Sunday, April 23, 2017

Why 30 minutes of Nier: Automata was enough for me

After sitting in a GameFly envelope for something like a month while I polished off Zelda, Mass Effect and Horizon, I finally gave Nier: Automata a spin last night, eager to learn whether or not the civil unrest over my editor Brad's unenthusiastic review of the game was justified. My reaction to the original Nier was mixed (to put it charitably), but reactions to its follow-up have been far more universally positive, and the involvement of PlatinumGames always fills me with hope, Star Fox Zero notwithstanding.

I will now walk you through my experience.

I boot Nier: Automata up and the first thing it tells me is that the game doesn't have an autosave function. Okay. Hopefully that won't be an issue.

The game opens with a straight-up vertically-scrolling shmup sequence as my character pilots a jet. Okay, fine. The original Nier drew a lot of influence from bullet hell shooters so it's fine that the sequel is being more direct about it. This sequence switches perspectives rapidly - one minute it's scrolling vertically, then it's horizontal, then the camera is stationed behind my craft, then I transform into a mech and can fire in any direction with the right stick. This is all fine.

This is a very grey game, at least based on this opening level and every damn screenshot I've seen of it. It's particularly bad timing that Automata should be released so soon after Zelda and Horizon, two games which taught us that robot-infested post-apocalypses can be lush and vibrant. There's some talk about the "Old World" and I've had enough of this sort of thing lately.

My character begins fighting on foot. The game is still switching perspectives a lot, and it's all very high-energy, but man is this some shallow, bog-standard character-action-game combat. Your quick attacks, your strong attacks, your dodge move, your pea shooter ranged attack with unlimited ammo. I remember the combat in the original Nier being just as dull, but I'd hoped Platinum would expand upon it, since this is the one thing they consistently do well. Alas, it is not to be.

So I spend quite some time wandering through bland industrial environments, hacking through what must be at least a hundred samey robots, all while my character tells her partner that emotions are forbidden. This game doesn't have a lot of personality so far, but there's a brief mini-boss against a giant buzzsaw arm that's moderately entertaining. Later, I have fight two of them at once, and my character clips through one of the buzzsaws, gets stuck inside, and dies horribly.

Then I remember that the game doesn't have an autosave function, and learn from a few Twitter friends that you have to complete this lengthy intro without dying, which is tough to do when you can just clip inside a mini-boss and die with no chance to recover. The game gives me a fake-out ending, which makes me wonder if my death was staged and the game's pulling a meta-trick on me, but nope - I'm back at the very start and have to slog through that whole dull opening level again.

Except I don't want to. One of the controversial features of the Nier games is that they must be completed multiple times to unlock all of the story content. I don't see the appeal of that, and it's something that's made me hesitant to jump into Automata. And here I am, struggling to work up the energy to replay just a single 30-minute chunk of the game. How will I later justify replaying the entire thing, or at least substantial pieces of it?

I won't. Not on the tail of so many other massive games that took hold of me far more readily than this one did, not when major new releases are happening at such a rapid-fire rate that I can't afford a time sink that isn't meeting me halfway, not when I still have yet to touch Yakuza 0 or Persona 5, not when I've still got plenty of Nioh left. As a critic, I have no obligation to play Automata, so I can only approach it as a game-loving adult with limited free time who must determine, in a busy release season, which games just aren't clicking for him. Automata is going back to GameFly and that's the end of that.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review Shots: April 22, 2017

So that was a hectic month or two, huh? I imagine most of us still aren't out of the wild yet, in fact. I myself still have a ways to go in Horizon: Zero Dawn (I still can't get a clear answer on whether a colon belongs in that title or not), Yooka-Laylee just came out a couple of days ago, and my GameFly copy of Nier: Automata is still sitting next to my TV, untouched. It's a good thing I'm not into Persona or this would still be full-on busy season.

But the release schedule is about to cool down considerably, which gives me time not only to catch up on the games I haven't had the chance to release yet, but to do some short write-ups on all of the releases I've played but haven't been able to discuss in detail. So, it's time for another round of Review Shots, a set of rapid-fire takes on whatever I haven't reviewed elsewhere. And since my shiny new Switch has dominated my attention over the last month, this installment will be largely devoted to what I've been up to on that thing.

P.S. I wrote this intro a while ago, so as of the time I've posted this, I've finished Horizon, Yooka-Laylee has been out for a couple of weeks, and I've dipped into Nier: Automata and determined that it's not my thing.

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone (PC)

January was when I finally mustered up the courage to return to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and sure enough, as soon as I'd gotten back into the game's rhythm, I couldn't get enough. I'm still working my way through the game's second DLC, but Hearts of Stone ranks as perhaps the best self-contained story in a game full of great self-contained stories. This thing is a cavalcade of good characterization - Shani is a great romantic match for Geralt (and his, erm, "other side"), the often-despicable Olgierd's dip into immortality makes him bizarrely humble and sympathetic, and Gaunter O'Dimm is easily the series' greatest villain yet, a fearsome and mysterious force. Two of the dungeons late in this quest (one set in a painting, the other in a riddle) are a bit of a chore and an obvious attempt to get players more involved in what is largely a hand-off piece of storytelling, but this is a worthwhile addition to a base game that wasn't exactly skimpy on great content to begin with. 8/10

Resident Evil 7 (PC)

This is several months old now, and although I never formally reviewed it, Dan and I did rave about it for an hour and a half on my first and likely only stab at hosting the GameCritics podcast. Still, since this'll get serious consideration on my best-of-2017 list far down the line, I want to put it into writing that Resident Evil 7 acknowledges the ill-fatedness of Capcom's attempts to recreate RE4's magic, and therefore turns Resident Evil into a horror franchise once again, disempowering the player and scaling the setting almost entirely to a single estate. It's almost a return to form, except it's smarter, scarier, and more fluid than the originals ever were, and it tells perhaps the first story in series history that can actually be taken somewhat seriously (though the protagonist is admittedly a bit of an emotional vacuum). After Resident Evil 6, I would've been ready to call it a day on this franchise, but Capcom really turned this thing all the way around. Buy it if you've got the stomach for it. 9/10

Super Bomberman R (Switch)

There is absolutely no circumstance in which a new Bomberman game, in 2017, should cost $50, no matter how long it's been since we've played a proper Bomberman title, no matter how eager we are to wash the taste of Act Zero out of our mouths, no matter how much we're itching to make use of our pricey new Switch consoles. At its absolute best, Super Bomberman R is a repackaging of the same formula that's seen, what, 33 iterations? The trouble is that it's often not at its absolute best - the single-player campaign is pointless (despite the cute animated cutscenes), and at least half of the online matches I've played have been so laggy as to make the game nearly unplayable. (Both Splatoon 2 and Fast RMX have had perfectly adequate online functionality, so the problem is with the game, not the service.) Were this a bargain-price eShop download, I'd still be hesitant to recommend it. At $50, well... I can't say I expect better from Konami. 3/10

Blaster Master Zero (Switch)

As a fan of the original Blaster Master (though not enough of one to have known that there were several other follow-ups before this one), I expected to like this more than I did. It's certainly faithful to the series formula, which mixes side-scrolling, exploration-based action-platforming in a tank with top-down linear bits on foot. Weirdly, my biggest issue with Blaster Master Zero has more to do with the Switch hardware - specifically, the left Joycon's lack of a true d-pad, which makes retro-style 2D games such as this one rather awkward to control. Maybe this is something I'll grow used to as I spend more time with my Switch in handheld mode and Zero was unfortunate enough to be the first guinea pig. Also, while the tank segments are fun, the top-down sections feel way less inspired, and that's unfortunately where the bosses tend to be set. It captures the look and feel of the NES classic, but I guess I wasn't as hungry for this as I'd imagined, and it's probably the Switch release I've spent the least time with. 6/10

VOEZ (Switch)

Even amongst Switch's thin launch period lineup, VOEZ is already shaping up to be one of the console's most overlooked titles. I only picked it up (a) out of desire to get more use out of my Switch now that Zelda's been shelved and (b) because my embarrassing attachment to the Hatsune Miku titles means Japanese rhythm games may actually be my thing. VOEZ was a good investment - its presentation is both attractive and minimalistic, and its song selection exceeds a hundred, all of them available right from the start. Mechanically, it's nothing terribly unique, but I like that it forces you to play with two hands at once, mimicking the sort of multitasking required to, say, play the piano (something I've always been in awe of). Plenty of variety in the music, as well - it's not just J-pop, but also violent rave electro and some delicate symphonic tracks. It's a mobile port, but don't let that scare you away - VOEZ is worth buying if you're into this sort of thing. 8/10

Dark Souls III: The Ringed City (PC)

A year ago, I was still fully on board the Souls train, confident that From Software could keep it running forever, yet these final two DLCs, purportedly the last Souls-related content we'll be getting for the foreseeable future, have done a lot to sour my good will toward the franchise. This one is marginally better than Ashes of Ariandel, mainly for its visual appeal, but way too much of its challenge is derived from having players jump from cover to cover while invincible enemies fire projectiles on a strict timer. It reminds me of the bits in Demon's Souls where you had to dodge dragon breath, and I hated those sections. The bosses are decent on paper but have way too much health, a lazy method of inflating the game's difficulty, and it's a twist of the blade that this DLC's story ultimately links back to Ariandel when I'd rather have just forgotten about that whole affair. A huge disappointment as the swan song of Dark Souls, and if Miyazaki and crew are really this out of good ideas, maybe it's time for a break after all. 5/10

Snake Pass (Switch)

This is one of the most unique 3D platformers I've ever played, and has stolen an awful lot of Yooka-Laylee's thunder, if you ask me. Since you control a snake, the objective is to navigate levels not by jumping, but by contorting your body, looping around objects and creating a tight enough grip that you don't fall. The controls are a major adjustment but super consistent once you grasp when to raise or lower the snake's head, or when to tighten or loosen your grip. Some of the acrobatic stunts the later levels ask you to complete are pretty grueling, but only a handful of Snake Pass's collectibles are mandatory; the rest are there if you're looking for an extra challenge, as I was, enamored with the game's charm and originality. The camera is an occasional nuisance, especially since your right thumb won't always been free to move it around, but otherwise, this is one of my surprise favorites of the year. 9/10

And now, for some actual reviews:

For Honor
Hollow Knight
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Mass Effect: Andromeda
Torment: Tides of Numenera

And hey! I was on the latest GameCritics podcast, in which we discussed the Switch and Zelda.