Return of the Eastern RPG
I've played some fine RPGs this year, but until now, none were compelling enough to warrant a full review. I binged on Persona 5 this spring, giving at least 120 hours of my life to another fantasy romp through modern Japan. It was definitely fun, but it wasn't groundbreaking like Persona 3 and 4 were on the PS2 10 years ago.
As the summer drew to a close, I dove into Final Fantasy 15, hungry for a game I'd been waiting forever to play. It was impressive on a purely technical level, but solid real time combat and driving a shiny car around a big open world couldn't mask my disappointment in almost every other facet of the game. After 10 years in development, the story was a scattershot mess with many undeveloped characters and a very rushed ending. The soundtrack, usually one of the finest aspects of the series, was underwhelming and only really stood out during the rare occasion you performed a summon. The story telling and drama, (by my measure, the two most important aspects of an RPG) had been sacrificed on the altar of westernization. At its core, Final Fantasy was no longer an eastern RPG. It had become just another open world western style game with endless busy work sidequests, the presentation of which became the focus of the game rather than developing an intriguing plot and meaningful characters.
At that point I thought maybe I was done with role playing games. Maybe the era of fascinating RPGs was over. Or maybe I was just getting old and the problem was me. Perhaps I had finally "outgrown" RPGs the way older folks who don't understand the appeal of videogames have been telling us we would grow out of them since we were teenagers. But then my gaze shifted to my stack of unplayed games and there was Nier: Automata.
Ok Japanese role playing, you get one last chance. A final fantasy, if you will. I had played the original Nier and two out of three Drakengard games, so I had some idea of what to expect from director Yoko Taro, but I was not prepared for the masterpiece that was about to unfold.
The world of Nier: Automata is Earth 9,900 years from now and it's a world drenched in melancholy. All that remains on the planet are the ruins of modern civilization and scraps of our culture that our descendant androids attempt to piece together. Conflict rages between the stoic androids and a quirky, but dangerous, robot race. The robots cartoonish looks are deceiving, for they possess a sinister collective AI that was bequeathed to them by a mysterious alien visitor. Allegedly, mankind yet survives, but whatever is left of them is safeguarded in a colony on the moon. The androids are charged with exterminating the robot menace and returning the planet to its rightful owner, their creators. "Glory to Mankind."
Our main charcters 2B (doesn't take long for this game to jump into philosophical musings) and 9S are thrust into this brutal situation, a merciless war in contrast with the serene beauty of a mostly deserted world. Few RPGs that I've ever played strike the masterful balance Nier: Automata does between what should be said and what's best left unsaid. In doing so, it respects the intelligence of its audience and crafts a haunting mystery that has you thinking and guessing from beginning to end.
The gameplay is almost exclusively fast paced action alternating between ground combat and sections of flight based combat in mechs. Both systems are fun, engaging and easy to control. There is also a hacking mini-game that resembles old school arcade shooters, but there's only a few times during 9S' story line that they are mandatory. It's a mostly optional part of the game that allows you to hack the enemy in situations where you find it useful.
The musical themes of this game will overwhelm you, likely getting stuck in your head for hours or days at a time. It does an amazing job of conveying the perplexity and desperation of the plot and of instilling in you the sense that not only has some great tragedy already occurred (even if you don't fully understand it) but that another one is yet to come.
Nier: Automata has some shrug-worthy fetch quests like most RPGs, but many of the sidequests are packed with story and meaning. One example: A male and female android are on the run from their former lives, abandoning their posts and attempting to flee and start a life together away from the war. If you choose to, you can help them several times as they try to escape and begin anew. In the last stage of the quest, they have failed, having been betrayed and attacked just when they thought they'd found an exit. At that point, the female android asks you to wipe both their minds so they can return to the resistance and forget that they ever had hope for something better. The male doesn't want to do it, but she assures him, they'll fall in love again even after the wipe. I won't reveal what happens next, but rest assured, an impact is felt.
One of the most endearing aspects of the game are the pacifist robots. A faction of the robot menace has decoupled from the alien intelligence, denounced violence and formed an enclave where they can gather and live peacefully. These beings are the most human creatures in the game, possessing a child like innocence that instantly engenders your sympathy and support. As these robots laugh, cry and express infinite curiosity, 2B, 9S and the other androids struggle with their emotions. It creates an interesting dynamic in the story, suggesting that how human you are is inversely proportional to how human you look and that mankind may have lost its humanity in full long ago.
Like the original Nier, the storyline of Nier: Automata is not told in one procedural line, but is divided into blocks. The first takes about 15-20 hours and each one thereafter takes less time. Each block adds important details to the story and the most dramatic elements are unlocked in the last few chapters. All told, you can complete its full story in 55 hours or less, and despite that relatively short length, it was vastly more fulfilling than any RPG I've played in a long time.
This game not only restored my confidence in the potential of the genre, its existence is proof that Japanese role playing survives as more than just a shell of its former self and that Square Enix has not yet lost all its good talent.