Nier: Automata Hands-On Preview
The original Nier from the last console generation was released to a mixed reception – many would have looked no further than the average review scores and the disappointing graphics and given the whole affair a miss. As a busy/lazy uni student, that was certainly the case with me. However, Nier did attract a cult following, as those who did play the game found a rich narrative and a unique gameplay style that combined elements of RPG and fast-paced action. The Drakengard spin-off now finally has a proper sequel on the way, care of PlatinumGames, and Square-Enix allowed me to play through the initial hours of the game, and from what I played, Nier has certainly peaked my interest enough to become engaged in the series.
I wasn’t sure what to expect heading into Nier: Automata, but one thing I can say I wasn’t prepared for was gameplay that mashed character action, RPGs and bullet hell all into the same game. Many enemies you encounter will fire big, coloured energy shots at you, in exactly the same way as games like DoDonPachi or Ikaruga. Half the time you’ll be dodging shots and looking for gaps to advance towards the enemy, while continuously firing with your robot-mounted machine gun (a floating, constant companion to your character). 2B, the protagonist, is also equipped with a sword for melee combat. Using visual cues like the ‘gleam’ in enemies’ eyes to perfectly time a dodge results in a combo counterattack that lifts you into the air, and is vital for taking down enemies quickly – making it feel more than a little like PlatinumGames’ title Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
It’s an exciting mix of shooting and melee action, and once you wrap your head around the mechanics of the game – and playing it like a bullet hell shooter, even if you’re running around – you soon learn how to breeze through enemy encounters. While dodging fire, you’re still able to shoot down several energy shots, and keep pressure on the enemies with your gun, before eventually closing in to deal real damage with melee. Whittling down a boss’ health constantly with your gun is also a pretty vital tactic, rather than simply waiting for opening in their attack patterns. You’re also equipped with a power-up special attack, which is on a cooldown timer, assigned to the L1 trigger on PS4.
Nier: Automata certainly benefits from a massive graphical upgrade this time around, as the visual design and direction is immediately impressive. 2B, while herself a YoRHa-type android, is on a mission to defeat machines on a post-apocalyptic Earth, which range from small, cute trashcan-type robots, to gigantic Transformer-style monstrosities. An early boss literally takes the form of a shipping yard, with cranes and platforms all assimilated into a hulking behemoth which must be fought on multiple levels. 2B herself, along with her android cohorts, also has an interesting design. The blindfolds she and YoRHa must wear (although I assume it’s really a kind of high-tech visor) make for a unique and bold look, even if her inexplicably short and flowing skirt makes no sense in-universe and exists only for fan service.
While the game begins with a linear mission that tunnels you towards enemies and your first boss encounter, it is an RPG at heart and opens up once you reach the first main area of the game, a ruined city inhabited by a small resistance group, holding out against the machines. Here, you get an idea of the kinds of side quests and missions that are available alongside the main story, as shops in the resistance settlement ask you to head out into the ruins to collect various bits of loot, in order to get back up and running. Of course, like most RPGs you’ll find a weapons seller and more pressingly for new players, an item merchant who can dole out the vital healing items. There are also glimpses of strange side activities, including a ‘fishing’ prompt which came up when I ran past a lake – where you send your floating robot sidekick into the water to bring back fish. Maybe 2B is the girl Noctis should have been holding out for.
Rather than use an autosave function, as most modern games have adopted, Nier: Automata returns to the classic RPG trope of hunting down save spots in the world and relying on visiting them regularly. It doesn’t mess about either – for the game’s entire opening 30-40 minutes, there are literally no save points. If you die – the game basically says, “Tough luck, now do it again until you’re good enough to reach the actual game.” It’s a kick in the pants if you’re reliant on the safety net that autosave has provided for years now, but as long as you’re aware of this fact you can make sure you ration health items and treat combat situations more cautiously than you might otherwise.
While I only saw a fraction of the Nier: Automata‘s entire experience, what I did see genuinely enthused me for the final game. The game’s director, Taro Yoko, is notoriously secretive (to the extent that I’m sure we’re all familiar with his moon-shaped mask he wears for public events), but that has lent Nier: Automata the element of surprise. The variety of its gameplay, along with its mysterious story, impressive visuals and cool design should certainly all be enough to catch the attention of most players interested in action-RPGs, or just adventure games in general. Nier: Automata is out in Australia on 10 March, 2017 on PlayStation 4.