Some thoughts on Nier: Gestalt and Automata

I recently finished Yoko Taro’s 2017 masterpiece Nier: Automata. Having never played any of the previous works in the series I decided to check out Nier: Gestalt on PlayStation 3. I was surprised to find that Gestalt, while it stands well enough on its own, feels in some ways like a rough draft of Automata. If you haven’t played at least one of these games this post probably isn’t for you.

Typically when we hear or read the words “rough draft” it is within the context of writing and so we assume that we’re discussing an early version of a story. However, video games allow for narratives to be structured differently through the use of gameplay mechanics, level design, and pacing that is more film-like in quality. Nier: Gestalt has its own unique characters and arcs and a lot of what happens over the course of its narrative lays the groundwork for the events of Automata. While it doesn’t map directly as a traditional rough draft, when I played it I noticed that certain things felt remarkably familiar. Combat, quests, and the thematic design of the world is at the forefront for why that is.

The first thing I noticed was how the game controlled. The buttons on the controller are mapped nearly exactly as they are in Automata. Melee combat in Gestalt is… serviceable. It is nowhere near as polished as what is on offer in Automata. I was surprised to find that magic plays a much more prominent role than it does in the newer game–to the point where all four shoulder buttons can be remapped to accommodate various spells. In Automata these abilities are relegated to one button and tied to the players pods. It is not unusual for a series to keep its control scheme yet make minor changes throughout, but I suppose I was expecting Nier to feel akin to Drakengard–a game more similar to the crowd-clearing hack-n-slash Dynasty Warriors–than to the finely tuned Automata. Similar controls are where the comparison ends, unfortunately.

While it didn’t take long for me to get used to, I thought multiple times while playing about how cool it would be if Platinum Games were to remaster this first game with a newer combat engine.

Outside of combat the structure of the world, too, was familiar. There was a central hub the player character called home that branched off into different environs/biomes: sea, desert, forest, etc. As I explored them I had the feint feeling that some of them actually were the same locations I’d seen thousands of years in the future. Especially with the desert. And I’d be remiss to ignore the use of a familiar building in both games. My jaw dropped when I entered the library at the beginning of Nier: Gestalt, having just seen it at the end of Automata–a feeling of nostalgia that was likely experienced in reverse order for many fans.

Despite this strange sense of retroactive nostalgia, I found that one of the original Nier’s biggest problems was in how it handled side quests. Often an NPC would want ten to thirty of a number of items, requiring the player to grind them out or buy them. I stopped doing Nier’s side quests fairly early on.

Automata handles side quests better. There are far fewer of them, and while they often amount to go-here-kill-this simplicity, the combat gameplay and the strength of the writing more than makes up for it. In other words, unlike in the original Nier, side quests in Automata help develop the world and don’t throw a wrench into the pacing.

The examination of mechanics here is not meant to distract from or call Nier’s story unimportant–I’d call the most important part of either game the characters and plot.

Plot twists revealed things I already knew about the world but added emotional depth because the events were happening to characters in front of me rather than being read about in a text log thousands of years removed–much the same way rewatching the cutscenes from the beginning of Automata with the context of its endings reveals just how carefully it must have been written. This isn’t the same as attempting to retroactively plug plot holes ala Kojima and Metal Gear. This is refinement I don’t typically see in games writing. Part of the reason Automata works so well in terms of its narrative structure is because it takes one of my least favorite aspects of the original Nier and repurposes it beautifully.

The original Nier has a barrier to its final endings that I absolutely cannot stand. To see the canon final ending the player must collect every last weapon in the game. Another game in this series, Drakengard 3, also does this. I quit playing Drakengard 3 when it requested that I do this. Its gameplay was so poor that going back through its bland levels wasn’t worth my time even if I did previously find its narrative compelling. However, with Nier this design decision hurts even more. Because the combat here is serviceable and the characters and story are so interesting I really wanted to see the true ending. I would advise anyone who goes back to play Nier: Gestalt after Automata to just look endings C and D up on YouTube. Unlike Automata, where routes C and D are very very different to route B, the original Nier essentially has the player running its B route three times in a row.

Automata wisely treats its weapon-collecting-related ending as an entirely optional side mission/hidden ending (one that will really only resonate for those that played the original Nier anyway).

If the sudden appearance of random letters is confusing let me break it down: Nier must be played multiple times if the player wants to see the full story. The first time they play they will see Route A. The second time they will see Route B and so on until they are told to collect all of the weapons. I found that the best play through of the original Nier was Route B, which offered a directors cut of sorts in terms or providing previously obfuscated details. The remainder was a chore. Nier: Automata wisely treats each of its “routes” more like individual chapters that build on top of each other until it reaches its conclusion.

I really cannot emphasize enough how much better this is for the kind of story these games are attempting to tell. Yes, repeating Route B and collecting all of the weapons in Nier is very much something you’d expect of a video game, but it isn’t fun. It isn’t appropriate or thematically relevant to the structure of the game. It really feels as though Automata recognizes this. It uses its mechanics to progress a story, but doesn’t allow them to get in the way or keep you from seeing that story.

It’s for that same reason I’m glad, despite what I’ve seen some others say, that the combat isn’t as challenging as it is in other character action games (which for as long as I can remember have had abysmal stories). There are still, despite this, times where the game uses music and pacing to make the combat feel more intense than it actually is. There is a sequence towards the end of the game that jump cuts between two player-controlled characters as they fight their way up a tower that is unmatched. Sequences like that one and several others left me in awe in a way that only 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road had previously done.

Nier: Automata is a masterpiece and easily one of my favorite games of all time. That being said I doubt that it would be as good as it is if the original Nier (or the Drakengard games for that matter) hadn’t had the problems that it did. And while this is the first time this kind of progression from one game to another has been glaringly obvious for me, I’m sure it is very common for developers to carry lessons like this from one project to another. But how rarely does a game really truly demonstrate it the way that this one does.

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