2017 started with memorable moments in gaming. Guerrilla Games won the public with Horizon Zero Dawn, Nintendo reminded us why we love it so much with the Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Atlus delivered the long-awaited continuation to the popular Persona franchise with its fifth installment, taking the JRPG to the public eye like never before. And among all these masterpieces is the unexpected NieR: Automata, Yoko Taro’s latest creation.
Until recently, many gamers weren’t familiar with Yoko Taro and his work. The Drakengard franchise and its spin-off/sequel NieR both had cult followings that fully understood the message the Japanese game designer was trying to convey, but it wasn’t until Automata that he became known to a much larger audience. First released in Western territories for the PlayStation 4 on March 7 and 10, NieR: Automata is without a doubt a strong contender for Game of the Year. Its philosophical themes and array of gameplay designs make it unique, with the “weirdness” surrounding the androids’ journey being the key word most players use to describe it. Besides having an engaging story, however, the second entry in the NieR franchise accomplishes something few other open world RPGs manage.
Those who play modern RPGs with strong stories are familiar with the “new game plus” (NG+ for short) feature. Upon finishing the game, the option becomes available either after the credits or back at the title screen. Selecting it will restart the story whilst retaining most of the character’s equipment, levels, skills, and items. A NG+ may sometimes offer additional features or difficulty spikes (such as in Dark Souls) as well as the opportunity to engage the world differently (as observed in Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII). New items and quests may become available, but despite what developers offer, not many players go through with the concept.
The feature is most fitting to completionists who strive to have every piece of equipment or to unlock every possible trophy/achievement, or even those who enjoy the game so much, they have to go through it a second, third, fourth, countless times. However, this often means they have to go through the whole story as well as mundane side quests again. NieR: Automata makes use of the concept in a completely different way.
The action RPG counts with multiple endings, four of which will give meaning to the overall story. Reaching such endings isn’t as mundane as it is with many other games. Upon completing ending A, players get to play through the story a second time as 9S, 2B’s faithful companion. The change in perspective and the gameplay additions brought by the character’s background are crucial and give further insight into the events that transpired. Playing this route feels fresh not only for the changes introduced but also because most quests completed throughout the first playthrough are considered completed on the second. Some incomplete quests remain accessible and on top of that, new ones are available. Everything acquired during the first playthrough remains untouched in the second, including the weapons 2B had equipped by the end.
The jump between the second and third playthroughs can be difficult to discern. Ending B leads right into the events that precede the third playthrough, with everything so interconnected that it can be difficult to treat it as another NG+. The changes ending B brings to the world and the story are so shocking that the third route feels like something else entirely. The pace is once again steady and the characters have renewed purposes and storytelling starts to rely on interpretation and empathy more than ever as they face a new array of philosophical questions.
Instead of making players truly start all over, reaching either ending available from the third playthrough will unlock the ability to select which chapter and which specific checkpoint you wish to revisit. This versatility makes it possible to take care of any unfinished business as well as the opportunity to tackle all the 26 endings.
The open world is an undeniable trend in the triple-A market that seems to be even more prominent this year. The demand for free roaming and a substantial overall gameplay time often make developers fill their maps with unnecessary quests that stretch the game for longer than it should be. Add to that a NG+ mode with little to no changes and you have a superficial product that is nothing but a statistic in the company’s fiscal year. It is true that most developers and publishers make games and continue the traditions of popular franchises because they have bills to pay, but that doesn’t mean they can’t thoroughly please their fans with a substantial adventure.
The diversity of NieR: Automata, more than its intricate story, is what makes it such a great game that developers should be taking notes from. The constant changes in gameplay design and how it relies on multiple playthroughs to tell its story are only part of the reason why it’s so engaging and popular with anyone who plays it. Additionally, how each playthrough turns into its own experience and the ability to go back and forth in the story after the third add a level of replayability only a handful of similar titles managed to achieve.
It is a shame that NieR: Automata might be dismissed by some people who may not feel attracted to its gameplay diversity or oversexualized characters. PlatinumGames and Yoko Taro managed to create one of the best games of the generation. While some strong GOTY contenders fall into oblivion as time passes, Automata will be remembered years from now for its intricacy and storytelling.