Nier Automata Review
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PC
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Nier Automata follows 2B and 9S, a pair of battle-ready androids who are sent by their organization YoRHa to do reconnaissance in a city on Earth. There they begin to discover that the machines their kind have been battling against for millenia have begun to express some rather unprecedented changes, developing personalities and exhibiting behavior similar to the humans who died off about 7,000 years ago. Things gradually escallate as new societies are discovered, the history and background of this world is made clear to both the player and main characters, and the story begins to branch off into strange yet enthralling directions that kept me invested from beginning to end.
In addition to that, the story is richly laced with thoughts on life, personhood, and existential existence, and general philosophy that, while more than a little hard to parse without the help of external analysis, do give the game a distinct sensibility and amount to a story that is, at the very least, more interesting and compelling than it otherwise would be. It is a bit opaque, as I had to read up on a few things to really appreciate the full extent of the story, but it never requires more than a line to be drawn for things to start adding up. What they add up to is something I found to be genuinely special due to its strong central story led by compelling characters, all of which is hued in the slightly morose lens that the game’s director, Yoko Taro, is notorious for.
While more dark and unconventional themes are what both Taro’s prior games and the prior games in the Nier/Drakengard series are known for, they are also known for having less than stellar gameplay, which is a trend that was thankfully bucked with Automata. With Platinum Games as the lead developer, the game features fast, fluid, and at times utterly ludicrously lavish gameplay on just about all fronts. This expands from the simple act of moving through the game, and traversing across the game’s expansive yet contained world, which I would compare to (classic) Zelda titles, between objectives and in the search for items to uncover, to the various modes of combat that are employed.
2B is a swift and nimble fighter armed with selectable dual weapons that serve as her light and heavy attacks, dealing the bulk of damage to enemies as combos are strung together. It is a very slick combat system where enemies attack in large numbers and a loose dodge heavy approach is encouraged, going in for hard hitting strikes when possible, and switching between a variety of upgradable weapons to suit player preference. The hectic nature of it all is further emphasized by a floating pod companion that deals a ceaseless barrage of low damage gunfire upon foes, but thanks to very clearly telegraphed attacks from enemies, and the dodge system being especially responsive, it all manages to meld into this ceaseless and at times manic rush of a combat system that manages to fare incredibly well.
Things are also spiced up by a number of bullet hell, or rather shoot ‘em up sections that are present throughout the game. Whether they be single or dual stick, they all strive to capture a sense of spectacle and relentless destruction that is only enhanced by the high narrative stakes they are often accompanied with, and enemy patterns that manage to never be overly encroaching, as to alienate people not well versed with this genre, such as myself, yet they feature enough enemies and obstacles to remain stimulating.
This general gameplay approach is further explored through the hacking ability gained during the second playthrough, which allows the player to, well, hack into enemies and obstacles. Doing so is abstracted as a simplistic, brief, and smooth twin stick shoot ‘em up section that can be rather situational, but broadly speaking, it can be used to either deal damage to the enemy, make them into an ally, or have them be controlled by the player directly. All of which do have specialized uses, but it is mostly a way of dealing large amounts of damage to more durable threats.
Though, I would be hesitant to call any of the threats that appear in the game particularly foreboding from a mechanical standpoint, or all that difficult on Normal. Though I am somewhat glad about that due to how this game approaches death. Being androids, 2B and 9S do not necessarily die, and upon death new versions of them will be activated at the last save point, where they will be able to then regain whatever progress they had and be able to retrieve their equipped Plug-in Chips. But if they do not retrieve said Chips, they will be lost forever, a la Dark Souls, but much more punishing.
Plug-in Chips themselves serve as a way to further customize the player character, and in a very neat approach, spans everything from HUD elements to stat buffs, to mechanical changes that enhance the game, such as being able to slow down time by evading, or adorning melee attacks with a longer reaching shockwave. Though the most useful ones, in my opinion. are easily divided into two categories. Quality of life improvements, such as being able to automatically pick up items or see items as they appear on the map, both of which were introduced at just the right time, much like the fast travel system. Along with health restoring skill that can be combined to basically make death an impossibility due to auto-use items, rapid regeneration, and health regained by defeating enemies.
I actually really like this system as it offers a greater way to experiment with the game’s mechanics, with the player being able to fuse, buy, and pick up semi-randomized chips to create multiple loadouts that are only restricted by a maximum memory capacity and what essential elements of the game’s basic features the player feels they need. However, it also serves as a very interesting way of combining the game’s setting and mechanics, something that is regularly explored within Automata, and to great effect.
The world of Automata is easily on the bleaker side, being a post-apocalyptic world wherein said apocalypse happened a near unfathomably long time ago, and what remains is a mixture of skeletons of a world that is gradually encroaching the realm of myth, and what few bits were changed by the remaining forces of androids, machines, and nature itself. Its color pallette is very reserved in its choice of hues, focusing on beige, greens, greys, and black, going so far as to be monochromatic at points. Yet in spite of how reserved it is, the game can be quite often striking due to the scale and detail of its environments. Everything about the game’s art direction feels deliberate and as if it had strong intentions behind it, from the more flamboyant designs of certain characters, to the simplistic, modular, and adorable designs given to most machines.
Graphically, it is not especially impressive, clearly showing its conservative budget and AA roots, yet it manages to look flashy when it needs to and the details are present where they need to be. Or, at least in theory. The PC version of Automata has its fair share of visual issues with poor textures and resolution issues having affected the game since launch, and it having fallen to the fans to try and fix it. The two resulting mods greatly helped the game, and make for a more or less seamless and polished experience that really should have been released as an official patch, but Square Enix of Japan is not really known for their dedication to their PC ports.
As for the soundtrack, its elegant melodies combined with impactful vocals create an imposing, calming, engrossing, and humbling score. Whenever I entered a new area and heard a new track in Nier Automata, I felt compelled to wander around, taking in the music as it blended in with the new locale before me. Listening to it on its own, the soundtrack is nothing short of stupendous, and when worked into the game, it greatly adds to the overall tone and atmosphere, contributing as one of the many factors that allow this game to ascend to such heights.
I could go into more depth about the things I like and adore about the game, but there are some grievances I have with the game, most of which are on the petty side of things. I do not like how plug-in chips have a limited inventory space. I think that upgrade materials for weapons are poorly distributed in a way that seems emblematic of many Japanese games. The game has a few cryptic components and secrets that I feel necessitate the use of an external source for clarification. The way quests are handled in the post-game is questionable, and I wish that environmental shortcuts were retained across playthroughs, rather than needing to be reactivated again (looking at you, Emil’s house).
The only slightly major gripe I have comes with the decision to split the game up into three distinct playthroughs, which I feel hurt the game to some degree. In order to get to the actual end of Nier Automata, the player need to go through routes A, B, and C, yet they are composed in such a way that route B rehashes a lot of content from route A, to the extent that many people dropped the game part way through. Which is a shame because, as is signified in game, Nier Automata does not begin until route C. I can easily see how the game could be arranged into a single route affair, and while it may have resulted in certain details being lost as a result, I feel it would have been a net positive.
With awe inspiring set piece moments, fluid combat, an interesting world to explore, and a compelling long form story with many secrets and ideas for the player to gradually uncover and come to terms with as the game presses on, I genuinely think that Nier Automata has it all. It manages to be bizarre, dark, insightful, and just silly enough to appeal to my sensibilities, and combined with its high quality action RPG framework, there is easily enough here to not only make a genuinely great game, but one that I can easily see being amongst my all-time favorites.