Pixels & Ink #239 – The Sickest Podcast

Pixels & Ink #239 - The Sickest Podcast

The Pixels & Ink Podcast is back, brought to you by CGM!

With Nier: Automata ready to hit store shelves on March 17, 2017, CGM editor Elias Blondeau joins the podcast to talk about his experience reviewing the upcoming Square Enix title developed by Platinum Games. Along with that, Phil Brown returns to talk about the latest movie he reviewed, Kong: Skull Island, and Cody Orme talks more about the Nintendo Switch, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Switch port of I am Setsuna.

Along with that, the gang runs down some of the biggest stories of the week like Command & Conquer creator Louis Castle joining Amazon Game Studios, Switch software sales in Japan, along with news about the Alien franchise.

Nier: Automata: An Interview with Yosuke Saito and Junichi Ehara

Nier: Automata: An Interview with Yosuke Saito  and Junichi Ehara

I make no effort to hide the fact that I think NieR was one of the most critically under-appreciated games out there. When it was released in 2010, it was met with a lukewarm reception, having received an aggregate rating of 68%. And I get it. As a game reviewer, the reality is, you have deadlines to meet and embargos to make. Having the ability to sink 25+ hours into a game you have have to finish in less than 22 is a challenging feat at best. Which is an unfortunate situation for a game like NieR; a game whose story is heavily dependant on playing until completion, 60+ hours later. For us fans, a score like that usually means a nail in the coffin for what could be a fantastic franchise. So when NieR: Automata was announced at E3 2015 (going by the working title of NieR New Project), it was a huge surprise.

Yet, at the same time, it wasn’t. You can’t develop a game of that magnitude without a team that is passionate about the world, the story and the characters they’re created. Which, despite the fact that, as Producer Yosuke Saito puts it, NeiR was “not considered a great success”, was reason enough to shake off the negative feedback and give the world another chance through NeiR: Automata. I had a chance to play through a preview level with Co-Producers Yosuke Saito  and Junichi Ehara, and have a chat about this new title and how things would be different this time around.

Nier: Automata: New and Improved! 8Yosuke-San and Junichi-San started our conversation off by immediately addressing the feedback they received and how it influenced the development of NeiR: Automata.

“In the previous title we did receive high praises for storyline, the music and the character. Especially for the previous title, you could experience the game in full with a multi-ending if you play multiple times. We did receive a lot of feedback saying that it was a really touching game. They could really cry, when playing the game. However, we did also receive feedback saying that the action part of the game wasn’t as great, and so we did think that it is somewhere that we need to improve on. We did receive high praises for the storyline, but for those that really did not play through the entire game until the fourth ending did not really think highly about the game. That is how we ended up with the Metacritic score that we do have today.”

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It was the feedback that prompted the team to join forces with PlatinumGames, a development team with a reputation for engaging action games such as Bayonetta, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Platinum took the lead in developing NieR: Automata’s gameplay to create a battle system that was quick to pick up and keeps you on your toes. They combine sequences of action RPG and bullet-hell with a variety of weapons and skills to fit a multitude of gameplay styles.

Junichi-San handed me a controller and I watched as NieR: Automata opened to a desolate, post-apocalyptic urban world, reminiscent of the first game. Platinum’s reputation for creating beautiful environments is well earned, and Automata is no exception.

Yosuke-san proudly explains, “They have created beautiful environments for us, which are connected in an open world game. We were able to create a game that moves at 60fps even during all of the action sequences.”

With the sequence at an end, I dove in, head first, ready to battle a series of androids who were very much in favour of destroying me. As seen in many trailers for NieR: Automata, you take control of humanoid android YoRHa No. 2 Model B, or “2B” for short. Even at such an early development stage, the mechanics felt quick and fluid with a devastating variety of combos to use to eliminate all who stand in your way. According to Junichi-San, combos are tied to the variety of weapons you collect throughout the game. These combos vary depending on the types of weapons you have equipped, and can be coupled with defending maneuvers. Aside from a devastating array of weapons, 2B is accompanied by a flying companion robot who attacks along side you, with skills that can be tailored and upgraded as you progress. As in the first game, depending on the areas you enter, the camera pulls back to give players a full view of the beautifully rendered landscapes.  As enemy encounters intensified, so did the music, layering operatic vocals in a polyphonic experience as powerful as that of the first NieR.

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The story for NieR: Automata takes place more than a few thousand years in the future of the first game. All life on Earth was forced to flee to the Moon after an Alien invasion attacked with an insurmountable army of machine life forms. 2B and other YoHRa were created to counteract the invasion and take back the planet.

There is no need, however, to play the first NieR to get the full effect of, Yosuke-San assures me. He explains what influenced this decision: “I do not consider the previous title to be a huge success, but at the same time, there are a lot of people who really loved that title. Because it was a title that was loved by some many people, I wanted to expand that to more people, more players. If we made this new title a direct sequel you have to play the previous title, then that opportunity just gets tiny; it just doesn’t reach as many people as we want it to reach out to.  That’s why we decided to  make the main story of the game, something that you don’t have to play the previous title to enjoy.”

According to Yosuke-san and Junichi-san, feedback was a big factor influencing many decisions in the games development.

“Was it difficult to see some of the user feedback you received after NieR’s initial release?” I asked.

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“So, It wasn’t too difficult to accept, just because I already braced myself for it,” Yosuke-san explained. “What I felt bad about was that there are so many people who wanted to really see the end of the story; they wanted a real experience the entirety of the game, but they couldn’t, because the action sequence was too difficult to clear. They couldn’t move forward and move on past a certain stage. So, when I was creating this game , I had in mind, that this could never happen again, so I made sure that people would be able to clear the game.”

“In prior interviews, you mention that, theoretically, players can clear it in 25 hours. Was that an influencing factor on as well?” I asked.

“Yeah, most definitely, that is the one of the reasons why we made it so that you’ll be able to clear it in 25 hours. But the difficulty level to reach that complete ending is not as difficult, because  of that as well. We do have multiple endings in , but what you need to do in order to reach that complete ending, will not be as difficult as the previous game.” Yousuke-san explains.

Junichi-san also mentioned while I played, that player would have the option to choose a difficulty level at the start, which would set different stats and parameters of enemies, so as to not alienate players looking for more of a challenge.

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This may sound like the team is catering only to review scores, but after playing through the preview, I can honestly say that if they can keep up the trajectory I was shown, nothing can be further from the truth. There was enough of a return to the things the made NieR so special in the first place, that it feels like the team behind it felt so deeply about the material that they took NieR: Automata as an excuse to improve every aspect of the game. A lot of time was spent developing the story itself and the interaction between the main characters, with efforts concentrated on rich themes, in tune with the style of the first game.

“The characters that appear in this game are androids – they’re mechanical life forms.” Yosuke-san describes. “At first glance, when you hear that, you would imagine characters or beings with no emotion.  But…there’s going to be a lot of interaction between the characters, like 2B and  9S….that they do have some kind of dialogue between them. We see that there’s some kind of emotion, and so, the image that you have of androids and mechanical life forms may change as you play the game. You would notice that they do have some kind of emotion.”

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“So, I can’t really dive into to much about it, because that would reveal the story line,or be a kind of spoiler.” He continues, “But while there is that theme of agaku, I also think that there’s also a theme of love on in this game, which you would normally not associate with robots. You will see that there is a certain type of love between the androids and other robots themselves as well.”

Fans of NieR will also get to see a few familiar faces with Devola and Popola, who, as Yosuke-san hints, “will appear in this game as well, in some format. There will be that kind of a connection, that you might be able to look for-  like an easter egg in the game.” He goes on to say that NieR: Automata will be an opportunity for the fan favorites to “try to accomplish what they couldn’t do, just to get rid of that regret that the had in the previous game.”

With a release date set for March 7, 2017, fans and newcomers alike will have to wait a little bit longer to see the fruits of the team’s efforts. NieR: Automata will be available for PC through Steam and on PS4, with plans to optimise the game for PS4 Pro. In the meantime, Yosuke-san informed me of plans for a consumer demo: “We are hoping to release the demo,as soon as possible, so we could bring this to everyone. That will also include the boss battles. Please try playing that when it comes out too.”

Boiling Point

Boiling Point

A conflict between the East and the West has been bubbling since the dawn of video game culture. And the debate has reached its boiling point. A recent controversy surrounding Nier, a game developed by Square Enix, brought this volatile conflict to my attention. The game has two distinct protagonists; one that’s masculine and one that’s feminine. The West was given the masculine hero. Some saw this as an odd exclusivist attitude on the developer’s part. We asked: why is the more feminine Nier being withheld? Developer Yosuke Saito said in an interview, “At Square Enix Los Angeles studio we had a discussion, it was said having a fragile young character was not possible. So, I started preparing a macho protagonist for North America.” This is where the controversy begins. Is the West unable to accept a fragile protagonist?

The most recent “fragile” protagonist I can think of is Harry Mason from Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Climax Group’s take on the game’s protagonist has him stripped of his weaponry, defenseless and generally ill-equipped to face the horrors of Silent Hill. Silent Hill is a Japanese series. Climax Group is a Western developer. The game itself becomes cultural paradox. Shattered Memories is a remake of the original Silent Hill, a game deeply rooted in psychological themes. It was released in North America first then in Japan a few months later. It excelled in the West generally being well received by audiences. It showed the West’s willingness to accept “fragile” characters whose minds are prone to shattering. So why then is the West expectations perceived to be the opposite of his character? Why do we require masculine protagonists?

Shank’s Shank, Mafia II’s Vito Scaletta and Gear of War’s Marcus Fenix are but a few “macho” Western protagonists of recent history. They are all buff, they are all tough and when confronted by adversity they deal with it through a hail of bullets or blades. This is not to say that the West is unable to create protagonists with more depth than, “tap X to kill.” And this is not to say that characters like Shank, Vito and Marcus go without character development. It’s more a problem with embedded cultural memes declaring these characters “macho.” And it’s a matter of cultural relativism when the East perceives these “macho” types as our virtual heroes. This is where the pot really begins to boil.

Let’s take this conflict to its most fundamental level. Are there any truly Western video games? Yes, Halo: Reach. An easy answer, but what makes it so entirely Western? Is it the game’s production? Is it Master Chief? Or is it themes present within the game?
Kingdom Hearts’ Sora, a spiky-haired indomitable type who fights alongside Disney characters goes against this culturally defined stereotype. The series utilizes culturally identifiable Disney characters to bridge the gap between the East and the West. Without the involvement of Western icons like Mickey Mouse, I doubt Kingdom Hearts would have succeeded overseas. It is the series’ hybridism that allows it to succeed in the West while retaining its Eastern origins. On the whole, Nier feels like an experiment. It feels like Square Enix’s attempt at creating a contemporary Western protagonist within an Eastern experience, yet something still feels lost in translation.

I spoke with Justin Potts, Project Manager at Active Gaming Media, a localization company in Japan. “I don’t really think it’s a matter of, ‘Westerners are ___________, and they all like ___________,’” said Potts. “Instead just a matter of not really taking that other audience into account much at all, and not really being able to, which I think a lot of developers recognize.” What, then, is the essential difference between the masculine Nier and the feminine Nier? Why even describe the two using these qualifications of male and female? Why does the East prescribe to the idea that Western protagonists must be testosterone filled maniacs? “I don’t think, however, that a lot of issues related to game design are one’s of ‘perception’ of foreign audiences,” said Potts. “Instead, just a matter of not really being concerned with other audiences.  This goes for most developers in most countries.  Just like any form of art, it’s created with a certain vision in mind, and when you think about people enjoying your creation, those who are likely to get the most out of it are ones with points of reference for processing its audio/visual/contextual representations.”

At a recent Square Enix conference at CEDEC 2010, representatives explained that “believability” of video gaming in the West – i.e. the creation of realistic characters and scenarios – hinged upon the toughness of their protagonists. In other words, when confronted by adversity a hero should be able to overcome it. They used Fallout 3’s silent protagonist as an example. He or she readily injects drugs into his system in order to enhance his abilities in a violent dystopian future. They argued that this grittiness was believable and his strength created a more believable video game environment.
“Game media, however,” said Pots “and both Western and Japanese media are guilty, and certainly do a fine job of telling us what ‘Japanese think’ about the Western audience and vice-versa.  I think that’s something that we have to get over first before we can really get down to examining these things in useful, meaningful ways that might lend to the creation of better games.”

The cross-cultural themes present in video games like play, entertainment and story are universal. The conflict is more a question of whether or not the average Western audience can accept the culturally defined choices of the game developer. Game play is never inherently cultural; however, aesthetics and storytelling are far more influenced by the developer. “If you go back and look at box art, character art, advertisements and concept art for old Japanese games, most of them share a common anime/manga aesthetic, whereas what was presented to Western audiences was really all over the place,” said Potts.  “For example, Japanese gamers (and non-gamers) knew what a Dragon Ball game was about and were familiar with the stories and characters.  Western audiences got Dragon Power. We lacked a cohesive network of the shared cultural art form to associate with games being developed at the time.”

There’s a smallish city in Japan called Kobe, which is located in a prefecture famous for livestock and their marbled beef. One of the city’s attractions is a district filled with former diplomatic residences. My brother and I once visited the site and it felt like stepping into a microcosm within the country. There is a point to this story so hang in there. We went to a small restaurant where the featured dish was grilled chicken sautéed in Canadian maple syrup. Now, I’ve experience quite a lot of strange things in Japan. It’s an entirely different culture than our own, but the chicken was delicious if a little rubbery, so I have no complaints; however, this cross-culturalism can be interpreted in two ways. Is the maple syrup chicken a sign that the Japanese are open to Western culture? Are they making an earnest attempt to appeal to us? Or is the Maple Syrup chicken seen as nothing more than an attraction designed to catch the attention of passing foreigners.

Culture overwhelms video games. How often do we think of video games as cultural artifacts? Here’s a question, can you name a Canadian video game? I can think of a few. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction was developed right here in Canada. Ubisoft Montréal handled it and they did a decent job. However, Ubisoft is a French Developer; Splinter Cell follows an America spy and the game takes place mostly in the United States. Maybe the themes are less Canadian than its production yet the general perception of the series has it thus removed from its Canadian upbringing. These cultural perceptions permeate game culture right down to its core. The Nier controversy is a sign that Japanese developers are taking Western audiences into consideration when developing their games. It’s an experience heavily influenced by Western ideas of aesthetics and story; however, and on the same level, it’s an extremely Eastern game that utilizes their own cultural memes within its story telling. It’s paradoxical.

East and West, masculine and feminine, objectivism and relativism; these conflicts exist in opposition of one another. These conflicts often result in a kind of hybridism, a middle ground where everyone is content. Video games are no different in this respect. Are video games culturally relativistic experiences? Are video games culturally defined experiences? They are both. This controversy has been bubbling since the beginning of video game culture. This most recent controversy has resulted in an interesting dialogue of the East versus the West rather than the East and the West. It’s a conflict that could easily boil over creating a mess for all the players to clean up, or if it’s caught at the right moment it could result in some great al dente pasta … with a side of Kobe’s maple syrup chicken.

Nier (XBOX 360) Review

Nier (XBOX 360) Review

Nier claims to be an Action RPG, and it does its best to live up to the title.  Health, magic, and combat are based on your character’s stats, but there’s no turn-based nonsense and battles are fast-paced affairs involving a lot of blood and a lot of dodging. But Square-Enix’s latest title falls a little short of epic, settling for a more personal narrative that hits just often enough to be engaging.

Nier is highly competent in terms of gameplay.  It balances Action and role-playing as well as any other game of its kind, giving players enough options to customize the protagonist without overwhelming complexity. It’s all very intuitive and user friendly, which is good considering that tutorials are unlocked only after you’ve figured everything out.

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The combat is a lot of fun, even if it is a little simplistic.  There are three different types of weapons that all have unique properties and advantages.  You can switch at any time, so it pays to experiment with each style to maximize your destructive capabilities.  The magic attacks are also nicely varied, and every spell is useful. Design execution, however, is not the game’s problem.

The advertising campaign implies that Nier is a violent post-apocalyptic tale of disease, intrigue, and redemption. The excellent opening sequence reinforces that notion. You’re thrown directly into a battle against a massive horde of evil shades set amongst the ruins of a crumbling metropolis in the not too distant future. Since Nier takes place on Earth, the whole fight lays the groundwork for an epic journey to rescue humanity from the brink of extinction. But then time skips one thousand years ahead and drops you into Hyrule, seemingly forgetting the story’s pseudo-realistic origins.

Nier is more interested in being Zelda than it is in being Nier. The mysterious disease storyline is scrapped in favor of a generic save-the-princess adventure, leaving the game with more untied plot threads than Heavy Rain. It’s a shame, because Nier has the seeds of something truly great. The characters occasionally reference the mythical lost technology of an ancient civilization, and it’s very cool to realize that they’re talking about skyscrapers and cars. Unfortunately, there’s never any payoff, so the game might as well be set on Venus.

The Zelda comparisons make Nier’s shortcomings that much more obvious.  There are no clever puzzles, nor is there much of a difficulty curve. Nier’s only trick is to remove one of your abilities, which is more frustrating than it is challenging. Later stages are copies of earlier ones and the game usually just adds more bad guys to make the going tougher.

Nier positively revels in repetition. Shades come in different sizes and some of them have armor, but there’s really only one monster that you fight over and over again.  The level design is similarly uninspired. There’s a five-year time jump about halfway through the story, and the second half of the game consists of revisiting the same locations to see what’s changed in the interim.

Even the gameplay itself is repetitive. The citizens of the three towns you visit will hire you to do various menial tasks that comprise Nier’s questing system. It’s here that the game’s RPG aspirations are evident, since questing is nothing but a grind. Getting things done is a test of patience and luck, and the harvesting mechanics seem as if they’re designed to artificially lengthen playtime. Vegetables can be cheaply grown in a garden, but you’ll have to find ways to amuse yourself while waiting for them to ripen. Creatures never seem to drop the item you want, and it gets annoying after you’ve killed forty sheep for forty pieces of mutton when you’re only looking for wool.

I’m admittedly making the game sound much worse than it is. There are no glaring design flaws and the controls are perfectly balanced, while many of the boss fights are spectacular. Even the side quests are fun to complete, mostly because the NPCs have amusing stories that immerse you in the world. Still, the criticisms help locate Nier relative to other action-RPGs. Nier always ranges from good to very good. It just isn’t as remarkable as the best of the genre.

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Nier does stand out for its M rating, and not always in a good way. The violent eruptions of blood that spew from every creature are almost comically out of place against the idyllic countryside backdrops. Fortunately, there’s enough restraint to make the rating one of the most interesting aspects of the game. Rather than wallowing in juvenile gore, Nier approaches its characters with actual maturity, as with a femme fatale who borrows her vocabulary from a Tarantino film. The profanity is jarring at first, but it eventually establishes her as an authentically vulgar character in an otherwise straight-laced world.

The idiosyncratic character design permeates the game. Each character is extremely well defined with consistent motivations and believable quirks, imbuing the game with a genuine humanity that holds Nier together in spite of its flaws. The voice acting is never stilted or out of place, and while the cut scenes can be a little tedious, the in-game banter is superb. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, and the game frequently displays a refreshing awareness of its own absurdity. Considering that a talking book is turned into a sympathetic character with a recognizable personality, Nier deserves credit for the chances it takes.

Characters aside, Nier ultimately has more potential than it does delivery, marring a generally solid game. The design execution is good enough to make it worthwhile, but it’s probably doomed to be remembered as a game that could have been great.