on March 10, 2017 by Lee Millington
It’s widely thought to be a pretty good thing that Nier has received a sequel – and indeed, Rice’s very own Kitsumeda was rather enthusiastic about it in an early preview. It initially seems, though, more than a little surprising that a sequel has actually happened, considering that the first game got unquestionably middling reviews.
Now we’ve got a no-holds-barred sequel developed by action maestros Platinum. It’s got to be asked: why is there more Nier?
Nier’s parent series, Drakengard, has had a fairly unlikely success story itself. The Drakengard games have never been showered with praise, receiving only reasonable reviews in Japan, and very mixed ones elsewhere. Sales were nothing to speak of either, with merely respectable levels in their home country. Yet here we are today, with three Drakengard games and two spin-offs under the Nier name.
It’s the worlds of the Drakengard franchise that give its games their unique appeal. Sure, their graphics and combat might be widely thought of as sub-par. Nevertheless, critics and the public alike have loved the games’ unique characters, atmospheric settings, and memorable stories. Those are the sort of things that have caused Nier, in particular, to be almost revered by some gamers. You really don’t have to go far to find it referred to as a cult classic.
There’s a reason, however, beyond reviews, as to why Nier is a ‘cult’ classic, and the reason is that it sold a bit badly.
There’s a reason, however, beyond reviews, as to why Nier is a ‘cult’ classic, and the reason is that it sold a bit badly. In fact, it was made quite clear to Engadget that it was a major flop. Two points, then, seem to stand out in making sense of Automata’s creation. The first is that Square Enix was, ultimately, pressured to make a sequel, rather than risk losing the game’s producer/Dragon Quest torch-bearer Yosuke Saito. The second is the team-up with the universally-adored Platinum Games. These two points could, perhaps, comprise the complete story of Nier: Automata’s origin.
Alternatively, it might be reasonable to suggest that a new Nier is a canny business move: after all, a sequel to a cult classic doesn’t sound like much of a risk. It sounds like an easy opportunity to build hype. This case, however, is not quite as straightforward as you might initially think. Nier: Automata is a sequel in very loose terms, taking the general approach from its predecessor, but shooting off in its own direction. It’s far from a sure thing.
One big obstacle is the Western market. Fans of Nier might have been able to ignore its flaws, but the general public mightn’t cope with the age of the sequel’s leads. The first game was released in two forms in Japan: Replicant, with a young Nier trying to save his sister, and Gestalt, with an older one trying to save his daughter. We had the one with the older (and uglier) chap, the thinking being that an older character would suit Western tastes better. If the sequel’s younger leads prove a problem, its chances of Western success look pretty slim.
Even in the West, where mature themes are found in big-hitters like The Witcher, Western censors couldn’t cope with the busting of some taboos.
The Drakengard franchise has always gone against trend, at home and abroad. The stories of the games are regularly independent, not allowing games to follow much-loved characters. They’ve also been dark to a pretty notable degree, with murder, bloody retribution, suicide, and even incest all cropping up. This level of darkness is pretty unlike nearly every chart-topper in Japan. Even in the West, where mature themes are found in big-hitters like The Witcher, Western censors couldn’t cope with the busting of some taboos.
Nier: Automata might not look as boundary pushing as what’s come before, but it’s still a big risk for any publisher, especially with the franchise’s patchy track record. But taking a risk is far from unprecedented for Square Enix; it’s displaying the same brio it showed by publishing the first Nier. Indeed, it’s the same publisher behind tactics/RPG hybrid The Last Remnant, ‘90s RPG throwback I Am Setsuna, and the utterly unclassifiable The World Ends With You. Far from being a conservative video games publisher, Square Enix is the reason that many of Japan’s best-loved risk-takers exist.
Trust seems to be at the core of Japan’s major recent successes in games development. From Software is a frankly incredible example, a developer that’s morphed from working primarily for the Japanese market into creating critically-adored world beaters. This meant gambling with the well-worn Kings Field formula; Kings Field being a uniquely-styled series that was popular in Japan, but regarded as a bit clunky abroad. That gamble paid off as, after a trial run with the PlayStation exclusive Demon’s Souls, the world was introduced to everyone’s favourite death simulator: Dark Souls.
It’s this evident willingness by gamers to experiment that allows publishers and developers to do the same.
But some credit has to go to the Japanese video gaming public, too. Neither the Drakengard series or any of From Software’s pre-Souls series would have had the opportunity to succeed if there was not a taste for games that do things a little differently. It’s this evident willingness by gamers to experiment that allows publishers and developers to do the same.
Really, though, the reasons behind the existence of Nier: Automata are not as important as the fact that it does exist. Japanese gaming is clearly healthy enough for money to be spent on big budget, big risk games. That’s why we’re seeing a wide variety of AAA Japanese video games reaching Western shores, including Nioh, Gravity Rush 2, and, of course, Square Enix’s other safety-upsetting sequel, Final Fantasy XV. All signs so far show Nier: Automata to have been another risk worth taking.