DUAL REVIEW: NieR Automata & Breath of the Wild

Nier: Automata
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild


NieR: Automata
Genre: Challenge
Gameplay style: 
Developer: Platinum Games
Release date: 2017
Platform: Steam PC
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Genre: Challenge
Gameplay style: 
Open world RPG
Developer: Nintendo
Release date: 2017
Platform: Switch

NieR Automata is Platinum’s take on Dark Souls in some ways, combining their usual Slayer style gameplay with a bleak, contemplative tone and grand scale. In Dark Souls you aren’t a glorious hero on a mission to save the world, you’re a husk of a human who collects “souls” as your all-purpose currency and must restore your humanity — literally — as an actual gameplay mechanic. In Automata you’re similarly inglorious. You’re simply an android (read: robot who looks like a human) who kills machines (read: robots who don’t look like humans) on behalf of a supposed “humanity” you never get to see. You collect machine parts as currency, and find the bodies of fallen android warriors scattered around the map thanks to network connectivity that apparently keeps track of deaths. In Dark Souls players used a special item to scrawl piecemeal messages for each other, and here you can stitch together a phrase when you die in order to show other players what your final thoughts were. Reclaiming one of these bodies lets you absorb some of their power temporarily, or you can summon them as an ally for a little bit.

Thanks to being a robot, internal logic exists for virtually every video game convention, including the HUD and save functionality, with the story even drawing attention to the game options like brightness and sound settings. Saving is explained by the existence of servers and uploaded consciousness. The post-apocalyptic areas you explore are large, empty, and joyless, connected by passages and pathways that can eventually be bypassed by using teleportation stations. Basic large-scale RPG conventions are in place such as accepting “quests” to handle the story progression and side missions. Crafting, weapon loadouts, and partner customization all focus on statistical optimization rather than dramatic changes in gameplay mechanics. Most of the time you’ll be looking around the world for some excuse to fight, because there isn’t that much else to do.

In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild you explore a huge post-apocalyptic world that’s full of life and — more importantly — novel interactivity. Nintendo gives us their take on the modern open world RPG, stealing elements of Assassin’s Creed, Skyrim, Metal Gear Solid V, and others to breathe new life into a franchise that has lost its exploration roots long ago. Quests and crafting are present, but so are truly dynamic systems for weather, physics, artificial intelligence, and even things like fire and wind behavior. Climbing and gliding through the air turn out to be the biggest features, however, since it turns the whole world into a playground instead of a series of pathways and openings. Teleportation stations are important here too, since traveling through by foot becomes tedious quickly. Much like in Automata (and Dark Souls before either of them) the points of teleportation must be discovered and unlocked through exploration before they can be used. Learning how everything interacts and adapting to your specific situation is a key skill that makes the difference between total annihilation and stunning underdog victories.

Both of these games exist outside the comfort zone of their developers. They take risks and push their gimmicks to extremes rather than compromising somewhere in the middle. This makes them admirable attempts at reaching something new and meaningful. They’re not just cash grabs with a predictable formula. Automata becomes a cynical, if shallow, commentary on existence, while Breath of the Wild is the opposite: a youthful reprieve from cynicism, more like an antidote for the bleakness that Automata offers. Breath of the Wild has a sense of solitude, but it’s not melancholy.

Automata‘s plot feels extremely predictable once the main themes and characters are established, including the twists about humanity, and the true purpose of YoRHA, which is the organization you’re built to serve. The early part of the plot is so watered down and basic that there’s nothing to become invested in, unless you’re deliberately being dense. This leaves only the tedious action and traversal to do all the heavy lifting. There’s almost nothing to feel motivated about. The characters of 2B and 9S are certainly stylish in visual design but they’re also utterly dull in terms of personality and their relationship. Their forbidden love is nothing special because neither of them have an ideology or emotional core to build upon. Worse yet, the enemies you’re constantly battling are all nearly identical and fail to grab your interest or differentiate themselves. Despite the running commentary on how meaningless the battle is, this doesn’t justify uncreative slogs of that drag down the experience.

Breath of the Wild‘s plot is nothing to get excited about either; its greatest accomplishment is getting out of the way. The villagers and characters you meet with are written with an awkward level of what I have to label “Japanese characterization”, with predictable sayings and tropes at every turn. It’s easy to dislike the people in Hyrule, since they feel like cardboard stereotypes pulled out of a hat. It’s the gameplay that will keep you chugging along. The overall structure is so loose and freeform that you’ll rarely feel dragged into missions, but you’ll always have a desire to find the secrets. Discoveries feel genuine, and so does mastering the fascinating systems you gain control over. Enemies offer a decent amount of variety, especially in behavior, but the robotic tentacle monsters that serve as the main threat are gaudy and inappropriate for something as classic as Zelda. Unlike the standard personalities of Hyrule’s citizens, the enemy designs could use a major dose of classic stereotypes to replace these machines. It’s impossible to say they did a bad job with the enemies, but it does leave me wanting a return to a world without nightmare machines. Maybe that’s intentional.

Both games demonstrate their own philosophy of production very well. Despite basic gameplay systems and hardly anything interesting happening in the world, Automata on the PC is a very badly optimized game, with disastrous frame rates and long loading times; this left a bad taste in my mouth and deserves harsh criticism. It’s been four months since the game came out and it still hasn’t been patched. I played Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch on the other hand, which runs nice and smooth for the most part. When using the special “Sheikah Slate” power-ups that create a graphical overlay across the world to help you recognize potential targets there can often be severe frame rate issues, but considering it’s powerful as my desktop PC and having a lot more complex behavior happening, I can easily forgive this. This goes to show what effort and proper consideration of the customer can do. Platinum Games are a notoriously hasty studio that tends to compensate for its weaknesses by emphasizing their strengths — memorable design, strong marketing hooks, and punchy writing. Nintendo in its current era seems to be focused on going beyond expectations in terms of content, but keeps the same top-notch polish as ever.

Although there’s a fair amount of customization options in terms of perks, actual combat in Automata leaves little room for creativity, continuing the long tradition of style over substance for Platinum Games. It boggles my mind why people praise Platinum as much as they do, since I’ve never found much depth in their combat.  Unlike Devil May Cry or the severely underrated Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, this game doesn’t offer any combos or challenges worth mentioning. Normal enemies just tend to get stunned by any attacks for a bit, then plow through anything you do and make a counter attack of their own. This forces you to evade by tapping a single button. When many attacks are incoming, you simply tap the button more often and then counterattack when you think you’ve got an opening.

9S is a decent partner when he’s around, but your “pod” assistant is a chore to manage during the action. It provides a long range machine gun attack that feels somehow unsatisfying and essential at the same time. Tough enemies are just damage sponges who require several minutes of repetitive punishment before they have the decency to die, so you’ll be holding in the shoot button constantly. (The noise of the machine gun itself is enough to be annoying after several hours.) Strong attacks from enemies rarely feel fair either, since the exact same enemy type can be many “levels” apart with no proper indication judging by their design or visual cues. Bosses are the worst part of the game by far, which is also standard for Platinum Games unfortunately. Rather than teaching you skills and then testing them in a boss fight, you’re forced to adapt to one lame setpiece after another, often flipping around the camera angle and control arbitrarily just to mix up the boredom, but at the cost of strategy. I found myself hating the game after four long minutes of holding in R1 (the pod’s machine gun) and tapping Square (slash) over and over without even looking at the screen. This is what qualifies as an “epic” fight fight in 2017? What is the point of such trash?

The hacking minigame and “bullet hell” vehicle combat is a change of pace that could potentially be refreshing, but they aren’t done justice either. In Lords of Shadow each weapon has its own gameplay logic and a host of interesting techniques that might come in handy depending on your opponent, but here the same routine is repeated infinitely no matter what you use.

BotW has flaws as well, but they’re not offensive. Visually the world is a mixed bag of beauty and blemish, with nearby objects and patches of grass feeling lush and believable, but anything at a moderate distances looking worse than early Nintendo 64 games, only with much better draw distance. An annoying haze of whiteness clouds the whole screen in some environments, adding a strain to the eyes. Swimming is a pain in the ass that causes you to die instantly if you run out of stamina, but this only results in you being dropped off on the coast again with slightly less health, meaning it’s not very punishing. It doesn’t make sense why swimming should use much stamina at all from a design perspective, since you can just create a bridge of ice blocks anywhere if you wanted to, or dot them across your path as you swim to recover your stamina, so it’s not even like the stamina restrictions are necessary to stop players from accessing certain places. Another issue is that controlling objects with the magnet ability is trickier than it has to be, due to the camera controls being replaced when its active.

Both games have poor enemy tracking systems, which results in poor targeting and disorientation if you’re caught in an awkward spot. In Automata this is less understandable, since the game is so linear and combat-oriented that the camera should never get in the way. Both games have a problem of distinguishing types of enemies and their strengths. Nearly identical foes will either kill you in one hit or barely do anything depending on what color they are or what level they’re at, and this is lazy design. And although both games have a strong emphasis on atmosphere and ambiance, neither uses sound/music to its full potential, choosing instead to withhold and tease music strategically. In this regard Automata comes out on top, with a more deliberate control of music to enhance the gameplay. Zelda has such a rich history of great music that it’s a shame to deprive players of it. Obviously it’s a challenge to think of what balance would be best to avoid becoming tiresome or wearing out the magic, but that’s their job to figure out, not mine. I’d say that if there isn’t going to be a constant soundtrack, why not incorporate music more organically into events? It’s nice that horse stables always play soothing music as you get closer and that enemies have their own fight music, but what about while gliding from a great height, or swimming, or sneaking? There’s no reason why music couldn’t have gameplay implications as well. Bards, playing instruments (an ocarina, perhaps?) and playing songs by the fireside were all important traditions for actual adventurers throughout history; this could have even been a subsystem on par with cooking if you ask me.

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