DUAL REVIEW: NieR Automata & Breath of the Wild


How good is NieR Automata‘s story?

The main appeal of Automata is its story, so let’s judge it by that primarily. For the first time ever, Platinum Games has created a game that purports to be a masterpiece of philosophical commentary, so I was looking forward to a clever approach for once. We’re living in a post-MGS2, post-Undertale world, where metacommentary and mind-bending gags have a few standards to compare against. Platinum doesn’t have a bad track record. Metal Gear Rising had a lot of moral griping and some identity crisis exploration, and that was nice. I actually enjoyed the guilty pleasure of seeing how reckless and unapologetic they were with Metal Gear tropes, so I looked forward to Automata as a premium writing experience if nothing else, because they were finally creating a new property that could be anything they wanted it to be.

I’ve seen many people call this game a masterpiece of philosophical exploration. Some obviously just enjoy the sex appeal of 2B and her Zettai ryuiki, but my own experience was one of patiently waiting for the real stuff. The frequent nonsense of the story (machines gravitating together and floating in the air to somehow coagulate and give birth a new android lifeform?) demolishes any hope of analyzing the story in detail as you would a Hideo Kojima game. It’s not a logical world by any stretch of the imagination. This means we’re instantly left with nothing more than general questions, or the broken logic of this fictional universe. Nothing can be extracted from the game and applied to real life, so it doesn’t resonate. After all, artificial intelligence shows no hope of ever becoming sentient and self-aware in real life, and even as a commentary on the evolution of human consciousness it’s a worthless and poorly informed tale.

I found myself more interested in the idea that this qualifies for being deep more than legitimately caring about its exploration of philosophical issues. Cyclical violence, conflict-as-identity, meaninglessness, and the role of warriors to fight without question are all boring when you don’t dare to provide real solutions to these problems. Even the Darwin-Nietzsche school of philosophy has its own difficult answers, but the thinking here seems steeped in that weak Japanese style of musing that only reflects a culture devoid of a proper military still clinging to dueling fantasies about old-school feudal Samurai codes and ultra-materialistic Darwinian mecha and robotics. The psychic shock of siding with the Nazis, engaging in unspeakable war crimes against their surrounding countries, and embroiling themselves in World War II with with tactics as controversial as khamikazi displayed a dark side of Japan to the world. Those currents have been buried in the aftermath and total surrender they suffered, which was followed by American occupation and a stripping of their military. It’s a country without guns where suicide is through the roof and organized crime runs more than anyone cares to admit. Morality and the greater good for them is so intertwined with the Japanese race and their own nationalism that it could never translate into a kind of evangelism or school of thought. Modern Japan is romanticized by Americans thanks to a convenient cultural barrier and dutifully managed propaganda, but their intellectuals all seem to suffer from a dreadful case of infantilism. They can speculation on what “warriors” are about, but they don’t have a culture of gun ownership and the obligation to defend your property against wildlife and criminals. They live in a safe and suffocating bubble. They face the threat of extinction if that bubble were to pop because of their powerful neighbors, but they still believe in the power of technology and organization to save them one way or another. Automata reflects the prevailing crisis of confidence in Japanese philosophy, as they throw around existential questions and the drama of survival without knowing what to do with any of it. Nihilism and “not knowing” happens to be a pretty resonant feeling in the West, however, so I can see why young people especially would find a painful truth in the struggle of androids who are doomed to play out their programmed roles while toying with and hiding from true self-awareness. From this angle, I’d consider the story to be about as deep as your average punk rock album.


How enjoyable is Breath of the Wild‘s world?

I’ve got a theory that Breath of the Wild is heavily inspired by MGSV: Ground Zeroes, which was announced and advertised as early as 2012. It was an example of an ancient, historic franchise rebooting itself as an open-world adventure on par with the best of the best in the West, and this may have inspired the young developers at Nintendo to finally ditch the gimmicks and puzzle structure that Eiji Aonuma has insisted on ever since Majora’s Mask in favor of true open world solutions. The binoculars were the biggest giveaway for my theory, as you can zoom in to mark points on the map without having to open a separate screen, just like you can in MGSV. Many of the classic puzzle elements of the Metal Gear series were sacrificed in order to construct a dynamic world with a day/night cycle, weather patterns, and artificial intelligence that knew how to behave accordingly, and the result was a game where the “puzzle” is constantly in flux, defined by happenstance more than a carefully scripted sequence designed by an artistic mind. Aonuma had such a hard time conceiving of a Zelda game without puzzles that he still doesn’t understand how or why Breath of the Wild is popular. He constantly tries to rationalize the appeal in puzzle terminology.

If Breath of the Wild hadn’t struggled against the stupidity of its director it may never have become as good as it is, ironically. The shrine system is an example of Aonoma forcing puzzles into the world, and yet they actually turn out to be pretty great. They serve many purposes at once: teleportation shortcuts, training grounds, power granting, and a change of pace from the ambiguity and looseness of the open world. You’re forced to focus and think of solutions, which all come in handy for the “dungeon/boss” areas later on. But they’re optional, rare, and don’t take too long, so they serve their purpose well. The various climates and elemental interactions can also be thought of as a “puzzle”, but it works so organically that it’s intuitive. It truly deepens the sense of realism.

The extremeness of the durability system for weapons and shields is controversial, but it has a fascinating effect on the strategy of the player. You gain very little by destroying enemies because there’s no such thing as leveling up or experience points, plus fighting tends to wear out your stuff quickly, so why would you do it? You wouldn’t, unless you need to. Stealth, climbing, horseback riding, and careful traversal can be much more strategically wise. This also reminds me of MGSV, except there you have a strong incentive to confront enemies because you can Fulton extract them from the battlefield and increase your military strength. Here, disarming your enemies and stealing their weapons (because yours have broken) and then running away is a valid tactic. It’s incredible to see a game with this level of confidence in its gameplay. One of the main reasons to add incentives to combat is because designers are afraid that people won’t engage with the enemy if they don’t rationally have something to gain, but Breath of the Wild knows that enemies will serve their purpose whether or not you regularly fight them: they will protect valuable areas, create tense moments, and force adaptation. The “Blood Moon” phenomenon that restores all of the enemies you’ve killed is a beautiful solution to the question of why and how enemies should repopulate the map. If you gained stuff by killing enemies you would think of the Blood Moon as a wonderful opportunity to harvest another crop of experience, but now it’s a legitimately troublesome event that still only happens rarely enough that you have time to relax for a while. Nintendo has managed to solve some of the most tricky problems in open world RPGs.


Learn More About the Rating System

NieR: Automata

RATING: -1.3

ROTTEN LEAGUE

NieR: Automata fails to live up to any of its potential, whether in terms of gameplay or story. With even bare mininum optimization for the PC version and some better approaches to the hacking and bullet hell shooting sections (especially for bosses) it would be in the NO THANKS caliber instead, but the mind-numbing labor of grinding through endless identical enemies pushes the experience deeper into negative territory, all the way to -1.3. The lack of worthwhile characters or setpieces keeps the player searching for something fun and special to do, but the moment never comes.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild

RATING: +3.8

BOSS LEAGUE

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild nears the point of perfection for a series that has long struggled to reclaim its former glory. Rather than overcompensating with predictable fanservice or lazily recycling elements from the past, Nintendo boldly takes the reigns and creates a world worth living in. With some better characterization and a more generous serving of music to keep us entertained it would be a faultless experience for those seeking adventure and heroism. Better yet, it’s unlikely that Nintendo will be able to deny the lessons learned from this game’s success, making it a worthy +3.8.

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