I absolutely love NieR. It wasn’t always so; until a little over a year ago, it was one of those games that sat in my perpetual backlog, waiting to see if I’d ever get around to playing it. Friends had tried to convince me, telling me of its unique characters, its genre-hopping tendencies, or its wonderful soundtrack, but still it sat unloved on my shelf. And then, at E3 last year, there was a surprise. A sequel was coming, and it was being developed by Platinum Games! I saw friends celebrating this announcement the way I celebrated Shenmue 3‘s reveal and I knew that I had to pull my finger out and finally play the 2010 original. After doing so (and coming to realise that it’s one of the best games of its generation), I came to regard that E3 surprise as something of a dream project: Taro Yoko was back to direct, as was producer Yosuke Saito and composer Keiichi Okabe, and they were being joined by frigging Platinum Games and Akihiko Yoshida. Holy fucking shit.
And so here we are, a few months before release, and Square Enix have bestowed upon us a little Christmas present: a high-octane demo to take us through the festive period. If there’s one weakness the original NieR had, it was probably the functional but fairly uninspiring combat, so the idea of Platinum handling the fighting engine is cause to salivate, and there’s plenty of opportunity to try it out here. We’re let loose as android warrior 2B, as she fights aggressive robots through an otherwise abandoned factory, a rusty, dilapidated setting somewhat reminiscent of the first game’s junk heap dungeon, though the boss waiting for you at the end is much larger than P-33 (or Beepy to his friends).
Combat recalls Bayonetta at her balletic best, as 2B pirouettes around the arena with a pair of swords at her disposal. There’s a heavy and light attack for you to create combos from, with jump and heavy attack performing a wide-arcing launcher allowing you to continue your assault while airborne. Executing a heavy attack in mid-air will see 2B slam her sword heavily into the ground, while holding the button when stationary will charge up a short, brutal heavy combo. Of course, this being an action game, you’re going to need a dodge, and NieR Automata‘s might well be the best I’ve encountered in any action game, allowing you to not only nimbly evade enemy attacks but glide elegantly around the battlefield. It even has a touch of Bayonetta‘s witch time about it, with a perfectly timed dodge seeing 2B almost dissolving into thin air. It doesn’t slow down time, but it feels just as satisfying to pull off, and looks terribly flashy. But this isn’t just a straightforward action game, it’s a NieR game, and that means there’s going to be plenty of bullet hell sections, too. To aid you in this, you have a robotic pod that hovers above your head and sounds a lot like Mass Effect‘s Legion, effectively playing the part of Grimoire Weiss here and empowering you to shoot down enemy bullets. It’s definitely not anywhere near as charming as a floating magic book that sounds like Alan Rickman, though.
Reaching the end of the dungeon, there’s of course a massive boss to contend with, and even a touch of fighter jet/mecha action, and as you finally defeat the gargantuan construct, only to witness more of them rise from the depths of the ocean, it hits home just how much Automata feels like a perfect mix of Taro Yoko and Platinum; there was the worry that one would dilute the other, or both might only be able to operate at half strength, but it feels like everyone is firing on all cylinders and working together nicely. Though the demo is combat heavy – and as such we are yet to see the more expansive environments, genre-splicing madness and deeper RPG trappings you’d expect of a sequel to NieR – there’s a sense that you can feel the touches of everyone who has had their hands on this, whether it be the character action combat of Osaka’s finest, the perspective shifts and bullet hell sections that made NieR such an idiosyncratic gem, or the wonderful Akihiko Yoshida character designs and haunting soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe, this really is NieR x Platinum Games, and it seems like it’ll be everything I wanted, and everything that this particular collaboration promised. It’s almost as if it’s a game tailor-made for me: I can’t quite believe that the next great Platinum character action game is also going to be a NieR sequel. What a time to be alive.
Now there are only two things to wonder about. Firstly is how well Platinum have kept to the structure of the original, which drew a fair bit of inspiration from the Legend of Zelda franchise; as much as I love Platinum’s games, I don’t want a NieR game to be a series of discreet missions (although, now I think of it, I’d love to see them have a stab at Drakengard somewhere down the line, too!). It also remains to be seen just how much Automata will tie into the original game, with this one apparently set more than eight thousand years after the events of NieR, with humans having fled to the moon, the earth having been overrun by hostile robots, and taken to sending androids like 2B to the surface to reclaim the land. We already know that a few characters will be returning in some fashion, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get some kind of insight into the immediate aftermath of the first game, where the world was left in a pretty sorry state. But then, when has Yoko ever done the expected thing and given us a direct sequel? Only time will tell.
NieR Automata releases on March 10th 2017. You can see a playthrough of the demo below.