Tea: Yakushima (Japanese Black Tea)
I want to approach every game as unbiased as possible and judge it accordingly, but NieR Automata is a special case in more than one way. The original NieR is one of my all-time favourites which flew so low under the radar one could reasonably fear for it to go underground any second. The prospect of a second title never occurred to me. Gems like these are released and then forgotten, treasured only by a select few. The announcement of another title was the first dream come true, the second came in the form of Platinum Games whose combat design I always adore. After then hearing that even the composer would return for this title, nothing could contain my anticipation. Without seeing much of the game, it already had sky-high hopes to live up to. Up to the moment that I started the game for the first time, I still was in a dream-like state and could not believe this actually existed. I tell you all of this to make you understand what impossible odds this game faced and had to accomplish and now enjoy my thoughts after spending a lot of time with it.
The story of NieR Automata is largely unconnected to the first NieR. It takes place a few thousand years later, involves different characters, and an entirely different setting one might say. The rough outline is as follows: Humanity is driven to the moon after an alien invasion via hostile machines with cruelly cute heads. The remaining humans launch a counterattack in the form of project YoRHa: A special space station, known as the Bunker, periodically sends androids to earth with the purpose of data gathering, resource securing, and of course fighting and ultimately eliminating the machine invaders to regain earth. You play as 2B, an android designed for combat who is accompanied by the scanner model 9S. Both are sent to earth as a team to investigate anomalies and disappearances. Sooner rather than later, events unfold and the two find themselves in increasingly absurd and dangerous situations which leads them questioning the understanding of machines taught by YoRHa. However, this is merely the start in a series of twists and turns with established facts being overthrown, characters evolving and breaking down. I will not spoil anything and if you have played NieR then you know that more than one ending is pretty standard in a Yoko Taro game, but he went above and beyond this time. Route B gives you a new character and gameplay style to experience and if you have not seen ending C, you have not seen half of what NieR Automata has to offer. But the game will make more than sure you know there is much left to discover and another playthrough will bring you deeper and deeper into the affair. Judging the plot as a whole is difficult as I still do not fully grasp everything, but that is the beauty of it. The game never overexplains nor spells out everything. The story is found as much through narration, dialogue, world-building, as through metaphors, allegories and even music to an extent. Basically, Taro uses every way possible to bring parts of his story across. Little mosaic pieces strewn throughout the wasteland and if assembled they form the essence of what I would call “bittersweet”.
– I absolutely love this character design. (Can I say that in a not-creepy-fetish kind of way?) –
The characters are well-written even if it may not immediately appear like that in some cases. If you ever wonder why certain characters act in a specific way, a few playthroughs more might reveal the truth. All of the main characters go through a surprising development, ending changed and scarred by the end of it. Even a lot of the supporting cast has a lot of depth, including the machines you meet throughout the adventure. Just like the first NieR, the backstories of major bosses, revealed drip by drip, are as sad as one could imagine. But it is not a true NieR experience if I am not dreading to finish of an enemy I previously slaughtered without thinking twice. The big twist in the first NieR was one of the most well-setup twists in video game history, at least to me, and thus I approached the new game with this in mind. My question was never whether what I am doing is right or wrong, only how horrible it will turn out to be. Thankfully (?), Taro seems to have been aware of that. Of course, there are major twists in the story, but it is not a rehash of the first one, in fact, it works beautifully with the central message not to have a similar twist. You will see when you get to it.
– I wish I could own such a mask with similar functions. –
Gameplay is something I feel more comfortable talking about, as there isn’t as much to spoil. If you played the demo, you will have a good understanding of the general direction of combat. Light and heavy attacks correspond to a respective weapon and can be mixed into a flurry of swings and bashes to release a ballet of destruction. A nice addition is the fact that “heavy attack” is not linked to “heavy weapon” and vice versa for light version. A huge blade can be mapped to the light attack slot and a small dagger-like blade can fill in the role of the heavy hitter, resulting in new combos and a new playstyle. You pod is constantly assisting you in whatever way you need him to. It can fire a steady stream of bullets to chip away the enemy’s health bit by bit or use a special move such as a huge laser, hammer, or other offensive and defensive mechanisms to aid you. Additionally, the pod of 2B is voiced by DC Douglas which makes every line of dialogue a joy. In general, the voice acting is top-notch (again). Every character has depth in his/her/its performance and there are no exceptions I can think of. All of them manage to convey emotions and developments sometimes in single words. But back to gameplay: Taking a break from hacking and slashing, it is time for bullet hell sequences, or Shmups. These can come in various forms and sometimes even in the middle of combat sequences, but regularly you will also occupy your flight gear and these times are all excellent shump sequences. They change between a head-on approach of the enemy and a more stationary version, but both work and mix up the flow without interrupting it. The controls are tight in general, no matter what style you are currently playing. It stays fun and diverse till the end to not give tedious repetition a chance. Normal enemies provide a decent challenge without ever feeling like cannon fodder and the bosses are something to behold. All of them are masterful and every word more would just ruin the surprises along the way.
– Stylish, tight, rewarding, challenging, and energetic. Everything you’d come to expect from a Platinum combat system. –
Aside from the main mission, there are a number of sidequests for you to complete. While these do not revolutionise the sidequests in general, they are never meaningless moments between cradle and grave. If it is a simple fetch-quest, you will be rewarded with an interesting piece of background information or something similar. If it is a battle scenario, certain conditions will apply, such as a timer, not getting hit, or a special enemy type. Simple escort missions can be heart-breaking due to the client you are supposed to get from point A to point B, all thanks to the minimalistic yet effective characterisation of the supporting cast. Which gives me a chance to talk about the world. Some critiques I have read speak of the “boring and empty world” and I could not agree less. (Occasional low res-texture and pop-in is, of course not beauty in the essential sense, but to keep 60fps and a world without loading in one and the same place, some compromises must be made.) This is one of the most beautiful post-apocalyptic worlds I can think of. I am a huge fan of post-apocalyptic settings so far after the fatal incident that nature has largely taken over again and this is found here as well. Waterfalls cascading out of hollow buildings, rusted amusement parks, and a central city overgrown with vegetation. It tells a story of its own and thus is brimming with personality and life. Therefore, a lot of adjectives can be attached to the world of NieR Automata, empty is not one of them.
– Derelict beauty as far as the eye can see. –
The soundtrack of the first game was already a masterpiece and topping that – or even delivering something on the same level – would be a tough nut to crack. But they did it. Just like everything else, they just did it. Be it battle themes, overworld music, credit songs, everything just fits like a glove. Every piece is different and vibrant it its own right. A tiny little taste of the masterpiece is this: The theme heard during the amusement park level. And it is not enough that the individual pieces are perfect, their use is equally unrivalled in timing and context. The main theme “The Weight of the World” is heard throughout the credits, which you will see more than once. Each time it is a bit different and nothing can compare to the last rendition you will hear, trust me. Nothing.
Nier Automata is an RPG, of course, and as such it has the corresponding, almost standard at this point, rpg-elements. However, they are kept within an absolute acceptable way. There is no levelling of stats, but you can influence the stats nonetheless via plug-in chips. They can do standard affairs like raising stats, but also granting special abilities, like regenerating health from hits, enabling a countering ability (like Bayonetta), and pretty much change the way you approach combat. These chips can be found, bought, and fused. The fusing system is basic but rewarding. A self-made +6 chip may end up taking up less space than a found/bought one, incentivising playing around with the system. You can buy storage to plug more chips into your android (where they go is up to your imagination, but those thighs are pretty thick) and you may even get your hands on chips that provide additional HUD elements. At the same time, none of this is mandatory. Skill can carry you just as far as smart chip usage and the fact that both of these are valid options speaks volumes for the game design. There are some light (very light) customisation options. A bow in the hair, a different skin for the pod, but they aren’t really worth mentioning or necessary to me as I adore the character design and do not want to mess it up with a garish pink bow in my hair. Although I did use the Grimoire Weiss skin for my pod, for obvious reasons. Speaking of pods, they can be upgraded as well. Additionally, other pods with different main firing options can be found discarded in the world. And, as a nice call-back, you can even fish for metal versions of fish around the world. Thankfully, this time the fishing is a lot less tedious and not mandatory at all. And boar-drifting is back, it’s back!
– Remember to send all revealing fan art to Yoko Taro, as he requested. –
Slowly but surely, I am running out of things to praise without spoiling, so let me kind of come to a conclusion. NieR Automata is a perfect game. It will not be a perfect game to everyone, but to some – including me – it is. It has attained this Olympus of criticism by being a work of art only a game can be. By fusing story, gameplay, world-design, soundtrack, voice acting, etc. all the little parts that make up the medium we love, Yoko Taro and all involved have created something tremendous. The entire experience is one that lacks an equivalent to which I can point. The endings (the various ones there are) had me emotionally shaken, with my mouth open, or a sad smile on my lips. And then Ending E came along to show me what video games can do. It was a profound moment, unrivalled by anything I had ever experience while playing a game. I understand that not everyone will share this feeling, it is not a universal truth I wish to force upon others by saying “you need to play this game, otherwise you don’t know what good games are”. However, if what you read here, or saw on the internet looks remotely like your cup of tea, NieR Automata cannot disappoint you. To me, NieR Automata is a dream come true from start to finish. A masterpiece which shows what video games are capable of achieving and how they can move us deep within.
Even if my words seem meaningless
it’s like I’m carrying the weight of the world
I hope that someway, somehow
That I can save everyone of us
but the truth is that I’m only one critic
Maybe if I keep believing my dreams will come to life
come to life…
(Mr Teatime’s Weight of the World
slightly adapted from
NieR Automata Soundtrack: Weight of the World)
Image sources in order of appearance:
- http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/nier/images/3/38/YoRHa_No.9_Type_S_SS5.png/revision/latest?cb=20160422011257 (Last date of access: 19.03.2017)
- http://cloud5.attackofthefanboy.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/NieR-Automata-Strange-Resistance-Woman.jpg (Last date of access: 19.03.2017)
- http://assets.rpgsite.net/images/images/000/041/508/original/NA_Oct292015_05.jpg (Last date of access: 19.03.2017)
- http://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/original/2016/08/NieR-Automata_gamescom-Screenshot_005-pc-games.jpg (Last date of access: 19.03.2017)
- http://jpgames.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/NieR-Automata_2016_04-21-16_005.jpg?x37583 (Last date of access: 19.03.2017)