Friday, March 17, 2017

NieR: Automata - The Review!

It's the NieR review! Yea! I did it! After a shipping delay and lots of life obstacles, I still managed to overcome them to focus on playing Automata. So, how does this newest installment in the NieR catalog live up to it's predecessor? And how does it tie into Drakengard? Is everything still as weird and gut-wrenching emotional as we remember NieR to be?

Let's start off with the good, and I will do my best to keep spoilers to a minimum. Underground favorite NieR is a literal kick to the gut on the feelings, particularly towards the end of the game. You grow to care for the characters and the quest to save your daughter from a disease. It's not so grand as saving the world, but you trying to keep your kid alive is emotionally deep. When people say "this game will f you up" it will man. It will.

Automata is a well-rounded successor to the first game, improving upon mechanics that were sorely in need of attention, and providing more detailed plot points to give informative context to gamers. It's also a good stand alone piece. For those who never played NieR or Drakengard, you don't have to worry about getting lost in the plot. You can pick this up and play without worry that you are missing out on the nuances.

The story follows fem-fighting android 2B. It's the super, far into the future-AD and Earth is attacked by an alien race that utilizes machines to kill. To save the rest of humanity, the few hundred thousand that remain blast themselves off to Earth's moon and plan their next attack. Several years later, the android army under the name YoRHa is created, and are sent to Earth to act as the fighting force for humans. Their goal is to destroy the robots and end the alien invasion. Your initial mission is completed after fighting some big robots in an abandoned factory (if you have played the demo, you already know the first 40 minutes of the game). After which, you are sent back to Earth to help provide support to a human resistance group in an abandoned city. 2B is accompanied by another android 9S, who works as an information unit, to act as the "lore machine." He's the talkative companion that you don't have to babysit.

One of the best features of this game are the fighting mechanics. It's leaps and bounds better then what NieR originally offered. Platinum Games has refined their crazy kick-butt styles from Bayonetta and crafted the battles in Automata to be works of art. There is an effortless flow to the fighting style that it can be quite entrancing. The camera moves like butter. Even when cornered or at an awkward angle, the camera effortlessly moves to re-position itself without prompting you to be involved. You can still move the camera with the right thumb stick, but you don't need to. The game accounts for your character's movements and adjusted accordingly. What I enjoy the most is that you can play the battle in a manner that you see fit. If you want to hack, slash, and button mash, you can. If you want to plan out your fights to determine what combo of abilities will produce the most damage, you can. There are also auto-chip abilities that you can engage to help you fight when you are not sure what course of action to take. Sometimes having all of them active on can feel a bit cumbersome, particular when you want to change your target to another oncoming enemy, but as a whole it's a pretty solid system.

The landscape of the game is dynamic. It has it's own polish that I would argue is on the level of Horizon: Zero Dawn. It may not have the same visual power, but the images produced are just as breathtaking. The changes in colors help enhance the look as you advance to new areas. The YoRHa base morphs the hues to black, white, and grey - very robotic. The forest areas are rich in greens and golds while adding saturation to 2B's and 9S's outfits. If there is a complaint to be had about the visuals, it has nothing to do with the final product but the state of humanity itself: we really suck at future designs. Apparently in 5,000 AD we still use concrete and steel to build structures. Good job humans! Way to advance our race. No wonder aliens nearly wiped us out.

The story is pretty solid from beginning to end, and on additional playthroughs. And yes, you should play this game multiple times as the context changes in your "new game plus" mode. While it's not as emotionally satisfying as NieR, Automata does deliver on the promise that it will make you think. It will push your metaphysical comfort level by asking questions about what is real, what isn't, and do robots and androids have the right to feel? It reminds me a lot of the book 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' by Philip K. Dick. If that book sounds familiar, it's the basis for the plot in the movie 'Blade Runner.' Sadly, this is where I have to stop discussing the story, because if I type anymore, I'll give away the big plot. Sorry everyone!

Part of your task as you make your way through post-apocalyptic Earth, is powering up 2B with new skills. You have the ability to program 2B and her storage/ability Pod to fit your needs. The primary memory slot is required in all android units, but the rest of the chips can be interchanged as you see fit. If you don't want to see the XP bar, have a mini map, or see how much damage your attacks do, you can remove those features from your core. Is it worth it? Well that depends on how you like to play. By taking out a lot of the small pieces, you open up space to use some of the better chips for higher attack damage, better defense, etc. You can also create new challenges for yourself this way to make the game more difficult to play. It's easy to spend a lot of time in the menu, which can be overwhelming to flip through. But if you spend enough time fussing around, you'll find what you need.

To enhance the android experience, there is no auto-save in this game. Because how could an android auto-save? They can't. They need to hook themselves up to a computer to back up their data. If you need to save, you can only do so at designated terminals that look a lot like vending machines, and black box pods that help transport you to key areas around the map. You can also save when you are near these units. The vending machines also serve as a communication hub. When you hit the level 16-20 range and finish a main story quest, you'll eventually unlock the ability to transport between each vending unit. You should check it often for messages and new quests. As far as death is concerned, you can die in the game, but your consciousness is sent to another android body on the YoHRa ship. You'll lose all of your items in the process, because they are on your physical person. But your stuff will still be there should you want to retrieve it. Like Drakengard, you have one chance to pick up your stuff. If you die again, you lose it permanently. And another hitch: if you haven't been saving often enough, you may forget some of your memories and encounters with NPC's. So you'll have to replay conversations to get back up to speed. Realism!

By the way, this is an open world RPG. You know what that means? Fetch quests! So many fetch and escort quests. No RPG is immune to these unholy demons, but at least the options in Automata are not as cumbersome. Some of them have charming backstories and amusing dialogue to make it worth the effort. And some are downright annoying and require a lot of running, backtracking, and no fast transit.

There are also the random things one can do in NieR such as fishing, going to an amusement park, and hunting boars. If anyone played the original NieR, you know about the boars. You have to farm a lot of them for weapon upgrades. In Automata, they are a bit more tolerable, but still just as annoying to farm.

Since we're on the subject, what are the negatives to this game? My biggest gripe has to do with the natural progression of enemy levels to 2B. And when I say that, I mean the lack of progression. There is a major plot point in the game that you can achieve around level 12. Up to this point, the mobs are within a 2-4 level range of 2B's. After this quest, enemies in the area will take on a staggering difference of 8 to 37 levels. What makes it all the more frustrating is that you don't know what level these robots are until you are within attack range (it is possible there is a chip available that allows you to gauge enemies from afar, but I never found it). The same also applies to quests; the quests don't have a level marker. So you could accept something that's meant for a level 30 and not realize it, as I did on multiple occasions.

Because of this, the game becomes a long drudge on the quest to get XP. It's recommended that you over level as much as possibly before you dive into the main story quests (which are ALSO lacking a marker - really guys, is it that difficult to tag which quests are Main Story and which are Side?). Things get bigger, badder, and tougher to kill. Or in the case of Beginner Mode, they take a lot longer to pull offline until you are able to upgrade your weapons. Higher levels and knowing when to run from a battle will be your constant companions.

The cross-country race to finish quests is incredibly tiresome. You will be using your dash ability a lot to move around the world, as well as riding random animals that you bait for a bit of a speed boost. There needs to be more hubs around the world that allow you to save and teleport. Most of my game play is probably due to traveling and less on the story-line. Which...well it sucks. I came to NieR for the story. Not to spend 20 minutes running from the city to the desert for an escort quest back into the city. Fetch quests are fine, but when they turn into cumbersome tasks for XP grinds, it can sour the gaming experience.

I'm also a little disappointed that the story was easy to follow. Is that something fair to critique on? I'm struggling with this point and I know a lot of it has to do with my comparisons to NieR. That game turned into a mind-blowing "WTF is going on" situation. In Automata, the story presented is a bit more direct and not as mentally demanding. This isn't to say that the story is weak; it's probably one of the more in-depth plots we'll see in games this year. Automata will throw some insightful philosophical questions your way. But it feels like it's missing the punch that NieR originally had. Automata is still a great story to play through and I recommend it, but it's predecessor wins this round. And again I wish I could give more detail, but spoilers!

Overall, NieR: Automata is worth a play. If you are a fan of the first game, then you are already know. If you're not, try out the demo. Get a feel for the layout. If you enjoy those 40 minutes and want more, then you are good to go. The demo gives a great overview of what to expect.

Quick tips to help out those who want to jump right in:

- Kill everything in your path if you can.
- Overlevel and you will be grateful for it down the line.
- It's okay to run away from a fight. Sometimes it's safer then to die and having to spend an hour trying to reclaim your items.
- Pick up everything that you see. Those orange circles of light on the ground are items from enemies and found throughout the world, with the potential for rare items, weapons, and Pod upgrades.
- Fish. Really, go fish! You can make some decent credits early on.
- When you first arrive on the YoHRa ship, take a few minutes to look over the menu. You'll need to get familiar with it as it becomes a life-line later on in the game.

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