It took only five attempts, but NieR: Automata director Yoko Taro finally has produced a game that not only gets his ludicrous storytelling across as poignantly as possible but does so with the utmost technical prowess and intelligent game design to back it up.
Taro's diverging plotlines and smaller moments woven into the fabric of his stories have always come loaded with potential to drop some serious emotional bombs on unsuspecting gamers. The problem up until now is that he's always been forced to work with a limited budget and programmers who are better suited for Square Enix RPGs than action games. These are skill sets that don't always translate well across genre, resulting in interesting stories told through broken, incomplete action campaigns that can barely stack up against even their most mediocre peers.
So how does one go about fixing the most glaring solution to an easily solvable problem? You surround yourself with the best talent in the world. PlatinumGames is second to none in creating the style of action games that Devil May Cry established back in the days of the PlayStation 2, and this is the world class talent that Square Enix contracted for the latest story from one of gaming's most promising minds.
In the end, it was the right choice. PlatnimGames' flashy action mixes flawlessly to Taro's desire to tell tales that will make you both think and weep at times. NieR: Automata is a stone cold masterpiece in every aspect. It reestablishes PlatinumGames on top of the video gaming world after a rough 2016, and is one of the best video games and biggest sleeper hits in years. The game evolves Taro's storytelling abilities to a whole new level, and will more than likely become a classic we'll be discussing and deconstructing for years to come.
Remember how I always say it feels good to be a Square Enix fan again? Well, like back in the day, Final Fantasy isn't the only reason.
So I guess Apple loses…
Sorry, that's a lame Android joke…
Some 3,000 years in the future, mankind has been wiped out by an alien invasion and survivors are forced to reside on the moon. There they remain, waiting for the day that they can retake their planet from mindless machines that now dominate their planet. All attempts at retaking the Earth, including a tight network of resistance fighters, have been met with abject failure with little to nothing known about the occupying force.
This is where the YoRha come into play. A bunker that orbits around the planet houses this race of super androids who work on the behest of the humans of the moon. Highly efficient killers and scouts, the YoRha run frequent missions on the planet's surface to research the machines and destroy the most powerful of them.
You play as the heartless, mission-oriented 2B and have a chatterbox sidekick by the name of 9S. During a routine scouting mission on the planet Earth, these two start to realize that the history of Earth isn't exactly as they were programmed to believe. Robots have feelings and emotions, and they are adept at emulating human actions. The alien invaders are nowhere to be found. Rogue YoRHa units that have gone AWOL begin popping up in unprecedented numbers.
As you probably expect, not all is at it seems, and Yoko Taro's latest tale take many twists and turns before it comes to an end. You'll find yourself sympathizing with beings that the story flat out tells you are your enemies and having mixed feelings about slicing through armies of robot trash mobs.
Were those nice robots or bad robots? Did you take the time to stop and ask?
And, like all Yoko Taro games, the best is yet to come when you finally reach the ending and discover that you can replay the game in a certain way to view it from multiple angles. I've yet to experience all of these endings, but from what I hear, the ultimate ending is one of the most emotionally draining gaming moments in recent memory.
NieR: Automata succeeds far and above what I expected in providing an emotional core, something that often falls short in a genre that has so far gotten by with red-coated, trash talking demon hunters and sexual witches that personify all human fetishes.
I'll take the heartache of NieR: Automata over childish double entendre and gratuitous crotch shots any day of the week.
2B is gaming's newest superstar
The success of this emotional connection can be pointed to NieR: Automata doing a fabulous job of pulling you into its world and expansive cast. You'll meet colorful NPCs, especially among the robots who are supposed to be your enemies, and the time you spend with 2B and 9S will create a strong bond with them thanks to the same kind of voice over banter that made the Final Fantasy XV brosephs so likable.
2B's hollow personality and empty shell might help players experience her world, not unlike Noctis in Final Fantasy XV, but also like Noctis, she comes around in the end. She might not have the largest range of emotions or a compelling motivation outside of completing her mission, but her interactions with 9S and the robots give her an extra dimension, similar to how Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto dragged character out of Noctis.
It might come kicking and screaming, but you'll get there and eventually learn to sympathize with a being who feels nothing.
And what good is a gaming world that doesn't look stunning? PlatinumGames never skimps on creating the most marvelous environments for its action to unfold in, and NieR: Automata provides the studio's best setting to date. A collapsed central city finds itself being overrun by a lush, wild forest on one side and an ever expanding desert on the other. Hollowed buildings, busted pipelines and freeways, a series of tunnels underground exposed to broad daylight.
Nier: Automata's world might not be large, but it also hosts a robot carnival where the party never stops, a secret enclave where peaceful robots live out their daily lives, forest ruins overrun by a warlike tribe of robots, and plenty of science fiction settings like space stations, burnt out factories, and crashed starships. Rather than get a little too large and tiresome, these areas provide just the right amount of viewing please before 2B and 9S are ready to move on.
Each is more beautiful than the one before it, perfectly designed and bursting with color. NieR: Automata's entrancing soundtrack also plays a key role in setting up its unique atmosphere. It's a world you won't forget anytime soon, and you'll want to spend a lot of time in.
This is a hybrid that actually works
And that's exactly what you'll be doing in NieR: Automata. While it's been properly labeled as an action game first and foremost, it is actually a hybrid game of sorts, bringing PlatinumGames style of action into an open world RPG setting for the first time. 2B controls as fluidly, if not more fluidly than Bayonetta and Dante before her, but she has more motivation than to simply clear rooms and reach the goal waiting for her at the end of a stage.
NieR: Automata is just as much a modern RPG as it is an action game. Some might decry the use of the genre's most overused tropes, like an overworld map peppered with waypoints and a heavy reliance on subquests, but thankfully, NieR: Automata doesn't get as pointlessly bogged down in grindy quests as Dragon Age: Inquisition or Borderlands do.
Indeed, much of the emotional connection comes from uncovering these different sub-storylines. Jackass, yes, that is her name, is a wonderful, nihilistic resistance soldier who will hire 2B's services for the most dangerous missions, anything from field and combat research to eating potentially poisonous fish. Every chance to interact with Jackass is a treat, and you can only do so through the subquests.
The robots provide plenty of human moments too in these subquests: a young "girl" gets lost in the desert and asks the social 9S innocent questions like where babies come from… all while standing two feet taller than him. A kung fu robot wants to become a master, and he'll do so by giving 2B a lesson and then coaxing her into coughing up materials to improve his body. Another quest requires 2B return a runaway "son" to his worried "mother," all while 9S ponders on how robots can develop such feelings as love and loyalty.
My favorite is a simple NPC in the robot village. He's over 30 feet tall, but he says he feels so small on the inside.
2B reminds 9S that robots are the enemy and that these robots they are helping will ultimately have to be destroyed. As you might guess, these subquests exist more than just for experience points and items. Without the subquests, robots really are just an enemy that must be eradicated, and only through digging through helping them will you find that maybe they too have the right to live on Earth peacefully.
NieR: Automata is loaded with these small moments that you'll want to dig out for reasons beyond gaining that next level. This is proper use of the subquest and waypoint system found most RPGs nowadays, and the emotional weight a good 80 percent of them deliver is worth the effort.
Screw that, I want to kill things!
And, yes, the hybrid bridge isn't complete without something waiting on the other side. NieR: Automata is an action game, and the combat is just outstanding.
2B is one of the most exciting characters in a video game to control in quite a while. She's an android, meaning she is highly customizable with deadly melee weapons that can be equipped into both "light" and "heavy" attack slot, giving each weapon two unique actions. She also comes equipped with drones that will float around her and fire a wide range of projectile weapons, everything from missiles and Gatling guns to destructive lasers and protective shields.
Plugins power up her passive skills too, and you'll want to maximize these out as quickly as possible. A fully upgraded memory system will allow enemies to cough up more experience, drop more items, and have 2B fire projectiles from her weapons, counter damage back upon enemies, and simply dish out more powerful attacks. These plugins provide the majority of the RPG elements to the gameplay.
The rest comes from weapons, the drones, and skills, all of which can be upgraded from items that are randomly picked up on the map or obtained through killing enemies.
From there, combat also has three main different approaches: attacking from a distance with ranged drone attacks, slashing away with melee weapons, or the high-risk/high-reward spamming of the dodge and counter abilities. Like Bayonetta, a perfectly timed dodge will activate a brief second where 2B can pull off a powerful attack.
Unlike Bayonetta, Nier: Automata's combat is thankfully more focused on timing and the length of time a single button is pressed rather than a laundry list of complex combinations that you have to memorize. It doesn't take much to have 2B just look awesome, pulling off impressive attacks by simply varying how long you hold an attack button. Some might call it shallow, but I consider it a happy medium between Bayonetta and Dark Souls, holding buttons and waiting for the exact proper second to pull off a super attack.
Like the previous NieR game, Yoko Taro randomly tosses in plenty of "alternative" gameplay styles, mostly references to classic bullet-hell SHMUPS and fishing games. Don't think you've accidentally bought the latest Treasure SHMUP when you turn the game on for the first time because something similar is there to greet you from the first mission.
If you haven't guessed, I consider NieR: Automata to be top notch in absolutely every regard. Its storytelling, its setting, its combat, its RPG progression. Final Fantasy XV was a hit for Square Enix last year, and it signaled that the company was ready to return to the spirit of the late 90s, back when it was at its creative peak and willing to make a few risky games.
NieR: Automata is here in 2017 to confirm that this spirit is here to stay. Beyond simply taking a risk to make it, Square Enix even granted it a really good localization and a chance on the North American market, a vote of confidence in its game that I am beyond thankful it made.
If only it had this much faith in SaGa: Scarlet Grace.
I'll go out on a limb and even say that NieR: Automata is a better game than Final Fantasy XV. If I were to make a comparison, Parasite Eve is the closest game that comes to mind. Square's cult-classic RPG/survival horror hybrid is similar to its approach in taking ideas from multiple popular genres and cramming it into a much more compact game. Parasite Eve is dwarfed by the gargantuan Final Fantasy games that surrounded its release, but ultimately, it's a more memorable game because the smaller scope allows you to enjoy its heights more frequently in concentrated doses.
Nobody expected NieR: Automata to be this good, but by sheer force of will through all parties involved, it could very well wind up being the best game of 2017. It's a game that improves on the tired genres that it borrows from, and more importantly, it takes everyone's game to the next level. Yoko Taro's storytelling, PlatinumGames' hardcore action, and Square Enix's localization and publication decisions. A+ across the board, all thanks to a sleeper hit sequel to a cult-favorite.
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