Updated: Jan 9
Written by Ade (@JpegYakuza)
2017 was considered by many to be a great, if not the best year for gaming. Amongst all the Game of the Year competitors the year birthed, were two titles that took their franchises to new heights of popularity and success. Persona 5 and Nier: Automata came from respectable franchises, but something about them seemed to strike the gaming community harder than their predecessors. They were so successful, I always doubted that they were as good as advertised. Luckily, I got the chance to play them both in the last year and make my own mind up. So, let's discuss. Was the hype around these two games accurate?
Some context and expectations
I think it’s important I lay out my specific expectations. Before I started on Nier: Automata, I had recently finished my 4th playthrough of Devil May Cry 5 and my critical mode run of Kingdom Hearts 3. So, I was really in the mood for some good hack and slash gameplay. Since I knew Platinum Games were also involved in the game’s production, I was expecting the world from Nier’s combat. I’d seen snippets of info on the story online, but didn’t really know what to expect besides multiple endings and twists.
For Persona 5, my expectations were much lower. The last turn based RPGs I’d played were Octopath Traveler, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions (TMS). While the latter is basically a Persona game in everything but name, it’s not a main series one so I expected P5 to be much more polished. However, it had been 2 years since P5’s release, and I'd be lying if I said I hadn’t been somewhat conditioned by memes and such online. I already expected to hate Morgana, love Ryuji, and (due to some minor controversy) keep a sharp eye on Ann’s storyline.
As I mentioned earlier, I came into Nier hot off two of my favourite action games of this generation. In comparison, Nier was puddle deep. I kept searching for some kind of combat growth system beyond the plug in chips I already knew about. Something that would expand my move set. The basic combos, even when mixing in two weapons just felt boring. Even worse, the special attack after a perfect dodge felt worthless. Even against the enemies it actually worked on, it felt like I got no damage out of it. My gameplay quickly descended into mindless shooting and button spamming. Now, I understand that choosing to play the easy way is an option. At release, everyone complained that KH3 had easy combat, but I found those systems fun enough that I was experimenting with them even though I could've mashed X and won anyway. KH3 had options. I had Keyblades to choose from, strategies to develop, and magic to augment my combos with. In Nier, I had one or two combos per weapon and a never ending stream of bullets from the pod at my side. It made much of the game a slog for me to play. I never felt an incentive to play the game differently, because I didn’t feel like I really could.
P5 fared a bit better. The story was more compelling than Nier’s as you were given constant motivation to despise and take down Kamoshida (the first villain) and the corrupt system that propped him up. In Nier, I never felt any reason to hate the machines story-wise and had no motivation to complete 2Bs missions. P5’s gameplay was also a lot better. The sheer dramatic flare of Joker and the party’s animations, paired with the great UI design and music made even the most basic battles feel like much more. The characters started off a bit flat, but that was to be expected. So at about 2 hours into either game, I was liking P5, and bored by Nier.
Unfortunately, there was one common trait between both games that made me abandon them for anywhere from a week to a month at a time; the save and checkpoint system. If there’s anything that you should take from this, it's that games need to get rid of these outdated checkpoint systems. STOP USING SAVES AS CHECKPOINTS. I can’t stress this enough. Some people don’t save for HOURS at a time. Both of these games erased a combined 10 hours of my progress because of deaths. I’m fine with dying in games. Several times in DMC5 I would restart whole missions because of a death, so I could make a better run. But in long RPGs, I don’t want to be losing progress. Losing hours of progress made me stop playing both games for some time and I almost dropped them completely. If a boss kills me, PLEASE just give me a rematch option. Once again, I'd just recently played KH3, which gives you four options upon death in a boss fight: Retry, Prepare and Retry (change your loadout before retrying), Continue (puts you in a nearby checkpoint), and Load Game. So when I died, I could get a run back almost instantly, or choose to go grind. I don’t understand how we are having discussions about next gen graphics and frame rates, yet we haven’t even killed and buried save only checkpoints. Even games as brutal as Dark Souls have better checkpoint systems. I have to admit, the checkpoint systems alone made my experience with both of these games significantly worse.
In the end
It was by no means a clean experience. Even besides the aforementioned save problems, it felt like these games just kept putting up barriers to my enjoyment. P5's mementos area was really fun for me, but even when I was as deep as I could go, the enemies gave out middling enough exp that fighting them stopped being fulfilling. The character interactions were also compelling, but getting into the grind of repeating one or two actions ad nauseum to boost my social stats was a slog. But without those boosted stats, I couldn’t reach the character missions that were keeping me hooked. And, when facing any enemy without an elemental weakness, P5's combat (much like TMS) just stops being fun. I would rather be able to “hold up” and “all out attack” a boss with a bigger HP bar than just fight it normally with less HP. I could say a lot about P5's story, but while I enjoyed the basic message of rebellion, the game shot some of its characters in the foot. Ryuji, for example, had his stupidity played up so much that he got less and less likeable by the second, while Ann’s visual design consistently ran counter to what her character was about. That one is a whole other discussion, but I’m just going to say that Ann is not a femme fatale. Her design might say she is, but her character says otherwise.
Nier however, was much worse. The battle system never got any better, even when I was using a full loadout of plug-in chips. In the third playthrough, you get an ability similar to Dante’s Devil Trigger, but I never used it, because it wasn’t fun. Super modes like Devil Trigger are fun because they are short use, big boosts. Devil Trigger boosts attack as well as letting you regenerate health, but earning it and knowing when to use it aren’t easy. A similar boost in Astral Chain is basically never usable, but the sheer spectacle of it (including a change in music) makes those rare moments exciting. Nier’s equivalent gives you the power boost, but drains your HP at an astronomical rate. In a game where dying can cost you hours of progress, I refused to take that kind of risk. Eventually, I realised the easiest way to stay alive was simply to use my mountains of mostly useless money to buy hundreds of healing items to spam mid-fight. I’d much prefer to have survived only off good fighting skill, but my evasive/defensive options felt limited, as my perfect dodge rarely even guaranteed a full combo on an enemy. And that’s not even mentioning how infuriating it was to play the hacking-focused sections, which are based on the joy-killing hacking mini-game. Nier’s story is its only real saving grace. While some of the major themes fell flat for me (I understood that the machines had emotions very early, so 9S’ machine hatred quickly became annoying), the story being told was very well written, and had a lot of great moments, even if the playable androids rarely made me feel anything. Nier also played with the systems of a video game in a way few other games do, and I can’t understate how impressed I was by that.
It’s sad to say, but I just didn’t enjoy either of these games. They are definitely good games, and I can see why so many people have strong feelings about them, but they just didn’t do it for me. What they did do is help me develop some ideas about the gaming landscape. Particularly, they reminded me why save-only checkpoints really shouldn’t be a thing anymore. 2017 was definitely a good year for gaming, but I think these 2 titles were a bit too overhyped.