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June 21, 2018

NieR: Automata -- An Ending [B]onanza

Hmmm.  Let’s see.  I could either do a post on a really good game, or I can try and stay relevant by writing about current gaming trends.  Hey, what’s going on with E3 2018?  Who had their conference first?

*skims summary of EA conference*

Huh.  Okay.


A post on NieR: Automata it is!

Contrary to what the title says, there’s only going to be focus on one NieR ending for now.  With that in mind?  Be wary that this is going to feature SPOILERS for Ending B (and A by extension).  Self-destruct before you get spoiled.  

You know, if you’re into that.

All right, let me cut straight to the point for once.  Given that (AFAIK, barring some secret input/option) you play as boy sidekick 9S instead of poster girl 2B, the gameplay takes on a dramatically different spin.  That said, from a pure gameplay perspective -- a measure of raw thrills based on how many buttons you can bash -- I don’t have any problems admitting that 2B > 9S.  Though as an aside, I’ll also admit I prefer 2B in general.  That’s not an indictment on 9S, as you’ll soon see.  Just a matter of preference.

This is a joint venture between Yoko Taro, Platinum Games, and Square-Enix (*feral hissing*).  Personally, that’s the hierarchy of command I envision, even though I’m certain it’s 0% accurate.  But even if Yoko Taro’s stamp is scrawled all over every disc, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a Platinum game, and Platinum games always put out top-notch combat.  So even if NieR: Automata isn’t sitting on the throne with a glistening crown, it still caters to that standard and those expectations.  Just…not as much with 9S.

There’s a story reason for it, sure.  9S explains as soon as he can that he’s not designed for combat, which would explain why he’s bootstrapped to the blindfolded battler 2B.  He’s more about hacking, and scanning, and all of the computer wizardry.  It carries over directly into the gameplay; you can still equip a weapon (two if you use your main and alt sets), but you’ll only have access to your light attacks -- and some wimpy combo strings compared to 2B.  You’ll still have your Pod to provide suppressing fire and dodges to get out of the way, which is good; in hindsight though, it feels like 9S’ dashes aren’t as good as 2B’s.  Maybe I just didn’t have the right plug-in chips equipped.

In any case, the bulk of 9S’ utility comes from his hacking.  Instead of Triangle giving him heavy attacks like 2B, robo-boy shoots out a ball of light.  If it makes contact with a machine -- and the requisite meter fills up -- then he’ll enter a timed minigame that turns NieR into a shmup in a closed arena.  Destroy the target, and you’ll deal massive damage to a machine.  Having obtained Ending B, I can say that the hacking minigame never really got old or boring; it’s just lacking the thrills of 2B’s combat.

The irony here is that what it lacks in thrills and flash, it makes up for in practicality.  9S’ hacking shreds enemies to pieces, especially with the right plug-in chip combo.  Get enough machines in a clustered group, hack, and then you can set off an explosion that sets the survivors on fire.  Shockingly, hacking is just as effective on bosses as it is on the rank and file.  While the minigames pose slightly more of a challenge -- and you take some damage if you fail -- it’s better to just keep hacking until the big baddie is down.  The game itself even heavily suggests you should hack to win; some enemies are made of gold, and there’s only one Triangle-based way to beat them reliably.

It all feeds into an important, if dire, question: at what point does the story compensate for and/or justify the gameplay?  9S is not as fun to use as 2B, at least in terms of raw gameplay.  The more pressing issue is that, near as I can tell, you’ve got no choice but to go down the B route with 9S if you want to unlock the other main routes/endings.  That would be fine, except for the fact that you have to effectively redo the A route and its ending in order to unlock future, better content.  And you have to do it with a lamer version of another character.

It’s a point of contention between me and my brother (among seven trillion other things, to be sure).  I’m pretty sure he’s given up on NieR because he would have had to redo the game -- a game he was lukewarm towards in the first place -- as a slower, weaker, simpler character.  As someone who lives and breathes that Dragon Ball FighterZ life, it’s an unacceptable compromise.  Story reasons can’t justify gameplay constraints, he argued.  And on some level?  As much as I hate to admit it, he had a point.  Playing through 9S’ story made me wish, deep down, that I could hurry and blitz through it so I could control 2B again (or better yet, A2).

Truth be told, thanks to my brother I’ve been playing the game sub-optimally recently.  The ideal scenario is for me to play solo with minimal distractions and input from others.  The reality is that I’ve had to play with him sitting a yard away from me on multiple occasions, pumping up his music, watching comedy sketches, and occasionally looking at the TV during my play to make his disdain clear.  Having that cloud of distaste poisoning the air is the absolute worst way to engage with a game that demands engagement on a higher level than “press buttons to make cool stuff happen”, even if those demands are steeper in the face of a game that’s (temporarily become) harder to defend.

Here’s the kicker, though.  It says a lot about NieR: Automata when I can still enjoy and engage with it, immensely, in spite of having to share audiovisual space with a bunch of guys on YouTube ranting about how IHOP sucks.  (Not that IHOP sucks, IMHO.)

To reiterate: yes, I think 2B > 9S.  That isn’t to say that 2B is the perfect character -- and because she’s not the be-all and end-all, there are places where 9S outshines her.  Both of them have an air of professionalism about them, though they go about it in different ways.  While 2B is serious and dedicated -- and has an “it is what it is” mentality -- 9S makes it pretty clear pretty often that, for the most part, he friggin’ hates his job.

And who can blame him?  He’s isolated from virtually everyone most of the time, thrown into life-or-death situations against killer robots, gets treated like a faceless peon again and again (I’ve never seen a character’s attempts at being amicable and pleasant get murdered so often), and I have a sneaking suspicion that he’s not feeling fulfilled by his work.  It really says a lot that, at least from the audience’s perspective, 9S’s job only reaches a high point once he gets to hang out with 2B…who also sandbags his attempts at pleasantries more often than not.  I guess that’s to be expected from a character from Little Miss “Emotions are Prohibited”.  On the other hand…


Even though I’ve only gotten two main endings now (though I’ve at least made some headway into Route C), I’m comfortable in saying that 9S is a curious character.  Not so much in the sense that he’s inquisitive, though.  The quirk about him is that, thanks to his hacking abilities, he can see things that 2B simply can’t.  Apparently, that translates directly into gameplay; at various points throughout his story, there are vignettes that add some backstory and flavor to the machines you meet along the way -- insights into their natural states and thought processes.

The machines have been trying for ages to eke out some semblance of life, having been abandoned (?) on the hollowed-out Earth by their alien overlords.  But because they’re so bad at it -- a group of them literally admit that they’re too stupid to figure out answers to obvious problems -- their SOP is to imitate human culture…poorly.  They desire propagation, but the most they can do is mash their trash can-esque bodies against each other, and they don’t even understand why.  They desire beauty, but to them that means harvesting parts from other machines, and they don’t even understand why.  They desire kingdoms, and leadership, and religion, and countless other aspects of human culture.  But they’ll never achieve it, because they don’t, and can’t, understand why.  (I think.)

The main reason I bring this up is that, as far as I can tell, 9S -- through his hacking and scanning -- seems to be aware of this.  All of it.  Far more than 2B ever could.  But that generally doesn’t stop him from thinking any better of the machines.  At a bare minimum, there’s a TV screen, a game disc, and thousands of years separating me from the world of NieR, but none of that has stopped me from feeling pangs of empathy over the machines’ eternal plight.  9S is in the thick of it, but at best he only sees the machines as curiosities -- despite perceiving their plight in a way that only other scanner androids possibly could.  I guess it’s easy to look down on others when you’re a horrible racist who’s just “doing his job”.

I honestly love the hypocrisy on display here.  9S -- and 2B by extension -- turns up his nose at the thought of the machines doing anything besides exploding at the hands of the androids’ whirling blades.  But the more I play, the more I realize that the degrees of separation between androids and machines are as wide as used floss.  The YoRHa androids are imitating humans too, and not exactly doing the best job (quick, name somebody in your personal life who’s used the phrase “emotions are prohibited”).  They’re slaves to basic desires, too, given that 9S -- according to Adam, at least -- wants a piece of that 2Booty.  Also, how seriously are we supposed to take the androids’ independence, given their slavish devotion to “the glory of mankind”, which is actually just a massive hoax to apparently give the androids something to do?

The machines may be almost uniformly idiots, but at least they’re honest and can display a capacity for peace.  Meanwhile, you’ve got one of the leads freaking out over the possibility of robot sex, another lead who shows intense flashes of anger when the machines step out of line, and an entire organization of “superior” androids built around lies and going on missions with no real purpose -- a misguided attempt at self-actualization that, really, I could see the machines trying out if given the chance.  

Sooooooooooooooooo given the circumstances…

I mean, it’s okay if they are.  Considering what kind of game this is, I don’t expect a bunch of giant neon arrows to point at 2B and 9S and say they’re evil.  And they’re not really evil, to be clear -- just soldiers doing their duty and trying to save humanity.  Well, to the extent that 9S learns the truth about humanity’s extinction, but keeps it close to the chest before he can tell 2B the truth right before a major military operation.  But that’s neither here nor there.

The important thing is that, until more revelations come my way, the game is painting its central conflict as one mired in futility.  Needless violence.  The aliens are seemingly gone, and the humans are seemingly gone, so all that’s left is a proxy war -- two Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots still wailing on each other even though their players have long since left the table.  What do you fight for when you’ve got no one to fight for?  How do you live when you don’t know how to live?  These are questions both mechanical camps have to face, and in various ways both of them aren’t doing the best job of providing answers.

But I think that’s what makes 9S and 2B special.  Even though their programming and conditioning have told them to act one way, they’re doing what they can to evolve past that, and become more than just killer robots.  9S’s consistent attempts at rapport make it hard to forget that he’s an android on more than one occasion, and his spirited nature helps drag 2B out of her professional shell.  Old habits die hard, given his general intolerance for machines (which to be fair is justified, seeing as how he gets trashed in the game’s first hour) and his freakout over harboring feelings for 2B (lust or otherwise), but he’s trying to be more than a simple scanner android.  I have to respect the hustle.  And who knows where that drive to evolve will take him?

I mean, I kinda do.  Given how the C route starts, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if 9S went from awkward dweeb with built-in robo-misanthropy to cuckoo bananas refugee with a chip on his shoulder the size of Saturn.  So clearly I’m missing something in his overall character arc, which in hindsight makes the previous 99% of this post worthless.  On the other hand, I guess that just means A) I need to play through more of the game faster, and B) there’s more substance here than what two full playthroughs can give me.

And frankly, I think that’s great.  I’m still wary about the fact that I did have to play through the game twice to get to a new story beat -- one that may as well scream “NieR: Automata starts at Route C” -- yet despite that, I feel intellectually rewarded for my perseverance.  There’s so much to unpack and so much to digest, which is more than I can say about MANY other games.  So while this game isn’t the second coming, I’ve got no problems declaring that it’s supremely impressive, and I’m itching to see more of it.

I guess this is the power of Yoko Taro.

Or…is…is that the power of Yoko Taro?  I legitimately don’t know anymore.

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