“Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment? I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle...and wonder if we'll ever get the chance to kill him.”
It is with these intriguing words that NieR: Automata’s prologue begins.
Before I grew accustomed to them, starting the campaign for triple-A games like BioShock: Infinite or Metro: Last Light always had me a bit excited. It felt like I wasn’t just about to play a game, but was going to be drawn into a special otherworldly experience. The feeling had roots in my childhood, when playing games like WarCraft 3 or Halo 3 at my cousin’s house was one of the highlights of Chinese New Year, with the young me feeling a little awed by the medium. Even as a college student, there was still a sense of wonder that could be derived from some of the titles I played.
But the first time I played NieR: Automata’s prologue, in March of last year, it was as if I hadn’t felt that special feeling for years.
Maybe it was partly due to the fact that I don’t usually play games like NieR: Automata (if there are such things, with the closest being perhaps other titles from director Yoko Taro), or my intense anticipation for the game, or because playing a game at someone else’s house (it was a colleague’s house; I was an intern at Gamehubs then) always made the experience seem more unique to me. Maybe it was because I was playing on normal and avoided the frustrations that came with higher difficulties. Or maybe it was a combination of all of them. The one thing that’s for sure however is that the game itself had something to do with it.
Following those initial thought-provoking lines, uttered by android protagonist 2B, is an aerial sequence played in both top-down and side-scrolling perspectives. I had known that the game mixed in elements of bullet hell shooters, but for it to start with a fairly lengthy shoot-em-up sequence was a surprise - one that was fun to play nevertheless. When 2B finally lands on the ground, it’s a trek through an enemy-occupied factory. Small machines were slain, slightly larger machines were also slain, and as I did the slaying I reveled in the slickness and sheer stylishness of the android’s (admittedly simple) moveset, or how amazing her glide and even sprint feel. I found Metal Gear Solid V’s gameplay very satisfying, but this had me feeling a level of wonderment I had never felt before.
Somewhere along the way, a giant mechanical arm with a buzzsaw shows up. Later, two of them appear. Then they attach themselves to a massive robot that likes to unleash intimidating barrages of damaging orbs like a giant weaponized bubble blower when not trying to crush me with those buzzsaw arms. I don’t usually like boss fights in games, especially when they’re massive things who can only be slashed at when some part of them temporarily stops near your character. But in this case, I was relishing the epic encounter.
Throughout most of the prologue, 2B is accompanied by various tracks, all of them well-picked and stunningly good. From the haunting chorus of Alien Manifestation to the action-suited Bipolar Nightmare, it’s a great auditory experience that impresses greatly without outshining the music instances in the rest of the game.
I sometimes dread the start of a singleplayer game due to how the opening is likely to be slow and dull, at least compared to the rest of the campaign. NieR: Automata, on the other hand, gives you philosophical lines then throws you into an action-packed mission containing a good amount of the quirkiness, stylishness, unique atmosphere and sublime music that the game has to offer. It feels special and epic from the get-go, while maintaining the illusion of a relatively straightforward action game that slowly gets peeled away (or smashed) later.
Simply put, I loved it a lot and couldn’t wait to play the rest of the game.
Replaying games is something I don’t really do outside of less narrative-heavy sandbox games like Hitman: Blood Money or some levels that can be accessed through a “mission/chapter select” function. Even linear games I adore like F.E.A.R. feel a little dull the second time around, despite the gameplay itself remaining a shining gem. Sometimes I’d tell myself that my urge to re-experience things would overcome any sense of fatigue from the familiarity, but it seldom works out that way.
That’s why I told myself that if I were to replay NieR: Automata - which I felt like doing several times after completing it - I would do so on its first-year anniversary at the earliest. That should be enough time for me memories of it to become a little foggy. I made it to 2018, but I ended up restarting my journey on Wednesday.
Given that I had to start from scratch again when I got my own copy of the game, I had basically replayed the prologue already once before. But now that I was doing so after finishing the game, the circumstances were different. Even so, a part of me I thought that I’d be easily freshly impressed by it again.
That part of me turned out to be wrong, although not horribly so.
Since I had finished the game only about half-a-year-ago, the lack of freshness definitely should have been expected. I’ve even told myself to hold off replaying Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain a couple of times because I could sense the familiarity I’d get before I even begun downloading it again. Despite that, even the more realistic side of me expected the moments where the giant arms show up to make me grip my controller tightly. Instead, the reaction was more akin to nodding internally and casually thinking: “Yup, it’s time for this now.”
Meanwhile, the combat with the smaller bots at times felt like a bit like mere boxes to tick - something that made me slightly downcast rather than horrified. I had slain so many of these throughout dozens of hours and slain a good deal more in the Debug Room after the main story - how could this happen? There were some decent explanations for that at least: the light sword and heavy sword weapon loadout the game starts you out with was one I’d grown tired of and stopped using in favour of for other combinations. I wanted my spear, or a second light sword, and I wanted to start installing the game’s passive-ability-granting chips too - not having the chip that let me glide for longer periods just felt weird and a bit limiting.
There’s also my lack of ingenuity in coming up with more elaborate combos. The combat at its core is simple, but that doesn’t mean players can’t pull off captivating combos like these. Weirdly enough, the weapon type that I seldom used later on - the heavy sword - was more captivating to use than the light sword initially, until my preference for faster attacks overtook me again.
While the smaller enemy types could feel like a bit of a chore to deal with, the boss fight and the mechanical arms were a different story. Yes, I didn’t find them as awe-inducing or adrenaline-pumping as before, and hearing the start of the accompanying music didn’t make me mentally rub my hands in anticipation, but were they boring? No way. Even when my dodging was occasionally as ill-timed as my first time and I felt that most of my love had been allocated to the other bosses, I still had fun with the encounters.
The one thing that still impressed me quite a bit was the music - not too surprisingly, given that I feel that way almost every time I listen my favourite NieR: Automata tracks again. But my replaying the prologue made me appreciate some of the other tracks more, like the previously mentioned Alien Manifestation. I had thought it was really good in creating an atmosphere, but didn’t consider it to be something I’d listen to outside of the game. My primary diet of NieR: Automata music will still remain comprised of Emil - Despair and Crumbling Lies, but Alien Manifestation has now become something I wouldn’t mind listening too now and again.
Speaking of appreciation, I think that’s the feeling I was left me. Music aside, it made me cherish the experiences the rest of the game had to offer even more, from the atmosphere of the open world to the customization. Of course, replaying the rest might again reveal how much I estimated the power of familiarity - I found myself paying less attention to the subtitles than usual due to the plot’s freshness in my memory - but gameplay-wise it doesn’t seem to be the case… yet.
Regardless of whether I end up getting reabsorbed later on, it still felt a bit disappointing that much of the prologue’s original impact was missing this time, because that section came across as a highlight in its own right. Perhaps given a few years of wait that impression would return, unless a sequel came out to make me forget about replaying it again.