NieR: Automata Original Soundtrack HACKING TRACKS

 

Review by · May 1, 2017

This lovely collection of chiptune music was made available, in physical (CD) format, as a first press/preorder bonus that came alongside the NieR: Automata OST. I am not sure how many copies of this album exist, but we do know that day-one sales of the physical OST were at nearly 20,000, so an educated guess would float this album at around that number. There’s no word at the time of this review if Square Enix will ever release a digital retail version of this album.

Found on this CD are a total of 16 chiptune pieces. For those of you who have played the game, you know the context of this music: it is used exclusively for the “Hacking” minigame (hence the title “Hacking Tracks”). This minigame occurs primarily in battle while controlling one of the main characters, though it is also used for unlocking doors, treasure chests, and in other special events that involve hacking.

Before going any further, it’s worth noting that this collection is incomplete. And, I suspect, it has to be. When you listen to this set of tracks, it’s clear that arranger Shotaro Seo made these 8-bit tracks as crisp and as interesting as he could while in the confines of the musical format. However, we also know that Shotaro Seo is cited as both an arranger and a programmer. What could that mean?

Here is your answer: Kainé Salvation 8-bit. In this YouTube video, user Tykras demonstrates a feature in the debug menu (which is made available to all players after they complete the game), called “BGM_8BIT_TEST ALWAYS 8-BIT (AUTO-GENERATED IF NOT PRESENT).” The game has some kind of sophisticated built-in algorithm that can 8-bit-ify any and every song in the game. Now, left to the algorithm alone, it comes out a little distorted, as you can hear in this example. Obviously, it cannot handle Emi Evans’s vocals, but the instrumental parts are transferred to square wave 8-bit goodness fairly well. This, despite the fact that this melody was never intentionally prepared in 8-bit form.

It’s just a theory on my part, but I believe that Shotaro Seo did the majority of the programming to make this auto-chip mode for the game (you’re free to laugh if you catch the “auto-chip” pun, since that means something entirely different in-game). In any case, I do suspect that this algorithm exists for a purpose. You see, the 16 tracks on this disc were scrubbed to 8-bit perfection. It’s clear, based on a few comparative listens between the debug menu options for non-prearranged songs and these 16 tracks, that some real arranging went into it, especially in the realm of percussion. So, this Shotaro Seo fellow had to know how to do good old-fashioned arranging, as well as how to develop and/or implement an automated chiptune-generating program for the game.

My best evidence for this theory is in one particular song. To avoid spoilers, let me just say that we are talking about the song used as BGM for the super-secret, super-hard optional boss. If you look on the OST, a special arrangement for this fight was created. If you take on this boss while playing as the character who has hacking abilities and use hacks on the boss, you’ll hear that the vocal part remains normal, but the instrumentals become “chipped” during the hacking minigame. That arrangement is not found on this disc. Others, in similar situations, are also not found. Why not? My theory is this happens because they were auto-generated, and not handcrafted.

Now then, let’s focus on the content of this disc in detail. Right at the start, we’re treated to one of the most heard songs in-game, both in its original and 8-bit form. “City Ruins” covers the central hub of the game, so players will feel right at home hearing this piece at the start. The song was always a soft one, but the sharp edge of 8-bit chiptunes gives the music a new, refreshing aura. Solid arrangement, and smart placement as the front-runner on the tracklist.

Because hacking tracks are used primarily for battles, we have a lot of intense music ahead of us. “Birth of a Wish” features some cool polyrhythmic backing, varied percussion, beautifully oscillated melodic strains, and some really fun effects — like that downward slide. The pitch-bending in general is very impressive in this arrangement.

“Amusement Park” is especially interesting, in no small part due to the source composition being this wonderful amalgamation of cliché carnival music and NieR’s typically-beautiful vocal melodies and smart chord progressions. In this 8-bit version, the melody sounds great even if it isn’t being produced by Emi Evans’s vocal cords. The same case can be made for Simone’s boss battle music, “A Beautiful Song.” Emi and J’Nique both sang on this one, and one thing I found impressive is that Shotaro Seo found a way to somehow emulate each singer’s voice. It is not merely a matter of the pitch going lower for J’Nique’s part in the song…there is a change in the oscillation, or frequency, that makes it stand out as a strong midtone. All of this is accompanied by frenetic sixteenth note backing tracks, something that invariably and inevitably sounds great in chiptune form. This arrangement is stellar.

But if you’re looking for something a little different, I must call your attention to “End of the Unknown.” Even on the OST, it is one of the most electronic/techno-influenced pieces. Take such a song into 8-bit form, and you have a song worthy of nerd-rave status. This is a seriously catchy song. The best way I can describe it is…imagine taking Ninja Gaiden from the NES and set the game on an enormous space station 10,000 years in the future. “End of the Unknown – 8-bit” would be the Stage 2 music. Definitely Stage 2. It feels so good.

I could go on and on about each of the songs on here, but I will let you listen to the samples instead. However, I must speak to the value of the final track, “Weight of the World – 8-bit.” The important thing about this song is that this is your only chance to hear it in its full 4 minute version (short of using the debug menu). Arguably, this is true of most songs here. The hacking “minigames” are indeed mini; there’s usually a time limit to complete them, so you don’t hear the whole song, but because the 8-bit version is synchronized with the original piece, you can hack into enemies at different times and essentially experience the whole song in chunks. But for “Weight of the World,” the end credits music, it just isn’t so. Its only appearance in-game is in the final version of the credits roll…and the game never gives you the opportunity to roll those chiptuned credits to the end. You either duck out early, or you transition into the “End of YoRHa” version from the OST, which is a medley that mashes up the 8-bit version with the three different vocal versions to create a mega-Weight-of-the-World. That version, for the record, may be my favorite, though it’s difficult to say. In any case, I am very thankful to have the full 8-bit “Weight of the World” easily available for listening. As with the other vocal tracks gone 8-bit, Shotaro Seo does a phenomenal job with the vocals, especially with the (intended) vocal harmonies, and with the slow-oscillating (32nd note) ringing of notes meant to emulate the orchestral swell of violins.

In summation, NieR: Automata fans that got this album with their OSTs ought to count their blessings. For every one of us, who knows how many wish that their OST was complete with this special fourth disc? I do honestly hope that Square Enix makes it available for them, through either digital or physical retail. In the meantime, I suppose this bonus is intended just for the faithful who preordered, who already knew MONACA was going to make something special. Here’s to us for believing in them!

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Patrick Gann

Patrick Gann

Therapist by day and gamer by night, Patrick has been offering semi-coherent ramblings about game music to RPGFan since its beginnings. From symphonic arrangements to rock bands to old-school synth OSTs, Patrick keeps the VGM pumping in his home, to the amusement and/or annoyance of his large family of humans and cats.