"To see Square Enix give one of its lesser-known titles another chance is glorious, and having played the demo, I'm more than a little bit hopeful for its success."
Back in 2010, Square Enix quietly released NieR and pretty much left it out to die. Releasing it shortly after Final Fantasy XIII certainly didn't help its prospects. NieR had a lot of problems — the combat was repetitive, the graphics were not up to scratch, and some of the sidequests were mundane, but the game had bundles of heart and creativity that it was easy to forgive its mistakes. So imagine my surprise when a sequel was announced. To see Square Enix give one of its lesser-known titles another chance is glorious, and having played the demo, I'm more than a little bit hopeful for its success.
In the demo, you control 2B, an android woman on a mission to destroy a gargantuan weapon inside an abandoned factory. She comes armed with two swords, tonnes of style, and a quirky, intelligent prototype named A2. Along the way, she joins up with 9S, another android who controls a flying mech, and together the two androids work together to destroy the mechanised weapons.
The first thing to notice about Automata is how much more polished the game looks. Everything looks and feels as though Square were given a bigger budget to throw at this, and deservedly so. The budget has increased, and so has the scale. The environments look gorgeous; I emerged from one of the factory buildings, to be greeted with a flock of birds soaring through the sky. The sun broke through the clouds, and the lush greenery was taking over the ruined city below us. I was awestruck. I realise 6 years have passed since the original game, but Automata looks like a lot of care has been taken over its graphics.
I can say the same thing about the controls. NieR's controls sometimes felt a little off and slow to respond, but judging from the combat I've experienced, Automata looks to have fixed these issues. I guess that's to be expected of Platinum Games, makers of Bayonetta and MadWorld among other hack-and-slash titles. The combat is fast and fluid — 2B can attack with either a light or heavy sword by using either the circle for the former or triangle button for the latter. She can use these in the air, or go for even stronger attacks by holding them down. Her companion A2 even comes equipped with a light or heavy gun, so you can easily dispatch those flying enemies. Dodging is also much improved, and with a simple tap of the R2 button, 2B is phasing past enemy attacks in an instant. It's all extremely satisfying.
While the demo mostly involves slashing your way through enemies, I didn't get bored of playing around with 2B's arsenal of attacks. The small variety of enemies on display meant I could play around with tactics, and the final boss of the demo turned the rule book around and showcased a spectacular set piece that could've easily come out of the anime Gundam. Automata's demo is just teasing us with the gameplay variety the previous entry needed, and I hope the full game manages to follow through, otherwise it could suffer from the same repetitiveness.
Satisfyingly, Automata also keeps many of the trademark gameplay shifts that NieR took. One moment, you're battling robots in a standard, open world environment. Then, in the next screen, you'll be presented with a top-down view. Following that, you'll be traversing through the factory like a sidescrolling platformer. While they don't change much in terms of gameplay, it's a cool little feature that I always loved about the prequel.
One thing I'm not as confident, or sure of with Automata, is just how NieR it feels right now. Other than the switches in gameplay style and the character design, I'm unsure whether the narrative will match up to the original. It remains to be seen whether it'll tackle the same difficult questions, or how certain characters will be introduced (I'll avoid mentioning these for spoilers.) While there are bullet hell sections galore, especially in the spectacular final boss fight, and robots roaming around with inane, empty grins on their faces, I can just about feel a hint of the craziness of NieR. The two protagonists, 2B and 9S, feel very different from the cast of the previous game, but for now I'm reserving judgement. I can see where Automata might cross the line into its predecessor's bizarreness, though I can't quite tell from the demo what might be in store for our android friends.
Overall, I left NieR: Automata feeling positive. Platinum Games have brought in some much-needed finesse in terms of combat and gameplay, and I can't believe how much more effort has gone into the look and feel of things. For now, it doesn't completely feel like a NieR game, and whether that's down to a lack of knowing the story, or the small roster of characters we've been presented, I'm not sure. Regardless, the future looks bright for NieR: Automata. Be sure to check back with us when the game's released in March 2017.