Nier Automata is a ps4 console exclusive by a once revered developer in crisis whose previous two games were one of the worst reviewed in history and a game that almost single-handedly ruined a beloved Nintendo franchise.

Published by a company who has been more known lately for unrealistic sales goals and bloated development budgets than for the good games they’ve been releasing there were few reasons to expect it to be a success. But it was a success. The game has sold over 2 million copies and received near universal praise from players and critics alike. So.. why? Why was Nier Automata such a resounding success? Well that ends up being a lesson on scope, depth, having a focused vision and knowing what’s important and what isn’t.

Nier Automata is a difficult game to analyze. It comes from a developer who has made a few great games and a pile of games that range in quality from mediocre to embarrassing. It’s an open world RPG with an extremely small map filled with pop in and low quality textures but exceptionally strong art direction and animations produce some of the best screen shots this side of Horizon Zero Dawn. The vast majority of NPC dialogue is text based and the English voice acting is often stilted, simple and direct but the cumulative effect of what the NPC’s are saying ends up having a shocking amount of depth when it’s all said and done. There aren’t all that many enemy types in the game but the combat is exceptional, finely tuned and offers a surprising amount of depth with gorgeous animations that keep the whole thing going. Finally the main story of the game isn’t anything special but that doesn’t really matter because the story ends up not really being the story at all.

Nier Automata has an awful lot going on so the only way I’ll be able to keep this from rambling is to narrow my focus. We’re going to examine how Nier does less with more when it comes to fidelity, map size, quest design and combat density. We’re going to take a look at what the moment to moment Nier experience is and how the movement system and animations make the game enjoyable whether you’re fighting or simply traversing the map like an android trapeze artist. And finally we’ll examine how Nier crafts a story about identity, existentialism and empathy then does something exceedingly rare by having it’s mechanics actually reinforce it’s message and themes. But first, as always, lets get the brief history out of the way.

Platinum Games

Hoo boy where to begin with Platinum games. Are they the beloved and

Amazing game.

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trusted developer of Bayonetta and Vanquish? Or are they the terrible awful licensed game hacks who produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a near universally lampooned Star Fox game.

Platinum was started in 2009 by 3 developers who had worked at Clover, a studio who worked on some of Capcom’s best games including Resident Evil and Devil May Cry. Capcom eventually ….

Wait. You know what? This is far too complicated to get into here. Let’s just leave it at this...Platinum created one of the most beloved games of the last generation consoles in Bayonetta and one of the best 3rd person action

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Amazing game.

shooters ever in Vanquish but also Star Fox Zero and Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles and when it’s all said and done what it really boils down to is Platinum’s games have never sold all that well. In fact they’ve often sold so poorly that the Studio has been teetering on the edge of collapse for years now. It’s entirely possible that if Nier Automata had failed commercially I’d be making a video about the death of the studio and lamenting the fact we’ll never get another Vanquish or Bayonetta.

One Of the Worst Reviewd Games ever!

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But Nier didn’t fail. In a year that was positively crowded with huge 3rd party releases and a seemingly never ending stream of must have exclusives (except at Microsoft) Nier still managed to sell more than 2 million copies.

Nier Does World and Quest Design Right

Nier is an open world action RPG. It’s obviously quite a bit more than that but at it’s core anybody who has played an Assassins Creed game or a GTA game will immediately be familiar with much of what Nier does. It has an open world map broken up into a few visually distinct zones. There are several hub areas where merchants and side quests are, there’s an XP bar that fills until the words “Level Up!” flash prettily on the screen. And if that’s all Nier was? Well it would have been an embarrassing failure because the truth is Nier’s open world game is almost last generation in it’s size, it’s voice acting (I was using the localized English voices), and it’s textures and resolution. Draw distance is shockingly low for this late in the current generation, there is near constant distracting pop in and assets are reused frequently. There’s nothing here that isn’t done better in whatever open world Ubisoft game you want to grab off the shelf.

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But Nier doesn’t rely on any of those things. And the game remains surprisingly beautiful because Nier seems to have paid most of it’s attention to what players will actually be looking at the most.

Nier takes is lower resolutions and textures and hides it behind arresting character design.

This doesn’t happen by accident. Every creative act is tension between time, resources and ambition. And it’s clear that Platinum focused their resources and energies on perfecting the most important parts of the game and then got the other things to good enough. Big AAA developers are often done in by their ambition and lack of focus. Earlier this year Mass Effect Andromeda was a perfect storm of ambition exceeding Bioware Montreal’s reach. The game was gorgeous and there were 7 planets to explore but huge resources were dumped into creating those systems for a MASS EFFECT game that released with a cringe worthy story. Andromeda’s combat was surprisingly fun, easily the best in the series but having meme worthy animations, terrible lip syncing, and cringe worthy writing in a title that has you spending hours in dialogue trees is game killing. A game needs to know what it’s most important aspect is. Nobody ever played a Mass Effect game mainly for the combat. People played Mass Effect games for dialogue, characters and story. Combat and environmental fidelity should have been lower priorities than dialogue, character development, facial animations and story writing.

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The last open world action game I played was Assassins Creed Oranges and at first glance the underlying designs are very similar. Both are open world action games with a strong emphasis on narrative. In my analysis of that game I based almost all of my critique around the fact that AC Origins took a huge budget and spread it everywhere without ever deciding what was actually important. Amazing fidelity but average art design, a huge world that was ultimately empty and boring, a high resolution player avatar with stilted animations and of course tons of voiced dialogue about a story I can barely remember 2 weeks later. Looking back I can’t even remember if AC Origins had any music outside the title screen. I’m sure it did but I can’t recall any of it.

The Map in Assassins Creed Origins is just ridiculously big. But the design needs to compromise to make a map so large.

Nier doesn’t make these mistakes. It isn’t a huge game spread too thin. It’s small and tight and focused and it makes sure that the important things are polished. It’s environments are small and low resolution but art design ranges from fantastic to stunning. It’s character models are a bit hazy with faces that look kind of washed out but, again, the actual character design is arresting, unique and memorable. The animations are fluid and beautiful making the game a joy to play at all times.

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Nier also has very similar quest design to Assassins Creed Origins, or really any modern open world game. The basic quest has an NPC asking you to help him/her/(it?) with some mundane task. Find a few items. Kill a bunch of enemies and get a thing. Bring that thing to some other NPC. Hell it even has two escort quests. Nothing new here. But Nier manages to make these tasks compelling because you are always IN the world. And Nier’s entire world feels just slightly off, just disturbing enough that the player never feels comfortable carving through legions of machines even as the combat itself is fun. Most of all though, the game continually surprises. The player is constantly confronted with something that confuses them or catches them off guard. Early in the game many of the machines aren’t hostile so the player isn’t sure if any shape they see on the horizon will be aggressive, passive or friendly.

Beyond even that the world is filled with NPC’s that make the player question their actions. One of the escort quests I mentioned has you escorting a group of machines who are pacifist and want to hold a pro peace parade. You’ve got to protect them by brutally carving up dozens of other machines who hate their pacifism. {Also they are dressed like court jesters.) It works on multiple levels, like almost everything in the game.

And importantly the game reinforces the feel of each zone by having a musical score that perfectly matches the action on the screen at all times. Too many game developers have decided that music is for cutscenes and a few moments when a tone needs to be established. Nier has music playing almost constantly and the score perfectly matches the tone of the game. If you’re unsure how important the music is to this game turn it on and play with the sound muted for a bit. The combat is intensified by the stellar music.

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Speaking of which

Nier’s Combat, Movement and Game Feel: Or I Know It When I See It

For a game that is heavily about world building and philosophy Nier sure does have a kick ass combat system. A modern game that intends to be a commercial success needs to have combat that feels good, and most great games feature satisfying combat with only a couple of notable exceptions (looking at you Bethesda).

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Nier Automata is a Platinum Studios game through and through. Fighting was clearly a heavy focus of development and it has it’s roots in Vanquish and Bayonetta. The action is fast paced and challenging with as much emphasis on it’s fluid movement system as on attacks. Like most hack and slash games Nier has a light attack and a heavy attack. But like Bayonetta, though obviously to a lesser degree, there are multiple combos possible as well as a similar evade ability that allows you to dodge through enemy attacks. It even has a plug in chip ability that offers a shorter version of the Bayonetta “Witch Time” slowdown after a perfect evade. The games movement is smooth and satisfying which makes fights against hordes of enemies fun and exciting.

This guy has heads for arms! And the heads come off and roll around and stuff! Those are his arms!!

Nier also does an excellent job avoiding a severe difficulty spike (with one very annoying exception) by slowly introducing the player to different enemy types and combat mechanics. By the end of the game players will be confronted with a very unique blend of hack and slash melee combat and bullet hell dodge heavy combat. Nier manages to have a combat system that gets hectic enough to be on the brink of button mashing but precise enough to never feel like it’s gotten out of control. The camera and controls are tight and responsive and I never had a combat death feel like it was not my fault.

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And of course, as with any combat system, animations and sound design are crucial to the experience. Nier’s combat animations are almost perfect. Platinum made it’s bones crafting fluid combat and Nier continues that tradition.

With a wealth of build options, ranged attack types, pod special attack types and weapons with different move sets the combat never gets dull. And that consistent fun extends even to just traversing the world.

Android Gymnasts: Yo AAA Developers. You Realize That Player Movement IS A Mechanic Right?

I often talk about player movement and how crucially important it is to a game experience. Destiny 1 took a fairly standard shooter and made something truly excellent because player movement felt good.

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In any game players will spend lots of time simply moving through the world so it’s crucially important that this basic mechanic feel good. And, as with almost everything else in the game, it’s obvious that Platinum games spent time and design energy making sure that the movement system was satisfying for the player.

Not to be overly harsh to AC Origins here but it’s the last big open world game I played and it really serves as an almost perfect foil to Nier. AC Origins has a tremendous map and traversal is a chore. It’s such a chore that the game gives you the option to have your horse autopilot to your map marker. And because the map is huge you’ll be spending an awful lot of hours simply going from place to place. Nier’s much smaller map is dense with things to see and combat encounters to enjoy and just running and jumping around the world has been crafted to feel seamless, beautiful and just damn fun.

Both 2B and 9S run faster on flat surfaces and after a few upgrades sprinting achieves speeds that feel explosive. Jumping is responsive and tight and the evade button serves as a boost when sprinting or in mid air. All these systems combine to make a truly special movement system. I never felt bored traversing the map. In fact it might have been one of my favorite aspects of the gameplay. And that points, again, to having the priorities right. Players in most open world games will spend much, perhaps even most of their time running from place to place with nothing else going on. I’m not sure most developers even consider the possibility of making that simple mechanic fun. But either Nier got lucky or the developers made a conscious choice to have map traversal be a pleasure. Considering how thoughtful this game is I have to assume the latter.

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Simply traversing the map is a joy thanks to fluid and beautiful animations.

So with what we’ve already discussed Nier would have been a successful game. It’s open world has fantastic art direction. It’s character model animations are fluid and beautiful. It’s combat and world traversal is fun, varied and satisfying. But none of those things, as well done as they are, are actually the most important part of Nier.

Keeping It All Fresh: The Importance Of Surprising The Player

Nier Automata pulls off the impressive feat of never letting the player get comfortable. Just when you’re settling into a rhythm the game will yank you back to attention with it’s story, or a surprising mechanic or it’s NPC or enemy dialogue.

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Let’s take a moment to make a broad statement about modern gaming. Complex stories are exceedingly rare in gaming and they are almost non existent in games from the largest publishers and developers. Video games aren’t paintings or novels. Video games are more like tattoos, or commissioned sculpture or custom furniture. They’re consumer products first and art second. Studios make AAA games for the publisher with an audience in mind from the start. Games are expensive widgets and the big budget games are massive investments in time and resources that have to answer to investors as well as consumers. As such they need to appeal to a broad audience to be commercially viable.

This means that games need to be simple and easy to understand if they’re going to have a narrative focus. As such the vast vast VAST majority of big budget games are either hero’s journey tales, revenge fantasies or power fantasies. They almost all include easy to hate villains and very rarely have any moral gray area. Even the games that market themselves as offering moral complexity rarely do. Bethesda’s Fallout and Bioware’s Mass Effect games (all of which I like) basically had the same simple story beats but offer you the choice to choose rude “bad guy” dialogue or heroic “good guy” dialogue. Your average shooter has only a slim thread of story to hang a bunch of gameplay on (Call OF Duty).

Nier doesn’t so much tell a story as it builds an imagined world to examine existentialism, mortality, empathy and perspective. Nier begins by just dumping you right into a combat sequence against a huge array of hostile but extremely cute enemy robots. There’s a vague story about humanity in insanely distant future losing a war against an alien invasion and fleeing to the moon. You don’t play as a human however. You don’t ever see a human, you don’t even hear a human aside from one recorded message urging you to continue killing machines for the “Glory Of Humanity.” You’re an intelligent android with complex emotions made in the image of a creator you never see to fight a war for a people you’ve never known.

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Early on your player character will make repeated comments about how machines don’t have complex thoughts and are incapable of emotion or society. But very quickly that will be proven obviously untrue. The machines you encounter chatter about their fear of death, they flee from before you. And eventually you’ll find several robot societies ranging from peaceful, to ecstatic, to medieval to, finally, in a particularly gripping sequence, a suicidal religious cult.

The game isn’t communicating with the player through it’s narrative structure. It’s communicating with the player through everything else. We’re going to focus on a few particular moments where the game subtly subverts or manipulates your actions.

The game tackles some very heavy themes. Minor spoiler: Don’t get too attached to anybody.

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The first time through the game I immediately attacked when the first boss’ name flashed up on the screen and it was only on my second play through that I realized the game had subtly manipulated me and my expectations. The sequence leading up to that boss fight has you slaughtering a huge group of machines before chasing a terrified fleeing robot who is pleading for his life into an arena. You then fight another huge wave of robots until they all begin repeating “This cannot continue...This cannot continue”. Finally a naked humanoid is born in front of your eyes. A naked humanoid named Adam.

I’m sure the vast majority of players did what I did and immediately attacked Adam triggering a pretty fun boss fight. But on my second play-through, after having soaked in all the subtle messages about the machines humanity, emotions and fears, I didn’t attack Adam when he appeared. Instead I just waited for him to attack me. And to my surprise....he doesn’t. He stays caught in an idling animation of confusion. Holding his head and swaying slightly from side to side. I walked around him waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. You MUST attack Adam to progress further. This was so interesting to me that I checked old forums where I found people complaining that there wasn’t a pacifist option here.

But Nier isn’t a game about giving you choices (a common and meaningless buzzword in modern gaming). It isn’t even about giving you the illusion of choice. You’re an android and a soldier and you have to do what you were trained for. Nier’s choice of androids as protagonists allows it to examine the nature of free will in almost every moment. You must attack this naked, non hostile life form as he stands dizzily holding his head. This lack of choice is a cunning little bit of gameplay that reinforces the entire messaging of the rest of the game. Nier is about big foundational things like existence, humanity, empathy, life , death and violence.

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Ludonarrative dissonance is an obnoxiously scholarly term that refers to conflict between a games mechanics and it’s narrative. Lots, hell most, games have varying degrees of this dissonance because what’s fun and what’s narratively consistent aren’t necessarily the same thing. Famously the Uncharted games feature a player character who is a charismatic lovable rogue with a heart of gold....who also happens to blithely murder hundreds of faceless dudes so he can get a piece of treasure.

Nier Automata doesn’t suffer from Ludonarrative dissonance. In fact it’s mechanics consistently reinforce the one key motif that the game is communicating to the player.

Gameplay As Narrative: The Importance of Perspective

Nier Automata is ultimately a game about perspective. The game starts you out as a typical video game protagonist fighting evil enemies who stand in your way. But it doesn’t take long before you’re questioning your actions and actually considering the perspective of the enemies the game has set before you. I can’t think of any other game off the top of my head that makes the enemy designs so unambiguously cute. And I certainly can’t think of another AAA game that has enemies flee from you begging for their lives.

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Nier’s enemies in many ways ARE the story. Many NPC’s outwardly question the nature of their existence and much of the game is interacting with machines the player has been told are enemies. In the second play-through you’ll encounter a few NPC’s called “Wise Machine”. These are found in high places staring out at the sky. If you hack them you’ll hear their internal dialogue questioning the meaning of their lives. Over and over the game will present you with characters or enemies who force you to consider them actual humans with lives worth living.

And most importantly the idea of perspective is driven home to the player not only through characters, story and dialogue but literally through the game itself. Nier repeatedly and literally changes the players perspective. The first few times this happened I thought, “Oh, cool. That’s different and interesting.” But as the game moved along and consistently was changing its perspective I began noticing how subtly disorienting it was. In any given sequence the camera will flow from a mid distance third person, to a side scrolling, to a top down perspective. Within those sequences themselves the perspective will shift only slightly making the player have to adjust their actions to the new camera angle. There are dozens of cunning and seamless little perspective shifts. Like when the player uses the amusement park ride to get to a previously unreachable area. Or after the second boss Simone where you first get to Pascals village. Or almost all of the aerial combat sequences that have the camera shift and tilt.

The game shifts the players perspective often. A bold design decision and one that really pays off narratively and mechanically.

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At the beginning of the game this constant shifting can be disorienting and tricky to adapt to at times. But somewhere along the line the player has had angle and perspective’s shift so often you almost stop noticing. This continues to build and ramp up through the end of the first play through and into the second and third routes.

After the credits roll playing as 2B the game starts again with you playing one of the simple, child like machines mourning his lifeless brother and trying to revive him by dumping oil onto him. The camera then pulls back and the player inhabits 9S. Allowing you to play the campaign again from a different characters perspective. You’ll be much more comfortable this time and you’ll find yourself noticing the actions and words of the enemy machines more often. 9S lacks a heavy attack but has hacking as his strong option. And hacking unaware or passive enemies allows you to either destroy them, subjugate them to your will or...to inhabit and directly control the game from their perspective.

Near the end of the third run through the game the perspective changes back and forth between two playable characters fighting separate halves of the same enemy. And it’s during this sequence I realized that all of the perspective shifts that were so disorienting at first had become expected and easy to react to. The mechanics stay the same but the player has grown accustomed to seeing the world from different angles and perspectives.

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By the way. As far as hacking mini games go (which I almost always hate) this one is pretty good. Totally subjective but I’ll put it in the Bio-shock tolerable bucket and not the Deus Ex annoying bucket.

I don’t think I’ve ever played a mainstream release that more fully committed to exploring a theme than Nier Automata. It’s message is subtly communicated though everything in its world. It takes it’s main theme of perspective and relentlessly drives it home through camera shifts, and character shifts, and dialogue and actions until the player has adjusted her expectations and actions and reevaluated everything he thought the game was about. Nier doesn’t tell you a story. Nier takes you on a journey of realization.

Wrapping It Up: This Shit Was Good

I didn’t know what to expect from this game. Platinum is a studio I was and remain a bit skeptical about going forward. And early on playing it I felt like it was just a pretty good action rpg with slightly dated graphics. There was something uncomfortable about playing it. The low resolution and fidelity felt like a hindrance and the perspective shifts were cool but somehow jarring. But by the ten hour mark I already considered it an absolute masterpiece. A lesson on how to focus on what matters. A demonstration on how to let a player discover a story rather than passively absorb one. Perhaps the best example ever of having a unifying narrative theme conveyed through not only the game’s mechanics but also nearly everything in it’s world. This game could easily have been a fun hack and slash where you kill robots and evil androids and forgot about it two weeks later. And if that’s all it did? It probably still would have been pretty damn good. The careful attention payed to combat, movement and art design alone make it a stand out game. And in almost any other studios hands that’s exactly what it would have been. But an absolute commitment to it’s theme and world make it a game people will remember for a long long time.

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I certainly hope Yoko Taro makes another one of these games. And I hope that Platinum gives him and his team a much larger budget next time. Because this team clearly understands what matters and what doesn’t. They wont spend hundreds of hours making sure water is rendered perfectly before making sure it’s fun to move through the world. They won’t write some silly trite story without creating a world that makes sense for their narrative. They won’t create some ridiculously huge map solely so they can say they made a ridiculously huge map. They’ll put that money where it matters. If it was my money on the line I’d have complete trust every penny would be spent on something important. Nier Automata proves that Yoko Taro and his team are the anti-Ubisoft. Nothing without a purpose and a reason for everything.

Pliny (who is old. Did you know that? Dude is OLD) would love it if you read his other articles and checked out his videos on Youtube. If you do that he’d be pretty psyched if you subscribed, liked and commented here there and everywhere. And if you do THAT well...such good deeds will surely be rewarded in this life and the next. Pliny can’t really reward you. He doesn’t even know who you really are! But our benevolent Space Wizard above is sure to be keeping score. Why else would anyone do anything nice? If you weren’t afraid of the Great Space Wizard you’d have no reason not to covet people’s neighbors and honor their children and stuff.

Up next (comment “I DID it!” if you actually made it down here. I’m willing to bet not one person made it all the way down here. SO really I can type anything here. Up next a free hamburger! Up next a day of reckoning! Up next lights in the sky turn out to be just lights!

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Up next a review/analysis of Dead Cells or a piece examning Valves cowardly removal of “You Must Be 18 Or Older To Enter” from steam. Both in the works. Don’t know which I’ll feel like finishing first.