The original NieR flew under so many people’s radars that most don’t even know of its existence. It was this strange JRPG-like character action game with some eclectic characters, a strange world and a story that required you to play through the game multiple times before you really got the full picture. Its quality could be considered questionable as there were some strange gameplay decisions that were made as well as various hiccups that prevented the game from getting wide-scale recognition. However, there was something very special about this little game. The story they tried to tell is one that we don’t often see and it throws so many curveballs at you that you can’t help but be fully immersed in this post-apocalyptic world filled with cute looking robots who want to tear your head off.
What this game needed was a complete overhaul, some talented developers who know what they’re doing when it comes to gameplay and a strong enough voice to make it not only exist in the shadows with a small cult following. That is what NieR: Automata is. A game that takes all the weirdness of NieR and puts it into a palatable and fun package that is begging to be experienced. And it is most definitely something that needs to be experienced.
Androids on the Storm
NieR: Automata takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where humans were eradicated by aliens who sent sentient battle robots to wipe everyone out. However, some humans have escaped the planet and set up a colony on the moon and are making an effort to take the world back from its mechanised clutches. One of these efforts involves an organisation called YorHa which is composed entirely out of humanoid androids, each with their own specialisation. They have a militaristic structure with combat units, scanner units who do recon as well as commanding units.
You play as 2B, a combat android who is sent to Earth to eradicate some high-level robotic enemies but is soon tied up with some world-altering events and revelations. She is joined by a scanner unit called 9S who provides hacking and recon support for her. You might be excused to think that a lot of the characters fall into particular tropes, which is somewhat correct, but they all undergo significant character development throughout the events of the game. 2B is a stern warrior who does everything by the book and 9S is a happy-go-lucky type with a healthy sense of curiosity. As they go on these journeys with each other, you see growth, you see understanding and you can’t help but be invested in them. 2B and 9S certainly aren’t the only characters and you’ll meet some eclectic and fascinating people along your way.
Let’s make no mistake here, NieR: Automata is weird. You can really feel the mad genius of Yoko Taro at work as you experience the often manic narrative that is rife with melancholic observations and poignant moments. There’s a lot of head scratching moments and some that are so absurd that you can’t help but laugh. Yet, its weirdness is never overbearing. You never feel like you are lost in the story and that it was made ludicrous for the sake of it. Everything has a place, each little story beat contributes to the overarching story and there is much more than initially meets the eye.
NieR: Automata is unique in the way that its story is structured. Your first playthrough can be seen as an introduction to the game and if that is confusing, let me explain. The game has a crazy amount of endings, 26 to be exact, and these endings shape the entirety of the game. You get introduced to a lot of characters and scenarios during your first run, but you will notice that they’re never really expanded upon. Key information is omitted while some characters just disappear entirely after your first meeting. Baffling, yes, but it all makes sense during your subsequent playthroughs.
[pullquote_right]We won’t find something like NieR: Automata again very soon[/pullquote_right]It’s important to think of an “ending” not as the stopping point to the game, but rather one perspective that has reached its conclusion. As you play more and experience different perspectives, it all starts to come together. Like a giant puzzle becoming whole. The result of this is astounding and I don’t say that lightly. There hasn’t been a game in recent memory that has instilled such a sense of wonder and curiosity within me when it comes to narrative. I kept wanting to go on, discover more, learn more, experience more and the game obliges these desires in the most creative ways. It’s absolutely paramount that this game is played through multiple times. A tall ask, but if you only choose to experience the first main ending, you’ll miss out on exactly what makes NieR: Automata so special.
The game plays around with interactivity, one of gaming’s key characteristics. It transcends conventional storytelling trends and is not afraid to delve into the concepts that it chose to tackle. Important topics and some that will leave you reeling from the miasma of thoughts that it injects straight into your mind. A narrative gaming experience unlike any other that we’ve seen before and was only really hinted at with the original game. We won’t find something like NieR: Automata again very soon and it’s important that you don’t miss out on this masterwork of what can be achieved in this medium.
Hack ‘n Slash ‘n Shoot ’em Up
You need only look at the developers for this game to know that combat is going to be excellent. Platinum Games have a reputation for crafting high-octane gameplay that is both engrossing and enjoyable. NieR: Automata is no exception to this. The combat is frantic with traditional hack and slash sensibilities being accompanied by such variation that you will potentially never get bored. You are not constrained to the usual light attack/heavy attack style, but rather given tools that will alter your combat style greatly if you so choose.
There are various weapon types that you can slot into your light or heavy attack slots that range from fast hitting katanas to massive swords that would break your back if you weren’t made of metal. You also have your pod which can be anything from a rapid-firing gatling gun to homing missiles which can also be fitted with chips that allow it to do special attacks such as a massive laser or rapid slashes in a radius.
If that’s not enough, the game also shifts gameplay styles on a dime. It not just gives a different perspective, it changes genre. You could be playing a twin-stick bullet hell style shooter with a mech unit or run on a 2.5D plane that almost turns the game into a beat ’em up. The hacking mechanic turns the game into a version of Asteroids. Top down, side-to-side, you name it, this game does it. You never grow complacent with the combat because, at any second, they can throw something new at you.
Boss fights are these multi-phase, multi-genre spanning events that are nothing short of breathtaking. The sheer scale, the intricate designs and the pacing of these fights take it to a new level. They’re also varied as you can fight a behemoth machine that skirts the skyline or an agile warrior that dances around you.
They also give you a great degree of customisation to your combat with plug-in chips. These chips are small bonuses to your playstyle along with some utility chips which help with collecting things or healing. While the bonuses aren’t immensely significant, often with only a small percentage increase, you can still tailor your setup to your particular playstyle. Offensive, defensive or otherwise.
The keyword with NieR: Automata‘s gameplay is variety. So many different options, playstyles, weapons, genre changes and so forth craft this gameplay experience that I’ve never really seen before. It’s jarring in many respects, but it’s more a pleasant surprise than something to condemn.
A Metal World
As mentioned, NieR: Automata takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have been eradicated and machines and nature have taken it over as their new home. The game features an open-world that you can explore at your leisure and it’s divided into distinct areas each with their own unique theme. You will encounter a gaudy and sinister looking amusement park complete with robotic jesters all the way to a completely barren desert. There are some colourful characters that you can encounter in these areas along with some environmental storytelling that shows you what exactly happened to these places.
It’s fascinating that they went for a themed approach to their gameplay areas and considering you’ll play through the game many times in order to fully experience everything, these places will eventually have an alluring sense of familiarity to them. You’ll know them inside and out, experience all they have to offer and then have a fond remembrance of them once you inevitably fully conclude the game.
The game features some very traditional open-world tendencies along with some JRPG-like implementations. You get side-quests from various characters in different areas which are sometimes simple fetch quests or interesting little stories. The side-quests didn’t feel integral to the game as they can simply be seen as slight deviations, but their presence isn’t unwelcome. Some quests were so ridiculous that you can’t help but feel a strange attraction to them and want to see them through.
You also have to collect materials to upgrade weapons as well as pods, there’s some loot hidden in places and you can level up by smashing some high-level robots around the world. The open-world activities along with the upgrading and levelling aspects do a good job of not suffocating the player like with more modern open-world games. Your map isn’t littered with collectables, there’s no map revealing stuff going on and it’s all very conservative in how it was implemented. I would describe it as simple and elegant.
Shiny Machine Music
Where NieR: Automata falters a little bit is in its visuals. It was clear that they went for function over form when it comes to the graphics since the game runs at a solid 60 fps on a standard PS4 and the combat is suitably flashy and immensely intricate. Yet, the environments seem bland on close inspection. Some buildings would simply be four grey concrete walls and a lot of the assets will look flat. In a macro sense, the game is still pretty as they had some great art direction with the environments and made sure the vistas were beautiful as well as implementing some great lighting. The enemy design deserves special mention as they really gave a sense of personality to the countless robots you’ll be mowing down. The majority are these cute looking bots with round heads and tiny little spring legs that almost make you feel guilty for slaughtering them by the dozens. Then you get some massive, towering behemoths that instil fear and wonder into your very soul.
With regards to the visuals, I’d take a knock to some textures any day for a game as smooth as this. No hiccups, no overly long loading screen and there’s still pulse-pounding action with hundreds of giant red bullets and flying machine parts all over the place.
[pullquote_left]What NieR: Automata is cannot be adequately described in mere words, you have to live it first-hand[/pullquote_left]There’s one small issue I had with the quest and map system. Where you usually can select one quest as your active quest and only have that show up on your map, the game does this strange thing where it litters all of the available quests at once on your map. It makes it confusing to do one particular quest where you need to go to multiple locations and it adds some unnecessary busywork. Nothing earth-shattering, but a more optimal system could have been implemented easily.
The soundtrack is, well, incredible. No better way to describe it. Each sweeping piece fits perfectly with the environment it plays in and the instrumentation, as well as the vocal work, is brilliant. There’s sombre piano pieces, heavy guitar melodies, suitable techno-inspired beats and so much more. You can tell that the sound design had a lot of attention and it really serves to be a wonderful backdrop to an already amazing game.
Weird, Wacky, Wonderful
I will admit, NieR: Automata is a difficult game to get into. Its strangeness might put some people off and it asks a lot of a player to fully experience it with it asking for at least five full playthroughs to fully grasp everything it has to offer. However, this is not something you can afford to sleep on. It’s a game that takes conventional gaming and flips it on its head while delivering such an immensely compacted and worthwhile experience. The story is amazing and structured in a unique way, the gameplay is wonderfully frantic, you can get lost in its interesting world and you will feel a compulsion to discover and learn more through the entire journey. What NieR: Automata is cannot be adequately described in mere words, you have to live it first-hand. What you find will most definitely surprise you and it would be nothing short of a tragedy if you skip out on one of the most evocative and interesting tales of our generation.