkable detail and with lots of feeling behind it. It was those little details that made it that much more compelling and drove me to finish and find out what I could of it.

Any complaints I have with the game are mostly minor nitpicks regarding things like animation glitches or poor lip syncing.There’s occasionally repetitive combat towards the late game once you’ve figured out your style of dealing with everything, mostly because you have the means to eschew things like traps and careful setup in favour of rapid firing elemental arrows and exploiting weak points while tearing off all visible components. Still, you have to work to get to that point, and it’s still satisfying to pick apart machines.

Plot wise, the ending was kind of lackluster and not entirely clear on all details. The lead up to the end was still quite enjoyable, however, and prepping for the final battle actually saw you meeting up with just about every character you’d met even in side quests to have them assist you, which was nice. There was also a sequel hook, however, which I’m actively curious to see realised. If this world is to be revisited, I will quite likely be there.

Give Horizon a shot if you have the means, I highly recommend it. Yes, even if you’ve been playing Zelda. It’s good enough and different enough to be worth it.

Now it’s time for me to go hunt entirely different robots… and this time I’m playing the robot! What a twist! NieR: Automata feedback once I get around to it.

Torment vs. the March Gauntlet

It’s already been a pretty busy year for video games, but today was the kickoff of the real gauntlet of key titles that I’ll be acquiring and (hopefully) playing a satisfactory amount of.

First and foremost, today saw the release of Torment: Tides of Numenera, the spiritual successor to the classic and massively revered Planescape: Torment. There was quite a bit of buzz generated by this Kickstarter, and after throwing a hell of a lot of money at Pillars of Eternity, I wisely chose to back at a more reasonable figure. It’s finally out, and it’s actually really good! More on this momentarily.

Despite the full length of time a very text heavy western RPG is likely to take, I unfortunately don’t have all that much offered to it before it’ll be contested. Tomorrow sees the release of Horizon: Zero Dawn on PS4, and I’ll be going to bed and retrieving it first thing in the morning once this blog post is done.

In keeping with past trends, I suspect I’ll get this, put it in the console, and then leave it to download the Day 1 patch at a ridiculously slow rate while I put some more time into Torment. Once it’s ready to go, however, I am very much looking forward to roaming around an open world and fighting Zoids- excuse me, robot dinosaurs. Early signs and feedback from gaming sites suggest that it’s quite good, so I’m looking forward to seeing what’s… ahem, over the Horizon.

The biggest issue Horizon is going to have isn’t with itself, however – it’s the fact that it’ll have some seriously hard hitting competition in just two days. Big open world adventure game with RPG elements that has a lot of gathering and crafting? Yeah, that’s going to fill the exact same niche The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I do hope for Horizon’s sake that it’s able to stand out and succeed even with that kind of heavyweight competition, because by all accounts it’s worthy of it… but then, so is the new Zelda, apparently.

Zelda drops on March 3rd here, same as the Nintendo Switch – a brand new console that I am most interested in but have no intention of buying it until late this year if not 2018. With only Zelda in its immediate future to really interest me,. I can hold off on purchasing a full price console on launch, and instead plan to scoop up the Wii U version of Zelda as a last hurrah for my underutilised and sadly abandoned console.

So those three games will be fighting with everything else for the bulk of my time in the coming days, but even they’ll be joined by new additions in only a week: NieR Automata released on March 10th in Australia. Now by a number of accounts, this is perhaps the weakest of the games on offer – it had a strong demo but doesn’t quite hold up to it as a full game from what I’ve heard, but my sources aren’t the greatest on this and mileage may vary. I still intend to pick it up and give it a whirl, because it looks like a bunch of fun to be had.

Four games in two weeks, most of which are quite large affairs. Surely I won’t have anything else to lure me in though, right? Well… technically, Mass Effect: Andromeda comes out in late March, but as it stands I have little real interest in that series after the conclusion of ME3, or in dealing with BioWare’s shenanigans again. That’s very much a case of “wait and see” like Dragon Age Inquisition was. But hey, here’s hoping it ends up good, right?

Finally, to crown it all off, Persona 5 is FINALLY out on April 4th. As soon as that comes out, all bets are off and all other priorities shelves in favour of putting a good chunk of time into that. So I really have a month to focus on these other games and hit them as hard as I can.

To that end, I’ve obviously started with Torment, and I have to say that I’m quite enjoying my five hours of game time so far. Numenera as a tabletop RPG setting quite interested me, as it had the potential to be utterly bizarre and alien, and so far that has translated tremendously well to video game format. There are so many little stories and occurrences that are quite weird, strange, or otherwise convoluted and kind of crazy already, but it’s just been a fascinating experience.

It’s a really text heavy game – perhaps even more so than Planescape: Torment – but I’ve been happy to talk to everyone, learn more about the world and the setting, listen to the various stories, talk my way through some puzzles or encounters… really, I’ve just been soaking up as much of the setting as I can. The story has a compelling start, and I’m very curious to see how it pans out.

Perhaps my biggest gripe so far is that I’m not hugely invested in any of the companions I’ve discovered so far. The Last Castoff (the MC) is potentially interesting just because of how s/he ties into the narrative and how many strange events and old memories s/he can trigger, but the other characters so far I haven’t really developed much attachment for. Maybe that will change in time, we’ll see.

Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to getting back into it and pushing through tomorrow. We’ll see how it goes… and if the other games on my agenda will have any hope of pulling my attention away from it for long.

Last things to mention: I sat down and forced myself to play Gravity Rush 2 until I couldn’t do so anymore, and that sadly didn’t take as long as I was hoping. The game just has too many frustrations for me to stay attached, and I actually got so mad at it that I had to pause and walk away for a while just because of the terrible camera in one particular encounter. Really interesting and cool set pieces have been completely ruined by the unwieldy camera and jarring controls, and the new gravity styles feel way too gimmicky to really do much to change that. A proper article will be forthcoming.

And speaking of articles, I just had a new one promoted on GameSkinny, this one about why I think that Square Enix’s JRPG offerings are lackluster and other companies are getting much less credit for doing much more work for the genre. Give it a read if you’re interested.