When Square Enix published the original Nier back in 2010 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, both its reviews and sales figures made for pretty grim reading. Instead of becoming a new, best-selling franchise - based off developer Cavia’s popular Drakengard RPG series - it ended up being the last game the studio ever made.
A third Drakengard title then came along in 2014 for the PlayStation 3 developed by Ace Combat and Deadly Premonition outfit Access Games, but that didn’t fare well critically either, garnering a Metacritic score of just 61. With the future of the series now in doubt, the idea of a Nier sequel seemed even more fantastical than a fourth Drakengard game.
It was with some surprise, then, that just a year later director Yoko Taro took to the stage at Square Enix’s first ever E3 press conference to announce Nier’s return. If that wasn’t enough, it was also going to be made by action specialists PlatinumGames, the critically-acclaimed studio responsible for titles such as Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
It marked the beginning of a very unlikely comeback. Now entitled Nier: Automata, it lands on PlayStation 4 and PC tomorrow, so MCV sat down with Square Enix UK’s senior product manager Chris Arnold to discuss how such a niche title slashed its way back into the limelight.
“Nier: Automata is an incredible marriage between PlatinumGames action and Square Enix RPG,” Arnold explains. “It experiments with many styles and genres as this is something the development team and director, Yoko Taro, really wanted to include to give the game as much variety as possible to express the gameplay and story in different ways.
"This was a part of the previous game which people really liked, and in some ways the experimentation and quirky style really is the essence of Nier and is in there to surprise players as much as possible.”
Indeed, during the game’s first 30 minutes alone, Nier: Automata switches genres repeatedly, morphing from a bullet-hell shooter into a twin-stick shooter, before changing tack completely and introducing elements more reminiscent of a third-person hack-and-slash title as well as side-scrolling 2D platformer.
First and foremost, however, Nier: Automata is an action RPG, and Arnold hopes its blend of styles will make it highly approachable for all gamers: “Nier: Automata is definitely a Japanese game in style, but that will be a strong part of the appeal to many players.
"Nier was a cult favourite that over time developed a strong following through great word of mouth. Whilst Nier: Automata will appeal to that same audience, the extra considerations that have been made to make the game as accessible as possible will hopefully extend its audience outside of this.”
Its main audience, however, is pre-existing fans of both the publisher and developer’s respective portfolios. “The game is designed to be accessible to both fans of the hard-core action games that PlatinumGames are renowned for developing, as well as to those who are more fans of the RPG side of the game that targets fans of previous Square Enix titles,” says Arnold.
“There’s an incredibly deep and nuanced combat system from PlatinumGames that will delight fans of the studio’s highly celebrated back catalogue. Late last year, Final Fantasy XV proved that there’s a huge appetite for action RPGs in the UK, and the anticipation for Nier: Automata, [after the demo] in December, is very encouraging.”
NEAR AND DEAR
Nier: Automata has a very modern sensibility, then, but its origins as a series couldn’t be more obscure. Not only was it conceived as a spin-off to Cavia’s Drakengard franchise, which itself only ever received fairly middling scores in the UK despite its popularity in Japan, but its story followed on specifically from the fifth ending of the very first Drakengard title. Automata continues this trend, too, taking place after the events of Nier’s fourth ending.
Arnold’s confident, however, that Automata’s knotty heritage won’t put players off: “Nier: Automata stands on its own, and is a completely new experience that fans both old and new can enjoy,” he says.
“Our collaboration with PlatinumGames has brought us an entirely new audience. We wanted new players to experience the incredibly fluidity of the game first hand, so we released a very well-received demo, which continues to attract a significant number of new players daily.”
The demo isn’t the only marketing tool Square Enix is using to get the game in front of players, either: “We’ve already had incredible PR coverage on Nier: Automata, including the cover of Edge magazine, and we’ve recently completed a major press tour which has secured additional covers as we lead up to launch,” Arnold explains.
“We’ll also be putting the gameplay front and centre across our extensive online campaign, focusing on PlatinumGames’ expertise in combat, rock solid 60fps and compelling characters.
“We have a strong retail proposition, too – The Day One Edition of the game is market-wide and contains additional game content, and we have a T-shirt featuring Emil as well, the iconic character that appeared in the first game.”
There’s no post-launch content planned at present but it’s clear Square Enix is putting its best foot forward when it comes to making Nier: Automata a success. Indeed, the title debuted at No.1 when it released in Japan last week and reviews in the UK have, so far, been full of praise for the game.
We don't yet know how it will fare at UK retail, of course, but if the publisher’s partnership with PlatinumGames bears fruit, Nier: Automata might finally be the title to put the series on the map, lifting it out of its current cult status and transforming it into a fully-fledged franchise. If it can succeed in wooing both action and RPG fans then March 10th should be a very good day for Square Enix and PlatinumGames.