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.”

Bayonetta 2 (Wii U) Review

Bayonetta 2 (Wii U) Review

When the Wii U was announced, much hype was made about the fact that Nintendo finally had a system that could go toe-to-toe with the competition on a technical level. Yet, thus far the system has only really been used as Nintendo franchise machine with a little extra oomph. Thankfully, Bayonetta 2 has finally arrived to show the Nintendo faithful and doubters just what this sweet little system is capable of. This isn’t just the best action title on the Wii U, it’s the best and most blissfully entertaining action game that’s been released in this entire generation so far. Rated M with a bullet and packing more skull-cracking high-kicks and swordplay than the entire Shaw Brothers’ oeuvre, Bayonetta 2 will make hardcore gamers weak at the knees just watching the action on screen. Hand them a controller and they’ll be drooling and giggling with joy until the end credits roll. We’re talking about an action game that starts with a massive fight scene set on a jet fighter flying through a city and somehow the designers manage to keep topping themselves from there. An absolute blast.

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Now, while I consider Bayonetta 2 to be a gorgeous and mind-bogglingly fun gaming experience, I couldn’t describe the plot to you with a high-heeled boot gun to my head. I tuned out at some point during the prologue, which involved our titular witch enjoying a big city shopping spree before being interrupted by a magical military assault that leads to a battle across heaven and hell. Beyond that most basic description of the events, I have no idea what happened. The plot is nonsensical in a stream-of-conscious manner that feels very at home in the anime aesthetic. Calling the characters two-dimensional even feels like giving the writers too much credit and the hyper sexualization of the heroine is just absurd from start to finish. Not that I was offended or irritated by any of this (well, except for some of the sophomoric humor which is just dumb not offensive). The game’s story almost feels like a parody of anime conventions in just how far it pushes the genre extremes. It’s certainly never boring for a second and frequently quite funny, especially when the comedy isn’t intentional.

Of course, you don’t exactly sit down to play a game like Bayonetta 2 for the complex storytelling and emotionally rich characterizations. That would be tonally inappropriate and even worse, it would get in the way of all of the glorious bloodshed. This game is all about the combat, people. Everything else is just an excuse to get there, and oh, what wonderful combat it is. Since you play as a witch, magic powers embodied in flaming dragons or giant stilettos made of deadly hair join in on the fun with traditional objects of ass-kickery like swords and guns. Each weapon comes with its own combos and all are executed with a simple two button set up that’s easy to learn and difficult to master (there’s also an even more stripped down touch screen control system for beginners, but the default controls are so amazing that it’s more of a bonus feature than anything else).

Despite the fact that the fights explode onto the screen with blazing speed and that you’ll normally be fighting a variety of enemies at once, there’s never a second when you won’t feel in control. It’s an incredibly intuitive control scheme that’s deep and satisfying. Your moves all look devastating and very rarely do two fights ever feel the same. Aside from button mashing attack sprees, strategy comes into play through combo systems, items, magic, and a clever slow-mo “witch mode” that arrives after a successfully dodged attack. Make no mistake, none of the vast array of enemies should be taken lightly, but Bayonetta feels so insanely powerful in battle that you’ll truly feel like you can overcome any obstacle.

Big bosses are of course a major selling point, each boasting their own fighting personality and all packing a truly intimidating scale. They are all sweaty palmed affairs and all cap off with an astounding finishing move that will make you want to drop the controller and burst into applause after what you’ve accomplished. In the precious few moments between fights, you’ll engage in some mild platforming Never once did these moments slow down the game. In fact, normally these sections required Bayonetta to transform herself into an animal for blistering speed and even a little extra carnage. The level and character design is always beautifully gothic and strange. You won’t have much time to explore the nooks and crannies of these wacko takes on heaven and hell, but what you’ll see will always put a smile on your face. The designers truly out did themselves. This isn’t a game in which you’ll fight through a level inside a giant beast’s stomach, you’ll do so amidst a sea-storm of blood with other giant monsters that live inside the beast jumping out to get you between regular fights. It’s an assault on the senses that needs to be seen to be believed, always playing at a crisp 60 frames per second and proving that the Wii U can compete with the big boys when it comes to sheer visual beauty and overload.

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This linear title essentially offers a non-stop rush through fifteen chapters leading up to its explosive conclusion. However, the game is also deeper than you might think. Each level is loaded with Easter eggs and unique challenges that will unlock extra weapons and items. Rather than leveling up, you’ll collect money throughout the game, which can then be spent on extra items and customization costumes. When it’s all over, you’ll even get 52 co-op fights to play online with friends. And yet, despite all the bells and whistles to keep this disc spinning in your system, most players will find themselves returning to campaign levels over and over just to improve their skills. It’s amazing just how deep and varied the combat design is and there are so many ways to skin each and every cat in Bayonetta’s way. Given how absurdly fast and epic each level is, replaying never feels like a chore. So many bright colors, explosions of blood, and controller-drop set pieces are shoved into your eyeballs from start to finish that it’s impossible to remember it all on first playthrough (frankly, I doubt it could all be lodged in memory in two playthroughs). If you own a Wii U, then you simply have buy a copy of Bayonetta 2. It’s as simple as that. This is the best action game to hit a Nintendo system since No More Heroes 2 and easily the best that the genre has to offer on shelves in general right now. If you want the Wii U to be more than a Nintendo mascot machine (not that there’s anything wrong with that), then you owe it to yourself to buy this game. The folks at Platinum Games just proved that it’s possible to make a beautiful M-rated masterpiece for the Wii U. Let’s make sure that’s the start of a trend and not an anomaly.

 

The Wonderful 101 (Wii U) Review

The Wonderful 101 (Wii U) Review

wonderful101insert1Flawed though it may be, Nintendo finally has a flagship title for their new system that shows just what this puppy can do. Sure, Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii U were filled with that good old-fashioned Nintendo charm, but The Wonderful 101 is a game that could only exist on the Wii U and proves that there are some fantastic games to be mined from the unique hardware. While still maintaining a delightfully cartoony and family friendly aesthetic, Platinum Games have pushed Nintendo into the next gen arena with a gorgeous action title that feels like playing a particularly intense anime come to life. Sure, the touch controls are a bit dodgy, and the highlights can often feel more like a greatest hits reel of previous HD action titles than anything original. But, despite all the reservations and nitpickery, this is a ludicrously entertaining new title for the Wii U that offers a classic Nintendo experience through tools no other system in the company’s history could manage. Maybe this system isn’t doomed after all.

There’s a story to The Wonderful 101, but like any good anime, it really doesn’t make a lick of sense. However, I shall try to convey a sense of whatever it was that I experienced. The title refers to 101 superheroes from around the world that joined forces to fight the inevitable waves of giant monsters and robots that tend to attack peaceful Japan. As the player, you’ll be controlling all of the heroes at once. You see the Wonderful 101 join forces to fight evil, and do so by linking up to form giant fists, swords, whips, guns, and anything else necessary to punch evil right in its stupid face. Beyond that, I’m not 100% sure what happened plot-wise, but I did enjoy it. The team is sent out on a number of missions by a suitably gruff general, and frankly, the nonsensical nature of the storytelling is part of the fun. The writers clearly know how silly this universe and genre is and delight in sticking their tongues in their cheeks while indulging in excess. You don’t need to follow the story to enjoy the game. You just need to let it happen and feel a big silly grin form on your face.

The mechanics of the game itself are fairly simple. Armed with a Wii U controller, you’ll control one hero and up to one hundred minions. It looks at bit like Pikmin at first, but cutesy puzzle solving is quickly replaced by epic ass-kickery. With a swipe of your finger on the touch screen, you’ll gather the minions to form giant weapons (like armor cracking whips or minion firing guns). These will be used to solve simple puzzles and beat up gigantic bosses. The boss battles feel a bit like God Of War, with you and your army taking on massive villains that seem insurmountable until you notice their patterns and weaknesses. Graphically, the game lives up to the scale. Everything is as bright and exaggerated as a cartoon, but the details of the crumbling cities and individually animated minions are undeniably impressive. Throw in a booming score and sound design, and you’ve got yourself a cinematic gaming experience the likes of which Nintendo has never offered before. The designers clearly picked up on the work of the folks behind such titles as Uncharted 2 to make their anime brawler feel immersive and unpredictable. It’s a gorgeous and undeniably goofy experience. Now for the bad news.

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Sadly, the touch-screen centric controls aren’t quite up to the split second timing the game demands. Even though the shapes that need to be drawn to form weapons can be as simple as circles and triangles, getting the touch screen to recognize the proper shape mid-battle can be frustratingly difficult. It takes a few levels to warm up to the unique style of gameplay and then once you’ve got it, new weapons come into play requiring specific shapes like hammers that are tough to communicate through the touch screen to say the least. Toss in a between level upgrade system that’s never explained, yet vital for completion and you’ve got a game that offers as much controller-smashing frustration as it does jaw-gaping adoration. Now, the game is hardly impossible, and if you’re dedicated, you’ll adjust and figure it out. However, with the title and system aimed at kiddies rather than hardcore gamers, that will be a problem.

Despite all that, the good most definitely outweighs the bad in The Wonderful 101. It’s always gorgeous to watch and experience, and once you’ve managed to climb the steep control-learning curve, it’s even quite fun to play. This feels like the exact type of game Nintendo wanted to bring to the table with their new system and hopefully it’s one that future designers and developers will learn from in both its strengths and weaknesses. As irritating as the control system can be, it’s hardly broken, and these sorts of issues tend to pop up with most games that create a completely new control scheme. I’d imagine that Platinum Games will sort everything out for a sequel that will be one of the best games of the Wii U’s lifespan. In the meantime, The Wonderful 101 is easily one of the best games the system has produced so far. That’ll do for now.