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Why NieR:Automata matters; a story of emotions, animations, gods, freedom and Coca-Cola
Why NieR:Automata matters; a story of emotions, animations, gods, freedom and Coca-ColaFollowing the positive and constructive comments I've gotten on my Max Payne 2 review, here's a new one. This review is spoiler-free, includes a fair amount of context and history (honestly, my favorite part), sources as much as possible, gameplay videos and screenshots. I hope you'll enjoy it. More than anything, I hope it will pique your interest about this game and the minds behind it.
Have you played it?Most of you probably heard about NieR:Automata before, but have you played it? Maybe you thought that was just another weeaboo kusoge. Maybe you thought it was just a dumb beat 'em up game. Maybe you simply thought it looked bad. Or maybe you played it but didn't feel like it was anything special.
If so, you missed out on a very interesting, and quite important videogame. Think this is an overstatement? You're wrong, and hopefully this review will change your mind.
Before jumping into the reviewAs I mentioned, the main reason people haven't played this game is probably because they looked up a random review or video and thought 'Ok this is a cheap looking JRPG with a nude female character. Pass.' and honestly, I can't argue with that. It's true that most reviews simply overlooked the context, history and vision of this game. Without these key elements, the game does look like a cheap JRPG with an almost naked female character. And that's exactly why I'm reviewing it.
I'll start off by telling you more about Taro Yoko, Nier creator: his games and his ideas. Then I'll talk about the actual game, Nier: Automata, reviewing its story, gameplay, technical aspect, sounds and music, and the overall experience. I'll finish by talking about open-world games.
For the sake of clarityThe game is titled Nier: Automata but stylized as NieR:Automata. I'll randomly use both. I'll be calling Yokō Tarō using the English name order: Taro Yoko.
The mindTaro Yoko (Yokō Tarō in Japanese) is a 49 years old game director and writer. He initially was a 3D CG developer, but somehow was asked to be director for Cavia's Drakengard (2003). He also got involved with the sequel game (Drakengard 2, 2005). He then decided to work on a third entry in the Drakengard series, which ended up being a spin-off: Nier (2010). After making a 'true sequel' to Drakengard (Drakengard 3, 2013), Taro Yoko and Square Enix decided to continue the Nier series.
Taro Yoko's games are known for being dark, but also weird. As he says, weird games are made by and for weird people. And it's true that he has some really unique ideas and theories about games and how to make them.
VisionWhen creating a game, Taro Yoko sets a goal, a vision. Elements like gameplay, story, or music are merely ways to reach that goal. His goal with Nier was to move the player. Back in the late 2000s, he realized new games weren't conveying emotions like older games used to and decided to create a game that would make players react. In order to do this, he used an interesting method of writing.
EmotionsImagine a random character dying in a game, that's not very emotional, right? You kill a lot of NPCs in a game like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. Now imagine a character dying after you've spent 30 hours with them. That's better, but what if you didn't really care about this character? Not really emotional. Ok, now imagine this character's a young innocent girl. And she can't walk, she's disabled. And she's abused by others. And she gets killed on the day she can finally walk again. Now that would be emotional.
Usually, games are written in a straight forward way. It means, they start off with a young innocent girl, then they add tragic events surrounding that girl, and then they realize the story needs emotions so they decide to have that girl killed.
But that's not how Taro Yoko writes his stories. He decides when the emotional peak will be first, then he goes backwards and build up to that peak, adding elements (i.e. young girl, disabled, abused, etc.) throughout the story at the right pace. He calls this 'backwards scriptwriting'. It makes your story much more exciting and your emotional peaks much more emotional because you've been building up towards these from the very beginning.
Potential of gamesCharacters dying is pretty common in videogames, though. Let's keep this example of the young disabled girl tragically dying. It would be emotional, but you wouldn't really react to it because you've experienced this in many games. What if you could save her by deleting your save data? What if the game gave you that choice? Now you would react to this, because it's emotional and it's uncommon.
You probably never ever faced a situation like this in a game, however you concur it's not impossible. i.e. it doesn't require a huge budget, or break any law, or anything like that. It's perfectly possible. Yet it's extremely uncommon.
Let's imagine a circle representing the potential of games. What can be done within a game. Everything outside of that circle can't be done (e.g. asking the player to kill someone in real life, or cut the power in the player's house, ...). Now let's imagine a circle within that circle. The inner circle is what's commonly done in games. The outer circle is what isn't done, or very rarely. (An interesting exercise would be to try and place curious design you encounter in games somewhere in that circle.)
Taro Yoko sees an invisible wall between these two circles, limiting the potential of games. He says he's been trying to break that wall for 20 years.
Breaking the wallIn 2013, Coca-Cola launched a campaign called 'Small World Machines'. Basically, they placed a Coca-Cola machine in a city in India, and another one in a city in Pakistan. As you may know, these two countries live in conflict. Both machine were connected and one could interact directly with the person using the other machine via a touch screen.
Taro Yoko was deeply influenced and impacted by that campaign (as he was by the 9/11 events, which are a major inspiration for the original Nier game) and wanted to do something similar with his game. Have players interact with each other and show them that there's something beyond that wall. That's his goal, his vision.
Ok, enough with theories, let's talk games, shall we?
More contextI swear I'll get to to Nier: Automata soon, but before that we need a little bit more context around the game.
The original Nier game received mixed reviews. Most people agreed it had a fantastic soundtrack, great combat gameplay and an interesting story. However, the game was criticized for its mix of gameplay systems which felt clunky, its boring quests and, mainly, its poor visuals. The game sold around 700,000 copies as of 2018.
Square Enix wanted to correct these flaws and contacted PlatinumGames to work on the sequel with Taro Yoko. Production started in 2014.
What PlatinumGames broughtPlatinumGames was founded in 2007 in Japan and became famous for their beat 'em up action games such as MadWorld (2009), Bayonetta (2009), Vanquish (2010) or Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (2013). Most, if not all of their games have been critically acclaimed for their smooth and exciting gameplay. One thing they have in common with Taro Yoko is that they want to explore unconventional design and mechanics. The team has a lot of young (and talented) people and everyone's invited to give creative ideas during the production of their games. It's worth noting that they also have veteran developers, as the studio was partly founded by ex-Clover Studio (Viewtiful Joe, Ōkami, God Hand) developers.
Nier: Automata was their first A-RPG, as well as their first open world game, so it was an exciting challenge for them. According to game designer Takahisa Taura, you can tell a good or bad gameplay (in an action game) by the level of perfection of the animation, the connection between animations, the input response, the visual and sound effects, and some other parameters. These are the key parameters for Nier: Automata's gameplay, though.
They used a lot of flags for every animation in the game to ensure that it looks and feels good. Without going much into details, here's an example of an animation flag given by Takahisa, and how it improves the gameplay:
Setting a flag at the start of an attack animation to make the character automatically face the nearest enemy makes the gameplay look better, but also feel better. It would be very frustrating if you had to turn around and perfectly face an enemy before actually attacking him.They also worked a lot on input response. Reducing input response means that the attack animation and the attack effect (dealing damage to the enemy) occur almost at the same time, and as shortly as possible after the player's input. Input response has also been reduced through game design: they placed no restriction on jumping or evading, which allows to cancel any other move. Once again, less frustration. Finally, they adjusted animations timing to actually 'feel good'; quicker animations aren't always smoother.
The resultNieR:Automata was released in February 2017. It received very positive reviews. The game was praised for its unique direction, interesting and engaging story, exciting combat, and stunning soundtrack (which won several awards). Negative comments were mainly aimed at the subpar textures and clunky PC port. The game sold over 4 millions copies as of today. Major improvement from the original Nier.
The reviewFinally. As a reminder, I'm reviewing (in this order) the story, the gameplay, the technical aspect (graphics, visuals, performance), and the sounds and music. I played the game on PC, with a mod that only allows native resolution and a few bug fixes (cf. Technical part).
StoryI'm starting off with the story because it dictates a lot of other gameplay elements.
The story is set in the year 11945 AD. About five thousands years ago, aliens invaded Earth and killed almost everyone with an army of machines. Few survivors managed to escape to the Moon where they started creating androids to fight those machines and ultimately the aliens. You play as YoRHa No. 2 Type B ("2B"), a battle android, accompanied by her pod (basically an assistant AI) and 9S, a non-battle android. Androids are equipped with chips (system chips, combat chips, support chips, etc.) and have their data saved regularly. So if an android gets destroyed, there's a back-up data available to create a new one with the same name, persona and memories. Here's a cutscene introducing 2B and her pod. Interesting things to note: pod's voice and subtitles are not sped-up; it's just listing all the damage taken by whatever got destroyed in a very AI-like way. 2B says 「見ればわかるよ」 which would translate to «I can see that», even though she's wearing a blindfolds and isn't facing the enemies. Those blindfolds are actually a heads-up display and her dress is literally part of her 'body'.
I think this is a pretty important thing when building a world: does it make sense? In this case, it perfectly does. Everything's justified. Of course they didn't have to go for a big booty girl in high heels... Or maybe that's because the humans who created androids are just perverted men? But anyways, I think that's the most important thing about the story in this game: it all makes sense. Everything.
The story starts off as 2B is sent to Earth in order to work for the resistance against machines. There, she will find more about humankind and her creators. As 2B progresses on Earth and meets new 'people', she starts asking herself concrete questions. Who are gods? Are they really gods? Are machines really different from androids? She'll even befriend with some machines and learn more about this desolated world, and humanity, which will result in learning more about herself. Because not all machines are enemies, as a matter of fact machines weren't hostile at first. 2B will find a village full of friendly machines, led by Pascal, a machine who shares his knowledge of humankind with other machines.
Here's the first line from the opening scene, it doesn't make much sense until you've completed the game so it's spoiler-free.
We are perpetually trapped... in a never-ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment? I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle... and wonder if we'll ever have the chance to kill him.I won't comment on the line itself but I just wanted to say, it perfectly describes the story. It's a story about existentialism, humanism, and everything it implies. If you're into philosophy, you'll love the story. If you're not, you'll get into philosophy. And it's not just easter eggs about philosophy like that NPC named 'Jean-Paul' ('Sartre' in Japanese) who refuses gifts and awards. It goes actually pretty deep into these ideas. Simply put, it's a story of androids finding out who they are, why they exist, who are their gods, and many more. You learn new things about the story as 2B learns new things about her world. And even more; Taro Yoko really uses this game to interact with the players and eventually sending them a pretty interesting message about video games and their creators. Fun fact: the console version offers an interesting installation menu which sets the tone for the story. (Video is spoiler-free, however comments may contain SPOILERS.)
I think what makes the story so great is that it works on different layers. You can still enjoy the story of 2B learning about her purpose in this place as she explores the world without understanding any of the philosophy messages. Or you can enjoy the philosophy (which isn't abstract at all, it might actually pique your interest) without caring much about 2B's story. But both are tied, and the story gets even more exciting when you have all the key elements, it's just extremely well thought. Everything you do, everything you don't do, everything the characters say or don't say, has a purpose. It all makes sense.
Sidequests offer interesting pieces of lore which end up being related to the main story for most of them. The story shares some of its setting with the original Nier but it's not directly related. You can absolutely play it without having ever played the first game.
GameplayCombat is the foundation of NieR:Automata's gameplay. If you've played recent PlatinumGames games, you'll quickly find your mark. The most recent one I played is Bayonetta and I think they greatly improved since then. Combat is extremely dynamic, thanks to a collection of 4 different types of weapons, for a total of about 40 weapons. Of course, different weapons means different combos (and animations, we'll get to that in a second). But it gets even tastier when you can equip two weapons, unlocking more combos depending on your weapons combination. But there's even more to it: your pod also has various combat abilities. Add this to weapons and you have a pretty deep combo system. Here's an example of a crazy combo. And another one. Just to be clear, these two videos are made by a highly skilled player (cf. Sources); you don't have to go crazy like this to kill a basic enemy. But you can.
In case this couple of videos didn't make it obvious; the combat in this game feels absolutely fantastic. You can easily unleash a decent combination of attacks thanks to an easy, yet deep system mixed with smooth and stunning animations. You might not realize it because everything's going so fast, but the animations are really something else. It's like Platinum worked on every animation, not just the attack ones, to make sure they didn't look generic by giving them those few extra frames. At some point I simply equipped different weapons and tried all the attacks just to see all the different animations. Small details like this make the gameplay even more exciting. Here's an example, with slow motion in case you missed a detail. And another one. NSFW bonus. Yup, they really worked a lot on animations.
The game's world is open, as you can freely explore the different areas. From a desolated city to a forest or an amusement park, these areas are varied enough to make exploration interesting. Different items can be picked up; quest items, weapons or consumables. Some of them are well hidden. The world map isn't stupidly large, but it's large enough to be tedious going back and forth if the character's too slow or the controls are a bit clunky. Fortunately, PlatinumGames got you covered there.
Moving around is just as easy, smooth and exciting as fighting. Sure, you can walk slowly and enjoy your journey but you can also dash your way through the world. Dashing feels extremely statisfying. It's fast enough considering the map's size and it's super smooth. You can dash in any direction, you can even dash mid-air. Honestly, the controls in general are just a blast, Platinum absolutely nailed it. Here's a sample of me running around the city. And another one. More?
I'll talk about the difficulty soon but first I have to talk about the 'RPG' side of this Action-RPG. You'll understand why. As I mentioned, the game has quests. Nothing special here, you have a main quest to follow and several sidequests get unlocked (or locked) as you progress through the main one. Quests are varied enough so you don't feel like you're always doing the same thing. Some of them are extremely short, some others are meant to last a little bit longer as you move on with the story. Then there's the chips system. As I mentioned in the Story part, androids are equiped with chips. These give various abilities and effects such as higher attack, longer dash distance, etc. They come in different levels and, just like skills in other A-RPGs, cost a certain amount of resource depending on the level. Each chip takes a certain number of slots and better chips usually require more slots. That's how you build your character. Some of these chips are literally HUD elements. The gameplay blends in really well with the world. You can optimize chips cost via a system that minmaxers will love, allowing for even stronger builds.
Now, some of these chips are only available in easy mode as they allow for 'auto' abilities. e.g. with the 'Auto Attack' chip, your character will automatically attack enemies. If you equip all of these auto chips, the game basically plays itself. There's an interesting choice behind this. PlatinumGames thought, the same way you can skip cutscenes, you should be able to skip gameplay. So if you somehow absolutely hate the gameplay, but still want to play this game (huh), there's that. Of course you can also play on easy mode without these chips and then you'll have to attack and evade normally. The game comes with four different difficulty settings. I just mentioned about easy mode. I'd recommend normal or hard if you've played a similar game recently. Very hard is a whole other thing as any enemy will kill you in one hit. Which gets even crazier during the shmup sequences.
Yes, you read that right. The game has shmup sequences. They blend in and transition very well with the regular gameplay and are exciting too. I believe Square Enix asked PlatinumGames to have a mix of 2D and 3D gameplay.
One last thing about the gameplay. The game is split into multiple chapters. No spoilers so all I can say is don't just uninstall the game after you get to the credits. You've only barely scratched the surface.
Honestly there's a lot more I could say, but my goal here is to give you an idea of the type and quality of the gameplay, not a comprehensive list of all the features. Did I mention there's fishing in the game? Anyways, the gameplay is super effective, it's smooth and dynamic but not confusing, it's easy but not shallow, and it fits the game's story perfectly. For example, you don't simply 'adjust the voices volume option'. You perform a system check on 2B and adjust her settings. In fact, your HUD is actually 2B's. Even the menus. It might sounds stupid but it actually really adds to the immersion.
TechnicalStory? Deep and interesting. Gameplay? Fun and smooth. Now on to the not so good part of the game. As a reminder, I only played the PC (Steam) version and can't comment on the console version.
The PC version came out as a total mess. Resolution issues, graphics issues, framerate issues. The worst thing is, I'm playing the game again in late 2019 and it still has the same issues. I literally can't play in native resolution. This is unacceptable. Game comes out with bugs? A shame. Game still has these issues 2 years later, even though the whole community is yelling? Unacceptable. So, in order to decently play NieR:Automata on PC you have to install a third-party mod (link at the end of this review). Shame on whoever was in charge of this port, really. People let it slide because they're blinded by their love for the game but we have to be honest for a second: these games will keep on being released as total messes on PC until we, players, react and tell developers and publishers that releasing a broken game is unacceptable. For the record, I have a GTX 1070, i7-4790K and 16GB RAM which is well above recommended specs. I still get framerate drops, even with the third-party patch.
Besides this immense issue, the game is technically below 2017 standards. Framerate is capped at 60 fps without the patch and cutscenes are locked at 30 fps. World textures are bad. Characters are a little better but you rarely see them close-up. Visual effects kind of make it up as they're pretty good. Overall the game is saved by its artistic direction, although the color scheme tends a little bit too much towards grey. It's been mentioned numerous times that Square Enix didn't allow for a huge budget on this game. You can clearly see this on the world map. There are areas that feel like they were straight up cut from the game. The map also feels like it should have been more crowded but they simply couldn't do it. Honestly, it's hard to be critical on this aspect; it's obvious they did the best they could with the technology and budget they (allegedly) had. If we forget about the unbelievably bad port, the game is on par with J-RPG standards, and to be fair you can't expect a 'niche' game like this to lift the bar up.
Sounds & music(I'm linking a few Youtube videos in this section so you can listen to the game's music. Beware, comments on these videos may contain spoilers.) As you may know, the game won the 'Best Score/Music' award at the 2017 Game Awards. Indeed, the music is top notch. It perfectly captures the gameplay experience and completes the visual experience. Exploring the city ruins wouldn't be the same without this thrilling music. Some of the songs have vocals in a language made up of different real languages, giving a great fantasy sound. Emotional songs for special occasions are high quality too and they'll forever remind you of the events of the game when you hear them.
The Japanese voice acting is excellent too, especially 2B. It perfectly captures her cold, determined personality slowly becoming more human. I haven't played the game with English voices but I've read positive comments about them. The machines voice acting is also very interesting and, once again, adds to the world. Unsure if this fits in this section or in 'Technical' but it's important to note that the English subtitles are made for the English voices and aren't accurate if you're playing with Japanese voices. It's not much, but you lose little details, as the androids (especially 2B) in English sound more human than in Japanese.
OverallThe game is extremely good. It's a lot of fun to play, the story is deep enough that it cannot be figured out until you've got all the key elements, and the world is very interesting. The game's technical issues (on PC) would make me hesitant on paying it at full price, though. However, you should absolutely play this game because it brings original ideas. It's a lot of fresh air in the saturated world of video games.
This game matters for its unique writing, its extremely interactive world and its engaging story. It points problems and actually tries and provides solutions. It does it on almost every aspect of its design. I think it's an excellent representation of 'artistic evolution'. Taro Yoko sends a pretty clever message to players about their relation to games and their gods. Finally, it shows a lot of games, especially open world games, where, why and how they were wrong.
Open world fatigue'Open world fatigue' is a phenomenon where players get bored, or rather tired, of open world games. This is caused by many things but most people agree it's because they keep repeating the same meaningless tasks in open worlds. The most obvious example would be collectibles. It's a real thing and many people complain about it. Open world games today have larger maps, more items to collect, more quests to complete, etc. This could sound like a good thing but it turns out it's not. You can play hundreds of hours and still feel like you're not done, you haven't played enough. Taro Yoko saw this phenomenon and understood once tasks become ordinary, they become chores. He concluded players were tired of this high level of freedom. This might sound counterproductive but, as he explains, having a high level of freedom doesn't necessarily mean feeling free.
Having freedom vs. feeling freeIn order to explain the difference between 'having freedom' and 'feeling free', Taro Yoko cites two examples: the original Super Mario Bros. game and GTA IV. When he discovered the warp zone for the first time in Super Mario Bros., he was shocked. It felt like the game contained an enormous world he wasn't aware of. He felt free. When he played GTA IV for the first, which is a game (and a series) famous for giving a lot of freedom to the player, he was surprised he couldn't talk to NPCs in the streets. But it makes sense, as you wouldn't go around randomly talking to strangers in real life. This is a case of removing some freedom to the player in order to add realism and sense.
The solutionTaro Yoko came to the conclusion that 'freedom' in video games isn't about volume; it's the expansion of the player's perception. Which means that 'freedom' is in a future that you weren't aware of in the past. In his games, Taro Yoko translates this by using a frame to limit freedom. Imagine a world. What's important isn't the size of this world but rather its frame because players believe the frame is the limit of this world. Now if you expand this frame, it gives a sense of freedom. This expansion may have many forms. I remember playing GTA III when I was younger and after spending many hours on the first island I finally unlocked the second one and I was stunned. It was a whole new map, with new vehicles and everything! But it wouldn't have worked if I hadn't spend all these hours trapped on that first island, giving me a false impression that GTA III's world was smaller than it actually is.
EndingNow I've talked about gameplay and world expansion but this also applies to the story. What if you played through a story, but then you can play it again with a different point of view which will completely changes what you learned in your first playthrough? Or what if there was another story after the ending? Giving you a false impression that the game is ending, but actually the world is expanding right before your eyes. And now you have no idea what will happen next, yet you're excited. It's almost as if the video games gods blessed you with a cryptic puzzle...
Sources & annexes
- Taro Yoko's GDC 2014 video about scriptwriting: https://youtu.be/OO_d3fwTNPo (SPOILERS for the first Nier game)
- Takahisa Taura and Taro Yoko's GDC 2018 video about Nier: Automata's gameplay and open-world: https://youtu.be/jKbH9i5axxU (SPOILERS for NieR:Automata)
- Screenshots used for the context part (emotions, potential, open-world, etc.) come from these two GDC videos.
- Combo clip are from this video: https://youtu.be/9P6Y2L0UMqI (SPOILERS)
- Animations details are from this video: https://youtu.be/QAU_8GEgSwI (SPOILERS)
- Everything else was captured by yours truly.
- The third-party patch for the Steam version can be downloaded here: https://github.com/Kaldaien/FAR