In 2017, we saw the release of blockbuster titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn. Because of this, Nier: Automata flew under my radar. Nevertheless, last spring (2020) was the perfect time for me to finally traverse Automata’s desolate and beautiful open world. If someone had told me four years ago that Platinum Games’ thought-provoking action/RPG would play a large role in influencing my decision to pursue a master’s degree in game design, I wouldn’t have believed them. And yet, here I am – back in school, and discovering all the ways Automata continues to influence my creative process.
The upgraded version of the original Nier, Nier Replicant ver. 1.22474487139 (yes, that’s its real name), is a remaster of the first game – except it’s based on a version that never released in North America. The events of Replicant connect to the sequel’s bleak-yet-thoughtful story, so if you haven’t played Nier: Automata already, here’s why now is the perfect time.
Nier: Automata is a philosophical game that probes the complexities of compassion when there is none to be found, the lingering traumas of war during peacetime, and the pursuit of freedom within a system of surveillance. As elite android-soldier 2B (a twist on the famous “To be, or not to be” Hamlet quote) and ever-curious sidekick 9S, you set out to protect an abandoned Earth from an alien-robot army hellbent on fulfilling their centuries-long goal: Eradicate all humans and establish total sovereignty. While conducting missions, you interact with a colorful ensemble cast, from a pacifist robot named Pascal, to a nefarious marionette-machine called Simone that skulks in the shadows of a haunted theme park. Automata subverts expectations by showing the same story events through the eyes of three different characters, and only once you see every arc is the game complete. There are a number of different endings, with the most important finales focusing on character motivations and even player choice.
In my experience, what puts Automata in a narrative league of its own is how it not only poses packed questions to its protagonists about their place in the world, but how it also breaks the fourth wall and forces players to confront their own socially-conditioned anxieties: Can we love, genuinely, in spite of stark differences? How much pain can we tolerate or forgive? Are we brave enough to denounce conformity and forge an identity all our own?
I think Square Enix’s RPG soundtracks are gaming’s gold standard. Nier: Automata’s music, composed by Keiichi Okabe (of Tekken fame) is in the upper echelon of my favorite video game music, joining the likes of Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VII and Yasunori Mitsuda’s Chrono Trigger soundtracks. Automata’s score isn’t mere ambience. Instead, it’s directly involved in the game’s design: Songs transform depending on plot progression. Pascal’s theme, for example, is one of Automata’s more upbeat tunes, mirroring the peaceful robot’s childlike exuberance and cheery disposition. However, during more solemn story moments, the same song plays again but with different sonic components like a melancholy chant or contemplative piano notes. In Automata, dialogue and player choice are integral pieces of the narrative, but instrumental melodies and vocal harmonies spin complex stories of their own.
Additionally, Okabe relies on “chaos language” – a blend of two or more languages (in Automata’s case, mainly German and Japanese) that create undecipherable, but oddly familiar conlangs. This approach reflects the state of Automata’s setting and time-period: 2B and 9S’ futuristic, post-apocalyptic Earth is, all at once, eerily foreign and familiar.
I could talk all day about Nier: Automata’s sprawling plotlines and epic score, but what good would that be if the game wasn’t engaging or fun to play? Automata’s combat is simple: Vanquish the robot horde with well-placed, devastating jabs or full-auto laser beams. But what makes the game so captivating is its wacky mix of genres. Automata is part RPG, part side-scroller, part hack ‘n’ slash, part bullet-hell – the list goes on and on. At its core, Automata is a masterful homage to an extensive list of preeminent and overlooked classics, from well-established arcade titles like Galaga to hidden-gem shoot-‘em-ups like Ikaruga.
Platinum Games often employs a dynamic camera to signify changes in gameplay mechanics. For instance, when the default third-person camera switches to a bird’s eye view, you know you might be in for an explosive aerial warfare segment. Similarly, a side-view camera indicates platforming sections that emphasize spatial awareness and cautious navigation. Moment-to-moment gameplay shifts are always unexpected, and consequently, refreshing.
Since playing it last year, Nier: Automata has emerged as one of my most beloved action/RPGs. Even as I dive into other unrelated narrative-based games, Automata’s transcendental themes, remarkable soundtrack, and mercurial gameplay are never far from my thoughts. I missed the chance to play the original Nier when it came out a decade ago, but footage of Nier Replicant’s characters and combat are wonderfully reminiscent of the hallmarks that make Automata such an affecting and unforgettable experience.
Nier Replicant launches for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC next week on April 23.
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