Working a full-time job and being a lover of video games means being left behind, often a year removed from the popular games discourse.
For the games hobbyist with poor time management skills and acute anti-capitalist tendencies, the nine to five is an infuriating and tiring exercise in looking on as brilliant games fly past. Ten-out-of-tens and innumerable games of the year—because there can be more than one of those per year; do keep up—arrive and are gone, lost to the void all in the time it takes to pick up a phone and say ‘Good afternoon. How may I help you today?’
Us hobbyists can only hope to look back and pick out the more notable titles. Putting such a game in our library means that we will get around to it at some point, we mutter to ourselves, scrolling past a list of games consigned to stagnation by those very words. We will get around to those, too.
And so it was that, eking out a few hours between work, travel and the time spent dreading work, I was able to grapple with Nier: Automata. And it is the best RPG I have ever played.A hack-and-slash bullet-hell shoot-em-up steeped in post-automation unease only begins to describe the depth of Nier’s core mechanics and its story. In it you play as 2B, an Android sent to a desolate and arid Earth of the future to make it habitable for humanity. This of course means killing Earth’s current inhabitants, the machines. You will have killed dozens upon dozens of machines before even being properly introduced to 2B, as heavy resistance is encountered en route to the drop zone. The central theme of android versus machine, the line between the two and at what point a being can be said to have humanity, is one that is raised early and explored extensively. Think of The Talos Principle, but more stabby. Even with the assertion that the machines are unthinking and unfeeling carbuncles of cogs and gears, no kill in Nier ever really feels good, because it’s not supposed to.
Which isn’t to say that Nier’s gameplay is anything short of a delight. Single elements can and should be praised, but it’s the seamlessness with which they are all tied together which truly astounds. The precise hack-and-slash elements allow the player to delight in flourishes that dismantle groups of enemies, while a more methodical approach is also rewarded with the accompanying shooter ‘pod’, a small floating droid with the ability to pick off enemies at a distance. There is a high variety of weaponry accumulated throughout the game, and the player can wield two of them at any one time, one bound to a light attack and the other to heavy. All of this, combined with the fluid controls allowing the player to evade enemy blows and counter with either a flurry attack or a ranged blast, makes combat a joy, rivalling the near-ubiquitous Arkham system. Like Arkham, Nier’s combat is free-flowing and instinctive, but it has more complexity due to a wider range of options.
Nier also takes the fight to the skies in mechanised flight suits. And even when the field of play is restricted, the combat feels just as free with the same options to evade bullets and swipe in with a melee attack, or to keep your distance and chip away at the enemy. It’s all so satisfying, hitting that sweet spot of challenge without frustration.Add to that a genuinely smart progression system, with levelling eschewed in favour of bonuses in the form of plug-ins. These are chips which can bolster a range of skills and properties including attack, defence, movement speed and evasion range. Each plug-in has a specific memory value, and you have a maximum memory level. Care must be taken to prioritise which plug-ins to carry. You could favour a tanky, more regenerative build and compete with wars of attrition, or you could go attack-heavy and aim to take down your enemies before they have time to notice. You also have more fundamental plug-ins, such as chips controlling UI elements like health and experience gauges, and even one which will kill you if removed. There’s a huge amount of choice, and the option to save various sets of plug-ins and swap between them at will.
But none of this touches upon Nier’s ace-in-the-sleeve, which is when it finishes. That’s not a lame game journo ‘har har I loved when the game ended’ joke, of which I have almost certainly been guilty. Nier’s legitimate strength is when it stops. And stops. And stops.
Whenever you see the credits roll, you better believe Nier still has more to offer.
In what you might call a hugely enhanced version of New Game Plus, Nier has a few endings which can only be reached by playing through endings previous. You will keep your levels, skills and weapons, and the setting remains the same, but aside from this all bets are off. New characters are introduced and new stories told. The true Nier experience involves playing through it five times, which is nothing like the ordeal it first appears.As a method of story-telling, as a method of contextualising your progression, and as a method of subverting the norms of game design, Nier’s multiple endings are unrivalled in their boldness and surety of execution. Even if you are aware of their existence because of, for argument’s sake, a review that got ahead of itself, the delights are every bit as welcome as they are unexpected.
But even the brightest diamond must have its impurities, which you can find in my book ‘101 metaphors to make jewellers wince’. And so it is with Nier. Specifically, with its questionable PC port that is cumbersome to say the least. It will amble along playably but not smoothly, and will occasionally crash completely.
The technological unease woven into the game’s storyline becomes even more troubling when mixed with the shoddiness of the port. At one point a monolithic structure announced that it is starting up its defensive operations, to be quickly followed by my PC crashing and needing a hard reboot. I half expected to turn around and see an android plunging a katana into the GPU.Even with the extensive fan-made optimisation fixes, there were still random stutters as Nier struggled to load its surroundings, with some cutscenes dropping to sub-thirty frames per second seemingly at random. Enough to be noticeable, but ultimately not enough to detract from the experience.
In a year which many claimed to be a landmark for video games, Nier stands out as a particular highlight. And do come back in a few year’s time, when I’ll tell you how good Breath of the Wild is.