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A Bridge Too Nier

I have completed Nier: Automata (N:A) all the way.

NieRAutomata_Castle

Again, the visuals were extremely good.

As I mentioned a few days ago, the major impetus for my buying N:A in the first place was the seemingly unrelenting stream of praise it received. “Best game ever!” “GOTY 2017, if not of all time!” Those sort of proclamations immediately actives my Bullshit Sense, honed as it is after the Bioshock: Infinite debacle. That was almost five years ago now, and I’m still mad that it gets any praise at all. Seriously, people, that was not a good game.

Suffice it to say, Nier: Automata is not Bioshock: Infinite. In fact, it is extremely good.

But does that mean N:A lives up to its hype? Well… yes and no.

When I look back on the games I view as true epics with moving storylines and compelling characters, I see games like Xenogears. FF7. Chrono Trigger. The Mass Effect trilogy. In this context, I did not feel that N:A’s plot achieved a spot on that pantheon. At the same time, I can also recognize that Xenogears was released in 1998, which is possibly before many fans of N:A were even born. So, in a sense, I can see how someone can view N:A as being the best story they have experienced.

However, pure epic story-telling is not the only prism through which a narrative can be judged. When I think about my experience with Far Cry 2, for example, I found it deeply moving and incredibly clever from a meta-narrative perspective.

NieRAutomata_BossDead

Robotic hearts in the darkness.

Far Cry 2 was a slog of bloody, seemingly pointless firefights against interchangeable factions all the way to the very end. And that was the point. The gameplay itself was being used as an emotional vehicle for the player to show them experience the pointlessness of the conflict firsthand, and feel your own culpability in perpetuating a cycle of violence for ultimately selfish ends. When I was finally given the option at the end to either escape Africa or stay and sacrifice myself to save some refugees, the weariness and resignation I felt via the protagonist was real to me too. Staying behind to manually blow the bomb came as an immense, cathartic relief.

It is in this sort of reference point that Nier: Automata actually deserves the praise it receives. N:A is no Xenogears, but it is a Far Cry 2. Or Metal Gear Solid 2. Or Spec Ops: The Line. Not in the content of its message necessarily, but in its clever use of gameplay mechanics and subverting expectations to elicit emotions rather than relying on plot alone.

Indeed, one of the most poignant and moving sequences in the game occurs during the closing credits of the E ending. I went from rolling my eyes, to mild interest, to frustration, to finally… an emotion I had not experienced since Journey. And right at the very end of it all, the game asks a final, devastating question of the player, that I was not expecting nor prepared to answer.

And I blinked. Days later, I still feel somewhat guilty.

You would be forgiven for wondering why the above is not enough for Nier: Automata to take a seat next to Xenogears. I might just be obstinate. Or it may simply be as banal a reason that those PS1 classics came first, or were experienced in my more formative years, or both. But still, I hesitate.

Honestly, it is probably better for everyone to temper their expectations anyway. If you go into Nier: Automata thinking you will experience a 10/10, or something far and away better than whatever you view as your favorite game, you will probably be disappointed. If instead you go in with eyes open, acknowledging the fact that you will essentially need to beat the same game twice (from two different perspectives) before the “real” game begins, you will likely be more open to the emotional notes that the game elicits.

Plus, I hope you like action games. And twin-stick shooters. And… you get the idea.

NieRAutomata_Hacking

And hacking! Can’t (ever) forget that.

Speaking of notes though, the soundtrack is every bit as amazing as they say. It is a complete aural experience, with familiar themes expanding during epic moments, or contracting when the action inverts for a hacking mini-game. Some soundtracks have a few good songs, but Nier: Automata is good the entire way through, at every moment. Haunting, melodic… perfect. It absolutely deserves a seat with Mitsuda’s Xenogears and Chrono Trigger, even if thematically they differ.

So, yeah. Nier: Automata is worth playing. It’s not perfect, but it’s so goddamn ridiculous and bold and eccentric and sometimes horrifying and sad. And, ultimately, meloncholy. There are bad bits, some boring parts, and some questionable design decisions. Yet, more than anything, this is a game that ignored what everyone else was doing and shot for the moon. That ain’t nothing.

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Action Gameplay

I’m still making my way through Nier, and it’s an interesting experience to analyze in situ.

Aside from the moments when it turns into a bullet-hell shoot-them-up, Nier is an action game in the vein of Devil May Cry. You have a Light attack, a Heavy attack, a Ranged attack, and a special skill. There are technically combos, I think, but I’m not sure it’s especially more productive than just mashing buttons. The only real “decision” is when to press the Dodge button. Which, by the way, can be spammed with no penalty to essentially gain infinite invincibility frames.

The end result is a relatively simplistic combat system. And it’s… still fun? I guess.

One of the common complaints regarding older MMOs like WoW is that tab-targeting combat is boring. Or mindless. 111211131141. While Nier is certainly more active from a combat perspective, I’m not sure that it is less mindless. XXXYYYXXY with some RT in there (on a controller) to dodge. If I just stood there and didn’t dodge in Nier, sure, the enemies I’m fighting might be able to kill me; conversely, most enemies in WoW can be face-tanked. But does that really matter?

The whole situation kind of reminds me of the difference between driving to the movie theater and watching the movie. The action of driving somewhere is much more involved than watching the screen – there are thousands of more individual choices and reactions necessary to drive somewhere safely. But is it more engaging? At the end of the night, which do you remember more?

And really, this is a problem with Action games even in the absence of thousands of incidental enemies you have to mow down. Furi features action combat that focuses just on bosses. I played it for a few hours, got to the second boss, and ended up setting the game down. It’s just not particularly compelling. Sure, it feels good to be able to perform the button presses necessary to avoid death. That’s a sense of personal progression.

But… I don’t know. Just like with driving, I kind of zone out the experience when I’m killing enemies in Action games. Or rather, become so hyper-focused on the moment-to-moment reactions to stimuli that I lose the overall plot. Once I get to my destination safely, the process by which I got there exits my short-term memory and becomes no more than a fuzzy recollection of time spent.

Perhaps this is less an indictment of Action combat generally, and more a specific Nier issue. Perhaps I should crank up the Difficulty slider up a notch. But I’m not sure that that would accomplish anything more than slippery road conditions would “improve” the driving experience. Common enemies would require greater focus, and yet the “reward” would be the same.

Maybe that’s just it: action combat is typically less overtly rewarding. Nier enemies drop currency and occasionally crafting mats, but it’s not on the same scale as a WoW mob. There are simply more and multi-faceted reward types in RPG-esque games than Action ones. Action games focus on the action, and generally try to reduce downtime. Go too far, and you end up the Borderlands Zone where you have to take a 5-second break after each gun drop to compare it to your equipped arsenal. That sort of thing completely breaks the flow in a way that, say, Skyrim does not.

I dunno. I’m not even through my first playthrough of Nier – New Game+ is apparently mandatory to see the rest of the plot – and I think that I had better buckle down and ignore sidequests from here on out. If I don’t, I think there is a serious chance that the combat becomes too boring to finish.

[Fake Edit]: Completed both A & B endings this weekend. Combat got more boring in B, which I didn’t think was possible. Let’s just hope C+ is a bit better…

Impressions: Nier: Automata

For months and months, I have been reading praise of Nier: Automata across Reddit and Steam forums with extreme skepticism. How good could this game be, really? So when the game finally hit 50% off on Steam recently, I bought it with an implicit goal of “getting the facts straight.”

Based on 5 hours thus far, I can safely conclude this: it’s pretty damn good.

NieRAutomata_Trees

Looks pretty damn good too.

It’s still extremely early, but part of that goodness is wrapped up in how incredibly bold the game is in its own style. The starting section of the game is you piloting a ship like in an old-school, top-down shooter, including dodging slow-moving energy spheres. Then your ship “goes mobile” and things turn into a twin-stick shooter. Then you finally dismount and start attacking enemies in a 3rd-person action game ala Devil May Cry. But then there is a section where you’re running along a metal walkway, and the camera pulls out so you can face enemies in a side-scrolling style. Minutes later, there’s another section where you do the same thing with the camera directly overhead.

Any particular one of these camera tricks would be a gimmick. But, somehow, doing all of them… works. The expectation is now set that the game style will change to fit the scenario, and I’m either on board with it or I can leave. The game feels… confident, in an unapologetic JRPG kind of way.

NieRAutomata_Save1

Oh, of course.

The unapologetic-ness is really a reoccurring theme, actually. I checked out the forums before I started playing, because I had heard that the game is non-functional without the fan-created FAR mod, which fixes framerate issues. For the record, the game runs perfectly fine for me out of the box. One of the threads mentioned the fact that if you die in the hour-long opening sequence of the game… you have to redo the entire thing all over again. There are no checkpoints, there are no quick saves. As someone who has been playing Dark Souls-esque games lately, this is familiar territory.

NieRAutomata_Save2

OK, yeah, I got it.

That said, by default 2B is equipped with a “plug-in chip” that will automatically consume a potion when damaged below 30% HP, and enemies certainly don’t one-shot you as they can in other games, so it’s not too punishing. Plus, if you change the Difficulty to Easy, you can equip additional chips that will even automatically Dodge attacks for you. I’m actually not quite sure how that works, as I’m playing on Normal, but at least there’s an option.

One thing I did want to mention in this initial post too was the music. Wow. I just got to the second area and there is already music with actual lyrics just playing casually. Running around the ruined city nearby produced a track that heavily reminded me of Xenogears. Which, by the way, was probably the moment I felt myself just relax and settle into my chair, in a sort of metaphysical way.

Plus, you can fish. Androids fishing up mechanical fish in a post-apocalyptic Earth, to sell for cash to buy healing potions. Because Japan. It’s great.

So count me converted on Nier: Automata already. I’m in it for the long run.