In Praise of the Impressive Impatience of ‘Nier: Automata’
Most role-playing games tease their stories over tens of hours, giving away nothing in the opening few. Not here.
Fans of action-orientated RPGs full of possibilities have been spoilt so far in 2017. Horizon Zero Dawn is a near-enough-future world of recognizable ruin, drawn with uncommon environmental detail, while Breath of the Wild has taken Zelda back to its roots of limited hand-holding and extensive exploration, wowing both series fans and absolute beginners in the process.
And now Nier: Automata presents a depiction of our world several thousands of years from now, cities reduced to hollow, haunted shells and Earth's human inhabitants replaced by rather-more-mechanical beings, many of which are out to destroy the "you" of the experience, an android by the codename of 2B.
Developed by Platinum and published by Square Enix, it's quite the collision of company characteristics. After two healthy play sessions with the game, I'm happy to say that its frenetic combat packs a punch akin to Platinum's own action classic Bayonetta, while also offering a great deal of central story depth and side-quest distractions reminiscent of so many quality JRPGs. I'm hooked right now—which is quite something, given the "competition" of that first paragraph.
There's plenty I really like about Nier: Automata—obviously, I guess, or else I wouldn't have put this much time into it, especially after losing a significant chunk of progress on my initial save (don't ask). But I'm not here, now, to list the lot of them, in a box-ticking operation serving as some sort of traditional review. I just want to highlight one thing in particular which has both surprised and delighted me. And that's how this game really doesn't mess about in motoring into its narrative.
"Talk about bringing the battle to them." Inside the game's first half-hour—the demo from just before Christmas 2016 that introduces you to a varied set of attacks, Witch Time-like dodges, and regular shifts in camera perspective (third person, top-down, side-scrolling)—2B's companion 9S compliments her front-foot approach to confrontations. And the game's treatment of its story follows that forwardness. And it's so refreshing.
I've come to really like Horizon's story, but it's a slow-and-steady diet of breadcrumbs. It took me until the 20-hour mark before I really felt like I had a handle on why Aloy was on this mission, and what it meant for the world, both "now" and in its pre-collapse past. Okay, so I've been dabbling in plenty of optional activities there—but the same is true of Nier: Automata, and yet inside, I'd say, three hours, what felt like massive revelations had revealed themselves.
I daren't spoil anything, given the game is just now releasing in the West, but forgive me for offering up some vague details (because if I didn't, you'd be staring at a blank page).
Upon landing on Earth for the second time—if you played the demo, you'll know how the opening of Nier: Automata ends for its protagonist—it's immediately apparent that not all of the dome-topped machine invaders, themselves weapons of an alien race (which itself is revealed in what feels, for the RPG genre, double-quick time), are aggressive. You'll find many amongst the shattered skyscrapers of a nameless city who simply want to exist, to survive, to live.
And where the game takes that thread of plotline potential is quite something—likewise, the speed with which it arrives there.
Related, on Waypoint: Hardcore Girls and Bullet Hell: A Conversation with the Makers of 'Nier: Automata'
After just two hours of the central story, I was asking myself: am I really the good guy, here? And isn't that something? And I don't just mean the question itself, but instead the surprising pace with which it comes. Nothing definitive is said, no statements made to the effect of: hey, 2B, you're kind of a dick, actually (although, as one cute side-mission tells it, she sure is grumpy). But in the space of a single evening's play, starting from the very first seconds of the game, Nier: Automata throws shocks and scrapes, questions and conflicts into the mix that many games of its class keep held back for hour 10, hour 15, hour 35. It's just so impressively impatient, I love it.
And since you're here, let me tell you a few other things I really like, too: 9S being put on the spot about how humans make more humans. 2B's orbiting operator asking her for dating advice (these androids dream not of electric sheep, but of being with each other). Riding a moose through around the edge of the first area, like a race horse. Being able to (immediately) return to the site of 2B's first failure and retrieve the items she had on her, come the climax to the demo/intro. The magnificent music. How individually tailored 2B can become to your own play style.
And then there's the feel of motion in the game, the handling of 2B, both in and out of combat. This might be a freer, follow-your-own-path affair than the likes of Bayonetta and Vanquish, but Platinum's personality is all over it, sparkling on the tip of every blade.
I'm a long way from finishing Nier: Automata—just as I am Horizon and Breath of the Wild—and I do worry that it might be the one that falls by the wayside, ultimately, once it becomes a free-time concern. Hooks can bend, of course, and break, however strong they first appear.
I'm deep enough into Horizon now that I have to see it through, or I'll kick myself; while Zelda I can take with me on the move, picking away at it one commute at a time. But even at this point, I can confidently say that Nier: Automata is the best Platinum game since Bayonetta 2, and that it progresses with such wonderfully rapid momentum that it's impossible to just pick up and play for an hour. If this were available on a portable console, I'd be miles past my stop for home before I noticed the mistake, so terrifically kinetic is the core campaign. I mean, the size of what you'll see, so quickly. You might want a friend nearby to fist-bump.
Uh, I really want to talk about one particular reveal, something like three or four hours in, maybe, but it's just too good, too magical. You should see it for yourself.