Let's finish 2016's previews with a strong'un, eh?
Nier Automata is some seriously exciting stuff. It has a demo out today, though I was lucky enough to go and play that chunk of the game at Square Enix's offices a couple of weeks ago. With the demo out I can finally talk about it and, uh, wow. Wow.
We're not even out of 2016 yet, but Nier Automata could easily be a contender for game of the year next year. The hour or so I played was absolutely fantastic.
To talk about why that is, it's probably best to hop back in time a little to 2010. Developed by now defunct Japanese developer Cavia and published by Square Enix, the original Nier was a weird game. It was eclectic; it tried to do a lot of different things at once but ultimately was outstanding at none of them - and yet the game had a heart and a sense of fun and adventure that was hard to beat, plus an incredible soundtrack. I scored it 6/10 thanks to its struggle to be mechanically competent, but at the same time it was one of my favourite games of the year. Basically, its heart was firmly in the right place - in large part thanks to visionary director Taro Yoko.
Thanks to the reception of the first one Nier Automata was a game I never expected to be made, but I couldn't be happier that it's happening. This time around Square Enix has partnered with ever-reliable action game developer Platinum Games but left Yoko in charge at the top from within Square Enix. This is an incredibly smart decision.
While I know Platinum tends to provoke an extreme love or hate relationship with people, one thing that can't be denied is that Platinum make mechanically tight games. Bayonetta, Wonderful 101, even the licensed stuff like Transformers - these are all extremely well-made games from a gameplay nuts-and-bolts perspective. That's what you get with Nier Automata. It's fun to play, snappy and slick, running at a rock solid 60fps on a regular PS4 (albeit taking a sub-1080p cut to resolution to do so).
The original Nier was actually sort of difficult to classify genre-wise, but Automata is more firmly and obviously an action RPG. The action side plays out exactly as you'd expect for something from Platinum - with slick action-based combat. The core of combat is down to dodging, countering and launching enemies into the air for cool-looking air combos, but equally as important and hidden behind a few full-on RPG menus are some interesting weapon mechanics that mix things up.
The core of combat is down to dodging, countering and launching enemies into the air for cool-looking air combos, but equally as important and hidden behind a few full-on RPG menus are some interesting weapon mechanics that mix things up.
"We are Square Enix!" Automata producer Yosuke Saito joked to me back at Gamescom when I asked if the game would be pure Platinum action or feature true RPG depth - and the demo backs up his grinning answer. The biggest RPG twist on the action comes with the gear you can deck out your character with. Essentially there are two weapon types - light and heavy. The weapon types aren't determined by the weapons themselves but rather the slot they're equipped in.
What this means is that every single weapon in the game has both a light and heavy set of properties and animations and your character always has a light and heavy option equipped at once. The katana I start the demo with acts completely differently depending on if I equip it in the light slot (used with Square) or the heavy slot (used with Triangle). You can set up multiple decks of weapons and flick between them - so you might find that a weapon with long reach works best as your heavy attack, but then if you need to switch to a setup where it's your light attack instead you can do so with just a few on-the-fly button presses.
At some point Yoko decided he wanted to make a bullet hell game too, and so the result of that is the little robot drone buddy that follows you around. One of the shoulder buttons allows it to fire bullets (which again can be augmented and switched out with gear in the menus) and you can shoot as well as get in the enemy's face. The counter mechanic is activated with a well-timed tap of the button, with Automata's robotic enemies having eyes or limbs flash red to give you a helping indicator of the exact timing window. Hold the dodge button, however, and you'll dash along the ground in an elegant slide.
Nothing feels more amazing than sliding around a sea of projectiles bullet-hell style to reach the enemy firing them.
Nothing feels more amazing than sliding around a sea of projectiles bullet-hell style to reach the enemy firing them. Sometimes the game will dynamically switch perspective on the fly to emphasize a particular gameplay style. Occasionally it'll pull back to top-down and surround you with projectile-shooting enemies to encourage bullet-dodging. Other times it'll take on the side-on perspective of a 2D brawler before slipping back to a regular 3rd person action camera. The fixed perspectives are often used to hide collectibles or entrances to optional and secret areas - it's super cool stuff.
My one criticism of the demo was that the camera got a little dicey and frustrating in some third person action spots, but while that was an issue one also has to note that the dynamic perspective transitions are incredibly well done.
Beyond weapons and your drone there's also a full-on RPG ability system that offers everything from bonus skills down to assist mechanics such as lock-on, and even the ability to remove a piece of equipment the main character needs to keep wearing to continue living. I'll let you ponder what happens when you do that.
All of the tone that made the mechanically mediocre Nier special is present here, except it’s attached at last to a much more competent game.
Unlike the original Nier, all of these eclectic ideas are implemented much more strongly. Platinum really knows how to crank out a quality, polished game and it appears to be doing that here. It looks great, it runs like greased lightning, and the combat loop has an incredibly satisfying ebb and flow to it. The excellent music is back too, of course. But then, lurking - there's Yoko.
His presence is important, as it's this that gives Nier Automata its heart. There's a thread of intense passion that seems to bubble beneath the game's surface, like Yoko himself didn't expect to be allowed to make this game and is giving it his all. I'd toss him into the same category where I'd place the likes of Hideo Kojima, Goichi "Suda51" Suda and Hidetaka "Swery65" Suehiro - Japanese game directors with visions that they are gleefully happy to let run amok and get weird. All of the tone that made the mechanically mediocre Nier special is present here, except it's attached at last to a much more competent game. That makes me stupidly excited.
When I reach the end of the demo and the boss encounter ramps up from normal video game, into a little bit silly, into full-on 'this is ridiculous' laughing-out-loud territory, I realize that even with well-built systems this is what makes Nier special. As I repeatedly slap a gigantic robot about its face with its own torn-off arm I'm slack-jawed: this is stupid. This is brilliant. I love it.
It feels fitting, then, to close out my 2016 with a preview for a game that looks like it has all the makings of one of my favourite games of 2017. Don't just take my word for it, though: Go download the demo. It's out on PS4 now. The game is out in March for PS4, and is set to come to PC a little later on. I'm pumped. Roll on 2017.