While attending a recent Square Enix media summit, I was given the honour of being one of the first people outside of Square Enix to play-test a demo build of their upcoming action-RPG sequel, Nier: Automata. At the same time, I was also given an opportunity to interview two of the game’s producers, Mr. Yosuke Saito, and Mr. Junichi Ehara, which followed a closed presentation and hands-on play session of mine with Nier: Automata. Disappointingly, direct capture of the game is forbidden at this point, so gameplay screenshots and video directly from my time with the demo build are not currently able to be provided, but I nonetheless learned some fairly interesting info about next year’s very promising follow-up to 2010 action-RPG, Nier.

Before diving into the demo proper, Mr. Saito and Mr. Ehara introduced themselves, then explained how Square Enix received feedback from the original Nier, when it first released in 2010 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The two producers brought up with some slides that Nier was praised for its RPG elements, citing especially positive feedback around the music, story and characters, though received criticism for what was perceived to be lacklustre action elements. Mr. Saito predicted that most of the praise came from devout RPG players who stuck with the entire adventure, while more casual players were often not invested and didn’t play far, due to ill-received action elements, which is perhaps how Nier ended up with a mere 67 (on Xbox 360) or 68 (on PlayStation 3) on Metacritic.

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With six years having passed since Nier’s release, Square Enix is now attempting a sequel, once again trying to raise the bar for its soundtrack, personalities and storytelling, and more conscious effort to up the quality of the action. It was this desire to improve the quality of the action that led to hit Japanese development studio, PlatinumGames, best known for standout action gaming hits like Bayonetta, serving as head developers on Nier: Automata. 

PlatinumGames was not only enthusiastic about tightening the action, but also in expanding the world, which will be a vast open-world setting in the sequel, something that Square Enix hopes everyone can enjoy. Both parties are also making it a primary goal to render Nier: Automata at a maximum 60fps performance clip without compromise, and since the action needs to be experienced to be understood, that’s when Mr. Ehara handed me a Dual Shock 4 controller  to test out the unfinished demo build of Nier: Automata on PlayStation 4. This demo build will allegedly be publicly available to download at some point (whether for everyone or just for the Japanese is currently not specified), but for now, I would be among the first journalists to try the game out in advance!

HANDS-ON IMPRESSIONS

After being reminded that this is an unfinished build and that Square Enix request I forgive any bugs that may crop up (luckily, I didn’t see any bugs or glitches anyway), it was time to dive in to Nier: Automata, which placed me in control of lead protagonist, 2B, an android wandering the post-apocalyptic landscape of the game world. Being in something of a run-down, factory-like area, I was immediately thrust into the action of having to take out a series of small, rolling robot drones, as 2B proceeded with her secret mission.

Beyond having to occasionally deal with the Circle Button and X Button having reversed functionality in the demo (this is on account of the Japanese treating Circle as a confirmation button and X as a cancellation button in their PlayStation titles, whereas in our Western regions, it’s the other way around, with Circle cancelling and X confirming), one of the immediate pleasant surprises with Nier: Automata is how easy it is to pick up and play. Immediately, I found myself able to easily move around with the left analog stick, combining presses of Square and Triangle to hack through enemies with no trouble. The demo never once dipped below 60fps either, despite being an unfinished build, which was very impressive, and kept the thrills of Nier: Automata consistently brisk and exciting.

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After dispatching a few groups of robot peons, I found myself in a miniboss fight of sorts, whereupon a huge chainsaw-like robot carved through the roof of the room I was in, and immediately started trying to take out 2B! My close-range attacks ceased to be ideal against this enemy, and here is where the combat started to throw a few curveballs at me. This is the point where I had to learn how to use ranged attacks, with a pod-like tool around me able to blast machine gun fire as I held R1, with R2 being used to quickly dodge attacks with a simple dash maneuver.

The giant chainsaw would slide across the arena and occasionally bring itself down hard around me, forcing me to keep the pressure on the killer robot with machine gun fire, while also being careful to evade its strikes. It wasn’t a hugely difficult foe once I started learning how to mix and match combat maneuvers, and anyone who has played any game franchises like Bayonetta, God of War or Devil May Cry will immediately feel at home with this combat system. Once my quarry was dispatched, 2B spoke with an ally about seemingly looking for something important in this industrial area, remarking that hostile robot activity would make her objective that much more difficult to accomplish, even if it’s no doubt nothing that she can’t handle.

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Naturally, most finer story elements are being kept close to the vest with Nier: Automata at this point, though I was surprised to hear that the game’s voice acting was already in English in this demo, despite it otherwise being a Japanese build of the game. I couldn’t always focus on what was being said, since there were no subtitles, and I took the opportunity to ask the Square Enix producers questions and remark on things wherever I could. It’s clear that all is not well for humanity in the world of Nier: Automata however, as the world feels very cold and hollow, with only the well-defined light of the sun occasionally providing a bit more vibrancy and colour.

The visuals in Nier: Automata look pretty sharp so far, easily sustaining native 1080p HD resolution with a 60fps framerate at all times in the demo, and they also serve the robotic protagonists well, creating a world that is very beautiful and well-detailed, but also clearly devoid of life and humanity. My time with the demo was played on an original launch model PlayStation 4 console as well, so even if you haven’t invested in a PlayStation 4 Slim or PlayStation 4 Pro, you’ll seem to be getting a pretty visually sharp experience with Nier: Automata’s console build.

My goal in the preview was to head towards a red dot on the minimap, a mysterious objective marker in parts unknown. Obviously, plenty more robot drones got in my way throughout my progression, and the tense, fast-paced waves of foes also encouraged me to make use of a lock-on mechanic with my ranged attacks, targeting nearby enemies with the L2 Button. The lock-on doesn’t seem wholly precise yet, with Mr. Saito commenting that bullets will fly around foes sometimes, possibly suggesting that the mechanic is still being tightened in development before the final release of Nier: Automata next year. The lock-on still managed to be helpful for keeping troublesome enemies at bay though, with a lot of recoil that disturbs accuracy, though never to the point where locking on to your enemies becomes a fruitless endeavour.

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As I remarked aloud that the demo feels very much like PlatinumGames, I was told that there were plenty of items being dropped by enemies, though while I could pick them up, they didn’t have any use in the demo itself. This was disappointing, though I was informed that plenty of items will be dropped by foes as part of a crafting system in the final game, as well as a means of selling loot to make money. Shops will be available in certain camp-like locations, none of which were in the demo, but it seems like anyone who has played a Square Enix RPG will find the economy in Nier: Automata to be plenty familiar, according to the game’s producers. Items that are purchased can also be upgraded, though I wasn’t given information on how the upgrade system will work.

Another very cool surprise in the demo is the fact that the action didn’t always unfold from a traditionally modern three-dimensional action gaming viewpoint. Upon making my way around a cooling tower, with piping that allowed me to gradually move upwards, I noticed that the action switched to a 2D view, and I could suddenly aim and shoot at enemy robot drones simply by pointing with the right analog stick, and firing with R1. This means that the game’s combat controls never change, but the varying of viewpoints and angles can make combat consistently feel fresh and interesting, without ever making players feel like the rules of engagement have been altered. It’s quite remarkable.

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The adaptability of the action was very neat to experience, with Nier: Automata effortlessly morphing between being a recognizable, Bayonetta-like 3D action game, and an arcade-style 2D twin-stick shooter, whenever the perspective changed. The 2D battle view even allowed me to better appreciate the game’s scale, with networks of cooling towers and industrial machinery stretching well into a vast, well-detailed background. Better still is that another section, where I dropped into an enclosed power grid fence, changed the combat view again, this time offering an overhead top-down view, which once again allowed me to engage in twin-stick style shooter combat. These flexible action mechanics really impressed me, and deftly demonstrate that Nier: Automata really is making a huge effort to up the quality of the action over its more contested predecessor.

Those that appreciated the original game’s superb soundtrack can also rest easy in knowing that Nier: Automata once again seems to have an excellent music suite behind it. The small sampling of music I experienced was exotic, gripping and equal parts haunting and action-packed. It added a lot of flair to what is already a stylish action-RPG, and supplemented the core gaming experience in Nier: Automata very well. When I asked the producers about whether the music made a conscious effort to emulate the soundtrack of the previous Nier, Mr. Saito chimed in by saying that the development team did want to challenge themselves with a distinct soundtrack for Nier: Automata, but there was a conscious effort to try and maintain the appeal of the original Nier’s score within the new flourishes.

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Upon reaching a new corner of the demo’s industrial landscape, which seemed to bring me inside a silo-like chamber, I defeated enough enemies to level up 2B. This didn’t mean much for the demo, but in the final game, obviously defeating enemies will accrue EXP and lead to your characters leveling up and becoming stronger. I wasn’t completely filled in how the character upgrade system will work, likely to preserve some surprises for the final release, but I was told that accruing EXP and spoils from battle are key to improving your characters’ base stats, as well as upgrading weapons, and even the multi-purpose pod that also assists with your ranged attacks. Nier: Automata largely feels like a dedicated action game, but between this, and a vast wealth of side quests that Square Enix and PlatinumGames are working on for the final release, the game will still be an RPG for those coming for that end of the experience. Speaking of one’s RPG heritage, I also inquired as to whether the crafting system and upgrades in the game could lead to special weapons, possibly taken from other recognizable Square Enix RPG franchises like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, though predictably, I was teased with the response that this was a secret.

After finding my way into what appeared to be a robot armory, I found myself up against another variable new type of foe, this time robotic knights that brandished shields, which made my ranged attacks useless. This encouraged me to start employing sword combos with 2B’s duo of bladed weapons again, which allowed me to shatter the shields and take out the robots with some precise timing. When I inquired about enemies that will similarly stymie melee attacks in the game, I was told that these enemies would exist in Nier: Automata as well, and players are encouraged to vary their attack styles to combat unpredictable legions of threats later in the game. I also asked about bosses forcing players to change their approach on the fly later in the game, seeing as I busted up a giant chainsaw primarily with ranged attacks, and was told that, yes, there will be plenty of boss enemies that transform their strategies and attack methods, forcing players to do the same if they wish to be successful in defeating them.

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As another tease, I’d just made my way to mere moments before another boss fight, presumably a bigger and nastier foe than the giant chainsaw-like mech from the start of the demo, when I was told that Square Enix was cutting the demo there. It was a bummer, but that was also a sign that I was having fun, which seems to paint a good picture of Nier: Automata so far. When Square Enix asked my initial thoughts on the demo, I candidly spoke about what a pleasant surprise the experience was so far. I remarked being a big personal fan of PlatinumGames, and being concerned about looking for the PlatinumGames touch, but it was definitely there. I also noted the sense of marriage between Western gaming sensibilities taken from titles like God of War, yet mixed with a Japanese sensibility akin to Bayonetta. Truly, Nier: Automata seems like a very action-packed, enjoyable experience so far, and I am definitely looking forward to seeing more!

(The interview portion with Mr. Saito and Mr. Ehara begins on Page 2)

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