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Of all the pretentious…:NieR Automata Review

Nier_Automata_Cover_JP

Copyright Platinum Games and Square Enix

I probably should wait a few days before writing this, but I am not happy.  Maybe in a week I’ll have a different review.

I thought the days of pretentious anime games were over.  I’m not sure why, there are always going to be pretentious artists who think that whatever vague, semi-philosophic garbage they can cram into their writing is the most important thing in the world, generally mangling some form of postmodernism into a twisted shape in order to say something stupid.  After all, we did have Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice come out last year.  NieR: Automata, the sequel to 2010’s NieR, which was a spin off of a secret ending of the Drakengard series, is also, once again, a bunch of pretentious crap, info dumped at the end of the game to make a point about a theme that didn’t really exist until the game decided to give it to the player 2/3s of the way into the game.  Combat is pretty fun, though.

NieR: Automata takes place some 9,000 years after the events of the original NieR, with machine lifeforms sent by an alien race having taken over the earth.  Artificially created people known as Androids (despite most of them being female…) fight against the machine lifeforms on Earth, while the last vestiges of humanity control them from a base on the moon.  The player takes on 2B, a combat Androids, and her scouting companion 9S, as they fight to protect mankind and destroy some sort of thing the machine lifeforms create.  The twists and turns on this will get stupid.

As a game, NieR is an interesting hybrid of high octane, Platinum style action games, bullet hell shoot ’em ups reminiscent of Capcom’s old 1940 series and more Western style open world RPGs.  The game manages to seamlessly switch between all of these types more or less on the fly, although being that this is a Platinum game, the high flying combat is the most prominent, and the most well developed.  The game plays a lot like Bayonetta, in that it’s heavily focused on offense, with dodging as the primary form of defense.  Dodge properly, and the player sets up a counter attack that punishes the enemy for massive damage.  Combat isn’t particularly deep, at least when compared to the kings of the stylish action genre, but it is engaging.  Mostly by throwing horde after horde of enemies at the player, and making them relatively easy to tear through, without taking away the challenge.  It’s easy to dodge out of the way of melee attacks, cut through the right particle attack with a katana or jump out of the way of giant laser beams, but because the battlefield can literally be covered with enemies, one dodge could mean falling into the trap of getting pinned up against the wall and murdered by robots.  However, once it’s all said and done, and 2B (or one of the lesser characters the game makes you play later in the game) stands above the corpses of machines, the game delivers on giving the player a feeling of victory in a way most games just can’t hope to pull off.

The other parts of the game are much less developed.  The bullet hell sections are common, and with the way the enemies use ranged attack, is somewhat incorporated into the melee combat.  However, it’s still just pretty standard Gradius or 1940 style shoot ’em up gameplay here, maybe getting as advanced as Einhander.  The bullet hell sections are more distractions to the normal gameplay, to add something when travelling from one story mission to another, or to allow for some bosses to be way outside what 2B and 9S would be able to take care of on their own, despite their own personal combat abilities.  This is cool, but it does make some parts drag at certain points of the game.  Ultimately, however, they are fun, if that’s the sort of gameplay someone likes.  I found it to be a welcome addition, but it’s also something that requires a completely different skill set from the rest of the game, so it’s something that could completely wreck another player’s enjoyment all together, especially when going for the final “True” ending of the game.  The worst part, and perhaps the most trying part of the game, is the attempt at making it more like an open world RPG, and combining both the stylish action and bullet hell elements into that Western style open world sort of gameplay.  Now, if the world was interesting or well laid out, this wouldn’t be a problem, but NieR runs into nearly every large problem that an open world has, without any of the good things.

The only real virtue of the world map of NieR is that it’s small.  This is a good thing, because one of the biggest problems with the game, especially early on before the fast travel locations open up, is that many of the missions, and not just side missions, require the player to navigate the entire map just to get anything done.  A lot of the game is set up as a bunch of fetch quests.  It’s really not until the third playthrough, which honestly is where the actual game kind of starts, before the game actually stops making most of the main story into fetch quests, until the end, when it goes back to having the characters run around the whole map again.  It’s an interesting attempt at an open world, and all of the sins committed are done more out of ignorance rather than any actual bad design, but making it where back tracking to the other side of the overworld map just to progress the story made me put my controller down and find something else to do on more than one occasion.  This was only caused by a side mission once.

Along the way, I also encountered several bugs and smaller technical issues.  Part of this was playing on the PC, where playing in fullscreen mode led to framerate drops during cutscenes and blurry, downscaled graphics.  Also, several times throughout A story, I had several side quests fail to work.  That was annoying.

The worst part, though, is the story.  Not only is it bleak and nihilistic, it’s done in a pretentious, bullshit sort of way, reminding me heavily of Neon Genesis Evangelion.  It tries to make a point about the future or life or something, but since so much is hidden from the player, including the things some of the characters actually know, it’s hard to make heads or tails of what is actually going on.  The game refers to things that the player should probably know, and while some of them are references to NieR or Drakengard, most of them are things that are only revealed during the final ending, if even then.  Several things I only know because I looked them up while I was writing this very thing, but it commits one of the biggest sins of storytelling by holding off until the end to give any revelations at all.  Nearly everything of importance is only revealed at the end, and while some of it is seeded throughout the B and C stories (there’s nothing in A story unless the player already knows what to look for, and even then, it’s not great at foreshadowing), most of it is just an endgame revelation, or it fails at foreshadowing what’s coming up.  There’s a certain amount of “importance” the game thinks it has, and I don’t want to dismiss it by saying it’s a game about sexy robots fighting each other, because importance can come from anywhere, including video games where you play as a sexy robot.  Here, there really is no importance.  It’s just a game about sexy robots that throws in some stuff from philosophy and a few Biblical and classic literature references, hoping that’s all it needs to be deep.  It doesn’t even fail in an interesting way, like Xenosaga did.  It just has these things, with a somewhat bleak and ambiguous story, and acts like that’s all it needs.

That said, the ambiguity of the story did push me to keep playing, but it also caused me to delete my game as soon as I got the final ending, so it’s hard to say if it was worth it.

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Game Anatomy: Social Links

Persona 4 has been called, for good reason, the best JRPG ever made.  The gameplay is top notch, the characters are some of the best in video games and the story is a lot of fun.  Any accolades it gets, it deserves, and one of the things that gets talked about a lot as an example for being good is the Social Link system, which was an expansion over the previous game’s version of the same system.  The Social Link isn’t just great for Persona, either, it’s one of the best examples of roleplaying and conversation systems in RPGs, and it’s a shame more games don’t actually utilize it, or something similar to it.

Most of the time, during a Game Anatomy, I talk about how the system worked well, or made, the game it comes from, and we’ll do that here, but the thing about Social Links is that they’re an outgrowth of something of a problem within RPGs, Japanese and Western, and that’s character interaction and roleplaying.  RPGs are not, and cannot be, table top roleplaying games, and as such, it means the interactions between characters within the narrative is going to be a lot different from how it would be done in a table top game, even if RPGs are attempts at replicating or emulating that experience (in various ways, each which change depending on the game).  Most games have the player make a decision and maybe it will connect with a karma meter or a personal connection meter with a party member.  It’s good, but it’s not great, and in a lot of games (read: everything from Bioware) it’s more of a side thing than something that’s full integrated into the system.  Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel is great, but it’s a limited form of interaction for both the player and the game.  I can use it to make sure the Iron Bull or Tali fall in love with me, or get slightly different reactions from characters, but that’s it.  It has only a limited impact on the game.  The Social Links aren’t like that.  They’re directly integrated into the whole experience of the game, and while it may not completely alter scenes, that’s not what’s important about the Social Links.  They alter the gameplay, tie the narrative to the gameplay, and work together with both of these thematically, but before we talk about that, we need to talk about Yu.

476573-persona_4_the_animation_ed2_large_03

Image Copyright Atlus and Anime International Company Inc.

That’s Yu Narukami, the protagonist of Persona 4 and all around good guy.  Sure, he’s a silent protagonist who mostly serves as a cipher for the player to hang out with a bunch of cool people and fight demons, but Yu actually manages to have some character.  He’s a man with heart and courage, and I don’t mean that in the generic hero meaning, I mean this guy is a better candidate for the Heart ring than Ma-Ti is.  Yu genuinely cares about people, and (if you play him right), isn’t going to mince words or screw around with them, either, because sometimes, people need to know the real, unvarnished truth, because that’s what the game is about.

The way the game does this is through Social Links, which is a multi-level system where, after a certain number of conversations with a character, Yu grows closer to them.  When Yu hits a milestone in their relationship, that Social Link grows.  This does include dating, and it means the closer you are with a party member, the better you work together in combat (You became friends with Yosuke.  Yosuke will now die for you) and it sounds a lot like how Dragon Age does it, but it’s not.  It’s better.

The first reason it’s better is that it’s not about buttering up someone with gifts or agreeing with them until they’re your best friend.  See, Persona 4 isn’t about that kind of bullshit.  It’s about the truth, and sometimes, Yu needs to tell something they need to hear, whether they want to hear it or not (and a lot of times they don’t).  The major theme of this game is that humanity has darkness inside of them, and everyone, no matter who you are, as some sort of darkness festering inside them and it cannot be conquered.  No one is ever going to get rid of that darkness inside them, because that darkness is them.  It’s the part of them they don’t like, they don’t want to hear and don’t want to recognize is a part of them, but no one is going to be a stronger person if they don’t recognize that’s a part of who they are.  In Persona 4, Yu becomes friends with people by helping them confront the darkness within them and accepting who they are.  He does this by listening to them, then saying what they need to hear.  They don’t always like this.  Sometimes it straight up pisses them off, but they recognize it’s right and that you’re not trying to hurt them, and they come around.

Here’s the thing, though, Social Links are not automatic.  The player needs to make Yu say the right thing, and the player can screw it up.  This means the player also needs to be caring and attentive, just like Yu (or they can use a guide, but most of them really aren’t hard to figure out).  The player is directly responsible for making sure that Yu does the smart thing, and the Link will not advance if the player doesn’t give them what they need.  It’s not a binary pass/fail, either.  It’s a spectrum.  Yeah, there’s an optimal path, but one wrong response won’t ruin a friendship, and it makes the relationship feel that much more nuanced and organic.  As a player and as a character, Yu must guide his friends and family through real conversations to get to know them, and help them confront who they really are.

The second reason it’s better than Dragon Age, or anything else in RPGs (except maybe Witcher III, but Witcher III isn’t as well written as this.  This is not a complaint against Witcher III) is because it’s directly tied into the game’s narrative.  The game puts the player on a time limit: there’s a year of game time, and each day, the player only has a limited number of things they can do, and this includes going to fight monsters and save people.  One of the big issues with a lot of other RPGs is that the PCs relationship with the rest of the party is sort of separate.  It’s completely optional, and leads to optional quests, and while it’s less pronounced in some games (Mass Effect 2), it’s completely obvious in others (Dragon Age: Origins and Inquisition).  Outside of a few comments from some characters, it’s completely divorced from the rest of the game, but in Persona 4, becoming friends with people IS the whole game.  Each Social Link is its own story line, and while technically optional, each of these storylines converge with the main narrative.  They don’t just connect thematically, they connect with the overall narrative too, and not just party members, Dojima and Nanako, although for them, the connection is a lot more direct.  Each PC (after Yosuke and Chie) have their own dungeons, and bosses that are their darker natures.  Their Social Links, which are established AFTER you defeat their Shadow selves, are about coming to terms with that darkness and how they relate to the group and the overall mystery.  Sure, maybe the sports guys or the drama club girl (I’ve never actually joined band club in this game) may not tie directly into the mystery, but they help Yu grow as a person and further his character development.  They, also, of course, tie in thematically, but we’ve covered that.

From there, though, there’s even more to it.  The story takes this and integrates it into the game.  The PCs are powered by extra planar monsters that give them magic and super powers, allowing them to fight and save people in the game’s dungeons.  Yu has the extra special ability to change out these monsters, called Personas, and can build new ones.  He’s limited, however, in his ability to craft new ones by his level and his Social Link score.  See, each monster has its own Arcana, relating to Tarot cards.  Yosuke is the Magician, Dojima is the Hierophant and Rise’s is the Lovers, and different Personas correspond with the different Arcanas.  The stronger your bond with a person of that Arcana, the stronger Personas of that Arcana you can make, and the stronger your Personas of that Arcana are.  Yu is literally as strong as his friendships.

There’s more to this, and since Persona 4 is one of those games I keep attempting and never seem to beat, there’s more that even I don’t know about.  Still, it’s the best way to do interactions with the various characters in the games.  It needs to be a direct integration, both with gameplay and the actual story.  If the player misses out, it’s their fault for not being friends with the other people.

Open World Blues

Sigh...

Sigh…

I’m not sure who created this image.  I found it at this reddit post.  Please contact me if I am using this image incorrectly, or if it is a violation of copyright.  It is not my intent to make it seem that I created this image, that I had anything to do with its creation, or otherwise profit off of it.

I’ve been traveling across video game worlds for almost thirty years now, so I’ve seen a lot of weird geography in my time, and in the past fifteen years or so, thanks in no small part to Grand Theft Auto III, a lot of my time in virtual tourism has been through expansive “open world” games.  Now, before we begin, I am, and have always been, a large fan of open world games.  I cut my teeth on the original Legend of Zelda and my favorite Shining Force was the second, due in large part to the fact it had a world to explore like a “normal” RPG.  Yet, lately, I’ve been feeling the drag of open world games.

In the past year, I can count on one hand the number of new games I’ve played that haven’t been open world games, or featuring some sort of open world content (I’m not sure how World of Warcraft stacks up).  Since the year started, I can’t think of any game I’ve played that hasn’t been an expansive, open world, that wasn’t me finishing up those Metal Gear games, or just popping in Sonic or Mega Man for old time’s sake, and now, 45 hours deep into Metal Gear Soild V: The Phantom Pain, sitting at 49% completion, I’m starting to feel the fatigue.  Hell, I was starting to feel the fatigue months ago, when my review for Grand Theft Auto V was one sentence:

“It’s good the driving in this game is fun, because that’s pretty much 90% of what I do.”

I never finished the Witcher III, one of my favorite games of this year, because of how big the world is.  There’s a reason I’m using that map comparison, because the maps are gargantuan.  It’s so big, so vast and, well, there really isn’t a lot to do.  Sure, there’s a lot of content in the Witcher III, and it’s all great content, but I never found the “open world” aspect of the game to be particularly compelling.  If anything, it just got in the way.  It wasn’t that there weren’t ruins to explore like Skyrim, or missions to complete like MGSV, it was just that most of the world was just a giant hub, taking Geralt from one quest to the next.

The problem isn’t the content, not with Witcher III, at least, so much as the size.  Sure, with Witcher III, there’s tons of stuff to find and gather up with exploration, but the map size is so big, and it’s so vast, that it takes a lot of time just to get from one quest to the next.  I’ve ridden on Roach for over ten minutes just to get from one quest to the next.  Not even stopping to gather flowers or fight off undead drowned people, just riding.  It’s not reached GTA V levels, where I actually spent an over an hour of game either in my car or watching a cutscene, but it’s still pretty bad.

The problem isn’t that the open world exists, or that they’re just giant hub worlds to ferry the player from one quest to the next, it’s that the size of them has ballooned up so large that the games have become more transit than anything else.  Even in games where exploration is incentivised, like the Witcher or Skyrim, more of the game is spent getting from one place to the next than actually interacting with the mechanics.

I’m looking at the size of a map, and even if every second is filled with something to do, which would be impossible and problematically impractical for largely the same reasons if not different causes, it would still be exhausting if I have one quest on one end of the map, and another on the other.  Ten minutes of riding is ten minutes spent not hunting monsters, or fighting for cash.

I think, ultimately, we’ve reached a point where open world games have gone from very cool to too damn big.  There’s a reason, that despite my love of exploring Azeroth’s nooks and crannies, I fly everywhere I go in World of Warcraft.  I want to explore a world, I want to see cool things, but I don’t want to spend my entire day just going from one point to another.  Perhaps it’s just me, maybe I’m just getting old, but I don’t have time to explore worlds almost as large as my home state.

Combat, RPGs and Gameplay

So for fun last night, I decided to load up Uncharted 2, which I haven’t played in a while.  Mostly I just wanted to play through that awesome scene where they blow up the building Nate is in while the player is still playing, but also to ponder something I’ve been thinking about since I read the Game Informer article on Mass Effect 3.  Why the hell doesn’t Mass Effect play like this?

I'm Commander Shepard and this is my favorite train crash in Tibet

I’m not saying Shepard needs to be full on platformer hero or anything, but it would be cool if she could move with a little more grace.  Actually having the ability to jump or shoot mercs while hanging from a high place would be pretty cool, but just being able to interact with the environment with a little more dexterity than a lumbering oaf would be nice.

Time was, because of memory limitations, you basically had the choice between story and gameplay, and RPGs were the place to go when you wanted a good story, but they weren’t exactly the bastions of great gameplay.  Yes, they were certainly exciting, but none of them had the visceral feel of Mario or the Legend of Zelda.  Most of them just aped some mechanics from AD&D and called it a day.  Yeah, things were a little better on the PC with the Ultima games, but not much.  It’s not really like they could do much more anyway, memory constraints and all that, but they did try to squeeze every last drop out of the gameplay they did have, and sometimes, it worked.

Pictured: When it worked

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work.  Then, it’s just lame and frustrating.

Pictured: When it totally fucking doesn't

Nowadays though, memory constraints aren’t really an issue and now we’re starting to get more in-depth stories from all sorts of games.  Platformers, first person shooters, real time strategy games, all of them are bringing us stories that rival some of the best Square had to offer in the mid to late 90s.  This has kind of left the entire RPG genre trying to find its place in this new gaming environment, but that’s not this article.  The problem is, a lot of RPGs slide by with bad gameplay and the excuse, “hey, this is an RPG, you’re not playing it for the gameplay.”

Pictured: Let's just move on...

And yeah, in 1999, that might be the case, but that’s not something a player or developer should be saying.  RPGs can be a diverse genre and it needs gameplay to reflect this.  RPGs aren’t just interactive fantasy novels with a handful of mechanics cribbed from D&D or GURPS, it’s a genre about taking on a role and getting into the head (or heads) of your characters.  It’s not just inventory or leveling up (because hell, even Call of Duty has that), it’s about the story.  Players should no longer put up with crappy mechanics in their RPG because that’s how it’s always been.

Lost Narrative: Prologue

Over the next couple of weeks, I plan on writing a series that explores the narrative ins and outs of the various fictional media I study.  I’ll mostly be focusing on video games, but I’ll be extending articles to comic books and table top games as well.  While I will be comparing and contrasting these three mediums to more mainstream literature (books, film and television), I’ll be working from a more singular standpoint in my analysis.  The idea is to look for ways to understand the foundations of these forms of literature and how we can learn from them.

Obviously, I’ll be looking at the various strengths and weaknesses of each medium, but I also plan on digging a little deeper and looking at the concepts unique to these forms of literature and how they work in favor and against the various works that make up their body.  I’ll also be looking at the meta concepts and how the expectations of the authors and the audience will shape the works as a whole.

For a preview, I plan on looking at things such as event-based narratives and why excellent movies like “Citizen Kane” would make a terrible video game.  I also plan on exploring things like alignment and morality meters and how they can, and sometimes don’t, affect how a game is played or how the audience approaches the work.  The goal of this project is for me to better understand my three favorite narratives.  At the very least, I should find out some interesting stuff about how we as a people perceive modern literature.

One thing though, I don’t plan to do too much about comic books.  I like to think Scott McCloud did a lot of that with his series on comics and there are many others who can provide more in-depth and intelligent discussions on that kind of literature than I can.  I would like to take a dip into the into post-modernism and metafiction of comics, but I think I’ll be limiting myself to that and providing links and literature to those who are more interested in comics than video games or table top RPGs.