Friday, 29 September 2017

Nier: Automata - Review

Developer: PlatinumGames
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played) 

There’s arguably two kinds of people coming to play Nier: Automata. First, there’s those coming as fans of Platinum Game’s unique brand of hack ‘n’ slash; one of the few developers that manages to grasp the acrobatic, swishy coolness of anime fight sequences and marry it to mechanics that are both deep and satisfying to play.

Then, there’s those coming at the game as fans of Yoko Taro’s games. The developer has built up a reputation over the years working on the Drakengard series, which Nier is loosely connected to. So, between his cult following and Platinum’s tight design skills, Nier: Automata would seem like perfect match.

Things start off well. Perhaps the most curious element, especially earlier on, is the game’s willingness to play with entire genres, let alone mechanics. Short bursts of frenetic gameplay switch from standard third-person combat straight to bullet-hell segments as you fly your hover mech through wave after wave of enemy fire, blowing up reams of ships in the process. Even then, the game refuses to sit still, flipping to a 3D shooter sequence as enemies wrap around from all sides, abandoning the conventions of a side-scrolling shooter.

All of this is overwhelming in a thoroughly intoxicating way, and the game manages this without ever alienating players who never got to grips with the original Nier.

Its characters and world also make for an interesting start. You (initially) play as 2B (get it?), an android sent down from the moon in order to rid Earth of a plague of alien-designed robots so that the last remnants of humanity can return safely. It’s a ridiculous premise, touching on everything from Terminator to The Matrix.

It only really works thanks to the coating of anime style that drips from everywhere else. Characters are either dressed like Gothic lolitas or moody emo bad-asses, and the game just, just, has enough of a tongue-in-cheek vibe to pass it off without it all becoming too ridiculous.

It’s just as well, too, because the game is still very much an RPG as opposed to Platinum’s typically more linear affair. The stretches of barren landscape are striking enough, trading on the same beautiful apocalyptic imagery that The Last of Us used to such good effect. Human life has been wiped from the planet for so long that the Earth has achieved some kind normality, and your presence as these hyped-up sword-swinging androids can almost seem intrusive; invaders on an otherwise peaceful co-existence between the planet and its new machine lifeforms.

This open-world also sets up the core structure of the game’s main story and side quests. Missions are doled out Assassin’s Creed style, with markers on your map highlighting your way around. Side quests are handled with surprising care too, even if they suffer from bland objectives (go here and kill these enemies, pick up that item etc.). Each typically has some story or hook to underpin it and there’s not so many that they simply dissolve into the flavourless mush that can plague many open-world titles.

It’s not all smooth-sailing, mind. It’s clear quite early on, that, for all their skill, Platinum aren’t particularly adept at handling an open world. For each striking location, they’ll be an awkward invisible wall where there really shouldn’t be one. And whilst the world itself is open; vast and ripe for exploration, it’s also too open, too vast, with much of your time spent jamming the sprint trigger as you dash for the next objective marker at the other end of the entire map. The main quest-line has a habit of structuring itself so that you’re required to run all the way to one end of a zone only to then double back and go to the opposite side of the area.

Nier: Automata’s world lacks enough details to make repeat runs back and forth engaging for as long as it does, and this is exacerbated by a fast travel that’s not unlocked for the first few hours of the game.

Of course, you’d expect the combat to hold off any sense of repetition...and it does...for a little while. As with most of Platinum’s post-Bayonetta output, the combat is primarily governed with a two button combat scheme, with heavy attacks and light attacks that can be mixed and matched mid-combo to carry out a variety of stylish flourishes. A dodge button with the accompanying “Witch Time” rounds out the core combat, encouraging you to land a critical dodge at just the last second.

It’s a perfectly serviceable system and makes for some cinematic moments as you zip from enemy to enemy carving them up in epic fashion. Yet, serviceable is all it can really be described as. Sure, there’s a few additional RPG elements to add the odd tactical wrinkles here and there. A bevy of weapons can be bought and upgraded with a basic crafting system, and a generic collection of upgrade chips can provide you with a number of different bonuses to your health, attack power or certain move properties.

The whole thing seems lacking though, underwhelming when compared to the likes of Bayonetta, Revengeance and even Transformers. The RPG elements in particularly seem tacked on, and all of this is exacerbated by a dearth of unique enemy designs, with around three to four comprising most of the challenge throughout the game’s thirty to fourty hour runtime.

You see, Nier: Automata is a lot longer than it would initially seem. After “completing” the game’s first playthrough, which in essence is only the game’s first act, you’re left to restart the game only to play through it with 2B’s companion, 9S, and see events from his point of view.

Only, there’s little that’s new here. Entire chunks of the game are rehashed during the game’s second act. Only 9S’ hacking skill, a repetitive, bullet-hell mini-game that deals massive damage to enemies in a short space of time is really all that new, and compensates for his otherwise weaker combat abilities.

It’s not even as if the “revelations” that come with this second act are really all that shocking. A striking early game boss, a robot singer that cavorts around the battlefield like a dancer, reveals some (rather cliché) tidbits about her past when played through with 9S; but this isn’t so much seeing the story from a different viewpoint but rather revealing little bits of lore that it neglected to show you in the first place.

By the time the second act is through, Nier switches things up finally, doubling down on its existentialist plot of androids, free-will and self-determination. The game’s final act is certainly better that its tiresome middle slog but is bogged down by a combat system that’s not expanded in any way after those first few hours and also begins to suffer from enemies with bloated health bars. Fights aren’t so much a challenge later on in the game as they are a problem that you beat your head at, (and mash buttons), until they finally end.

Nier: Automata is a game that severely tests your patience. How much you’re willing to stick through it will depend on your tolerance for undergraduate level Existentialism; name-dropping Sartre and having dour conversations about free-will on the one hand, whilst wrapping it all up in an otherwise generic anime schtick about fighting giant robots.

There’s some interesting ideas here, but to get to them means suffering from a good deal of bloat, both in its gameplay and in its storytelling. Its mash-up of genres is far more interesting than its attempts at clumsy exploration of Existentialist philosophy. Furthermore, its genuine attempts to make the logic of the plot fit the game mechanics is laudable, with every “death” in Nier: Automata simply being another copy of 2B or 9S, their consciousness being uploaded into new bodies. It's a playful, fun concept, and does more for what the game is aiming for than its poorly paced and over-plotted story.

Nier: Automata manages to boast some incredible creativity but mars it by going on for far too long with mechanics that simply don’t boast enough depth. It’s understandable why the game has received so much praise, but this involves overlooking the numerous flaws in its combat, clunky writing and bloated runtime.

It’s never terrible, and better a creative misfire than a bland, forgettable success. Still, Nier: Automata is game that requires far too much patience to get the most out of it.


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