Virtual Odyssey: April & May 2020: Nier Automata, Until Dawn, Splatoon and Xenoblade Chronicles

A Journey Through the Game of the 2010s

April & May 2020

Jre Best

Well, it’s been a little bit. Sincerest apologies for the delays. These last two months have not been easy for anyone and I don’t help myself by putting so many damn words into these articles. Truth be told, Virtual Odyssey almost ended last month but I love doing this too much. So this post is extra long. Partly to make up for April not getting its own individual installment, and partly because I have to cover twice as many games. This was a hard one, lots of games worthy of discussion. I tried to decipher the enigmatic Nier Automata, I had to brave the cold of Until Dawn’s mountains, I got the paint the town red in Splatoon 2 and I just embarked on my journey through Xenoblade. Yeah, it’s a big one so let’s get started this is my Virtual Odyssey through April and May.

Nier Automata

Nier Automata is the weirdest game that everyone’s heard about. The only time I remember seeing a game so willfully atypical of the mainstream gaming audiences expectations becoming this successful would be something like Dark Souls. But even then, Dark Souls’s road to the mainstream was a much more considered marathon as opposed to Automata’s energetic sprint. Every year there are some games that come out and become near unavoidable, blockbuster level releases that don’t only sell well but review highly. These will usually be the first titles to come to your mind when you think of games from that year; like the Witcher 3 for 2015, or Uncharted 4 for 2016, it’s likely that Doom Eternal and Final Fantasy 7 Remake will take that position for 2020. Games that capture the admiration of even the most jaded critics and the mainstream audience. And while these titles are usually very deserving of the popularity they obtained it’s not very often games like these surprise you. A majority of the time these games obtain their success through the refinement and expert execution of familiar design trends, story beats, and popular tropes of the day. Nier Automata isn’t like that. 2017 was a year that saw titles like Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey Resident Evil 7, Hollow Knight and so many more, yet Nier Automata might be that year’s most enduringly memorable title.

In the last article, I only played through the first Route of the game. There I mostly focused on the gameplay, going into detail on how 2b controlled in and out of combat. I did that under the assumption that the combat across all three characters would not be significantly different, I was mistaken. In Route B you control 9s and he plays radically different from 2b. His gameplay is meant to emphasize how he’s not built for combat, having very limited physical attacking options when compared to the other two playable characters. His attacks are slow and lack all the fluidity that 2b’s had; he doesn’t even have a heavy attack button. In its stead, he has a hacking mechanic which once performed on any robot enemies sends you to a top-down shooter mini-game. When completed this allows you to perform various actions.

9s Hacking mini game

9s is certainly the most different feeling character and as such his gameplay is the most divisive. Some really love it and others really hate it. I find myself kind of in the middle. I initially found myself very frustrated playing as 9s, as I stubbornly tried to play his Route like I played Route A. As a traditional character action game, rarely ever hacking. But once I let myself get used to the particular rhythm of 9s’s gameplay, focusing mostly on projectiles, hacking, and using physical attacks very rarely, I started to warm up to the Route as a whole. While I came to accept the combat I still can’t say I’m a massive fan of it. My thoughts on the combat are rather similar to my feelings towards the Route in general. I think what it’s doing is very interesting and sometimes enjoyable but the idea is not interesting or fun enough to justify the amount of time I’m putting into it. Route B is just Route A from 9s’s perspective and you really do almost the exact same things you did in the first route. Fight the same bosses, do the same quests and largely experience the same story with the primary difference being that you’re a character who is less satisfying to play as by design. It’s not a terrible time but so much of it feels like unnecessary padding. However, the little bit of Route B exclusive content is incredibly interesting. I think this Route would be a lot better if it was more selective with which sections of Route A it had you replay. My time with 9s wasn’t bad but it simply wasn’t good enough to justify the extent to which we were together.

The third character, a2 is closer to 2b’s gameplay, having all the same combat options as her with some additions meant to emphasize a2’s more aggressive nature. There are two big additions to a2’s gameplay, when both thumbsticks are pressed in instead of self-destructing like 2b or 9s, a2 triggers a seemingly standard action game powered up form. I say seemingly because there are a few things about this that help it stand out from the many Devil Trigger or Rage of the Gods style mechanics like it. In this state your damage is not just increased but your defense is lowered and your health is constantly draining away. While it’s immensely useful, you have to be very confident in your ability to avoid being hit. And that risk vs reward concept is expanded even further by the other mechanic this Route introduces. By holding down the square button near enemies you can make a2 taunt them. This will make them agro her, and while they’re aggroed, they will do more than double the amount of damage to you however your damage will be increased as well.

Fittingly enough for the character you play during the final Route of the game, a2’s gameplay is all about rewarding you for skillful play. There’s a rather large difficulty jump in Route C of the game, enemies have much higher levels, hit much harder and have much more health than they do at the end of Route B. But everything about the way a2 is designed is meant to keep a player a fighting chance. Forcing them to master Automata’s unique blend of hack and slash, movement reliant, shoot ‘em up combat. It’s for this reason that I enjoyed playing a2 the most as I loved the feeling of playing as a delicate but lethal weapon. Route C is the shortest Route of the game and definitely is the point where the game’s scope seems to buckle against the reality of its development. After so many hours exploring the same areas and interacting with the same NPCs Route C wants to be a bold breaking of the game status quo. While narratively it is, in terms of its open-world things feel weirdly same old same old despite this being the first time that a large chunk of time has passed since the ending of Route A the world largely feels unchanged. Despite the narrative stakes never being higher it seems like there’s less urgency than ever while you’re exploring the open-world — maybe that’s because a2 lacks a navigator? Whatever it may be, it feels like there was a lot more reused content than Yoko Taro initially envisioned. In spite of that, I found the few new areas and bosses so entertaining to play through that Route c ended up being my favorite anyway.

I’m not going to spoil Nier Automata’s plot. Partly because I still have so many more games to write about in this very article and I’ve already spent way too much time talking about our first one; partly because this game’s plot is so interestingly aloof that I’m not sure the capacity in which I actually could spoil it, but mostly because the plot does not matter. This is not an elaborate insult directed at the game nor is it a setup to celebrate it for the sake of pure novelty. I mean it just as a statement of my own opinion. Nier Automata’s plot doesn’t matter, at least not in the way the plot traditionally matters. Nier Automata has a reputation for liberal use of philosophical symbolism. Many people have scoffed at this, criticizing the games unsubtle handling of these themes and simplistic character writing. Depending on who you talk to, Nier Automata is either the most brilliant game you’ve ever played or a shallow action game that only gained its reputation through the mainstream’s ignorance of better options. I see where both sides are coming from. Nier Automata’s character writing is rather basic for today’s standards, all the characters follow very obvious very well used archetypes and most of them aren’t able to develop past that. The actual plot of the game, once you get past all the proper nouns, is rather straightforward actually. And the thematic and philosophical concepts are presented so blatantly Yoko Taro might as well have put a citation page in the credits. The funny thing is, if you talk to most of the people who say they love this game’s story they’ll agree with almost all of that and will still state they love the game.

Nier Automata’s narrative to me is something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Its weird blend of anime melodrama, Yoko Taro’s convoluted Drakengard continuity, philosophical musings and post-apocalyptic tragedy may be garish to some but it really seems to have struck a chord with many including myself. It’s fitting that this game is bizarrely a sequel to a Nier stage play because as I was watching the ending to Automata the world of theater was what I was thinking about. No-one would argue that a play cannot contain subtlety or depth. But due to the format of theater subtlety cannot be communicated in the same way as other mediums. Actors must make grand gestures and speak clearly and boisterously, in sets that are designed so even the people in the back of the theater are able to tell what’s going on. A play removes the ability to tell a story in a naturalistic way, which is not a drawback; it’s simply a different way of storytelling. The stories feel artificial and that is to their benefit. Take Les Miserables, which is not just a play but a musical. The production is unavoidably artificial feeling yet it’s a classic story that is still being performed in theaters to this day. Then look at it’s already forgotten movie adaptation which foolishly attempts to retell the story in a pseudo-realistic way completely failing to capture even half the essence of the original. 

Nier Automata is much like a play: it’s big, it wears its message on its sleeve and it seeks to make an impression no matter how off-putting it may seem. I find it a little perfect that this is the dilemma a game that is all about the artificials longing for the natural finds itself in.

Until Dawn

With the massive technological improvement in-game graphics during the 2010s many games chose to focus less on mechanical complexity and more on cinematic storytelling. These games are a sort of nephew to the classic Adventure Games of the ’90s. As both types of games don’t necessarily rely on mastery of a skill but the deduction of how to proceed with the plot. I refer to these as Cinematic Adventure Games. The highest-profile examples of these games being the works of David Cage and Telltale Games, I wrote about another entry in this genre, Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us in a previous Virtual Odyssey article. 

Until Dawn is a slasher movie-inspired Cinematic Adventure Game exclusive to the PlayStation 4. It was more low-key release than what is typical for PlayStation 4 exclusives due to its developer Supermassive Games being largely unknown up to that point. Despite its humble roots, Until Dawn ended up developing a rather large fan base which led to many word-of-mouth sales. This along with the games YouTube friendliness turned this little marketed exclusive title into a rather large hit.

What immediately stands out to you when you first start Until Dawn is the game’s visuals. The game is not just influenced by movies and television it wants to blend lines between the mediums as much as possible. The game has a hyper realistic art style going as far as to replicate the likeness of its actors, who are mostly from the world of television. You’ll notice names like Mr Robot’s Rami Malek, Agents of Shield’s Brett Dalton and probably their biggest name Peter Stormare all with their likenesses intact. And for the most part it works — while the game is nowhere close to photorealistic it manages to give the impression of realism while minimizing visits to the uncanny valley. However the art of recreating actors in games has struggled with a few consistent issues for a long time now and while Until Dawn tries it still is not able to fully surmount them. Chiefly is that the closer a game gets to a 100% accurate re-creation of a human the more egregious the slightest error becomes. The faces of the characters struggle to convey emotion, flip-flopping between too stiff or too cartoonish. Oftentimes the way the cast moves their bodies comes off as astonishingly unnatural when compared to the faces and environments. And the typical problem of games not knowing what a wet person looks like is exceedingly comical here.

Like I said previously, Until Dawn is inspired heavily by horror movie cliches, with the plot concerning a group of morally dubious teenagers spending an evening at a log cabin in the snowy mountains with no cell phone reception. What makes things interesting is that Until Dawn is a Cinematic Adventure Game and one of the most common mechanics in this genre is dynamic choice. The choices you make in the game will have an effect on future events within it. This is mostly done through dialogue options, choosing whether or not you want to trust, lie,be friendly, or be hostile towards the rest of the cast. You play as every member of your group of survivors over the course of the game each one being their own horror movie trope. On the pause screen of the game the character you’re playing as personality traits are listed and measured as well as their affinity with the other characters.

Until Down pause screen

This allows for a fascinating dynamic between the game and player. How do you want to make decisions in this game? Do you want to role play and make the choices based on what you think the character would do? Do you make decisions focused on uncovering the secrets of the story? Are you trying to save as many of the teenagers as possible or do you only have a few you actually want to see make it to dawn? No matter what happens the game will continue and every character can die. This is a great concept for a slasher story as it doesn’t just increase the game’s replayability but it helps bring a new spin to a formula we’re all familiar with.

In between chapters of the game you will be asked questions by a mysterious therapist character and these questions will influence the game in subtle ways. This is usually done in a rather hokey way, such as the therapist asking you what image you’re scared of the most and whatever you answer will be a painting you see later on in the game. But not all are as tepid and some of the outcomes of these interviews are worth exploring. This focus on choice makes the game very replayable. Just to see what happens when you have characters act differently towards each other, explore areas in more detail, answer the interviews in different ways. That is if you can put up with a fair amount of padding.

Some criticize Cinematic Adventure Games for their simplicity compared to older classic Adventure Games. I am not one of those people. While it’s true that for the most part these games don’t have as interesting puzzles as their forebears it is my belief that as long as they provide a narrative worth investing in and a world that’s satisfying to explore that’s enough. While the narrative of Until Dawn is straight cliche down to its very core I do believe it is worth that investment. However, when it comes to the satisfaction of playing through it it stumbles greatly. Until Dawn might have the slowest walking speed of any game I’ve ever played. Characters do not move through areas but rather they ponder through them with a speed that could charitably be described as glacial. Every moment the game chooses to stop it’s trail of cutscenes and has you explore an area like an Adventure Game it’s painful. The impressive looking areas quickly lose their luster as your character wanders through them with no sense of urgency. It seems like the snail-like speed is a way to make up for the fact that the game’s areas actually aren’t that big, to give the illusion of scale, but it does not work. You might think that this slow-pace might instill a sense of dread but that also is not the case and that brings me to the biggest flaw of Until Dawn

It’s not scary. I am not a horror buff, in fact I’m such a lightweight I actively avoid it, but even I was never rattled by Until Dawn. The closest I ever came to fear were quick bursts of excitement from the game’s few jump scares, even then I found them lacking when compared to other jump-scares I’ve experienced. Maybe this is because while I was entertained by the game story I was never truly invested in it.

Until Dawn is a unique experience that I’m glad I got to play through. It is at once a unique project helmed by a small inexperienced studio and a can’t miss exclusive for the most popular console of its time. It is one of the most experimental narrative experiences of it’s generation but also shows an abnormally slavish devotion to it’s formula even for a slasher movie. Until Dawn is most definitely worth playing for how well it executes all its ideas but it is just as flawed as it is unique. If anything I mentioned sounds enticing then I would absolutely say play Until Dawn.

Splatoon 2

I find it amusing that the first in-house Nintendo game I rolled was also the latest entry from the newest addition to the developers iconic roster of IP. Not only that, but Splatoon is well known for being a Nintendo game very much unlike most Nintendo games. A multiplayer focused Third Person Shooter would on the surface seem to fly in the face of the image Nintendo has carefully constructed for itself for decades now. But like I said, that’s surface-level because once you go past the vestigial curtain of genre Splatoon 2 quickly reveals itself as unmistakably Nintendo.

I was actually left in a bit of a conundrum when starting Splatoon 2. While the game does have a single player mode, the reason to play Splatoon is for its online multiplayer. So do I do what I’ve done with every other game? Play until I reach the credits or focus all my time on the online multiplayer. What I ended up doing was finish the relatively short single player and then play the online multiplayer until I reach 20 hours in the game. I felt like this was a good way to get a grasp of all the basic mechanics while also giving myself a decent amount of time with Splatoon’s multiplayer mode. 

After 20 hours of this game I have come to the conclusion that I am very bad at Splatoon 2 to a near comical degree. The general idea of Splatoon is that it is a Third Person Shooter but instead of bullets your character fires multicolored ink out of a variety of different weapons. Firing will cover the floor and walls with ink. You can also turn into a squid and swim through any ink that’s the same color that you fire which allows you to travel faster. While hitting enemies with ink can kill them that is not the primary goal — at least in the multiplayer. The goal of multiplayer matches is to make sure that your team has covered more of the mapping ain’t the opposing team. At the end of every online match the percentage of the map covered by each team is calculated and whoever has made the biggest mess is the winner. It’s a fun little formula and the variety of different ink spreading weapons with the small number of players on a given team encourages variety. Do you pick The Rollers, a paint roller that has virtually no long-distance utility but is able to cover large sections of the map in practically no time at all? Or do you prefer to create long but thin lines of ink while sniping enemies with The Chargers? It works well in theory, but in practice for me I had more than a difficult time finding success during my time with the game. 

I largely feel this is a result of me being unable to adapt to the controls of the game. This is a console exclusive shooter and while I fully agree with the fact that shooters will pretty much always be improved by a keyboard and mouse, I grew up on consoles and I am no stranger to playing Third Person Shooters with a controller. What I am new to is playing one with a gyroscope. Both Splatoon games incorporate the gyroscope into aiming and I am simply just not a fan of that at all. I’ve seen many praise this decision, saying it allowed them to aim faster and with more accuracy which is something I simply cannot understand. Aiming with the gyroscope reminded me of the worst parts of third-party Wii games, forcing me to twist my hand into horribly uncomfortable positions and constantly having to reset my camera. While I certainly was able to move my cursor faster than I normally would, the gyroscope denied me stillness and I found using it in tandem with the joystick finicky and frustrating. But I also found playing without the gyroscope equally as problematic. Since the sensitivity of the joysticks was uncomfortably low it felt like I was at a severe disadvantage in both multi and single player. Though the game does give you options to adjust the sensitivity for both the gyroscope and joystick I was simply not able to come up with a balance that felt right for me.

The single player might be the most shoddy and uninspired feeling campaign I’ve ever played from Nintendo. Yes, it’s not the point of the game but it is still there and single player modes in multiplayer games should at least to some degree prepare you for the multiplayer which is something I feel Splatoon 2 fails at. The levels in Splatoon single player all focus on some pretty basic obstacle course completion. With you using one of the weapons from the multiplayer to do some light platforming and puzzles all the while fighting enemies that seem to highlight all the worst elements of Splatoon. The simple issue with these levels is that Splatoon gameplay was designed around covering as much of the screen as you can with ink — not direct combat. While the multiplayer does have player-versus-player combat that’s clearly not the focus of the game. The actual shooting mechanics aren’t very robust, nor is it immensely satisfying to kill an opponent but that’s fine because it’s an incidental part of the game. But the single player completely removes the idea of map covering and has to awkwardly find something for you to do with the existing mechanics and it just highlights the worst parts of the game. 

Something I’ve neglected to mention till now is that your player character, the “Inkling”, walks extremely slowly, unless swimming through their own ink, and has a jump that Little Mac would laugh at. And when a significant amount of damage has been done to you, your character slows down even more, reaching Until Dawn levels of languidness until they’ve been submerged in their ink for a few seconds. While this is a fine system for the multiplayer as a way to keep players from cheaply avoiding death, in single player it just feels unfair. In multiplayer a teammate can provide cover fire to give you time to get to a safe place and heal. Multiplayer games are designed very differently from single player ones. The idea of punishing a player for getting hit by worsening their already poor mobility in an action platformer doesn’t make sense like it does in a multiplayer shooting arena. I also found the bosses to be a pretty big mixed bag, some being able to use the ink mechanics in intestling or creative way, others feeling like chores.

Splatoon 2  is a great game for someone who isn’t me. I acknowledge the game is well-constructed but as I was playing it it grated on me. It brings me no joy saying that because I really do like the concept of the game but with the experience I had with it I couldn’t honestly recommend it. It’s not a bad game but I can’t say I had much fun with it.

Xenoblade Chronicles 

Having a stroke of total luck I spun, and am currently playing, Xenoblade Chronicles. Ironically enough, Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition and this article share a release date so for all of you who are currently playing through the hd remake of this game you’ll be able to read my thoughts on its progenitor in future articles.

Xenoblade Chronicles was the last major release for the Wii, the closing act on one of the most influential consoles of all time. We almost didn’t get it in North America. Xenoblade along with two other games, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower, only saw a release overseas due to a fan campaign to get them localized named Operation Rainfall. Near the end of the Wii’s life cycle major releases for it became quite rare and North American fans didn’t understand why Nintendo was keeping these three games away from them, especially since they had already received English localizations for European and Australian release. After some time Nintendo relented and all three games received a North American release. The final twist in this story being that when all was said and done Pandora’s Tower and Lost Story largely received average to middling reviews and have been mostly forgotten. Xenoblade  however was received thunderously well, scoring very high reviews and standing out boldly from the Wii’s library, which lacked many hardcore JRPG’s. Xenoblade is one of the most beloved games on the Wii which made it a fitting enough swan song for the iconic console.

While I had played the game before, I had never beaten it, so my goal for this month was to get up to where I had originally stopped playing, which I did. This roughly put me around a quarter of the way through the game despite being more than 15 hours into it. Xenoblade is long. In those 15 hours it was clear to me why Xenoblade had left such a lasting impression on myself and so many others. Xenoblade has an undeniable charisma and confidence that is impossible to ignore. It shows the true wonder that can be achieved near the end of a console’s lifespan as developers have gained not just familiarity but mastery over the tools at their disposal.

Xenoblade Chronicles pushes the Wii to it’s absolute limits, the console known for its technical limitations somehow able to produce these ridiculously large beautiful environments. It’s voice acted excellently. Since the game was only going to be released in Europe and Australia all the characters all talk in wonderfully charming British accents. The voice acting might be one of the most recognizable aspects of this game. Characters will frequently talk during combat with several dialogue lines becoming full-blown memes. But that’s not the only thing memorable about this game’s audio as the score is just sublime, with no shortage of iconic tracks. It’s no surprise considering the games star-studded lineup of composers which have resumes that speak for themselves. Classic soundtracks like Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Street Fighter 2 and Kingdom Hearts are just some of the masterpieces these people have worked on.

Another way in which this game displays confidence is in its cutscenes, which show a level of skilled direction that is frankly not common. Shot composition is strong, the voice acting andn music are used well and when a fight scene erupts it’s directed better then some action films I’ve seen. Until Dawn may be influenced by cinema but Xenoblade understands it. It certainly helps that the story these cutscenes are in service to is very compelling. So far the plot has remained simple, sticking pretty closely to the JRPG / Hero’s Journey template that you’re probably familiar with. But with the aforementioned aesthetic triumphs combined and compelling one-of-a-kind world and above par character writing it all comes together in a distinctively likeable package.

I don’t regret not being able to play Definitive Edition. Xenoblade Chronicles is such a compelling experience. I mostly wanted to get my thoughts on the game’s presentation out of the way in this article because I have so much to say about the actual gameplay next month. Xenoblade Chronicles was made as a spiritual successor to an obscure niche JRPG series. It should’ve been a cult classic that only importers knew about. Yet, its grown into a powerful franchise unto itself, with a place in Super Smash Brothers, a sequel, and now a remake. Xenoblade Chronicles came out in Japan in June 2010 as one of the first major releases of a new decade and 10 years later it gets to do that again.

That’s it, hopefully the longest Virtual Odyssey post I ever do. I know we’re all still going through some rough times so I hope I was able to provide a fun distraction from the real world. I want to offer one more apology for this article’s delay and thank you for the people who read it. I think we can all look forward to next month as I complete Xenoblade Chronicles. If you want to stay up-to-date with other story arc articles make sure to follow us at @The_Story_Arc and to stay up to date with me follow @jrebest on Twitter.

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