Have you ever heard of a philosophical zombie? When discussing physicalism — the idea that all that exists is purely physical — the philosophical zombie is conceived as an entity that shows all the physical trappings of a sentient human, but lacks consciousness and the other characteristics of subjective experience.
Besides being an idea insufficiently explored by literary works on seemingly-sentient robots, the p-zombie serves as a bad metaphor for pseudo-works of all kinds, works that simulate depth as long as you limit your analysis to weak and blind methods. Nier Automata is, in this respect, a p-zombie. It wears a confident facade of a deep game about life and love, yet rests on a floundering foundation of disastrous design decisions that become salient when examined on any specific front.
There are three main sections to gameplay, those being hacking sections (bullet hell), flying sections, and 3rd-person hack-and-slash combat. Let’s review them in that order.
Nier has no idea how to make a bullet hell game. This is evident in two respects: first, it is graphically atrocious; second, it is mechanically terrible.
There is no style whatsoever to the hacking sections in Nier. The background is always the same, the bullets are always the same, the enemies are always the same, and the structure is always the same. This is a shame, because the hacking sections have more vectors for differentiation than most bullet hell games — let’s name Touhou here. In Touhou, the beauty is in the bullets and the music, and that’s really all there is to the game as a whole. The graphical firepower of Touhou is classically unimpressive — but the complex and emergent beauty of thousands of varied bullets waltzing across the screen nonetheless yields a sight to behold.
The bullet patterns in Nier, on the other hand, remain uninteresting to the very end. It is always the same colors of spheres, with the occasional homing triangle thrown at you. The patterns never really develop beyond a handful of basic ones, and the near-exclusive usage of spheres as bullets makes them feel incredibly samey.
This is a signficant indictment of the game’s design, because the stripped-down look of the hacking section is a fairly obvious design decision. They stripped it down for minimalistic effect, but only made its lack of artistic depth even more obvious. And thus, a 2017 PS4 game billed by Square Enix manages to look far worse than one man’s hobby project from 2004.
Mechanically, Nier incapacitates itself by limiting its design tools to spheres with massive hitboxes. Since everything has massive bumpers (including you), there’s no way to significantly increase the complexity of a pattern without making it feel like driving a truck through a minefield. The best Nier can offer mechanically is moving a big triangle between the same big circles — with no development, no variation, and certainly nothing to be impressed with.
I invite you to take a look at the Touhou boss playthrough below (it’s the same 2004 game as above). As a bullet hell game, Nier comes closer to a high-school Unity project than it does to Touhou, and I encourage you to play both high-school Unity projects as well as Touhou to confirm that I’m not exaggerating.
These sections are even worse than the bullet hell sections, because they try to incorporate bullet hell mechanics, but end up making a subgame that amounts to “hold attack to win”. Even the basic difficulty offered by the hacking sections in the form of waddling around in a pool tube is removed, since you can simply spam attack and browse Reddit while doing so. The explosions look nice, but there’s no substance here whatsoever.
I played Bayonetta a few weeks before my second run-through of Nier, and the differences are disappointing. While the combat certainly looks fancier in Nier, it offers significantly less depth, both in terms of the player and in terms of the enemies. You spend the entire game with the same basic moveset you started with, and never develop it. This, of course, is not an issue in games where combat focuses on mechanical expertise, like Dark Souls, but let’s not kid ourselves: Nier is, or at least wants to be, a hack-and-slash game, and it has none of the variegated combat styles that keep hack-and-slash fun after a few hours.
To hammer the nail deeper, the enemies don’t develop either, both in terms of design and combat. You are fighting little bullet-shaped robots throughout the majority of the game, and some of them have hats. Even towards the end of the last arc, when you are exploring mysterious towers that have burst up from the earth, you still fight the same damn little bullet-shaped robots. They don’t even look interesting — especially compared to the incredibly detailed designs of Bayonetta’s angels. Each type has one or two basic attacks, and the lack of substance to their attack patterns means that it is not long before you are simply spamming attack and occasionally dodging to win. Increasing the difficulty does nothing but increase tedium while leaving complexity in the basement. (A lack of enemy combat complexity, incidentally, conclusively relegates Nier to the “not a soulslike” bin.)
And remember: you can easily stack 99x of three different healing items, which have no consume time. Challenging combat? Or tedious combat?
There are a few places where Nier actually does bother to make enemies that aren’t incomprehensibly basic: the boss battles. This being said, in terms of combat, the bosses are overall unimpressive. No boss in the main game can’t be solved with the same strategy of “blindly spam attack and occasionally dodge”, and, in keeping with the little bullet-shaped wind-up robots, they never offer more than basic attack patterns.
In addition, the number of bosses that can be viewed as “interesting” from a design standpoint is appallingly low. There’s Beauvoir, certainly, but then you start getting questionable. Is a tank interesting? Is a big robot interesting? What about a submarine? How about a sphere? What if we put a bunch of spheres together? What if you have to fight the sphere ten times? Everyone loves Firesage Demon, right? Some of these fights manage to provide powerful atmospheres, but almost none provide bosses more conceptually interesting than the little bullet-shaped robots outside the fog door.
Nier’s narrative meanders around meaninglessly for nearly 70% of the game. It continuously leads you around on pretexts that it tosses away without development. First, the aliens turn out to be irrelevant to the conflict. Then, the new main antagonists Adam and Eve die the second time you meet them. What, in fact, was happening during the first and second arcs? No serious conflict, no serious antagonist, no serious drama. The aliens are fake news, and the arcs end before Adam and Eve can become meaningful.
And then we get to the actual crux of the narrative: watching 9S screw himself over at the hands of continuous diabolus ex machina by the authors.
9S’ mental breakdown in the third arc is fairly unjustified, to say the least. He’s angry because he arrived at the bridge in the exact fifteen-second timespan that could cause a misunderstanding — and the bridge collapsed before the misunderstanding could be fixed — and the two Pods who fully acknowledge the importance of 9S’ mental health fail to conceive of correcting the misunderstanding. In other words, it takes continuous arm-wrenching by the author to prevent 9S’ temper tantrum from resolving without a murderous rampage.
Thus, the narrative offers no conflict of substance for the first two arcs, and then tops it off with a plot driven entirely on a misunderstanding by an angsty and horny teenager. This is, incidentally, how you write a low-quality harem anime.
I regrettably don’t have the space to examine the philosophical implications of the narrative — something which is nearly impossible to do when you’re criticizing negatively — but let me say this much: Namedropping doesn’t constitute philosophy. Assigning various names of historical or romanticized figures to characters is boring and lazy, and is a pitiful excuse for actually discussing philosophy. There are two named bosses in the main game that aren’t namedrops, those being A2 and 21O. And the utter levity with which the game discusses the few philosophers that get more than a name indicates clearly that this is an infantile attempt to create meaning where it doesn’t exist.
I should mention that there is a case where it is perfectly acceptable to namedrop philosophers — that is, in Socratic dialogues, when you follow the namedrop by a representation and discussion of a related philosophical position. But it takes a massive lack of respect for Socratic dialogues to think Nier’s character names and zesty one-liners about Nietzsche worthy of that category.
I believe this covers many of my objections to Nier as a game. In terms of gameplay, it falls drastically short of its genre in every field it challenges. Its narrative is weakly structured, and its odd insistence on naming characters as would a high-schooler taking his first philosophy course should put off anyone who’s read an actual literary discussion of philosophy. (If you want a grand narrative that encompasses a full range of philosophical and political opinion, War and Peace is an obvious place to start. You may notice a stark lack of random namedropping.)
On the other hand, the soundtrack is one of the best I’ve ever heard in a video game. It’s a shame, really, since the soundtrack could have served much greater ends over enticing gameplay.
I rate this game Z for [Z]ombie. Not a philosophical zombie, because its veneer of profundity isn’t too deep.