Taro Yoko, director of NieR: Automata, leans forward in his chair. "The stories I write really aren't very good at all," he says, through a translator. "They're a big pile of shit. So I wouldn't have great expectations for the game if I were you."
He's joking, I think.
I've just spent a few hours playing a preview build in London, and it was anything but crap. The story follows a pair of combat androids who are fighting on humanity's behalf. They talk about life and death, and what it means to be caught up in a never-ending cycle of war. It's an intriguing, if not wholly original, setup.
The Japanese game designer is, perhaps, trying to temper expectations. Two years ago, no one would have guessed that a new NieR was in development. The first title was a commercial flop, and Square Enix, the game's publisher, had shown no interest in a sequel. NieR was a strange experience, extending the story of the original, equally bizarre Drakengard game from the PlayStation 2 era. It starts in the distant future, in a bleak, snow-covered Tokyo. The adventure then cuts to more than 1,000 years later, where humanity has reverted to swords and rudimentary houses once more. Even stranger, the same characters depicted in the "modern" prologue seem to be living in this new, fantastical world.
"Square Enix came to me and said, 'Well, it didn't sell very well. Sorry, but we can't make [another] one.'"
The story had its merits, but the overall adventure was weighed down by some bland environments and tedious fetch quests. "It was in the red," Yosuke Saito, the game's producer, admits. "It didn't make money. But there was still a lot of hardcore fans that really liked the game, the world and everything that was in there." While the original NieR's development was wrapping up, Yoko was already thinking about a sequel. But those dreams were put on hold when the game arrived to a lukewarm reception. "Square Enix came to me and said, 'Well, it didn't sell very well. Sorry, but we can't make [another] one,'" Yoko recalls.
A grand reveal
By June 2015, it was clear the publisher had changed its mind. At Square Enix's E3 press conference, Saito took to the stage and proudly announced a new project "still early in its development." A short trailer showed some gorgeous concept art spanning abandoned factories, treetop homes and quiet, abandoned cathedrals. There was little game footage, save for a shot of the sequel's mechanical hero, 2B, swooping down to the ground in a black dress, eye mask and boots. A katana at her side, she was an instantly memorable and likable character.
Yoko then emerged, wearing a ghoulish, moon-like mask. The costume was a throwback to Emil, a character from the original NieR game. He uses this outfit for most of his public appearances now, including interviews and promotional videos. Today, in a poky Square Enix office, he's in normal attire, but as soon as I ask for a picture, the developer is quick to grab the unusual prop. If it wasn't obvious already, he's a pretty quirky guy.
From left: Takahisa Taura, Taro Yoko and Yosuke Saito
It was Saito and Square Enix that approached Yoko about the new game, rather than the other way around. Saito recalls: "I said very strongly, I said, 'If you don't let me do this project, I'm going to quit the company.'" Yoko laughs and quickly jumps in: "I think he was probably a bit fatigued after doing so many Dragon Quest games!" (Saito was the producer of Dragon Quest X, the World of Warcraft–style MMORPG, and is currently working on Dragon Quest XI for the Nintendo 3DS, Switch and Playstation 4.)
A match made in heaven
Most people had forgotten about NieR. But the E3 trailer was alluring, and the mention of PlatinumGames was an instant headline grabber. The Japanese studio has a reputation for producing high-caliber action games such as Bayonetta, Vanquish and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. The team makes fast, dynamic combat systems that reward players who can memorize complex combos and utilize them in specific, moment-to-moment situations. For anyone with a passing knowledge of the video game industry, it was a tantalizing collaboration.
The story behind the team-up is a simple one. For NieR to come back, Square Enix needed to do something big. A bold, original game that was prepared to take risks. "We didn't want to repeat the same thing," Saito says. "It had to be good." Thankfully, Yoko and his team were already talking to PlatinumGames when the possibility of a new NieR title came up. A partnership seemed perfect. "It just so happened we were in discussions with PlatinumGames to do something alongside them," Saito explains. "We felt that if they worked on the action side of the game, that really would be the best possible partnership we could have to make [NieR: Automata] the success we wanted it to be."
NieR: Automata is constantly shifting between different game genres, which keeps the experience fresh and unpredictable.
Based on what I've seen and played, it was a good decision. You may have tried the public NieR demo, which takes place near the start of the game and tasks 2B with finding a villainous, "Goliath"-class mech. With 9S, a heroic scout class android, in tow, you blitz through hordes of smaller robots and weave your way through an intricate web of factories. Platinum's mark is immediately obvious; every sword swing is immensely satisfying, with a range of light and heavy attacks to blend together.
Like the original NieR game, enemies often retaliate with a barrage of harmful red orbs. The camera angle changes to give you a better perspective of the action, flipping between a typical third-person view and a top-down "bullet hell" shooter, as in Ikaruga and DoDonPachi Resurrection. There's a satisfying mix of exploration, platforming, smaller combat encounters and huge, multi-layered boss battles. NieR: Automata is constantly shifting between different game genres, which keeps the experience fresh and unpredictable. As you dart up the side of a water tower, you never quite know what will be waiting for you at the top.
"The placement of the buttons is also very close to the original game," says Takahisa Taura, NieR: Automata's designer and an employee of PlatinumGames. "Obviously, the actual results of some of the button presses may be different, but the overall control scheme and the structure and placement of the controls is very much referencing the original game."
An open world
There's more to NieR's sequel than fast-paced battles, however. At Square Enix's offices, I was able to play a section that immediately follows the public demo. It takes place in a circular spaceship -- which serves as a base for 2B, 9S and their fellow androids -- a dilapidated city and a sparse, open desert. After waking up off-planet, you're free to move around and peek inside the various rooms that hide upgrades and non-player characters (NPCs). It's a space that allows you to breathe and reflect on the larger situation at hand: how these androids were created, their evolving relationship with humanity's survivors, and their views on the larger conflict.
Before long, you're asked to check out a city where a human resistance force is based. Like The Last of Us, it's an urban environment lost to Mother Nature. Few people are living in the buildings or using the roads. Moss and ivy stick to the walls, while knee-high grass sways like water down below. A few rust-covered cars sit abandoned near the sidewalk. It's a large, open play space with countless skyscrapers and back alleys to explore. You'll encounter the occasional robot or two, but they rarely attack unless you strike them first.
"We wanted to have some quieter sections where you could just walk through the game and experience the scenery, and see things at a slower pace," Taura says.
Once you've made contact with the resistance, some side quests open up: investigate a certain area, collect parts from particular enemies, that sort of thing. It's the usual RPG fodder, but with Platinum's combat system they serve another purpose: practice and experimentation. These lower-risk settings are perfect for trying new combos and strategies.
The game also has a Dark Souls–inspired revival system. At one point, I took on a group of elks to see what, if any, resources I could obtain from them. A couple of hits later and 2B was defeated, only to have her thoughts and memories downloaded into a new body. The old 2B remained on the battlefield, however, with all of my old equipment intact. It was up to me to retrieve it -- a second death would mean losing it forever. Later, a spokesperson for Square Enix told me that another option exists. For particularly tough encounters, you can choose to revive your previous form as an additional combat partner. They'll fight only in that specific area, however, and vanish once you've defeated the immediate foe.
"It's quite rare that a system has that much breadth and changes the core gameplay that much."
"Rather than just upgrading and making you more powerful in a flat progression scale," Yoko says, NieR: Automata "gives you all sorts of new actions you can perform, and new gameplay mechanics that change the feeling of playing the game. It's quite rare that a system has that much breadth and changes the core gameplay that much."
Dealing with death
As I ran various errands for members of the resistance, I picked up hints of the larger story too. Something is wrong with the enemy robots. According to 9S, more and more are just standing around, as if they've forgotten why they were deployed in the first place. It brings up some questions about life, death and the soul. What are these androids able to feel? How much have they observed, and are they struggling now for purpose and fulfillment? Are they doubting their mission? Feeling sorry for their enemies?
Yoko has explored these themes before. "It's been an interest of mine, and an observation, for a very long time while I've been making games," he explains. "Most games are about defeating an enemy, or killing an enemy and surviving through that. In some ways, it's also come to be seen as an enjoyable thing. People have fun, and there's some fun to be had in destroying someone or killing someone. And I've always wondered about that. Why do people enjoy the act of killing, and why do they do it? And surely maybe that motivation and that reasoning is flawed, and the reason people do these things -- kill people, enjoy killing -- is because they're missing something, or there's definitely some problem there."
In the original Drakengard, for instance, humans give up a piece of their existence -- their voice, their sight or even the ability to die -- in order to make pacts with mythical beasts. Caim, the hero, is obsessed with revenge, slaying his enemies mercilessly. During combat, his comrades frequently comment on this worrying obsession and how much he enjoys the act of killing. The first NieR game also touches on the soul, as humans try to detach themselves from their bodies and avoid a devastating disease.
"If there is one theme that maybe comes back again and again, in all of the works that I make, it probably is that relationship of how people see and relate to killing."
A franchise revived
NieR: Automata's public demo, which came out last December, triggered a wave of public interest. Screenshots, video walkthroughs and tweets flooded the internet. People liked what they saw. It was fast, fresh and unashamedly Japanese. Overnight, expectations had skyrocketed for the final product. Suddenly, NieR was relevant again. An all-but-forgotten franchise had risen to become one of the most hotly anticipated Japanese releases.
That demo was just a slice, however. It shows off the combat and one of the boss encounters, but not the game's open world and RPG mechanics. That's a boon for Yoko and his team: They haven't shown their full hand just yet. "What I think doesn't show so well through the demo is Mr. Yoko's great story and the more role-playing elements of the gameplay," Saito says. "Those are really big draws for the game as well. It's not just the action, although that's amazing -- you've got those extra elements too, and if people buy the main game they'll be very excited and satisfied to see those elements as well."
If you ask Yoko, however, he'll disagree that the narrative adds much to the overall experience. "You've got to look at it as an overall package," he says. "Because I think my story gives zero value to it all. That's nothing, but PlatinumGames' action is probably worth 120 percent. So if you look at it overall, it's actually a pretty good game. You'll definitely get your price back for the money you pay for the game."
Again, I can't tell if he's joking or not.