NieR: Automata Review

For the Glory of Mankind.

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Square Enix

Reviewed for: PS4 Pro

Played: Around 35 hours, receiving endings A, B, C, D, and E, along with some post game cleanup.

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NieR: Automata is something unique in a landscape of games attempting to follow popular trends and genre norms. Much like the robotic foes you spend most of your time slicing through, Automata has been pieced together from the cast off mechanics of genres that we have come to know and love, and even those that are probably better off left by the wayside. This fusion of satisfying play styles is held together by a narrative penned by auteur game designer Yoko Tarō, and while not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, NieR: Automata is an unforgettable experience that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled on any of its many, many different endings.

Taking place in the far distant future, Automata tells the story of three androids fighting a proxy war on a ravaged Earth, seeking to reclaim it from the machines occupying it. The human survivors of this robotic apocalypse sought refuge on the moon, where they have developed elite android combat units known as YorHa. These soldiers are the eyes through which the world of Automata is seen, and through which concepts like duty, emotion and individualism are explored by the player.

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The protagonist, at least initially, is 2B. A front-line unit designed to be the perfect soldier, 2B’s journey is one of exploration, as she discover’s there is more to the machines on earth than humanity’s leadership would have her believe. Accompanying her, and arguably the true protagonist of the game, is 9S. A scanner model, 9S is the emotional link to the games narrative, and has the strongest and most effective arc by far, once all is said and done. Finally, we have A2, an outdated model turned traitor to her YorHa brethren. A2 is a little one note, and really only present for the back third of the game, but her unique mechanics are a welcome change to Automata’s combat system, especially after some of 9S’s slower segments.

One of the games major supporting characters is Pascal, a pacifist, sentient machine that has a surprisingly large role to play, even if the majority of it is spent doling out fetch quests to pad out some of the middle sections of the game. I wish Pascal was a little more interesting, but like virtually every other character you will meet, there is very little actual growth. Most end up being one note, and rather flat. This is a shame, because Nier; Automata is well written, and the world these flat, one note characters inhabit is intriguing and full of mystery.

And before we get to the thing’s NieR gets right, we do have to talk about NieR’s greatest sin. The large, semi open areas that the majority of the game takes place in are unfortunately quite boring. While there are some beautiful vistas to behold, the world is sparse, which I suppose could be intentional, as it certainly feels desolate. Unfortunately, they aren’t very exciting to explore, and are for the most part quite straight forward. While there are some locked doors that cant be accessed until later playthroughs, most of the loot found hidden off the beaten path is fairly trivial, as the materials required for upgrading weapons is dropped by enemies fairly generously. I could forgive a lot of the above, if you didn’t have to travel back to each of these bland environments so many times. For example, the factory that the opening hour of the game takes place in, has to be revisited five times throughout the course of the game as part of the critical path. It isn’t that interesting to begin with, and that’s not even including the multiple times you need to return there as part of various side quests.

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Where Automata truly shines though, is in its combat. Developed by Platinum Games, hardened veterans of the action-rpg genre, the combat is lightning fast and deeply satisfying. Playing as 2B, you are able to dual-wield any weapon in the game, of which there are dozens across four categories. For example, say you had a sword equipped to your first slot, and a spear in the second, each weapon has its own string of attack’s and can be combined fluidly with the other at any point. Further, each weapon has a differing move set, depending on which slot it is equipped to. So, a spear in slot one has a wider, more sweeping move set when compared to a spear in slot two, that consists of stabs and thrusts. Further, each weapon can be upgraded multiple times, each time adding more attacks to the combo chain and providing additional benefits, such as extra damage while at full health. There is nothing stopping you from equipping two spears either, to become a whirling dervish of death.

Each android is also accompanied by a pod, a little helper drone that supports you in battle and acts as a kind of robotic commentator to everything you do. By holding down the appropriate button, your pod will unleash a barrage of laser fire, functioning as your basic ranged attack. There are different types of pod, all upgradeable, with different methods of attack, but I found the starting unit to be the most effective. Your pod can also be equipped with various programs, that function as special attacks. Again, the default is a powerful ranged blast attack, and I found myself using it for the majority of the game. Embarrassingly, I assumed that the limited selection at shops were all the programs available. It wasn’t until I was about to complete the game I discovered exotic programs like a grappling hook that could be used in combat, or a gravity bomb that could be used to set up groups of enemies for devastating AOE’s.

Your android can be upgraded by attaching what are known as Plug-In Chips, which can be bought and are frequently dropped by enemies. These function as Automata’s upgrade system, and it is incredibly robust once fully unlocked. Like any machine, YorHa units have limited memory, and can only equip a certain number of upgrades. Once all of these upgrades have been purchased, you will have a lot of options to play around with, and you really can create a unique build or playstyle. For example, I built 2B as a real glass cannon, with multiple attack and speed upgrades, but also several chips that would not only heal me for every machine I destroyed, but also every time I even hit one. This translated into an ultra aggressive play style where I was constantly on the offensive, and the game felt more akin to something like Bloodborne. Conversely, playing as 9S, all of my chips buffed his unique hacking skill, his movement speed and his pods ranged attack, which felt like playing a ranged caster in other games.

And we should talk about the music, which is uniformly incredible. I think the highest praise I can give it, is that I listen to it out loud in my apartment when I’m working. I’m listening to it as I write this in fact. The soundtrack to NieR; Automata is, much like the game itself, loud, bombastic, epic and deeply weird. Whether its one of the booming orchestral epics that accompany boss fights, with melodic Gregorian chants that make you believe you might be fighting God himself, or any of the more stripped back tunes that you might hear in the Resistance Camp or in Pascal’s Village, the OST is fantastic, and one of the games greatest strengths.

Another strength, although not as consistent, is the games emphasis on differing game styles to mix thing’s up. You might be exploring an open three dimensional space, and upon entering a hallway the perspective will shift to that of a two dimensional sidescroller or platformer, not unlike Mario. Of course, you can still be laying down constant fire with your pod, which makes these segments reminiscent of sidescrolling shooter like the Metal Slug series. 9S has a hacking mechanic that plays out like a top down shooter, and while used in interesting ways, can become a little tiring with repeated use. Even the most mundane fights in an open area can end up feeling like a third person shooter, as the weight of enemy fire that you are forced to dodge can feel like area-denial attacks. Boss fights especially can come to resemble games from the bullet hell genre, and are truly intense in the latter stages of the game. And of course there are the flight suit segments, that play like Ikaruga or Space Invaders, with you vanquishing wave after wave of enemie fighters. A personal favorite section of mine featured a full motion FMV battle taking place in the background while you fight off enemy aircraft in the foreground, strangely reminiscent of the Battle of the Garden’s in Final Fantasy VIII, to date one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a game.

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In this way, NieR: Automata truly keeps you guessing. It’s a weird beast, that you cant ever truly pin down. It constantly bombards you with ever shifting gameplay styles, keeping you on the back foot, fighting through by the skin of your teeth. Then it might deliver a quieter moment in the form of philosophical monologue on the nature of self determinism straight from the mouth of a strange looking robot. There is the childlike sense of humor present throughout the game, with gags that sometime work, but always succeed in selling this world as alien and unfathomable. And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the games insistent sexualisation of 2B to an uncomfortable degree, with the camera angle always gently trying to peek under her skirt. But aside from that last part, every aspect comes together in a way that just works. This game should be a mess of confused ideas and concepts, but aside from some pacing issues in the middle and a few too many fetch quests, the game as a whole comes together in a big way.

One of the best JRPG’s of the modern era, NieR: Automota is a flawed masterpiece that has to be experienced to be believed. It’s fantastic soundtrack complements its brilliant combat system perfectly, and guides you down the rabbit hole of its desperately compelling narrative. Yoko Taro and Platinum Games have crafted something truly unique, and like 9S and 2B themselves, complement each others strengths while masking their weakness’s. In a landscape full of sequels and stale ideas, Automata has taken something from virtually every genre that has come before, and in doing so, it feel’s like they have created something that defies definition.

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Hollow Knight Review

Developer: Team Cherry

Publisher: Team Cherry

Reviewed for : Nintendo Switch

Played: Around 30 hours, visiting each area and received ”The Hollow Knight” ending.

Hollow Knight is a haunting journey through a dark, treacherous and beautiful world full of surprise, and both hope and horror. Playing as The Knight, Hollow Knight’s enigmatic silent protagonist, you will explore the depths, which alternate between darkness and the light, of the cursed subterranean kingdom known as Hallownest.

All of this is done quite expertly in a way that other games of its genre will ape going forward, if they are wise. I promised myself I would avoid the following terms in this review, there really is no better way to describe games of this ilk… Taking some of the best elements of both Metroidvania and Soulslike titles, Hollow Knight marries the trappings and tropes of these genre’s and makes them it’s own, with its smart, satisfying take on 2D combat, intense platforming and addictive upgrade system.

The basic gameplay loop looks something like this. After a brief tutorial, you are set loose on the semi open world from the starting town of Dirtmouth. From here, you explore the sometimes-scary and always-tense world, encountering the games 100+ enemy types and occasionally a boss encounter (of which there are more than 30). After defeating foes, you will be rewarded with Geo, the games currency, which can be used to buy upgrades and charms back in Dirtmouth and from various other vendors around the labyrinthine world. If you die, you lose a third of your Soul meter and all of your currency will be guarded by a familiar looking shade, who must be defeated to return it and your Soul gauge to their rightful places. Sound familiar?

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All of this is set to what is one of the most evocative and memorable sound tracks to a game I have played in recent memory, whether it be moody strings to set the tone, or one of the orchestral epics that accompany any serious encounter. The art style, while simplistic, is wildly original and constantly surprising… because, and I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this in four paragraphs, every character encountered, both friend and foe, are bugs. Tiny, little, lovingly hand drawn insects, from grubs to Rhinoceros beetles, spiders and praying mantises.

Now, there are a bunch of meta-narrative threads that can be drawn upon from this insect conceit, and Hollow Knight does, to some extent. Insects are a great metaphor to draw from, when your story revolves around the nature of freedom and independent thought. Of course this is explored in a lot of games media, albeit usually more so in sci-fi and Android fiction (insects are automaton’s, after all). But I found Hollow Knight’s take on all of this to be charming and refreshing, thanks to its characters, even if it is largely derivative of That-Game-Series-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named plot line, told in a similarly sparse and indirect fashion.

But we don’t play these games for their stories, that’s just a happy addition, at least for me. Hollow Knight is all play, and it plays like a dream. Surprisingly twitchy for a 2D platformer, combat is lightning fast and is so intense I would often forget to breathe during tough encounters. The Knight wields a nail like it was a longsword, and the majority of combat occurs at nail-length. This involves a horizontal slash, a rising vertical slash and a downward slash reminiscent of earlier Zelda and Ducktales titles. That is to say, that this downward strike has the added bonus of pogoing the player upwards, which can used both tactically during in encounters and also in exploration.

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To complement this, The Knight also has several Soul spells at his command, although they are unlocked over the course of the game. Soul is a resource gained by striking enemies, and it can be expended to power the aforementioned abilities, which are really the players only ranged option. To further complicate this, you can expend a third of the Soul gauge to heal one mask (Hollow Knights term for hitpoints). This healing is further FURTHER complicated by a brief charge up period, during which, if any damage is taken, then a mask is lost, along with whatever Soul was used to begin the process.

Which brings us to the charms and notches system, which I think is how Hollow Knight has kept me playing nearly 10 hours after rolling credits. Each charm has a unique effect, whether that be something mundane like increasing the nail’s reach, or increasing attack speed… to something dramatic, like exuding a dung beetles toxic odor, or spawning miniature versions of The Knight that will launch kamikaze attacks on any nearby enemies. These charms take up a certain number of notches, with you having a very limited capacity at the start of the game, this number increasing as you progress through the game and allowing for more complex setups. And this really is my favorite part of the game – build construction. You can build The Knight in a, quite frankly, absurd number of ways. Want to pump out melee damage, or increase your magic output? Easy. But how about something a little more exotic?

The example I used earlier was a build I played around with. My Knight had a toxic cloud following him at all times, that would damage any enemies that  where caught in it. And he would constantly spawn little Knights that would seek out enemies and destroy those out of reach. I had this coupled with the ability to heal quicker, and upon successfully healing my little guy would dispense a large cloud of toxic spores due to a mushroom charm I had picked up… I threw in a couple of nail buffs and I had something that worked form.  All of that on it own is well and good, but the true genius of this system are the secret synergies that underpin the whole thing. At no point in the game are you told this, and it entourages experimentation and its super fun to discover different combos. Those mini Knights, once coupled with the toxic cloud, explode on impact and leave miniature noxious cloud behind, and the effect of the mushroom too is similarly enhanced.

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It’s that sense of exploration that truly makes Hollow Knight so spectacular, both from a narrative standpoint, and from a technical one. There is a mastery here, that is truly special, and I can wait to see what Team Cherry come up with next. With Hollow Knight, they have set the bar incredibly high, and I think I will be comparing games with far larger budgets and teams to it for a very long time. I could leave you with a metaphor about an ant lifting its own weight many times over, but instead, just go out and pickup Hollow Knight. It’s incredible.

Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood Hype

I cant wait to return to Eorzea! My history with Final Fantasy is admittedly somewhat limited. On the PS4 I spent a blissful month playing through the base storyline of A Realm Reborn as a Lancer ,and later as a Dragoon. And while I eventually reached Heavensward content, and began my journey through Ishgard, life happened (or more likely other games grabbed my attention) and my subscription lapsed.

I’ve often thought of returning, but I suppose I just lacked the motivation. With the release of the upcoming expansion, Stormblood, that motivation has returned.

But I find myself in a unique position. While I played through ARR on PS4, I want to play on my gaming laptop, because A) It’s a beast and will look and play better than the PS4 version and B) the portability factor, as I travel a fair bit and would love to play XIV on the go.

And so we come to the controversial topic of jump potions. I will be using them, as I have played through ARR and don’t want to force myself to play through ALL of that content again. I think I will play through Heavensward though, as I missed that and agree with the majority of XIV fans that the entire point of this MMO is its story focus…

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But now I can play as a Samurai! I know, real original right? Rather than grinding Palace of the Dead to reach level 60, I will play through the Heavensward content as this new DPS class. I’m playing around with the idea of Twitch streaming this, maybe for new players who are jumping right into Stormblood, but want to see some Heavensward content.

So to do this, I have pre-purchased Stormblood on Steam and created a new character for this purpose. His name is William Adams (a little historical samurai reference that I was pleasantly surprised no one had taken), and I’m on Tonberry, with my fellow Australians.

So I’ll be jumping ARR, and boosting a Dark Knight to level 60. That will allow me access to the samurai trainer, and also let me play another new class (at least, new for me), while simultaneously avoiding the horrific DPS Duty Finder queue that will inevitably happen once everyone and their mothers start levelling Samurai and Red Mage.

So what do you think of my plan? Any tips for a newish player, or advice from any veterans? WordPress seems to have a vibrant XIV community and I look forward to hearing/playing with you all!

Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood releases on the 20th June, 2017, with early access beginning on the 16th.

Dark Souls 3: The Fire Fades Review

Let The Feast Begin

Developer: FromSoftware

Publisher: Bandai Namco

Reviewed for: PC and PS4

Played: 100+ hours

 

So much has been written about Dark Souls, and the Souls series as a whole, that its really quite hard to come at it fresh. By now, we know of the series’ legendary difficulty and the impenetrable lore that is hidden so deviously throughout its massive game worlds. Its asynchronous multiplayer is unique in games, and the formula (Fromula?) that has made the series so iconic has been aped by so many games now that “Soulslike” has even become its own genre. 

But even with all that said, there is just something so compelling about the complete package. The Fire Fades Edition collects Dark Souls 3 and its subsequent DLC offerings, Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City, into one enormous game that can easily eat up all of your free time and most of your sanity, if you let it. We are talking about dozens of areas, bosses, NPC’s, and hundreds of items and weapons and armour sets. All of this is built upon one of the most satisfying combat systems I’ve ever played, which somehow manages to keep combat encounters fresh and exciting right up until the credits roll.

This is due in part to the fantastic gameplay loop that has been the hallmark of the franchise. You as the player enter a horrifying nightmare-scape of an area, timidly encounter fearsome foes, and usually die a couple of times experimenting how best to engage said foes. As you become more proficient at foe slaying, you accumulate the souls that are used to strengthen your character and purchase items and equipment, but lose them if you die. You are given one chance to reclaim your souls, but die again and they are gone for good. And while the bonfires that act as the games checkpoint system allow for quick travel and a welcome reprieve from the oppressive kingdom of Lothric, they also cause most enemies in the game to respawn. It’s a simple loop, but its so very effective at building the tension that I find so addictive. Do I push on, for glory and untold spoils, or do I play it safe and retreat, only to have to play through an area again? Couple that with the fact that most of the time new areas can only be accessed after defeating some hideous boss creature, this element of risk and reward is incredibly engaging, and I subsequently spent most of my time playing on the very edge of my seat.

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This last title takes us to the kingdom of Lothric in which, like Lordran and Drangleic before it, things have gone very much awry. As the Ashen One, an Undead who has been awoken by the tolling of bells, it is your duty to seek out the Lords of Cinder and return them to their vacant thrones, by force as it turns out. The story is really open to interpretation and a whole community has sprung up around the lore of the series. After rolling credits I immediately fell down a rabbit hole of lore videos, in particular I enjoyed Vaatividya’s analysis and would highly recommend them. But something that isn’t brought up often enough in relation to the narrative is the quality of the voice acting, which is totally off the charts. NPC’s in the Soul’s really sell this grim-dark universe, and they range from the incredibly morose to the surprisingly comedic.

What I like most about the various narrative threads and quest lines in Dark Souls 3 is that not only are most of them optional, I was in fact not even aware several story lines existed on my first playthough. It was only after failing them, for apparently no reason, that I became aware there was more going on here than meets the eye. Unless certain prerequisites are met, NPC’s can die or simply just vanish from the central hub of the game (Firelink Shrine). And while some players might find that frustrating, this is a game that lends itself to repeat playthroughs, what with its multiple endings and near infinite build options and new game plus modes. Getting to see some of the more obscure story lines play out was incredibly satisfying, even if some of the triggers for certain events will be missed by the vast majority of players.

While a lot of players may have experienced the base game at launch, myself included, From’d DLC offerings are reason enough to plan a return journey to Lothric. The first, Ashes of Ariandel, was a tad too short for my liking. It more than made up for it with its fantastic final boss fight though, which is unique amongst all bosses in the Souls series. Set inside a universe contained within a painting, Ariandel is a land of frozen forests and wild beasts that mirrors the horrors of the outside world. It has a Norse aesthetic that is used effectively, and its sombre narrative provides an interesting trail of breadcrumbs that lead  directly into the second piece of DLC. I was expecting them to be self contained tales, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out how intrinsically they are linked.

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The monster design is up to par with the base game, and in particular the Corvian Knights are a ferocious surprise for the unwary. Similarly, the packs of deadly wolves that prowl the opening woodlands signal to each other and hound the player relentlessly. Less impressive are the groups of Follower enemies, inspired by the Undead Legion of Farron, who just feel a little too similar to basic soldier type enemies we have seen throughout the series.

The Ringed City, conversely, nails its environments and smaller enemies encounters but somewhat drops the ball in its boss fights. The journey through the Slag Heap is exciting and provides a real challenge to players with its combination of deadly environments and Angel enemies, that had me flashing back PTSD style to the first Dark Souls Anor Londo and its infamous Silver Knight archers. Upon reaching the Ringed City proper, the DLC really hits its stride both in gameplay and from a narrative standpoint. And while I was fascinated by the lore implications of what transpires in the closing moments of The Ringed City, which really wraps up the Soul’s series as a whole, it is ultimately let down by its final boss fight. While suitably difficult, after eventually slaying this final foe, I found myself kind of confused. The encounter didn’t feel like a final boss fight, so much so that I spent another hour or so searching for a path I may have missed, and I ultimately was left feeling unsatisfied, which isn’t what you want to come away from a game feeling.

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Dark Souls 3: The Fire Fades is a fantastic title that will keep players playing for hours on end, and long until the night. Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City complement the base game perfectly, and even if they don’t live up to it in terms of narrative and boss encounters, are a meaty addition to an already lengthy game. And it is content worth exploring, for the brave and skilled alike, and for the ash that seeketh embers.

Yes, indeed.