NieR: Automata, the great new RPG for PlayStation 4 from Square Enix, set me up to fail in spectacular fashion. A distant sequel to earlier NieR games Replicant and Gestalt, both released in 2010, NieR: Automata is set in the city ruin of a postapocalyptic earth. Aliens have invaded and bunkered underground, mankind has evacuated to the moon, and the earth’s surface is a theater of war between brute robots (“machine lifeforms”) created by the aliens and sophisticated android soldiers that humans created to reclaim the planet on their behalf.
On my first playthrough as the android 2B, I’m caught deep in an abandoned factory teeming with hostile robots who’ve all gone berserk. Unfortunately, I fail to anticipate this violence. I’ve got no cures, and I find very few opportunities to procure them from enemies. I die many times between the one save point and the penultimate elevator, which is stationed across a round arena, above lava, and set between two narrow drawbridges that feed you right into the trap. Sure enough, a spider robot name So-Shi leaps from the ceiling to the platform. He basks in a strange electrical glow that renders him impervious to all impact, including 2B’s swordplay and lasers. 2B’s remote support unit, 9S, says he’s hacked the electrical grid to cut the factory’s power, thus neutralizing the spider’s defenses. After several seconds of perilous delay as the robot hops and stomps around me with impunity, 9S succeeds. The lights go out, So-Shi’s shield falls, and I’m left to battle the thrashing hexapod in the dark.
I found this quite hard. Watch this much better player beat poor ol’ So-Shi on maximum difficulty without taking a single hit, though.
For me, the fight produced only the most ecstatic sort of frustration, an admittedly trivial rapture that’s fascinating only once you consider that a bullpen full of technical wizards engineered this artificial experience from scratch. Without light, all I had was the music to guide my movement. Without health, I had to slash and dance my way out of danger. I died five times before I nailed it, and nailing it was definitely my foremost accomplishment of that particular Sunday. A tough level alone is just a slog. A tough boss alone is just a rut. But a tough level that you survive only to arrive at a challenging and thus massively unwelcome boss fight ironically produces a distinct euphoria. The worst sort of tactical desperation demands that you mash all buttons simultaneously and just hope for the best. Ideally, though, a great boss fight should flow like brutal choreography. Where the boss himself demoralizes, the battle’s soundtrack must inspire.
After a 10-year break from my old PlayStation 2, I’ve only recently gotten back into gaming, and I’ve quickly found that the past year of releases have been a boon not just for great titles but also for great soundtracks. Hyper Light Drifter, a bleak 16-bit role-playing adventure with minimal exposition and no dialogue, blankets the player in music that animates desolation better than any game engine could. For all its many flaws otherwise, Final Fantasy XV — scored by the brilliant Yoko Shimomura — executes a golden formula when it comes to big fights: one-hit kills plus splash cymbals equals a heart-rate spike.
For NieR: Automata, series composers Keiichi Okabe and Keigo Hoashi make boss battles feel like stampedes. For the abandoned factory fight, Okabe and Hoashi scored a song called “Possessed by a Disease,” an avalanche of frame drums and deranged robot cult chanting (“We are! Gods! We are! Gods!”) that worked my nerves as effectively as the difficulty of the level did. (The song’s already a fan favorite from the game’s soundtrack, which isn’t even out until April 7!) It’s a peculiar thrill, one that celebrates the connection between corporeal rhythm and virtual performance. Half of me was happy to have won the fight, my other half was sad that the song was over. Fortunately, NieR: Automata only gets trickier — and groovier — from there.