Genre: Action JRPG
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PS4[Reviewed], PC
Release Date: 23 February 2017
Nier: Automata is the revitalizing of a series by famed director Yoko Taro and this time developed by Platinum Games and published by Square Enix. The original Nier was first released the last generation and was a somewhat flawed gem. It earned cult status for its unique world setting, story, and blending of genres. Nier: Automata is no exception in its blending of gaming’s greatest hits. This game includes elements of JRPG, Shoot em’ ups (or Shmups), Open-World, Hack and Slash but the simplest box to put it in would be simply, Action. Platinum Games are known for that genre and their involvement shines just as much as Yoko Taro’s unique themes and weird artistic vision. Known for titles such as Bayonetta and Vanquish, Platinum certainly gave Nier: Automata their full attention because the action is fast, fluid and frenetic, happily putting Automata up there as one of the studio’s best.
Story wise the setup is simple on the surface. Humans on earth were suddenly attacked by a mysterious alien race and during the war, mankind fled the planet and resided on the moon. They then created and deployed overpowered androids to combat the alien race back on Earth and fight the war for them. The aliens did a similar thing by hiding underground and having machines fight the androids on the earth’s surface. The story starts by putting you in the heels of 2b and her squadmate 9S, androids, given a mission to destroy a target on earth and the story escalates from there. And escalate it certainly does. The narrative is quite minimalist and very broad in terms of themes but I think that is its strength. Some of the best parts of the stories are the whole sections devoted to exploring different real world themes but all in under the umbrella of the unique setup and absurd world. Along your travels, you will come to realize that not all is as black and white as you might expect when it comes to these machines that the androids are fighting. Though the androids purpose is quite straightforward, eliminate all machines on earth, 2B and 9S soon realize that this approach might not be the best. For example, early on you find a group of the machines you had been fighting hordes of up until that point are seemingly malfunctioning and now spend their time trying to procreate in the same manner as humans. The game’s narrative never fails to deliver on thought-provoking themes involving the machines that say something about humanity, and that is the hallmark or great science-fiction no matter the medium.
As deep as you can really get with the narrative, it’s all in good fun though because the gameplay is what will have you smiling from ear to ear in sheer bliss from the spectacle of the fast flashy and responsive action. 2B who you will mainly be playing as throughout the game is well, an unstoppable machine, obviously. That’s not saying that you won’t find any challenge in the game because that’s not the case at all. You will notice however that Yoko Taro and Platinum want you to feel as though you are playing as an android and not a living organism. This can be experienced in combat where you will be relentlessly hacking and slashing your way through exploding machines and dodging attacks with the extremely useful dodge mechanic by pressing R2 at just the right moment, but also in the more subtle gameplay aspects. For example, when sprinting as 2B you will find that just at the point where in most games you would systematically run out of stamina and start slow down to a snail’s pace, ala Zelda Breath of the Wild or Skyrim, 2b actually speeds up and almost doubles her velocity. You can almost imagine the gears and cogs in her legs working overtime as she starts looking more and more like Road Runner being chased by Wile E Coyote. This being included isn’t exactly arbitrary either, it’s a conscious design choice as the gameplay is all about speed and fluidity and dealing damage to foes before they damage you, that is also why you will notice there is no ‘block’ button, and only an evade button and even that can be strung together with a counterattack for big damage.
You have two weapons equipped at a time with the standard configuration being one for your light attack and the other for heavy. Though, it is recommended to prepare two weapon sets that you can switch between mid-battle with a simple button press. I mained with two light swords which made me fast and capable of dual wielding in certain combos, but I also had another set with a heavy greatsword-like monstrosity that was practically the size of 2B herself and that was for the big enemies. On top of this, 2B and 9S each have their own ‘Pod’ which is essentially a little floating robot which acts as their radio transmission device as well as a pretty nifty machine for shooting the crap out of enemies. And that brings me to the other part of the utterly deep combat system. There are heavy old school Shoot em’ up elements in the gameplay. Whether you are on foot or in your personal flying mecha or ‘flight unit’ as they call it, you are quite often tasked with avoiding projectiles in bullet-hell fashion whilst aiming and shooting back at foes. In the Shmup sections, it is a pretty faithful adaption of something like a Darius game or anything by Taito on the Sega Saturn in the 90’s and it is glorious! I am a huge fan of Spaceship Shoot em’ ups as a genre and the way they have implemented it in a AAA game on the latest hardware is something I can’t see anything wrong with. It also helps that I have always wanted to be able to play Shmup where there was real weight to my actions, the kind that you can only get in a single-player story adventure game and here it is. As much as I love the arcade fun of that genre, never before have I played one where I knew what my mission was and the high stakes that come with it.
What impresses me though is Nier’s ability to transfer that same gameplay hook into the on-foot Hack and Slash combat scenarios. You Pod essentially acts as your long-range weapon and can help you clear a path through a ton of enemy projectiles so you can avoid damage was well as deal the damage when needed. You aim and shoot with it as if you would with a first-person shooter, but this mechanic works seamlessly alongside the 3rd person melee combat and there is no disconnect whatsoever. It’s a tricky one to explain in text, but if you imagine your playing any 3rd person melee focused action game, then imagine the same right stick you use to control the camera was also used to aim you Pod and you fire by pressing R1. This leads to their being so much depth in the combat it is unreal. Some enemies are useless against the Pod’s firepower whereas others are downright weak against it, put a bunch of both those enemies in a room and boom, you have a rewarding, strategic and endlessly fun combat system with a high skill ceiling.
If all that isn’t enough the game is Semi-open world and has an RPG leveling system. The system works by, as you level up you unlock more space on a pseudo pie-chart/hard drive partition space thinga-ma-jiggy (sorry). The more space you have then the more of these Plug-ins you can organize to fit in the free space. These inputs can be acquired through vendors or picked up along your adventure and can be something like a simple DPS increase to one that increases the number of materials dropped by enemies. It’s unique, thematic and does its job, though it would have been really cool to see some really crazy Plug-ins that truly changed the way you play.
You can probably tell I like this game a lot, unfortunately, there are a couple of things holding it back. For one there is the map. Your in-menu Map really does an okay job of telling you where to go but a poor job of telling you how to get there. It all looks the same, trying to get an idea of the general layout of the area is made unnecessarily difficult when you can’t tell the difference between the desert and the woods when looking at the world map. This led to me quite often fast traveling to areas that I had no intention of going and having to sit through some loading screens. Also if I had to nitpick, I would also say apart from the odd few, the sidequests aren’t all that great. One which I was particularly fond of involved escorting a machine with the mental age of a 6-year-old from the middle of the desert back to her ‘sister’ in a village. This was essentially an another, been there, done that escort mission but it was given some flavor by Yoko Taro’s excellent handling of characters as the funny back and forth between 9S and the childlike yet beefy robot with a pink hair ribbon made me chuckle from the heart.
Another thing I found a little disappointing was weirdly a stylistic choice. I adore the art style of this game and the same aspect which I am I about to criticize from a gameplay perspective is one that I completely adore from an artistic viewpoint. The world Is kind of barren. There simply isn’t a lot to look at a lot of the time. I get the vision and thematically it is spot on but I didn’t work that well for me from a gameplay perspective, I didn’t really want to explore and take my time because there wasn’t much around to make me say “I really want to see what’s over there”. It’s minimalist, I get it, but never the less I just would have liked a little more.
Finally, I have to mention the music. Personally, I instantly regretted not getting the collectors edition with the soundtrack and am planning to browse iTunes sometime looking for it. It’s one of, if not, THE most unique soundtracks in gaming. I’m not saying it’s the best or it was orchestrated by angels and composed by the almighty himself but it is instantly recognizable. Sometimes I would realize the track that was subtly playing its way into my subconscious while I played and be like “whoa they’re going for that? Really?” then almost instantaneously “damn, it totally works!”. It’s one of a kind, ballsy and at times beautiful.
There is so much to more to say and I feel I have barely scratched the surface with what this game has to offer. Also, those of you familiar with Yoko Taro’s previous works like the Drakenguard series will be happy to hear that yet again there are multiple endings and this game is designed to be played through at least twice to fully experience. Fitting as well, because the creation of Nier actually spawned from one of the multiple endings of a Drakenguard game. Overall there are 26 endings in the game but I would recommend starting with the first two endings before giving it a break as I found that to be more than fulfilling, I can’t speak for the other endings but I hear that many aren’t as time-consuming to achieve. So, maybe my journey with Nier: Automata isn’t entirely over and I guess, with that thought, I’m a happy gamer.