Nier creator Taro Yoko has some strong opinions about how to keep games interesting.
Last time, we heard how he felt that modern triple-A games were often fun for the first twenty minutes, but that he often became concerned these initially impressive titles would become tiresome after twenty or more hours. It was this mindset that caused him to design the original Nier with so many unusual features to it, and many of these — and more — have carried across to Nier: Automata.
Today, then, we’ll take a look at Nier: Automata’s mechanical aspects — and how Yoko’s collaboration with Platinum Games has helped him to realise his vision better than ever before.
At its heart, the basic mechanics of Nier: Automata are Platinum’s trademark fast, fluid combat and movement transplanted from a linear sequence of discrete levels into a more freeform open world, though interestingly enough the very first time you take over control of protagonist 2B is for a vertically scrolling shoot ’em up segment rather than something more representative of the rest of the game.
Right from the start, then, Yoko and Platinum are showing that they’re unwilling to make the game feel constrained by traditional design and mechanical conventions. By refusing to open the game with the play style that the audience will spend the majority of their time engaging with, they’re sent a very clear message: “this is a game where you should expect the unexpected”.
This philosophy continues even once 2B is on the ground. You’re thrown almost immediately into a boss fight in which you’re expected and encouraged to experiment with the available controls in order to find the best way to dodge attacks and continue your assault. After that, 2B’s infiltration of a Machine-infested factory proceeds from a variety of perspectives: standard over-the-shoulder third-person, side-on 2D platformer-style and top-down old-school Zelda-style.
The transition between these play styles and presentational perspectives is seamless and occurs at sensible places in your progression through the environment; the first time you play, it may be unexpected, but it’s not jarring.
The third-person view is used not only as the “default” but also in situations where a sense of scale and spectacle is required; in this way, the factory in the opening sequence is shown to be considerably huger than the actual areas you’re expected to explore. This allows the player to understand the sheer scale of where they are without them feeling overwhelmed that they’ll never be able to find everything.
Side-on perspectives trigger when you reach sections that either involve a lot of jumping or climbing to reach higher ground, or long, straight pathways and hallways. This is an eminently sensible approach, since although Automata’s 3D platforming is very solid indeed, accurate jumping is still considerably easier when executed in 2D.
Top-down perspectives trigger in situations where you’re likely to get surrounded by enemies or when you’re in arena-like environments — though the game even subverts this expectation later in the same opening sequence by providing you an arena encounter in standard third-person view.
Later in the game, these same perspectives are re-used in similarly sensible, non-obtrusive manners. Top-down perspective gets used both for a boss fight and for a few sliding block puzzles in an optional sidequest, for example, while there are several extended 2D platforming segments throughout the game, including the exploration of a large castle and a return to the previously unseen depths of the factory in which the game begins.
These changes in perspective are supported by some solid, unchanging mechanics that make getting around and fighting an absolute joy. 2B can run, jump, double-jump, quick-dodge and sprint at the touch of a button. Attacking is executed through three different buttons: one assigned to a weak but relentless ranged attack, two assigned to separately equipped weapons.
While the system follows the standard action game convention of having a “light” and a “heavy” attack button, the fact that a different weapon is attached to each allows for a large degree of customisation. If you want your heavy attacks to be large, sweeping affairs, stick with the standard “Large Sword” you start the game with. If, on the other hand, you’d rather your heavy attacks be close-up powerful punches, equip a set of knuckles instead. Ranged attacks can also be customised, including their basic regular projectiles and their cooldown-based “skill”.
The nice thing about this aspect of the game is that you can actually get through the whole thing with just the starting weapons, assuming you remember to upgrade them through their four potential levels of power as you progress. So there’s no need to learn different fighting styles if you don’t actually want to; the default setup is fun, satisfying — and, crucially, pure Platinum — but for those who like to take a bit more control of their overall experience or simply have a bit of variety, the option is always there.
Weapons are rarely explicitly “better” than one another, in stark contrast to the original Nier, where once you got the “Phoenix Spear” weapon you were pretty much sorted for the rest of the game. As part of Automata as a whole, they perform two main functions: firstly, as a “collectibles” sidequest — a tradition since the original Drakengard — since many are located in out-of-the-way locations or expensive to acquirem, and secondly, as a means of customising the game to play in the way you want it to play rather than being stuck with what Yoko and Platinum felt was “best”.
You can further customise your experience with the game’s unusual equipment system. Rather than providing the usual RPG options for armour, accessories and suchlike, you’re instead working with program chips that you have to fit into an expandable available capacity. More powerful chips tend to take up more space, so you need to weigh up their benefits when compared to covering a variety of bases.
There is also a degree of variation in the chips you collect as you progress, too; specially marked chips, for example, take up considerably less space than their unmarked counterparts, allowing you to make more efficient use of your available capacity. Chips of the same power level can also be fused together to bump them up to the next level; this also often results in them using less capacity than an equivalent chip you looted from an enemy, though not to the same degree as the marked ones.
Amusingly, you have to devote a certain amount of your available memory capacity to the game’s interface and even to keeping your character alive with their central processing unit. You start the game without an experience point display, for example, so you have to purchase and install one — assuming you want one. There’s also a completely useless “sound meter” chip that just looks kind of cool on the interface if you feel it adds to your enjoyment.
Likewise, if you’d rather play the game without a minimap, a message log or even a health bar, all you need to do is simply whip out the respective chip and you’re away. Through the combination of the weapon and chip systems, you really can customise Automata to play and look the way you want it to, though in the latter case the capacity mechanic prevents you from getting too carried away or overpowered.
In terms of how the overall game world is designed, Automata is typically described as an “open-world” game, though this shouldn’t be taken in the same way as for its contemporaries such as Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In other words, it’s not an open world in which you have complete and total freedom; it’s not an open world in which you’ll spend half an hour attempting to find a way around, over or through an inconveniently placed mountain between you and your destination; it’s not an open world in which you’ll ever find yourself somewhere that the developers didn’t quite expect you to reach.
Instead, Automata is perhaps best compared to much earlier attempts to create an “open” game world, looking way back to the PlayStation 2 era. Its structure of focused, tightly designed, seamlessly interconnected areas brings to mind something like Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter, particularly as progressing through the story tends to open up new areas for you to explore that you can then revisit at your leisure.
Automata constrains the areas in which you can explore quite strongly compared to “truer” open world titles such as those previously mentioned, generally limiting your wandering to obvious paths and arenas. But this has an ultimately positive effect on the game as a whole; you get the benefit of being able to explore without getting distracted, and it also helps the world as a whole to feel like it’s been properly and completely “designed” rather than thrown into a terrain generation algorithm and had a few gimmicks added manually after the fact.
Perhaps more importantly, it keeps the game focused. There’s a sense of constant progression and discovering new things without having to trudge through unnecessary environmental padding or track down non-narrative activities that have been added simply to inflate the overall play time. (That said, the fishing mini-game, while very simple, can be enormously distracting — though notably it can be engaged in while near any body of water, not only at predefined “fishing spots”.)
This approach combines the benefits of games with discretely designed levels and the freedom of open world games. And the seamless way in which it’s all presented provides the world with a wonderful sense of coherence, which ultimately helps the sense of “place” central to the overall narrative — but we’ll look more at that when we examine the narrative, themes and characterisation in detail.
Much like its predecessor, the full scale of Automata’s narrative doesn’t become apparent until a second playthrough and beyond. Like Nier, Automata provides considerable additional narrative context to the main events of the story in its second playthrough, though it handles things a little differently: rather than simply revealing more information to the same playable character, you instead play as 2B’s companion 9S, which causes a number of important moments to diverge in different directions.
For example, in the opening factory infiltration, while 2B is fighting her way through the machines, 9S is alternating between flying from location to location in further shoot ’em up segments and hacking computer systems to allow 2B to progress further.
This opening segment of the second playthrough introduces players neatly to the main differences between 2B and 9S. In narrative terms, 2B is a combat model, while 9S is a “Scanner” — a scout — and consequently has some different capabilities. Most notably, 9S’ gameplay eschews the two-weapon combat of 2B’s route, instead equipping him with just a single weapon and the immensely powerful ability to “hack” pretty much any enemy in the game.
Hacking is presented as an abstract twin-stick shooter in which the ultimate aim is to destroy a black sphere. For weak enemies, this is a simple case of avoiding bullets and immediately destroying the sphere, but for stronger opponents, there are other enemies that need to be destroyed first before the sphere’s shielding drops. Hacking is also used at numerous moments throughout the narrative in order for 9S to find out additional information from Machines, other androids and remote servers; in these instances, the basic mechanics remain the same, but the environments you “explore” tend to be larger and more complex rather than simple arena shootouts.
Interestingly, hacking is so powerful it’s enough to take down even the final boss of the story in just one or two hacks, meaning it makes combat largely irrelevant for 9S, so long as you’re able to trigger the hack before the enemies get close or you get hit by their bullet patterns and special attacks. In this way, he could almost be considered the far-future equivalent of a “mage”, defeating enemies before they even get close to him; in another, it could be acknowledgement that while 9S’ narrative path diverges from 2B’s at a number of important story moments, a lot of it is also very similar and so players would likely prefer to get through it a little more quickly.
Where things really get interesting is in the third playthrough and beyond, in which you initially play 2B, then alternate between 9S and previously teased character A2. The latter plays somewhat similarly to 2B, with a return to the two-weapon fighting style, but a change to her core mechanics is the replacement of 2B and 9S’ “self-destruct” capability with the opportunity to go berserk, which increases her attack power enormously while draining her HP constantly.
Throughout the majority of the third playthrough, you play an “episode” from either A2 or 9S’ perspective, then have the opportunity to switch to the other or continue on with your current character. In this way, you’re challenged to make use of both play styles in different circumstances, and this concept comes to a head in the route’s final “dungeon”, in which there’s a spectacular boss fight that constantly zips back and forth between a 9S-centric shoot ’em up segment and some on-foot combat focusing on A2. Not only is this boss fight an incredible spectacle, it also very much keeps you on your toes as you’re forced to swap between two disparate play styles at a rapidly accelerating tempo as the confrontation reaches its climax. It’s exhausting and thrilling, and from a narrative perspective it suitably escalates things prior to the game’s grand finale.
Finally, one of the most interesting things Automata does from a mechanical perspective comes in its final “main” ending “E”, only accessible after the third route has been completed at least once and some specific choices are made. In this last ending, the non-interactive credit roll from the other routes is replaced by an interactive twin-stick bullet hell shoot ’em up sequence in which you use the hacking cursor to destroy the names and positions of staff members who worked on the game.
By itself, this is cute and actually not all that unusual a “bonus” feature to see in a Japanese game. But it’s the use of Automata’s online features that elevate this particular sequence into something truly special.
Automata’s online aspect for the most part consists of other players’ corpses being visible in your game world, and you having the opportunity to recover or repair them in exchange for various benefits. When you die, you’re able to leave a message using predefined words and phrases to express yourself, and other players will see this when they come across your corpse.
What happens in Ending E takes this to the next level. Roughly halfway through the interactive credits, you’ll encounter a bullet pattern that is seemingly impossible to survive. Theoretically with enough skill you could complete it by yourself, but for your average player, it’s an apparently insurmountable obstacle, and each time you’re destroyed by it, the game asks you if you want to give up, if life has any meaning, if there’s really any point bothering even trying any more. Giving a negative answer to this question kicks you out of Ending E and back to the title screen, while giving a positive answer allows you to try again from just before the part that killed you.
Repeatedly dying, as is somewhat inevitable, causes this “do you want to give up?” screen to gradually become populated with mysterious pieces of text that seem to be offering words of encouragement — just one at first, but more and more appearing with each unsuccessful attempt you make until the whole screen is filled with support. At some point it will dawn on you that these are the words of other players who have made it through the same ordeal, all of them urging you onwards to success. And it’s at this point that the game asks you if you want to accept the help of other people.
The natural response at this point is to maintain a sense of pride in your own capabilities and try to fight your way through by yourself. But inevitably, you’ll only fail again, causing more words of encouragement to appear and the game, again, asking if you want someone to come and help you.
Forsaking your pride and accepting help causes your single ship to become surrounded by a number of other ships from other players, increasing your firepower to such a degree that the previously insurmountable obstacle becomes pretty trivial. It’s still possible to fail, however, and each time another player’s ship is hit by a bullet, you’re given a message that politely informs you that their “data has been lost”.
It’s surprisingly powerful, particularly after all the previous messages of support, and this sense of emotional engagement is what makes the very last choice you get to make in the game all the more powerful… but I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself.
Throughout all of Nier: Automata, there’s a strong sense that this is the game that Taro Yoko has always wanted to make, combining disparate game styles with a challenging yet coherent narrative to create something quite unlike anything else on the market right now.
It’s an immensely playable, enjoyable game from a mechanical perspective. And, as we’ll explore next time, it features a fascinating, thought-provoking narrative, too.
Until then, limits exist to be broken! And thus, survive!
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