Square Enix has been a video game company that I never particularly liked. I’m being totally honest with you right now. My views on Square Enix are not the brightest due to their shady business practices and the way they've handled their noblest properties. Their two flagship franchises, Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy, were once simple to understand but now have gotten more confusing than they have the rights to be. I'm not talking about their stories in general, but what it takes to actually enjoy these games. They are both third person action RPGs with stylish combat and visuals. Now those should usually be the games that I’d like, especially since I love games with stylish combat that push the player to their limit, but if you were to take some of these games apart and put them back together you may find a few design problems.
The Problem with Square Enix
I look at the gameplay for these games and I ask myself if Square Enix knows what it means to make a video game? It looks like the combat is more focused on the detailed flashy animation rather than being challenging or engaging, and the pacing seems to be all over the place. The writing feels contrived in many areas, and the plots are no longer aware of how over the top they are and come across as flat and soulless. You spend all this time building up a story and characters, but there are so many plot holes left behind because you didn’t take the time to fully explain key information to the player. I’m not saying you have to hate the storylines for these games. It’s just that it takes more time than it really should to understand what is going on. To understand the events of Kingdom Hearts 3, you first need to play the dozens of other Kingdom Hearts games that came before. Not just the first and second game, but also the several spinoffs. To a Kingdom Hearts fan this doesn't sound like a problem, but for someone who is new to the series it is. They would have to spend countless hours grinding through the other titles, spend more money to play those games, and only then they are caught up on the Kingdom Hearts storyline. Same goes for Final Fantasy XV.
To truly grasp the plot of the base game you have to watch an animated movie, a live action film, and pay for several DLC packs to understand the main plot and endgame events. I feel like Square Enix is making their games too complicated for the fans. Rather than letting all the details add up they instead find a way to market off it. Butcher their games, sell crucial points separately, and release finish-unfinished games.
Other franchises Square Enix own the rights to don’t really get that much attention or love, and they're usually the ones that die out within less than a decade because of those business practices. Just Cause is an amazing series known for it’s open world, creative toolset, and the amount of chaos you can cause by simply messing around with the game's psychic engine that they spent a lot of time programming. However, it was driven into the ground with the terrible buggy release of Just Cause 4. Deus Ex, one of the many groundbreaking immersive sims from the classic days of PC gaming was rebooted with two entries and hasn’t seen a new entry since 2016 which was released under controversial fire. The runtime of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was cut short due to Square Enix not giving the funding Eidos Montreal needed to finish the game, and the funding was then given over to Kingdom Hearts 3. Wow, such a great move there guys. Octopath Traveler, a JRPG that pays homage to classic JRPG design while putting in new ideas to help modernize the formula, sold poorly due to poor advertisement and shortage of physical copies in Japan. Otherwise, the number one place to sell a JRPG, because they target that type of audience. Out of all these franchises, Deus Ex games and Octopath Traveler are the only ones I really liked. There aren’t any other games I like published by Square Enix, well maybe besides the big one.
A Beautiful Song
PlatinumGames, a development team known for making fast paced hardcore action-adventure games and most commonly today's topic. One day, Square Enix came and offered PlatinumGames a deal. PlatinumGames was tasked to make a sequel to one of Square’s forgotten gems, Nier. Nier was a spinoff entry to one of Square Enix’s most poorly managed franchises, Drakengard. I know Drakengard has a cult following, but it’s possibly one of Square Enix’s least acclaimed game series. The games didn’t age well, had terrible design, and public criticism for the series was mostly negative. When Nier came out, almost the exact same thing happened with it. Reception for Nier was mostly mixed, but there were a few of those who quite liked it for its setting, gameplay, and surprisingly deep narrative? It started off as a simple journey about a brother wanting to save his sister but then transformed into this deep philosophical dive. Testing human nature and how far a person will go to save a loved one. It was exhilarating at the time and the game industry hadn't seen a narrative quite like it.
Nier is more of a game that flew under the radar, and for several years the fans have been wondering if Square Enix would give this property another chance. Tell another beautiful story rather than pump out the meaningless soap operas they do year by year. In 2015 that chance had finally arrived. PlatinumGames and Square Enix partnered up and announced the development of a sequel, Nier 2, which later during development was renamed to Nier: Automata. Most gamers expected this game to underperform due to how the original Nier financially flopped and this one presented really bizarre ideas, but once Nier: Automata came out it blew away everyone’s expectations.
The story was well presented, gameplay was thrilling, and the deep themes which the original Nier was known for was here again and presented better than ever. In fact, the narrative was fantastic. Sales and reception for Nier: Automata were higher than what PlatinumGames predicted. Being Platinum’s most well acclaimed game, gaining quite a few awards and nominations in 2017, and helping save Platinum from shutting down entirely. Nier: Automata is amazing and even after three years upon release it still stands up as one of the best written and compelling games the market has seen.
Before I played Nier: Automata, I was expecting it to be like any ordinary Square Enix game released. Cringy dialogue, lackluster story that didn’t add up, crappy game design, and all that galore. However, after the first few hours of Automata my expectations were blown. The action was good, but the story was what kept me playing until the true ending. Recently I played through the entirety of Nier: Automata again and I have to say it still holds up today. I appreciate the game more than my first playthrough and I can happily say it’s a masterpiece. It does have a few faults and it's not for everyone, but what it does is outstanding, and everyone should witness the beauty of the story. I would do a basic review of this game, but there are so many components that I need to pick apart for Nier: Automata to deduce why this game is a masterpiece. So today we’ll be discussing what makes Nier: Automata such a memorable experience and why it deserves your utter attention. This essay will be spoiling major plot details so if you haven’t played Nier: Automata then I recommend doing so before going any further.
The Birth of Automata
First let’s talk about some of PlatinumGames’ previous projects and what would lead to Automata. Most notable is Bayonetta, one of the first games Platinum ever released. This hack and slash adventure helped establish PlatinumGames as a contender in the gaming market. It had character, style, personality, and took keynotes from other famous hack and slash action titles like Devil May Cry, Darksiders, and God of War. But compared to some of these other contenders it struggled to compete. Now this is probably a bad assumption to make since Bayonetta was new for its time, but the influence is obvious. Devil May Cry has had several years to establish itself as a smash hit franchise and most of the ideas seen in Bayonetta could be traced back to being in Devil May Cry or the other few. Juggling enemies in midair using sick combos or ranged weapons that keep them up longer while you walk towards them. Activating special moves or forms using a meter that builds up while fighting enemies, but slowly drains as you attack more while using it. Fighting demonic hordes that get stronger and appear in bigger numbers over time. Bayonetta was a great game and was more refined than most hack and slash games, but it wasn’t aiming to do anything innovative.
Next there was Vanquish, a jet fast third person shooter. It was received with positive reception due to how it sped up third person shooting combat at the time. A majority of shooters were beginning to slow down in gameplay but Vanquish came along and reminded of the faster days of the shooter genre. What it meant to adapt on the fly. Sadly, it didn’t sell as well as PlatinumGames wanted, because it was even more bizarre than Bayonetta. There was the time PlatinumGames collaborated with legendary game director Hideo Kojima to develop Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. A spinoff sequel to the franchise. It’s pretty good and in some way underrated, but fans of the Metal Gear series were left confused with this game and how it even plugged into the Metal Gear storyline. Some fans were even displeased with Metal Gear Rising and how it ditched the slower, more compelling storytelling of the Metal gear Solid series. Then there was the change from being a tactical stealth game to being an action game. It pleased action fans but left an odd taste for others who were expecting traditional Metal Gear.
Finally, there was Bayonetta 2, a sequel fans of the first game were dying for. Everything leading up was going well, but in 2013, PlatinumGames made a deal with Nintendo to make a few of their next releases exclusive to their new console, the Nintendo Wii U. Bayonetta 2 was one of the games planned to be released exclusively to the Wii U, which upset many since the first Bayonetta was available on multiple consoles like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Some fans even boycotted Bayonetta 2, which is kind of dumb, but I guess that’s what fanboys do!? Bayonetta 2 sold decently enough and got better critical reception than the first game, but it still wasn’t anything groundbreaking for PlatinumGames. The company budget was running low, and they needed a savior fast.
This leads us to where we are now. PlatinumGames was tasked by Square Enix to develop Nier: Automata. A product that was born to die. They were told to follow a similar vein to the original and not do any of the over-the-topness their other action games had. Luckily, that wasn't the case with PlatinumGames. I can tell PlatinumGames didn’t want to make a game heavily similar to Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, or the original Nier. Most of Square Enix’s games are set in a mystical fantasy setting, because I think they believe that's the only way to differ even though what they needed was some strong writing. Nier: Automata was different. It did take place in a fictional world, but one inspired by our own. It showed what happened after the downfall of mankind.
A dystopian world taken over by alien machines, and humanoid androids are created by man to fight against the scourge. They manage to keep the fantasy feeling but offer a different flavor so that it wouldn't taste bland or terrible. Let's say I ordered a pizza. I could order a plain cheese pizza or add some toppings to make it taste better. Some topping combinations will taste better than others, but at the end of the day it was still a pizza. When it came to the core elements of Nier: Automata, PlatinumGames knew how to have an even balance between gameplay and storytelling. Gameplay sections are chunky and the difficulty scales rapidly as you progress. Challenging the player to react faster and master their arsenal. The story and writing make the player invested with the world and characters, and when the big twist is revealed, it makes them reconsider everything they have been working towards. They wanted that right amount of engagement. There were exposition dumps, but what the player got was important. They made a story that worked from beginning to end.
The Wonders of a Broken World
The reason why most video games have stories is to keep the player playing the game or see what happens next if they continue to play. I know it's pretty obvious info, but trust me it's important. Not all video games need a plot to drag the player around, but if you pull the presentation off just right you may end up making a story that feels close to cinema or watching a television show that gets you anticipated for the next episode. I believe a good story is one that takes its time and shows how the world changes as the player’s actions affect other conflicting elements, or major events drive the plot forward towards threatening situations. Making sure every piece to the puzzle adds up.
A bad story on the other hand is poorly thought out and is nonsensical. Plot holes, rules of the universe constantly being broken, and characters being given made on the fly rules and pass cards so that they can continue being part of the story even when they aren't needed. Being inconsistent and failing to tell an effective narrative. Let’s take Batman, a comic book character, for example. One of the most major rules for Batman is that he has a no kill policy. He reasons with his foes. In the films and Arkham games this rule is very inconsistent, and they don’t do such a good job to showcase how Batman’s violent action affects the main plot or world. It's inconsistent. Then you have to consider your audience and how they are digesting the story you give them. Don't feed them too fast to the point where they don’t understand anything at all, and not too slow where they are shouting, “get on with the bloody plot!”
In Nier: Automata we follow the role of an android named 2B, one of the many combat androids created by mankind and fighting for YoRHa. This being a group of androids who fight the alien machines that took over earth several years before the game’s main events. Their motives for fighting the aliens are given clearly to the player. It’s to preserve whatever is left of mankind's past and one day rebuild society. We already showcase what YorHA is made to do and what their purpose is. To fight. 2B is sent down to earth’s surface to fight the machines and collect data on the aliens who once invaded earth. She is aided by a scanner android named 9S and overtime they form a very close bond. 9S having the most emotions between the two. He's kind, optimistic, and tries to cheer up 2B even though they're androids who were ultimately made to not feel or have emotions. At first, 2B doesn't have any feelings or free human thinking due to her nature of being to always follow the objective, but through struggle and main story events she learns to develop human emotions or free thought.
NPCs actually play a role in Nier: Automata beyond giving an objective for a side quest. They are there to flesh out the world, show there is soul to this world, or help make this apocalyptic setting actually believable. Much like the androids of YoRHa, the alien machines learn to develop emotions and personal thinking and it’s thanks to them we learn not all machines are mindless killers made to invade earth. They too begin adapting human thought, and some have begun to recreate human actions. There are machines who believe in prosperity by becoming employees to an amusement park. Machines who formed a kingdom out in the forest and try to establish a monarchy with bravery and honor. Machines who try to procreate despite not having the organs to do so. Then the machines who wish to find peace by setting up a simple society. Some NPCs even have unique questlines, and the stories they offer are good enough to make you see them as actual people. Individuals trying to survive a dying world when there is nothing else to live for. That doesn't compare to the overall plot which is great.
The Color of Depression
The main story is where Nier: Automata shines best, because it not only tells the tale of both love and hatred, but it also dives into the themes of existence. Human nature. What drives us to keep moving forward. As you progress through the game you notice that 2B and 9S begin to develop deep feelings for one another. They both develop their own free thoughts and go against their coding. 2B fights because her main priority is to preserve mankind's knowledge, but 9S fights because 2B is one of his closest friends. 9S found someone who was willing to talk to him and even visions 2B as a loved one. At first 2B doesn't care, because at the end of the day they are just machines designed without emotions or that's what they at least expect. Overtime, 2B begins to realize how much 9S cares about her and from there she develops emotions as well. When she witnesses 9S lose his memories she's genuinely devastated. Another 9S can replace him, but nothing can take away the soul. What made the 9S whom 2B knew special and important to all the missions she went on.
They learn to protect one another, and if one of them gets hurt the other one always comes to the rescue. They learn to love. A feeling against android coding. Affection comes at a cost though. The horror, violence, and war in the world can sometimes change how a person thinks and behaves. What they do to try and preserve happy moments. Remember our two main characters are androids. They can’t die and their main programming is kicked over to other bodies, but their memories may not remain intact. So, imagine being an android who is aware that they will die. That they will either lose themselves or be easily replaced by a copy. They don't even know if heaven or hell awaits them after death. What will these androids aware of life do to make their deaths meaningful? That is what Nier: Automata addresses later on in the story. How we as human beings view life and the purpose we serve in the world.
2B and 9S realize how corrupt individuals can be. How they can be blinded by personal goals and ideologies. That there are those who will go to great lengths to achieve what they desire. No one can be truly happy in a world of suffering, and those with high expectations for true happiness are left disappointed when they realize what they really wanted only made the world worse. Now this is where I dive into late game events, so here's another spoiler warning if you haven't played or finished Nier: Automata.
The End of Yorha (Spoilers)
Around the final act of the game 2B dies. All of YoRHa is wiped out due to a virus created by the alien machines, and 9S is left alone to wander a decaying world where there is literally no sign of life as it was revealed earlier that mankind went extinct before the aliens even showed up. He wonders if this is the punishment for murdering dozens of machines. Like God has now trapped him in what is now an empty android hell. Taking away his only friend and the group that gave him purpose. A job, a duty to fulfill each day. The reason he gained a soul from the beginning is now gone.
9S then goes on a rampage to defeat any remaining machines and claim vengeance for what was taken from him. His purpose is to live, to fight, to care, and to protect. Mainly he is seeking vengeance against a rogue YoRHa member named A2. He witnesses A2 plunge a sword de