Ok now this is just getting silly. A few days after I finished The Last Guardian, Square Enix released what may be the most Josh W. game ever made.
That game is NieR: Automata.
NieR: Automata’s origins are a bit convoluted to explain, so bear with me. It all goes back to creator Yoko Taro, an eccentric video game auteur who has hitherto been ghettoized into directing B grade action RPGs developed by Cavia and published under the Square Enix banner. In particular, the hack’n’slash Drakengaard series, which people generally agree doesn’t feature stellar gameplay, but which arguably function as a meta-commentary on the nature of video game violence.
The original NieR was a spinoff to the Drakengaard series (taking place in the alternate continuity established by the first game’s “joke ending”). The game was an Ocarina of Time-esque action adventure which used the typical Zelda format to create a pastiche of different video game genres (you’ve got the “survival horror” dungeon, the “Diablo” dungeon, etc.). It also had a story and themes which were apparently inspired by the moral and political failures of the War in Afghanistan. And it had a really great soundtrack.
But it got panned for its mediocre gameplay, and almost no one played it, including myself. That didn’t stop it from developing a cult following – members of which apparently included people with clout at Square Enix. Thus, not only was the sequel greenlit, but a determined effort was made to raise the quality of the game; although Taro would still direct, development would be handled by PlatinumGames, a developer with a reputation for slick action games, and whose members include passionate NieR fans.
And so we have the rarity of a passion project taking the form of an expensive triple A game in the year 2017. NieR: Automata is this incredibly heady experience that has all the weirdness of an eccentric indie game and the polished gameplay of a blockbuster.
Also, three years ago in my Mega Man X post I fielded the idea of robot magical girls and waxed theological about that game’s robot cast. NieR: Automata is probably as close as I’ll ever get to living out those musings in video game format. And I am a sucker for existential robot angst.
The game is set in the distant future where aliens have invaded the earth, forcing humans to take refuge on the moon. After so many years the war has turned into a proxy war fought between androids built by humans and alien machines. The protagonist, 2B is a YoRHa android – a special task force that consists mostly of androids who inexplicably look like young women with a gothic lolita taste in fashion and who wear augmented reality blindfolds. Along with 9S, one of the few “male” YoRHa’s, 2B is sent on a recon mission to the earth.
NieR: Automata unfolds this in hybrid fashion. For much of the time it plays like a 3D Zelda title as you explore the ruins of the earth and fight the machines (even the overworld feels a bit like a more seamless take on Ocarina’s with a central hub that branches out in different directions). But sometimes the camera will change perspectives and suddenly you’re in a 2D sidescrolling beat-em-up, or the camera will take a top-down perspectives and suddenly you’re in a Touhou style bullet hell shmup.
And it does this so gracefully. A large part of this, I think, comes from how the controls are simple enough to remain the same in each of the gameplay permutations: you have a weak attack, a strong attack, a projectile attack, a special attack and a dodge. You never need to mentally toggle between different control shcemes when the game decides it’s time to change things up.
Which made me realize just how much the camera in a 3D game defines what sort of game it’s going to feel like. Kinda neat to think about.
As the mission on Earth proceeds it quickly becomes clear that all isn’t quite as it seems. Actually, before you even get to terra firma there’s some strangeness going on. For one thing, getting a game over actually nets you an alternate ending complete with its own credits roll. And if you poke around in the menu you’ll realize that a lot of the video gamey features are just chips that 2B has installed which you can pull out if you choose. If 2B takes damage, it “hurts” your TV screen’s image reception. And although I didn’t try it seems like you could even just end the game by yanking out her CPU. So we’ve already wandered into some Philip K. Dick territory where the reality of the experience is now up for grabs and we haven’t even left the options screen.
Anyway, on Earth it becomes clear that the alien machines aren’t the expected mindless automatons. Many of them are intelligent, capable of emotion, and have begun to develop their own civilizations as a result of their extended occupation (this war has been going on for millennia, by the by). Some have even renounced violence. Yet you receive PAs and emails from the (offscreen) humans telling 2B to disregard this and continue to treat them as mindless enemies. Are the machines just mimicking human behavior, or are they the real deal?
And then there’s the YoRHa androids themselves. They all have the capacity to think and feel like humans, and aside from their combat duties a lot of them seem to live banal millennial existences. You get emails about chintzy horoscopes, complaints that people are using work servers to store movies and stuff, etc. Are they also just parroting human behavior? Why were they made this way if they’re just tools for warfare?
So already we’re contemplating human behavior through these artificial beings while also thinking about how ideology (“Glory to Mankind!” is a slogan that gets ominously repeated a lot) can cause us to objectify the Other, and this is a game where you’re this magical girl who can swing a broadsword and do crazy anime moves and there are these scenery-chewing Sephiroth lookalikes running around and what did I do to deserve a game this crazy?
The game is tonally all over the place, but it does a good job at oscillating between moods. There’s some seriously dark, creepy stuff here, but also some surprisingly heartwearming and whimsical moments, and none of it feels out of place. It’s nice to play a game of this sort that doesn’t feel the need to be unrelentingly grimdark all the time.
And it’s also nice to play a game with artsy aspirations manages to work through its lowbrow JRPG genre rather than above it, if that makes sense. Taro clearly wants to challenge the player’s expectations for these sorts of games, and how violence is approached in them (and, on some deeper level, there’s probably some thesis about humanity’s capacity for love and hate here), but it’s also a pretty exciting piece of anime schlock (I mean, augmented reality blindfolds), with incredible set-pieces and boss fights.
The world itself is hauntingly beautiful – humans have been gone long enough for nature to reassert itself, and there’s a real sense of loneliness while you’re wandering around the remains of human cities. The music, composed by Keiichi Okabe and Keigo Hoashi also abets this. It’s as good a score as anything in the original NieR, and carries on that game’s distinctively vocal style – a good comparison would be a halfway point between Yuki Kaijiura’s work and the Ghost in the Shell movie soundtrack.
As it stands I’ve completed the game’s “A Route.” However, Square Enix themselves (or so the message at the end of the credits says) tell me that a lot of the game’s content is locked away in its various other routes and that I need to New Game+ this thing to see it all. Which is good, both because a lot of the “A Route” is just a big tease, and because I’d rather take a shorter but more replayable game over a longer one – although this means I can’t give a definitive pronouncement on NieR: Automata until I run those other routes.
But unless the game really drops the ball it’s probably going to wind up high on that top ten list of mine. I know everyone’s losing their minds over the new Zelda, and I’m sure it’s probably the better game, but NieR: Autodrip Coffee Maker just felt gift wrapped for me.