Nier Automata put out one hell of a demo. Even though it is only around half an hour, it has better design that most full length titles from last year. The combat is a highlight and a few simple design techniques keep it fresh throughout. We take a closer look in this video.
NieR Automata’s demo is a masterclass in intelligent scenario design. Using little more than a handful of enemy types, some smart camera work, and well-considered enemy placement, the demo manages to create a shocking number of distinct encounters. The game remixes and rearranges itself constantly. This allows the challenge to scale much more naturally than most games. NieR Automata shifts and transforms but always retains something familiar for the player to latch on to, something to give them the confidence they need to succeed in the next encounter. Combat remains fresh even as fights escalate and the rules of the game world change.
It is very important for us to consider the initial round on encounters that Automata drops the player into. These encounters form the foundation for how the player understands the world, their character, and the general rules of the game. Specifically, the game teaches the player that there will be two modes of combat.
The initial fight stresses melee combat while the second configuration of enemies teaches the player about ranged projectiles. A third encounter with a larger robot exists to teach dodging as well. By the end of this, players are familiar with all the primary ways in which enemies will attack and are given a general sense on how to avoid them. Player knowledge is then put to the test with a pseudo-boss encounter.
These encounters are explicitly positioned as a tutorial. We’re meant to form assumptions. This is what NieR Automata is. The largest assumption we’re supposed to make here is about the camera perspective. For the initial part of the demo, the game maintains the third person perspective we’ve come to expect from action games.
Your initial fight following the introductory boss also stresses the camera. After being told how to lock on, you’re not given the ability to do so in a small, controlled environment against these flying enemies. They remain generally out of reach of melee attacks so locking on as using your machine gun is key. The game continues to stress the machine guns importance in the following corridor.
Here, we are blocked by stationary enemies firing straight at us. Simple dodging or jump over the attacks isn’t really optimal because of how tight the corridor is. The enemies are positioned to teach us another lesson. The game has just made it clear how viable the machine gun is. When we fire at the enemies we also destroy their projectiles. Through simple positioning, the game has successfully taught the player how to destroy bubble projectiles. This will be crucial in later fights.
The follow up fight finally switches out perspective to a flat, 2D view. Our assumptions about the game world are being adjusted. Dodging doesn’t really help here, so we’re forced to attack aggressively and use our machine gun. However, the new perspective opens up new possibilities for our skill set. In this case, players will find that they can fire their gun in any direction. The enemies exist larger as a way to let them experiment combining multi-directional melee/machine gun combinations.
At first, the next encounter seems like a repeat of the tutorial fights. Part of the design of this initial fight it to allow players to perform a more masterful version of the same combat they performed before. The addition of more enemies is meant to escalate the challenge. For instance, the half circle of projectile spitting enemies from the tutorial becomes a full circle. This small change tests the player on what they’ve learned. It generates a lot of effect with small effort, something which I consider a hallmark of elegant design. The challenge is increased, the player gets to become more confident in their skills, and the game continues to teach players how to use their skills with increasing control.
The largest change comes slightly later on when the game assumes a top down perspective. The game fundamentally alters its form. While melee attacks are still possible, the view makes them impractical. It’s easier to situate yourself between enemies and fire your machine gun. Automata becomes something akin to a stick shooter with this change. As if to encourage it, the game places you in various scenarios where your guns are slightly better to use then your swords.
Remixing initial gameplay scenarios also occurs when the game tosses shielded enemies at you. Where there was one larger robot, there might be two with shields. Disabling and altering which mechanics are effective ensures that the player can never fall back to a single optimal strategy. Through remixing and reshuffling previous fights, Automata maintains a fast pace.
It also has the added side effect of keeping the player surprised and enthralled. This is no more clear than when the final boss fight transforms into an arcade shooter. It’s After Burner or Space Harrier repurposed into a modern title. The game only has it last around ten seconds but the additional phase and shift in gameplay form adds additional energy to a fight that already has high stakes.
These moments, from simple changes to enemy placement or shifts in player perspective, mean that Automata gets an extreme amount of use from only a few enemies and core mechanics. A shield here, an additional enemy there, or a tilting of the camera can drastically alter how the player behaves. Automata’s changes are intelligent and exciting. It makes a bold impression. But most importantly, it did so without doing anything fancy. That is damn good design.