Archives for posts with tag: Drakengard


This March saw the release of NieR Automata, a pseudo-sequel to a cult favourite that I came to rather late, yet absolutely adored. An average-on-the-face-of-it game that was far more than the sum of its parts, Cavia and Yoko Taro’s action RPG immediately became one of my favourite games of its generation.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that I was incredibly excited for Automata. On paper it seemed like a dream project: here was a collaboration between Yoko Taro and Platinum Games, with Keiichi Okabe returning on soundtrack duties and Akihiko Yoshida handling the art. If I was going to assemble a team to make a new NieR game, I couldn’t hope for a better group than that. Basically, I was expecting this to be my game of the year before it was even out.

Unfortunately, I’ve been really struggling to get into it, and that genuinely makes me sad.

It’s important to note that so far I’ve only played through Route A and maybe about two-thirds of Route B, so I’ve by no means seen everything the game has to offer. Like the first, this is a game that needs to be played through a handful of times to really understand what’s going on, so it’s entirely possible that by the time I’m done I’ll adore it like I do the first. So far though, I’m not really feeling it. I’ll explain why, and while I’ll do my best to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, bear in mind some mild plot and character discussion (for both games!) follows.

The first time you play through NieR Automata, you’ll experience the story from the perspective of 2B, the wonderfully designed gothic Lolita android warrior. It’s a good thing that she looks so fantastic (thanks Yoshida!), because she comes across as a little dull in her own campaign, as does boyish sidekick 9S (I’M NEVER GOING TO CALL YOU NINES, GET OVER IT); there’s just no one here that has the impact of Kaine or Weiss, two characters that quickly became two of my favourite jRPG party members. That would be fairly forgivable if the story grabbed me but, the first time through, NieR Automata just feels like a disconnected series of events: you’ll go to a new region, something seemingly quite important will happen, and you’ll have no opportunity to process the event or what it might mean for the world and its characters. You’re simply told to go somewhere else where another apparently-important thing happens. Without any proper reflection on these events I felt like there was no cohesive thread pulling me through the story, almost as if I was playing through a succession of side-quests that didn’t feed back into the core narrative. Why should I care about all this if I’m not given a reason to?

If he’s Nines, does that make her Toobz?

Ok, fair enough, as I said above we’re supposed to play these games a handful of times to get the full picture. The first game was the same, right? Well, yes and no. In NieR‘s Route A, we had no idea what had happened to the world, or why people from 1,300 years ago were seemingly alive in the present with no memory of the past. We had no idea what our enemies, the Shades, were, we knew nothing of the Black Scrawl or the grimoires or the Shadowlord. What we did know, however, was that the protagonist’s daughter was sick and he’d do anything in the world to save her. The mysteries of the world worked because we had that personal bond to focus on, that quest to save Yonah that pulled us through the story. There is no such thing in Automata‘s Route A. There’s just stuff happening. And it’s happening to people you don’t really care about.

So I forced myself through Route A, reminding myself of how transformative the original game’s second playthrough was, and hoping – expecting – for something equally as revelatory here. So far I’ve been disappointed. The second time through, you play as 9S, who has a few extra tricks up his impeccably-tailored sleeves, like the ability to hack enemies to weaken or outright destroy them. Interestingly, this can also be used outside of combat to quite literally peak into the minds of others and find out what makes them tick. Unfortunately, this seems to be used mainly in side-quests while the story of Route B is mostly a re-tread of Route A. This is unsurprising given how much of the game 9S and 2B spend together, and I am looking forward to a later part of the story where they become separated for a time. But, while there are little insights peppered throughout such as learning the motivations of a couple of bosses (think Beepy and Kalil, but nowhere near as awesome/harrowing), it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact that Route B in the first game did, where your entire understanding of the world, your enemies and even your allies was completely turned on its head.

So far, Automata has displayed precious little of what made the original game so special; there’s none of the heart and emotion that made the first game and its characters so magnetic. That’s probably to be expected in a world inhabited solely by androids and machines of course, but it does make it a little difficult to care about. Don’t get me wrong though, I do enjoy the act of playing the game – basic combat is far more enjoyable here, thanks to Platinum’s involvement, and it’s wonderfully animated. I love the balletic movements of the characters in battle, and the perfect dodge is a thing of absolute beauty, reminiscent of Bayonetta at her acrobatic best. And then there’s the bullet hell sections, which manage to feel more distinct than they did in the original thanks to the introduction of flight units that transform the game into an actual, honest-to-god shmup for a few minutes at a time.

However, these segments also drive home how comparatively lacking Automata is in gameplay variety. Whereas the first game delighted in switching things up constantly, feeling like a Zelda clone one moment, taking inspiration from classic Resident Evil the next, and even heading into text adventure territory in a couple of places, NieR Automata is an action RPG with occasional shooter segments. It’s all good stuff, but it does leave the game feeling a touch less inventive than its predecessor. Then there’s the bosses, which are almost all impressively-screen-filling monstrosities, yet end up feeling a bit less imaginative than the original’s bizarre, otherworldy beasts like Hook or Wendy, and the pod program special attacks that just aren’t as cool as Weiss’ sealed verses.

These are all relatively minor issues, to be fair – the main source of my disappointment is with the story, world and characters, and I want to reiterate that I am genuinely saddened by this. I really don’t want to come across as if I’m trying to convince people not to like NieR Automata – I’m absolutely thrilled that more people are discovering Yoko Taro’s work, and I hope this gets him more exposure and the chance to make more weird, heartrending games that crawl under your skin and refuse to leave. Automata has been very well received, so I’m more than prepared to admit that I’m the odd one out here, and I really just want to love it as much as everyone else does.

There seems to be a general consensus that Route C is where it really starts to make an impact, and I’ve been advised by some to just rush through to that. That feels like it’s missing the point somewhat though – I’m disappointed that I’ve spent, so far, around 25 hours with the game and found none of what I loved about the first NieR. But hey, I’m still plugging away, and I’m hopeful that, once I’ve got that far, I’ll love Automata as much as I do the original. I’ll be sure to revisit this and write up some more thoughts once I properly finish the game, at which point I hope NieR Automata sits comfortably alongside the original as one of the most memorable games I’ve ever experienced.

Though it has since become the embodiment of the term ‘cult classic’ for the PS3/360 generation, NieR had something of an inauspicious start. Released a mere month after the hotly-anticipated Final Fantasy XIII to a middling critical reception, the game was hamstrung before it even hit store shelves. The fact that NieR was a spin-off of the already-niche Drakengard series that followed on from the first game’s ending E – where a giant statue and a red dragon faced off over the Tokyo skyline before being shot down by fighter jets – certainly didn’t help.

Things aren’t made much clearer when we get into the game itself, which opens in the summer of a post-apocalyptic 2049 as a desperate father strives to defend his sick daughter from strange, ethereal monsters. Realising he can’t beat the massed horde before him, he reaches for a strange book that seems to grant him magical powers. And then we spend about half an hour in a car park beating the crap out of monsters with a length of pipe. It’s not a great start, admittedly.

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY LENGTH OF PIPE!

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY LENGTH OF PIPE!

Things get even weirder as we abruptly jump 1312 years into the future. Far removed from whatever ravaged the world in the past, mankind now lives a more feudal existence, inhabiting small villages in and around the ruins of civilization. In one of these villages, a peaceful, green, walled settlement surrounded by vast, empty plains, live an oddly-familiar man and his sick daughter. In fact, they look exactly like that same pair from thirteen-hundred years ago. There’s absolutely no acknowledgement of this, of course. With a short voiceover, Nier tells us that his world is slowly winding down, once thriving populations now ravaged by disease, while strange monsters known as Shades roam the land, killing all those in their path. But Nier doesn’t care about any of that; his personal struggle is to save his daughter Yonah, and to hell with everything else. At the same time the player is on a parallel, and at times opposite, quest to discover just what happened in this strange world. Why do two people from 2049 appear to be alive in 3361? What was it that destroyed human civilization in the past? And just what are these Shades? Maybe Nier doesn’t care what’s going on, but you certainly will.

While many fans feel the game was given short shrift, it’s kind of understandable that critics were a bit mixed. NieR is a difficult game to review; on the face of it, it doesn’t really excel at much. It’s a game of competent design in graphical and gameplay terms, feeling something like a knock-off 3D Zelda to begin with, as you start in a small village hub, before journeying out onto a vast green plain and beyond. It’s fair to say that the graphics aren’t going to wow you, with much of the world being made up of blandly textured, low-poly environments, but despite the low-budget looks there is some really memorable design work to be found.

These are not your average jRPG companions.

These are not your average jRPG companions.

Nier isn’t alone in his quest to save Yonah, of course; he’s joined by an interesting cast of characters in Grimoire Weiss, a talking book that grants him magical abilities (wonderfully brought to life by Liam O’Brien channelling the dearly-departed Alan Rickman), Kaine, a foulmouthed female warrior that likes to kill things first and ask questions never, and Emil, a young boy whose eyes can petrify anyone they look at. Your party members all see a lot of growth over the course of the story, especially Kaine, who, despite her rough edges, almost ends up being the heart of the game. Each of them also has a fantastic, memorable look to them, and while it’s unfortunate that the player character is rather bland looking, the same issue actually works in the enemies’ favour; the game’s oddly-intangible Shade enemies are barely recognisable as anything other than wispy, vaguely-humanoid shapes, and considering we aren’t supposed to know what they are or where they come from, it’s a smart way for both narrative and design to work together to help mitigate such visual shortcomings.

Likewise, there are some fantastic locations to be found. If the starting village is a touch underwhelming, and the Northern Plains nothing more than an expanse to be raced across from one plot point to another, you absolutely will not forget the Aerie, a suitably-eerie village suspended over a seemingly bottomless canyon that has shut itself off from the world, or the desert city of Façade, whose masked inhabitants must adhere to tens of thousands of arcane rules that govern every aspect of their lives and decree that no two buildings can be built on the same level. And the first time you see the Lost Shrine, an ancient sanctuary built atop a spire of rock that rises out of the mist in the centre of a cavernous valley, you’ll be left a little breathless despite yourself. NieR‘s world may not be rendered in the highest detail, but it has a tremendous sense of place.

Similarly, combat isn’t going to win any awards, being fairly workmanlike for the most part. There is a decent degree of depth there for those who care to look, with three different weapon classes to get to grips with and upgrade, a handful of magic spells, as well as words, equippable modifiers that will boost stats or add status effects to your arsenal. But in all likelihood you’ll stick to a single weapon and two or three of Grimoire Weiss’ spells for much of the game – there’s just not much of a reason to mix things up. Boss fights are another story entirely though. Huge, multi-part encounters that are half-RPG boss, and half-bullet hell shooter, these are fantastically imaginative moments that will live long in the memory – especially the two set in the Aerie that see the fighting span the entire town, forcing you to run, jump and climb all over its bridges and walkways to vanquish these enormous beasts.

Yes. You will have to fight this guy.

Yes. You will have to fight this guy.

Happily, average graphics and competent combat isn’t all that NieR has to offer. If there’s one game in recent memory that truly is more than the sum of its parts, this is it. The game excels in characters, story and music, all of which lend the whole a deeply mysterious, otherworldly atmosphere. On the narrative side, though much of the game is framed as a simple tale of a father striving to save his daughter, there’s far more going on than that – as should already be evident from that initially-baffling time-jump at the start of the adventure. Though you’ll get some resolution by journey’s end, there’s still much left unexplained, and it’s a decidedly muted ending; sure, you achieve your goal of saving Yonah, but at what cost to the rest of the world? Nier frequently reminds us that he cares only for his daughter and his friends, and his actions reinforce this. But more often than not, he’s acting out of complete ignorance of the bigger picture.

It’s almost like the apparent simplicity of the narrative seeks to mislead the player, and this same disregard for convention can be seen in gameplay, too. While structurally NieR is an action RPG, it doesn’t take long for the game to start messing with your expectations; enter a creepy mansion and you’ll find yourself in a Resident Evil game, complete with fixed camera angles and arcane key systems. Dive into an underground research lab and suddenly you’re in an isometric dungeon crawler. Need to ascend a series of scaffolds to reach a higher vantage point? Now you’re in a 2D platformer. Best of all is the section in the Forest of Myth where the game transforms itself into a text adventure for a short while, capped off with a few simple logic puzzles. Director Taro Yoko has said that this genre-hopping is something of a response to modern games that give up all their systems in the first thirty minutes, leaving little new to look forward to, and while it does give NieR something of a ‘master of none’ feel, it is genuinely refreshing to mix things up every now and then.

It’s like Cave made a 3D action RPG, and it is glorious!

It’s like Cave made a 3D action RPG, and it is glorious!

Topped off with a stunningly melancholic soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe that mixes haunting choral pieces with gentle piano-led compositions and rousing, vocal-led battle themes, it all comes together to create a package that is far greater than the sum of its parts. NieR is mechanically solid, graphically average, and yet utterly, utterly unforgettable.

Taro Yoko is often asked where the ideas come from for his “dark, insane” stories, and answering this question in a fantastic sock-puppet video interview for Drakengard 3 – called Philosophies of Violence – he explained that certain things he does are reactions to gaming tropes that he sees as crazy. Describing the thoughts that led to the original Drakengard, he said: “I was looking at a lot of games back then, and I saw these messages like, “You’ve defeated 100 enemies!” or “Eradicated 100 enemy soldiers!” in an almost gloating manner. But when I thought about it in an extremely calm state of mind, it hit me that gloating about killing a hundred people is strange. I mean, you’re a serial killer if you killed a hundred people. It just struck me as insane.” These ideas informed the twisted, unhinged world of Drakengard, “where everyone’s wrong and unjust.”

It’s of course something many have touched on in recent years, that we seemingly have little input in many of the games we play, save for killing, and that these murderous sprees are rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the characters we embody or those around them. It’s not really something Yoko’s games strive to change, as such – Drakengard and NieR are action RPGs where you kill lots of enemies, of course – but he often uses the characters and narratives of his works to make players at least question this act and what it means for these worlds and the people that inhabit them. In the same interview, Yoko explains how his views shifted post-9/11, as the rise of terrorism and ideological conflict changed the vibe he got from the world at large.

“What the hell are these things?! Ah, who cares, let’s just kill ’em all!”

“What the hell are these things?! Ah, who cares, let’s just kill ’em all!”

Now the world seemed to be saying that you don’t necessarily have to be insane to kill someone, you just have to think you’re right. This thinking heavily influenced NieR, where the player character willingly slaughters his monster-like enemies without even knowing what they are and why they might be hostile. Indeed, he doesn’t even care, at one point responding to the insinuation that these are intelligent, sentient beings with the retort, “I don’t care if they can tap dance and play the fiddle.” What begins as one of Nier’s defining, positive characteristics – his desire and willingness to do anything to save his daughter – is turned on its head later on as players are made to wonder if it isn’t Nier, and by extension the player, that’s the real monster, the true danger to the world.

Those famous – or perhaps infamous – multiple endings play into this turnaround quite wonderfully, giving us new perspectives on events we’ve only seen through the rather blinkered, misled eyes of our protagonist, whether that be understanding the strikingly-familiar motivations of the apparent villain of the piece, or being able to understand the speech of the Shades you’ve spent twenty hours slaughtering. The game doesn’t allow you to deviate from the path, even with this knowledge, and it’s actually stronger and more affecting for that; at one point, you’re made to realise that a seemingly powerful boss you might have struggled to vanquish earlier was actually a defenceless child that you’re made to kill. Armed with that knowledge, it’s genuinely unnerving to be forced to do so. And should you make it to the fourth ending, you’re rewarded with a bit of quite brilliant fourth-wall breaking that is almost painful to watch. It’s absolutely worth seeing.

Looking back at his body of work, it’s clear that Yoko has ambitions that frequently outstrip his means, so it’s incredibly surprising to see a Platinum Games-developed sequel on the way. That’s certainly a team that understands gameplay, and with Yoko and Producer Yosuke Saito returning at the top, character designs by Akihiko Yoshida (of Ivalice fame) and another astounding soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe, Nier Automata is shaping up to be one of the most exciting games coming out this year.