Japan has given birth to some of the most unique and eccentric game developers in the field. Hideo Kojima, for example, went a long way in adapting and articulating the language of film in his games. Fumito Ueda, whose minimalist storytelling and fantastical worlds invoke the atmosphere of dreams. There’s late Kenji Eno, who gained a reputation for extremely unconventional game design and strange marketing techniques supplemented by his notoriety as a musician.
Then you have Taro Yoko, also known as He-of-the-terrifying-moon-mask, whose game projects (he doesn’t just do games) are notorious for both their juvenile humor, odd sexuality, idiosyncratic design decisions, and complicated scenarios that mercilessly deconstruct common tropes in video games that so many take for granted.
Yoko is an amazing storyteller, which is a shame, because more often than not his games have suffered from repetitive and/or inadequate gameplay. Most suffer from being dull hack-and-slashathons that quickly grow old. What usually saves these games is, again, Yoko’s scenario writing.
Then he met the guys at Platinum, and we got NieR: Automata.
What Is It?
NieR: Automata is the sequel to the sadly obscure cult action RPG NieR, itself a part of Taro Yoko’s game metaseries that also includes his Drakengard series. These games, famous for their grim atmosphere and merciless deconstruction of common JRPG and gaming tropes, have long been something of an oddity in the gaming world, often forced to be part of the B-tier of JRPGs underneath bigger franchises like Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy. But this time, Yoko and his band of gaming misfits are joined by the masters of over-the-top action gameplay, Bayonetta creators Platinum Games, so that now for the first time, a Taro Yoko game is not only weird, but it’s actually fun to play.
To the game itself: This combat-focused action-RPG is a far future, post-apocalyptic science fiction tale about a war between human-like androids and vicious robots over dominance of a ruined planet earth. Thousands of years beforehand, humans were forced to flee their beloved planet after a race of invading aliens, armed with vicious war machines and robots, devastated the planet and its population. Escaping to a colony on the moon, the humans decided to develop an army of intelligent androids to mount a resistance on the now ruined earth, so as to reclaim their planet from the aliens and their machines.
That was several millennia ago. Now, as the combat android 2B, you discover that now the machines are not only growing in number, they are becoming increasingly more aggressive. They’re also beginning to speak, just like humans.
Why Should I Care?
First things first: For the first time ever, a Taro Yoko game is actually fun to play. No longer will you have to endure trudging through seemingly endless hack n’ slash marathons in order to get to the next story segment. With the help of Platinum, Automata sports an intuitive and satisfying combat system that is fast, flashy, and addictive. Your character sports a set of three different weapons at any given time. The first two are your various swords, spears, and others that you can use for close combat. However, your character also comes with a floating AI companion, a pod, that on top of giving hints and advice also comes equipped with projectile attacks, starting with a machine gun and, later, guided missiles and lasers (and a host of other madness). This combination of close and projectile combat is smooth and enjoyable, which is good, because you’ll need both to survive against the onslaught of pissed off robots who want your head.
These segments are also supplemented with some extremely entertaining shooter sequences via the personal mechs that are sometimes needed for particular missions. These range in difficulty from fun excursions to Ikaruga-style levels of bullet hell, requiring fast reflexes and the ability to navigate screen-filling curtains of projectiles. These aren’t just your standard top-down shooting segments, either. At times, these segments will switch from top-down, to side-scrolling, to third person, to twin-stick shooting at the blink of an eye. The camera will also shift into odd and eccentric angles, doubling the challenge. Half-assed mini-games these are most definitely not. Later, you will also gain the ability to hack various electronics, represented by an abstract shooter segment that can be just as challenging (if not moreso) than the regular shooter segments. You’ll want to do this, since hacking various characters will not only make them explode (and take various other enemies with them), but in some cases you will be able to view the memories of these enemies.
Obviously, being an action RPG, you will gain experience and level up your attack power, defense, etc. You also have the standard stores where you can upgrade your weapons and armor, as well as learn new skills and supplement your equipment with various enhancements. Between the main scenario, you can pursue various sidequests that may provide further story details and rare items, as well as currency and materials you will need to customize your equipment. Also, since you’re essentially an AI in an android body, you never actually “die” per se., you only get sent back to the transport pod that doubles as save spots in Automata, with a fresh new body and clothes. Of course, it would behoove you to locate your old body, since you’ll be able to reclaim your experience you lost from “death.” You can even program your old body to fight alongside you.
Then, of course, there’s all of the other eccentricities that are Taro Yoko’s trademark: The whiplash between grim dialogue and childish humor, the mischievous sexuality (2B has a rather nice butt, which the developers obviously put a lot of work into), the breaking of the fourth wall in order to screw with the player, the multiple playthroughs required to understand every angle and every aspect of the story, and the deconstruction of various gaming cliches that will make you question why you’re involved in all of this chaos.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
I once read another game critic say that NieR was to JRPGs what Spec Ops: The Line was to modern military shooters, and the comparison is quite apt. By the end of that game, everything that you have experienced up to that point is called into question, and the morality of your actions are put in an extremely ambiguous light. Also like Spec Ops, NieR‘s gameplay was flawed and sometimes repetitive.
That isn’t the problem here with it’s sequel. Automata is very fun to play, and never feels repetitive or sludgy. There is always some new aspect or new gameplay mechanic just around the corner.
That isn’t to say the game is without flaws. The camera can occasionally be problematic, as the action is sometimes so intense that the camera struggles to maintain its proper focus. Facial animations and lipsync are sometimes a little off, with some character models less detailed than others, and some of the open world segments appear a bit more barren than they should be. But then again, you are navigating the ruins of a blasted earth, so barrenness is to be expected.
But the part about NieR making you question your actions is still true in this sequel. The game itself can be played on its own with little problems, but the two games are definitely related, and the actions of your characters reflect on the actions of the characters in its predecessor. The first playthrough is pretty grim on its own, but the second playthrough, where you play as 2B’s assistant 9S, will reveal much more about what is actually going on behind the scenes, and the reality is pretty devastating. I won’t spoil it, but sufficed to say that you aren’t being told the whole story by your commanders. The third playthrough then reveals the reality of the situation and reveals what makes this game truly incredible.
Taro Yoko has finally marshaled all of his ideas into a truly great game. Any of its flaws are overshadowed by its virtues, which shine as darkly as its story. Do not pass this one up.
(Also… 2B’s butt be poppin’, yo. I’d say something about the oversexualization of female characters in video games, but DAYUMN!)