There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Nier, an action role-playing game released in 2010. Despite coming from Square Enix — the company behind genre mainstays like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest — the game didn’t sell particularly well, and the reaction from critics was mixed. Despite this, it managed to create a cult following, thanks in large part to its distinct, almost sorrowful take on a post-apocalyptic world. It may not have been the huge hit Square Enix was hoping for, but the company is hoping to build off of that cult following with the follow-up Nier: Automata, which launches next year. “We thought that we really needed to let this new [intellectual property] grow and get bigger,” says producer Yosuke Saito.
In order to help the series make that next step, Square has enlisted the help of some notable creators. While Saito, director Taro Yoko, and composer Keiichi Okabe are all returning from the original, a new studio is helming production. One of the biggest complaints for the original Nier was that its action was clunky and often too difficult. “From the start we knew that we had to make it better,” says Saito. So Automata is being developed by renowned action game studio Platinum Games, the team behind titles like Bayonetta, Vanquish, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
After playing the game for about 20 minutes, Platinum’s influence is clear. Automata is fast and stylish, letting you chain together multiple attacks in fluid and satisfying ways. The main character — an android named 2B — wields both a blade and gun, and it’s a lot of fun figuring out how to link together her many attacks while waves and waves of enemies swarm around her. Thanks to a dynamic, cinematic camera, the action also shifts quite a bit; at times it feels like a Devil May Cry action game, in other moments it’s like a top-down shooter. For the most part, Saito says, Square left the action elements up to Platinum. “When we brought it to Platinum Games, we asked them to try not to make it too different,” he says. “I didn’t really have to worry about it too much.”
According to Saito, Platinum jumped at the chance to work on Automata, primarily because many of its staff were a part of Nier’s cult following, so they already had a base understanding of not only what made the first game work, but also what needed to be improved on. The same was true for character artist Akihido Yoshida. A longtime employee with Square, Yoshida left the company in 2013 to serve as director of design studio CyDesignation. He’s best known for his character work on games like Final Fantasy XII and the Bravely Default series, and was responsible for creating the look of protagonist 2B and the rest of the main cast. “I really wanted him to design the characters for us,” Saito says of Yoshida. “And he understood the charm of the game, why everyone was into Nier. So he gladly accepted.”
Of course, if Automata does manage to lure in new players, it will need to be approachable even if they haven’t played Nier, which launched six years ago on the previous generation of game consoles. Because of this, Automata’s story has been created to stand on its own. It takes place far in the future, and tells the story of a seemingly never-ending proxy war fought between human-created androids, and machine invaders from another world. 2B is part of a new, more powerful android task force that’s expected to help break the war’s deadlock. Automata stars a cast of primarily synthetic characters — ones who have been programmed to not express emotion. But despite this, Saito believes that it’s the emotion of the characters and the world that help separate Automata from other post-apocalyptic stories, and what helped the original develop such a devoted following.
“There’s a sadness, a sentimental feeling that [director] Yoko-san creates with these games,” he says.
Nier: Automata is coming to PS4 and PC in early 2017.