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.
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."