For the Glory of Mankind.
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Reviewed for: PS4 Pro
Played: Around 35 hours, receiving endings A, B, C, D, and E, along with some post game cleanup.
NieR: Automata is something unique in a landscape of games attempting to follow popular trends and genre norms. Much like the robotic foes you spend most of your time slicing through, Automata has been pieced together from the cast off mechanics of genres that we have come to know and love, and even those that are probably better off left by the wayside. This fusion of satisfying play styles is held together by a narrative penned by auteur game designer Yoko Tarō, and while not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, NieR: Automata is an unforgettable experience that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled on any of its many, many different endings.
Taking place in the far distant future, Automata tells the story of three androids fighting a proxy war on a ravaged Earth, seeking to reclaim it from the machines occupying it. The human survivors of this robotic apocalypse sought refuge on the moon, where they have developed elite android combat units known as YorHa. These soldiers are the eyes through which the world of Automata is seen, and through which concepts like duty, emotion and individualism are explored by the player.
The protagonist, at least initially, is 2B. A front-line unit designed to be the perfect soldier, 2B’s journey is one of exploration, as she discover’s there is more to the machines on earth than humanity’s leadership would have her believe. Accompanying her, and arguably the true protagonist of the game, is 9S. A scanner model, 9S is the emotional link to the games narrative, and has the strongest and most effective arc by far, once all is said and done. Finally, we have A2, an outdated model turned traitor to her YorHa brethren. A2 is a little one note, and really only present for the back third of the game, but her unique mechanics are a welcome change to Automata’s combat system, especially after some of 9S’s slower segments.
One of the games major supporting characters is Pascal, a pacifist, sentient machine that has a surprisingly large role to play, even if the majority of it is spent doling out fetch quests to pad out some of the middle sections of the game. I wish Pascal was a little more interesting, but like virtually every other character you will meet, there is very little actual growth. Most end up being one note, and rather flat. This is a shame, because Nier; Automata is well written, and the world these flat, one note characters inhabit is intriguing and full of mystery.
And before we get to the thing’s NieR gets right, we do have to talk about NieR’s greatest sin. The large, semi open areas that the majority of the game takes place in are unfortunately quite boring. While there are some beautiful vistas to behold, the world is sparse, which I suppose could be intentional, as it certainly feels desolate. Unfortunately, they aren’t very exciting to explore, and are for the most part quite straight forward. While there are some locked doors that cant be accessed until later playthroughs, most of the loot found hidden off the beaten path is fairly trivial, as the materials required for upgrading weapons is dropped by enemies fairly generously. I could forgive a lot of the above, if you didn’t have to travel back to each of these bland environments so many times. For example, the factory that the opening hour of the game takes place in, has to be revisited five times throughout the course of the game as part of the critical path. It isn’t that interesting to begin with, and that’s not even including the multiple times you need to return there as part of various side quests.
Where Automata truly shines though, is in its combat. Developed by Platinum Games, hardened veterans of the action-rpg genre, the combat is lightning fast and deeply satisfying. Playing as 2B, you are able to dual-wield any weapon in the game, of which there are dozens across four categories. For example, say you had a sword equipped to your first slot, and a spear in the second, each weapon has its own string of attack’s and can be combined fluidly with the other at any point. Further, each weapon has a differing move set, depending on which slot it is equipped to. So, a spear in slot one has a wider, more sweeping move set when compared to a spear in slot two, that consists of stabs and thrusts. Further, each weapon can be upgraded multiple times, each time adding more attacks to the combo chain and providing additional benefits, such as extra damage while at full health. There is nothing stopping you from equipping two spears either, to become a whirling dervish of death.
Each android is also accompanied by a pod, a little helper drone that supports you in battle and acts as a kind of robotic commentator to everything you do. By holding down the appropriate button, your pod will unleash a barrage of laser fire, functioning as your basic ranged attack. There are different types of pod, all upgradeable, with different methods of attack, but I found the starting unit to be the most effective. Your pod can also be equipped with various programs, that function as special attacks. Again, the default is a powerful ranged blast attack, and I found myself using it for the majority of the game. Embarrassingly, I assumed that the limited selection at shops were all the programs available. It wasn’t until I was about to complete the game I discovered exotic programs like a grappling hook that could be used in combat, or a gravity bomb that could be used to set up groups of enemies for devastating AOE’s.
Your android can be upgraded by attaching what are known as Plug-In Chips, which can be bought and are frequently dropped by enemies. These function as Automata’s upgrade system, and it is incredibly robust once fully unlocked. Like any machine, YorHa units have limited memory, and can only equip a certain number of upgrades. Once all of these upgrades have been purchased, you will have a lot of options to play around with, and you really can create a unique build or playstyle. For example, I built 2B as a real glass cannon, with multiple attack and speed upgrades, but also several chips that would not only heal me for every machine I destroyed, but also every time I even hit one. This translated into an ultra aggressive play style where I was constantly on the offensive, and the game felt more akin to something like Bloodborne. Conversely, playing as 9S, all of my chips buffed his unique hacking skill, his movement speed and his pods ranged attack, which felt like playing a ranged caster in other games.
And we should talk about the music, which is uniformly incredible. I think the highest praise I can give it, is that I listen to it out loud in my apartment when I’m working. I’m listening to it as I write this in fact. The soundtrack to NieR; Automata is, much like the game itself, loud, bombastic, epic and deeply weird. Whether its one of the booming orchestral epics that accompany boss fights, with melodic Gregorian chants that make you believe you might be fighting God himself, or any of the more stripped back tunes that you might hear in the Resistance Camp or in Pascal’s Village, the OST is fantastic, and one of the games greatest strengths.
Another strength, although not as consistent, is the games emphasis on differing game styles to mix thing’s up. You might be exploring an open three dimensional space, and upon entering a hallway the perspective will shift to that of a two dimensional sidescroller or platformer, not unlike Mario. Of course, you can still be laying down constant fire with your pod, which makes these segments reminiscent of sidescrolling shooter like the Metal Slug series. 9S has a hacking mechanic that plays out like a top down shooter, and while used in interesting ways, can become a little tiring with repeated use. Even the most mundane fights in an open area can end up feeling like a third person shooter, as the weight of enemy fire that you are forced to dodge can feel like area-denial attacks. Boss fights especially can come to resemble games from the bullet hell genre, and are truly intense in the latter stages of the game. And of course there are the flight suit segments, that play like Ikaruga or Space Invaders, with you vanquishing wave after wave of enemie fighters. A personal favorite section of mine featured a full motion FMV battle taking place in the background while you fight off enemy aircraft in the foreground, strangely reminiscent of the Battle of the Garden’s in Final Fantasy VIII, to date one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a game.
In this way, NieR: Automata truly keeps you guessing. It’s a weird beast, that you cant ever truly pin down. It constantly bombards you with ever shifting gameplay styles, keeping you on the back foot, fighting through by the skin of your teeth. Then it might deliver a quieter moment in the form of philosophical monologue on the nature of self determinism straight from the mouth of a strange looking robot. There is the childlike sense of humor present throughout the game, with gags that sometime work, but always succeed in selling this world as alien and unfathomable. And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the games insistent sexualisation of 2B to an uncomfortable degree, with the camera angle always gently trying to peek under her skirt. But aside from that last part, every aspect comes together in a way that just works. This game should be a mess of confused ideas and concepts, but aside from some pacing issues in the middle and a few too many fetch quests, the game as a whole comes together in a big way.
One of the best JRPG’s of the modern era, NieR: Automota is a flawed masterpiece that has to be experienced to be believed. It’s fantastic soundtrack complements its brilliant combat system perfectly, and guides you down the rabbit hole of its desperately compelling narrative. Yoko Taro and Platinum Games have crafted something truly unique, and like 9S and 2B themselves, complement each others strengths while masking their weakness’s. In a landscape full of sequels and stale ideas, Automata has taken something from virtually every genre that has come before, and in doing so, it feel’s like they have created something that defies definition.