Didn't play the first Nier? Don't worry, nor did I. And whether you did or not doesn't matter whatsoever when it comes to approaching the 2010 action role-player's sequel, currently in development by Osaka's PlatinumGames, published by Square Enix, for a 2017 release: this is a new game for a new console generation, set in a world that's moved on since the events of its predecessor. No previous experience is required, with nods to anything that's come before kept subtle, and, says producer Yosuke Saito, who also worked on Nier, making only a minimal impression on the new title's core story.
The Earth, now a blasted, wasted place, is devoid of humanity following a sudden invasion of alien machines. What's left of mankind has taken refuge on the Moon, and the "you" of proceedings is 2B, a battle android from sent down from our only permanent natural satellite to take back what was ours – not that it looks like much, these days. Cities are broken, reduced to shells, and occasional outposts of friendly – well, not immediately hostile – robotic humanoids are the only signs of "life". They're no havens, though, and can be attacked, without warning, by the game's dome-topped antagonists. Beyond what were once bustling settlements, the land is raw, with great swathes of desert filling the screen. The dunes may seem calm, but they hide horrors: in the preview footage I see at Gamescom, a gigantic mechanical foe rises from beneath the surface to interrupt 2B's crossing of the sands.
She's not alone though – while Nier: Automata is predominantly (and I'll get to that caveat in a minute) a single-player game, the dual-weapon-wielding 2B is accompanied by two more battle-ready androids, 9S and A2, all of whom are part of the YoRHa Squad. She looks completely ready to kick all manner of robotic backside, switching between an arsenal of twin blades – one Buster Sword-style massive, the other a more nimble weapon – and spiked gloves paired with a serrated blade, which is incredibly useful for downward smashes from above. The smaller option is mapped to the light attack button, the bigger to heavy, and combined with an essential dodge function, which can be used in collaboration with jump to zip over the heads of enemies, you've the makings of quintessential Platinum combo-craft.
But looks are just that. I get to (unexpectedly, since the pre-attendance rhetoric is strictly "hands off") play the game, too – or, at least, a timed score attack exercise, pitting 2B against waves of alien nasties, appearing in increasingly deadly guises. Initially they're useless drones to be smashed apart; then they begin to spin melee weapons in earnest, before firing projectiles and, finally, taking to the air to rain down fiery pain on the high-heeled but fleet-footed star of this show. This is a for-test-purposes-only trial, but I come away from it wanting to do it over, and over, to get that score higher and higher. The fluidity of 2B's movement is akin to that of Bayonetta's, and while there's no "Witch Time" mechanic here, using 2B's own projectiles – blasts from a floating robotic pod (which can also be grabbed for prolonged elevation), in place of the first game's book – will nullify incoming shots.
Here-for-the-story purists currently sweating over the combat challenges ahead, fret not. Saito is quick to tell me that Nier: Automata, despite Platinum's action pedigree, won't be as demanding as titles like Bayonetta and Vanquish when it comes to overcoming opponents in battle.
'Nier: Automata', boss battle gameplay, from E3 2016
"They've not made it too difficult, and it's been that way from the start of development," he says. "Previous fans of Nier, who just want to follow this new story, might not be too familiar with action games. So, we've accommodated that. There will be a mode in the game that makes it better for them. It's something that goes beyond a basic 'easy' mode. I can't tell you more about it right now, but we'll make an announcement soon."
Each (perspective-changing, switching from third-person to side-on and top-down, depending on the situation) part of Nier: Automata's world is connected, meaning that 2B can walk, if you want her to, from one side of a yet-unspecified-of-size map to the other, seamlessly. Due to the scale of the environments, however, vehicles will be available in the final game. So, too, will be very clear markers, indicating where to head next to continue the story. "We're not looking to confuse anyone," says Saito, adding that while the demo I'm seeing doesn't feature a HUD, the end product will have a mini-map on screen, guaranteeing easy navigation. Within these vast areas there will be secrets and "hidden elements", "but that's not the main focus" Saito stresses, keen that the game doesn't include too many distractions from its central quest.
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Unlike other action RPGs like The Witcher 3 and Dark Souls, the character you control is not particularly customisable. 2B's weapon load-outs can be edited, always comprising two sets of two arms, and she'll level up throughout the game; but her looks remain set from beginning to end, barring the occasional tattiness of clothing if a battle goes right to the wire. "There's a reason why these characters look the way they do," says Saito. "And the same is true, too, of how the alien machines have adopted human-style clothing as their own. We can't tell you why just yet, though." The behemoth that rises from the desert is sporting a tattered shawl, not unlike like the one seen on Megatron in Michael Bay's third Transformers movie, while the boss seen in the E3 trailer wears a skirt and cape.
The action element of Nier: Automata appears to be in place, then. "Because we have Platinum working on the game, that side of it has achieved a really high quality," says Saito – and even based on three minutes of play, I'm inclined to agree with him. "Currently, we're in the middle of integrating the story, and more RPG elements," the producer continues, as returning composer Keiichi Okabe sits beside him, nodding. (I can offer no comment on the game's music, as it stands, on account of not being able to hear it over the din of Gamescom; but Okabe does confirm that the soundtrack will feature one song with English vocals.)
"We'll have more information for everyone, in the autumn," Saito states, before teasing something unexpected: "The team is working on, well, what's not quite standard 'multiplayer' aspects, but a way to connect players together." That categorically won't be a second player taking control of the supporting 9S, but it could mean online leaderboards for sections like the one I get to play, challenges that do chime rather more traditionally with Platinum's action-orientated oeuvre. All I know for sure, right now, is that even without sampling a second of Nier beyond YouTube videos, I'm really excited to see where Square and Platinum take this game. It needs to break out of the cult-appeal ghetto of its forerunner, but what I see, and play, in Germany suggests that it has every chance.
Find more information on Nier: Automata at the PlatinumGames website.