Nier: Automata feels like a game born from a dream, one that was never expected to burst into existence. And yet, here we are. A co-production between action developers Platinum Games and game director Taro Yoko, and published by Square Enix, the action-role-player has become one of the most-anticipated new games of early 2017. This is thanks—in no small part—to a hype-able demo put out just before Christmas 2016.
That demo—a single mission served in a vertical slice, with a surprisingly dramatic conclusion—gave players a taste of what to expect from the full game when it arrives for PlayStation 4 and PC in late February (in Japan, with a Western release following in March). Bayonetta-adjunct close-quarters combat is mixed with sections that vary from a behind-the-character shoot 'em up style to 16-bit-evocative side-on platforming sequences.
When the fighting's done, there's exploration, secrets to uncover, and many quest lines to follow in the battle against an Earth-invading robotic force that's sent humanity retreating to the Moon. There's plenty of RPG DNA here, with a story spread out across a massive world map, and the usual levelling up, stat-perks and item shopping you expect from the genre.
There's a little bullet-hell-ness, too, about proceedings, when the main controllable character, the nimble android "2B", is surrounded by enemies raining down projectiles, forcing you to go on the offense with swords, hammers, feet and fists, while also skillfully dodging health-bruising blasts.
It's a game of many alluring dimensions, then. And a really different project from 2010's Nier. That was a role-player with a big but empty world and unsatisfying combat, which unfortunately stood in the way of a fantastic story, told with a quiet and melancholic tone. Get past its technical problems, and Nier could palpably pull at the heartstrings.
All Nier: Automata screenshots courtesy of Square Enix.
But that was then. Now, I'm sat with Yoko, Nier: Automata's producer Yosuke Saito—who also produced the 2010 title—and the can't-get-a-word-in-edgeways designer Takahisa Taura, at Square Enix's London office. The three are laid back, relaxed, confident that what they've made is going to be a success. Not that they always felt that way.
"Taro is a little eccentric, and Platinum are a bunch of really hardcore craftsmen," says Saito. "So, initially, we thought we'd have some trouble bringing their different styles of work together. But, in the end, we've got this strange little game."
There's nothing really little about Nier: Automata, though, both in terms of in-game scale and spectacle and its importance to Platinum as a tentpole production for 2017, especially now that their Microsoft collaboration Scalebound has been canned. There's a lot riding on this game, for all involved. But, based on a preview session stretching well beyond the confines of the demo—all the way to boss battles in parts of the world that important pieces of Square Enix paper tell us we can't reveal to you—the strangeness has paid off.
"It's definitely a weirder, more eccentric final product that we expected." — 'Nier: Automata' director Taro Yoko
"It's definitely a weirder, more eccentric final product that we expected," says Yoko. But that eccentricity, the gameplay transitions that happen across any given stage, isn't unprecedented. Nier did likewise, with 3D dungeons morphing into isometric environments, and the game even becoming something of a text adventure at one juncture. Automata is following its predecessor's lead, and getting wilder—which is where the bullet hell comes into play.
"People think that we've put shooting into an RPG," says Yoko. "But we developed the [sides of the game] alongside each other. I wanted to make a shooting game, but Square wouldn't give me any money for that. So, we had to put RPG elements into the game, to appease them." He chuckles, exposing his likely exaggeration of the situation. But while a pinch of salt is sometimes necessary with Yoko's account of Automata's development, there's no doubt that he got seriously into bullet-hell shooters while making the new game. "I studied CAVE's shooters, on YouTube," he reveals. "I looked at how fast they moved, how many bullets were in screen, and how many frames they appeared in. We worked really hard to copy, basically, the way those games feel."
There are other differences between Nier: Automata and its predecessor. While Automata is indeed set in the far future—"Around the year 12,000 or so," says Yoko—it's very much a part of the same universe as Nier and, by extension, the Drakengard series, as the 2010 RPG was a spin-off from one of the four possible endings of 2003's original Drakengard. So there are some more futuristic elements. Nier was a very human tale, with its titular character either a middle-aged father or teenage boy depending on what version you played (the former came to the West, the latter was available in Japan), Automata casts the player as a human-looking, but very mechanical protagonist. (Or some of them, as Saito teases: "You might be able to control other characters, aside from 2B and [her assistant] 9S.")
And such advanced years present the opportunity to include technology that would have been incredibly out of place in the first Nier—technology like enormous, transforming mechs.
"The dude that designed those wasn't even a mecha designer," says Yoko. He continues, jovially: "He's actually a UI designer. But he just loves mechs, so we let him sit down and do it. He worked so hard he made himself ill—but he had the biggest grin on his face the entire time." He playfully adds that the designer "begged" to work on the model, clearly eager to make the sleek, transforming robot we were introduced to in the late-2016 demo.
Anyone looking forward to toy mechs off the back of Automata's release, though, don't hold your breath. "It'd be pretty hard to make, as even the animators found the in-game model complex to manipulate," Yoko laughs. "But if anyone could make it, I think that designer would die of happiness."
The futuristic elements are also apparent in character design, specifically with 2B, who was inspired by the game's time period. But her improbably pert, backside-revealing design may prove divisive, not to mention the "fan-service" elements, like up-skirt camera angles.
"I like girls, first of all, you have to remember that," Yoko states when asked about 2B's looks—and one only needs to look back at his Drakengard 3 characters, Zero and her five sisters, to confirm that aesthetic preference, for better or worse. (Yoko has spoken out against criticism of 2B's design in the past, requesting zip files of "rude drawings" based on his creation.) "But also, as a minor title, we need to have our own flair, and individuality. Compared to Western developers, we wouldn't be able to do designs like the gruff space marine. We just wouldn't do it half as well. Additionally, setting the game in the future lets us free to create what we want, and create a very unique character." "But, marketing!" is something we hear a fair amount when it comes to sexualized women characters in games. We'll reserve judgment for the game's final release.
"For me, the emotional journey is very important in an open-world game." — Taro Yoko
It's not uncommon for open-world games to struggle with balancing serious elements of their stories with more jovial, side-mission distractions—even the greats, like The Witcher 3, present a certain disconnect when the main character can go gallivanting around pursuing trivial errands when entire realms are at stake. This January's Yakuza 0 finds something of a sweet spot between the grave and the giggly. So while Automata's makers want to create an emotional story, there are elements that straddle that line.
However, they wanted to make sure the jokes never arrived too soon after something intended to be affecting. So, in specific story points, the game can play things deadly seriously.
"For me, the emotional journey is very important in an open-world game," says Yoko. "We have to pay attention to that in the construction of the game. You don't want a gag after an emotional point in the story. For example, if the main character's girlfriend just died, you don't want a gag straight after that, like, 'Woo, I got a shopping discount!' So, how we avoid that is through what we call a 'Serious Mode'. This is a state of the game code that tells the program that this part is serious, and all the jokey content can't come up until afterwards, by which point the mode is removed."
Taro Yoko's games have often gone to unexpected places, narratively. He's been unafraid to tackle subjects uncommon in video games in previous projects, such as the intersexuality of Kaine in the original Nier and the societal ostracizing along with it, and Drakengard 3's mix of black comedy beside its sexualized conversations and bloody action. He's talked at length about the philosophy behind the latter title's violence, and his own failure to find a meaningful reason for the killing in his games. But also, he sees in-game violence and hardships as being reflective of real-world events, or at least conceived with that parallel in mind.
"Nier: Automata is set in a harsh, unfair and illogical world. I feel that's a critique of what's going on in the real world, with characters seeing these illogical aspects in what's going on around them. The game has parallels with the real world, and there's a universal theme at play. I'm not asking about how the world should be, or questioning what is or isn't right; but I am commenting on how people live their lives under awful circumstances."
But through all the futurism, there is one aspect of the Automata preview I can tell you about: a fishing mini-game involving 2B's small, floating robotic companion (who doubles up as a ranged weapon in combat, and can be petted by rubbing the DualShock 4's touch pad). The first game had one, too, but it stank. "This time, we could have half-arsed it, and it still would have been better than the first game's," Yoko explains. But if people hated the first one, why come back for more?
"Taro-san's amazing story has some real emotional turmoil to it." – 'Nier: Automata' producer Yosuke Saito
"It's interesting, because while people didn't like it, we'd always get asked about it," Saito comments. "So, it's back again."
Fishing is so far from the most interesting part of what I play, over two hours and more. There's a resistance base to find, other areas beyond a shattered city to pick around, and humans who refuse to leave Earth to help however you can. There are mysterious things happening to some of the robot invaders, who aren't always eager to beat 2B to a pulp. "Taro-san's amazing story has some real emotional turmoil to it," says Saito, and I can feel the beginning of that in what I play. As I turn to leave, Yoko has one final message: "If you guys in the media keep in cahoots with us, hopefully we can trick the general public into thinking that Nier is good!" Truth be told, I don't think we'll need to be doing that. 'Nier: Automata' is released for PlayStation 4 on February 23rd in Japan (US release March 7th; UK release March 10th). Follow Sayem on Twitter.