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!~

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