You should know that I took my time with this review, and not just because it’s my first “real” review for Gamer Escape, or because we’re comfortably between the PS4 and Steam releases. Being no stranger to director Yoko Taro’s previous games (a bit more on him later), it felt safe to assume that a review based on a superficial blitz would let too much slip away. (Even the handy-dandy review guide warned me not to presume the game was over just because I saw some credits.)
So while I went into NieR: Automata with an open mind, it wasn’t exactly a tabula rasa. To me, a Yoko Taro production meant pushing through some glaring flaws towards a sense of novelty and malaise that ends with me telling confused friends, “I suppose it was objectively middling. You have to play it.”
Therefore, despite having marinated myself in hype since E3 2015, I took the director at his word:
I was wary that perhaps Taro’s works wouldn’t transition well from cult classic to mainstream, or that PlatinumGames and Square Enix might interfere too much or raise our expectations too high. It seems that I was worried for naught, however. As both a fan of Yoko Taro’s previous work and a gamer in general, I can safely say that NieR: Automata is damn good.
But I digress, let’s dig in.
No, you don’t need to play the previous titles.
Drakengard and NieR’s installments are interconnected, but take place hundreds (when not thousands) of years apart. Each speaks for itself, and as a stand-alone game, NieR: Automata is perfectly understandable. You’ll understand a chunk of the deep background to be ostensibly random if not outright insane—but even encyclopedic knowledge of past titles (and tie-in materials) would merely be the thumbtacks and yarn for your conspiracy map.
Don’t worry about it (unless you want to).
Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment? I often think about the god that blessed us with this cryptic puzzle, and wonder if we’ll ever have the chance to kill him.
In 11,945 AD, a squadron of androids are locked in an endless struggle to reclaim Earth from an army of alien-constructed machines on behalf of mankind, driven into exile on the moon. YoRHa units 2B and 9S become the catalyst for breaking an ancient stalemate and revealing forgotten truths. Proxies in a war between two sentient lifeforms, the armies of automata between them begin to analyze their place in the world.
The plot remains that easy to follow from beginning to end (until you scratch even delicately at the veneer), focusing instead on the philosophical musings that arise when one contemplates sentience, existence, and what it means…to be.
No one combat mechanic in NieR was something we hadn’t done before, but trying to do them at the same time is what made it unique. Bullet hell mechanics were a bit of spice on the tried, true, and tired genre of hack-and-slash. Automata’s more intricate and more fluid incarnation of that system finally fuses them convincingly. Controls are smooth and responsive, almost always doing what I wanted them to, and almost never doing something unintended. The expansion and polishing of this system could have gone astray, but I’m pleasantly surprised to say it still works, and moreover it now works well.
You can try your hand at simultaneously controlling the ranged fire of your pod (a combination AI / armed drone) while dancing through melee combos manually, or you can delegate it to the game by automating the process. By using plug-in chips (programming for your android), you can tailor the game’s complexity to your preferences. Depending on your rollout, Automata can be a fast-paced and challenging ordeal, or it can practically play itself.
The system for managing these chips is easy and interesting. The system for fusing, and upgrading them, however, can feel heavy and time-consuming. The good news is that you really don’t have to unless you want to (and some old-school RPGers will want to). You can sell off all but your best chips, throw in a few choices by situation, and still get by just fine on most difficulty settings.
The game often wanders astray of these mechanics, as well; momentarily becoming a 2D platformer, scrolling shoot ’em up, flight combat, and more. It’s a sampler platter of nostalgia that feels whimsical without feeling forced, and in retrospect it does feel like it helped set the pace and make for a few memorable moments.
If you want to get complex, NieR: Automata offers four melee weapon types, a surprising number of combos for them, three pods with numerous programming plug-ins, dozens of chips, and forty weapons that have subtle strengths and weaknesses. Again, the lower your difficulty and the more automation you use, the less you even have to acknowledge that these things exist. When I tried setting it to Easy, between my AI-controlled partner and my automated pod, I really just had to worry about not tripping as I walked. But these resources are there, and they can be made to count.
On the casual end, there’s a massive data bank: archives (which will be helpful in sorting out the abyss of insanity beneath the deceptively simple plot), bestiary, jukebox, fishing log, background lore for weapons, collect it all (or don’t).
Side-quests are seldom more than … well, side-quests. Fetch this, kill that. However, the narrative flavor is usually worth going out of your way for, and the material rewards are generous, besides. They’re also spread well over what is an otherwise short main story. Moreover, given the unfolding layers of convenience you unlock along the way, including mounts, fast travel, and (eventually) outright chapter select, you can always go back for them in the end.
Remarkably, fast travel and chapter select don’t detract much from what is an otherwise singular, open world. It’s big, but not too big. It opens up progressively, but doesn’t put you on rails. It also manages to feel derelict without feeling empty, which really dragged me into the setting given the themes of the story (specifically that there is little visible alien or human presence, only that of the automata representing their respective wills).
Graphically, the game isn’t pushing into new mechanical territory; visuals are neither overly-ambitious nor noticeably lacking. I rarely experienced framerate drops or display issues, though occasionally a texture or model would take an extra moment to “pop” into place properly if I’d been running the console for a while.
Rather, it’s how the graphics are used that counts. Artistically speaking, it’s consistently beautiful and intriguing, even if all over the place conceptually. There’s some mysterious balance at work between the character aesthetic (by Akihiko Yoshida), traditional settings (desert, forest, factory, etc.), complex mecha, simplified (dare I say cute) machine entities, and so on. They should clash; I’m still not sure why they don’t.
Let’s consider the music, instead. Keiichi Okabe and Keigo Hoashi are back, and the soundtrack is once again gorgeous. In NieR, complete tracks were heaped onto the player by area, enchanting at first but rubbing me a little raw as time went on. In Automata, the music behaves more dynamically. Tracks fade in and out, phase between instrumental and vocal versions, and even morph into chiptunes depending on the circumstances. It sacrifices that beautiful suckerpunch, but not once did the tracks begin to grate on me. If you listen closely, a few familiar tracks have returned where applicable, too…
Did I mention Yoko Taro?
If this is your first Taro game, he’s … different. To give you an idea of what I’ve come to expect from him, I sat in a loading screen answering looped philosophical inquiries (while it threatened to cancel the game installation if I chose the third option) for over ten minutes before I realized that my (digital) copy of the game just needed to download a large file before doing the actual installing and that Taro wasn’t just screwing with me until I did it “right”. Seeing comparisons to Hideo Kojima has not been an infrequent occurrence this week.
It might be helpful to know in advance: the first time the credits roll, the game is only half over; it’s an intermission. At this point, you must play the first half over again with new perspective in order to unlock the second half. (This also occurred in NieR, but with the latter section rather than the former.) As the third playthrough begins, opening credits finally make their appearance. In total, you must “beat the game” three times to truly beat it once and unlock chapter select.
I wasn’t sure if I really knew or cared about any of the characters as the first credits rolled, and yet by the true ending I’d been fighting tears. Make of that what you will. After the three aforementioned endings, there are a further two to go back for via chapter select, and then there are 21 additional joke endings that come out of nowhere if you happen to stray from the intended path. All saving is done manually. Save often. Save like it’s Photoshop.
Decide for yourself if the man is avante garde, trying to hard, plain old weird, or just hitting buttons and pulling levers at random. There will be moments that feel as though the game is messing with you (it probably is). What you can take for granted is that if you work for it, there’s some order in what seems chaos, some meaning in what seems random, and maybe even some semblance of hope for salvaging something that resembles a happy ending.
PS: Let the game connect to the network.
As you play, you’ll notice android corpses everywhere. This is the Reliquary system; those are other players that have died. Target them, and you can see their names and a short death message they’ve left. You can even stop and pray for them, which allows you to receive resources or repair their shell to fight alongside you as an AI, though there’s a chance that they’ll become corrupted and attack. There will be a few of these networked moments along the way that stick with you. (Also, if you die, you have to make it back to your own corpse to get your chip rollout back.)
It’s okay if you skimmed right to this section.
NieR: Automata admirably manages to transition from cult favorite to mainstream title without becoming over-ambitious; it evolves and expands without collapsing under itself. For first-timers, the high-functioning marriage of hack-and-slash and bullet hell (and the idiosyncrasies of Yoko Taro’s projects in general) will feel novel and strange; for better or worse will depend on the individual.
For players of NieR and Drakengard, the familiarity is there, and the new facets don’t put it in jeopardy. (I think the only missing piece of the formula is a character that uses profanity instead of commas…?) It’s like the best of both worlds cherry picked and brought up to code with a little experimentation along the way. And with that I mean no disrespect to past titles. It pained me to acknowledge the mediocrity of their executions where so merited. They are some of the most beloved middling scores of my catalog. I would call this Taro’s masterpiece, but it’s practically his AAA debut, so let’s not go jinxing it.
For the occasional graphical stutter and a few moments of mechanical frustration (and, if we’re being honest, partly to be completely sure I didn’t let my biases get the better of me) I’ve docked a single point. Does that mean it borders on perfection or merely commands a respectable A-minus? Even I’m not sure.
Square Enix provided us with a copy of this game on the PlayStation 4 for review purposes.