This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Nier Automata.
On the official Escapist website, the video and its description had the game misspelled as Nier Autamata. Yahtzee noticed this and pointed it out in the post-ZP stream on Twitch on the video's release day. This mistake was corrected a few hours later.
Nier, so called because it's very "Nier-ly" spelled correctly, was a very Nier-d, I mean, weird action-RPG thing where, depending on your location, the main character was either a shirtless middle-aged man, or a skinny twink generally better-disposed to shirts but couldn't quite figure out the whole "sleeve" aspect. I reviewed it way back in 2010, and it left quite an impression; there aren't many games that dramatize the moment wherein Richie Rich transforms into Casper the Friendly Ghost, so I was gratified to see the property franchising with this new sequel, Nier Automata, which the casual eye would indicate to be largely bugger-all to do with the original. But after reviewing Nier the First, I have since learned that it, too, was a sequel to Drakengard, and I think I could be forgiven for not realizing that; it might as well have declared itself a sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire, for all that it mattered. You might want to be careful, being so laissez-faire with the definition of "sequel"; next thing you know, everything will be declared a sequel to everything else, and they'll be selling Moby-Dick in box sets with Confessions of a Window Cleaner. Maybe we're all just sequels in this great, disappointingly long-running franchise we call "life".
But the practical upshot is that you can play Nier Automata without having played Nier Shirt-omata, although you might need a few extra nanoseconds to predict the eventual plot twists. The first Nier pulled the old Planet of the Apes gambit where the fantasy world turns out to be the post-apocalyptic sci-fi future, and now Nier Automata is set even further into the future when things have come back around to being sci-fi again.
The main characters are human-like androids fighting a seemingly endless war to retake the ruined Earth from an army of primitive but highly numerous machines that all seem to be modeled on women's sanitary products. The androids are doing this on behalf of humanity, whom we never see, but we're assured they're all living on a secret colony on the Moon that we can't go to and from which we only hear general announcements that all sound suspiciously pre-recorded. Doesn't quite take Alfred Hitchcock to see where that's going, does it? But ere you smite me with downvotes for the looseness of my spoiler-riddled tongue, the game's not actually about that. What it's about is the purpose of being and what it is that separates a machine from a human, anyway. The story begins when some of the machines start to display human-like behavior and emotions, in contrast to the androids, who were instructed to remain emotionless, despite having been programmed with emotions, possibly as a prank.
Remember last week, I was saying that naming the main character of your robot game "Aloy" was a bit on-the-nose? Well, there must be something nose-related going around at the moment, because the main character of this game about existentialism is "2B". (2B as in, "...or not to be", you see; it's not just a kind of pencil.) 2B is one of several mostly-identical female android warriors - or "gynoid warriors"; thank you, Pedantry Corner - who fight the machines with katanas and robot suits and dress up in French maid outfits. Thank Christ for that; I might have forgotten this was a Japanese game for two seconds and stopped loading my mouth with Pocky. 2B is assisted by a hacker named 9S, hacker in the video game sense of "basically also a warrior, but with a 70% increase in minigame density". I don't think 9S has a hidden meaning, unless the 9 is supposed to be his approximate physical age, but Wikipedia does tell me that 9 is an exponential factorial, and 9S certainly wants to "exponentially factorize" 2B, wink wink.
The gameplay of Nier on Tomatoes is what we academically call "an odd duck", the kind of duck that spends half the day hanging out in the lion enclosure demanding to be called "Simba". Remember how the first game (okay, fine, "previous" game) took influence from bullet hell shooters by making every projectile attack waves of giant, slow-moving testicles like you were trapped in the nightmare of a professional zoo animal castrator? Well, that's still there, but now you've got a gun, not dissimilar to a bullet hell shooter's gun, that you can use to supplement your traditional PlatinumGames, fast-paced, dodge-focused melee combat against enemies with health bars longer than the emotional distance between you and eligible members of the opposite sex.
There's also a hacking minigame in which the whole pretense is dropped and you play a bullet hell shooter for two seconds. It was like there was an argument over whether Nier should be an action-RPG or a bullet hell shooter and the action-RPG guy won, but the bullet hell shooter guy decided to bide his time and play the long game, so Nier 3 will finally be entirely bullet hell and the action-RPG guy's corpse will be found in the parking lot with 900 million gunshot wounds. But the combat stopped mattering some ways in, because there's an upgrade system not a million miles from the Paper Mario badge system where you can swap upgrade chips in and out of a limited number of slots, so I plugged in a bunch of self-healing abilities and never died again, breaking the combat like the heart of a little dog when they discover you weren't holding a treat after all.
Then it was just a matter of getting to the end, which was a more complicated business than it sounds, because Nier Arigato, Mr. Robotohas funny ideas of what the word "ending" means. The first ending comes when you get to the end of 2B's story, at which point, the game none-too-subtly suggests starting a new game, and we find ourselves playing the same story, but as 9S, who was tagging along with 2B for most of it, so the differences are limited. But only after that and the second round of credits do we restart the game a third time and oh, what do you know, this is where they're hiding the second half of the plot, where the important climactic stuff happens. I'm not sure what the point of all this was; maybe they were trying to make the most of the small and dreary open world full of repetitive combat and dull sidequests, but that's like trying to make the most of a bowl of stale porridge by eating it with a pitchfork. The funny thing is, by the end of Nier, Far, Wherever You Are, I was quite into it and thought I was going to recommend it, but now I've sat down to write it all up, I'm like, "Wait a second. If the combat was kind of lame, and the open world was shitty, and the main characters were underdeveloped in their every sense of the word, then what the hell did I like?!"
On reflection, Nier-er, My God, to Thee was a lot less cleverer than it thought it was. Despite its lofty philosophical ambitions, the plot wasn't making any kind of actual point; it just dumped a load of existential thematic elements on the garage floor and buggered off to let us sweep them up. "Oh, look, the main characters look like they're wearing blindfolds, but take them off during moments of revelation." There's some complex fucking symbolism for you! The second half had some pretty good gut-punch story twists that managed to make some emotion spark off my flinty heart, but it could be because I've been stuck revisiting the same locations with these characters for so long that I've gotten invested largely through Stockholm syndrome. It is a very weird game, on every level of story and gameplay design, and that might be enough; weirdness is refreshing. In the general blandness of life, weirdness alone is worth preserving; that's why we drew the line at nuking Japan more than twice.
- Beep boop he is a robot: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I want it on record that every fucking time I googled 'Nier Automata Cover' I got links to Japanese love pillows with 2B on them
- Now restart the video to get Ending Q
Extra: Will Save the Galaxy for Food
My new book, Will Save the Galaxy for Food, is out now! It's a sci-fi comedy with all the usual sci-fi comedy themes: redundancy, hopelessness, and existential dread. Available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook from all good retailers and some dodgy ones.