“Something very special.”
NieR: Automata on PS4
Being a fan of the original NieR felt a lot like being part of a secret underground club. The game wasn’t pretty, it didn’t sell well, and no one knew what it was. I like to imagine that talking about NieR is something that would be done in hushed tones, so as not to attract attention from passersby who’d inevitably ask, “What’s NieR?” Because after all, where can you really begin with a game like this?
With NieR: Automata, the rich history of director Yoko Taro’s Drakengard series and the original NieR is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. With the backing of Square Enix and action game expert Platinum Games, Automata looks polished to a shine that none of Taro’s other games have ever come close to achieving.
Set centuries after the events of NieR, an alien invasion occurs, and mankind has been driven to the moon. In order to take back the planet, the humans created the YoRHa androids – a specialized unit of androids trained to fight back against the machine lifeforms created by the aliens. Our journey begins with units 2B and 9S.
Right from the start, NieR: Automata settles us into a comfortable JRPG rhythm. 2B is the emotionless, stoic, cool girl. 9S is the talkative and enthusiastically curious one. Every now and then, 2B has to tell 9S to shut it because they’re androids with a mission, and “emotions are prohibited.” It’s an interesting sentiment and a marked departure from the first game, which was largely driven by very emotional characters who weren’t afraid to make their feelings and thoughts heard. Automata takes the story in a completely new direction by stripping away everything we knew about Earth in the first game, and placing us in a post-apocalyptic setting overrun by nature and mechanical beings.
NieR: Automata isn’t the most vibrant or colorful game around, but that isn’t to say that it looks bland. The game opts for a more muted design, choosing to flirt around with palettes of grey and black, creating an extremely classy minimalist look. Even in brighter environments, the grey buildings and the greenery of nature never feel too loud or overwhelming. Automata likes using darker colors to illustrate the desolation of ruined Earth, creating a very subtle kind of beauty.
That subtlety extends to its soundtrack and sound design as well. And dear me, the soundtrack. I might even go as far as to say that Automata’s soundtrack actually tops NieR’s. The tracks are all wonderfully varied, and they fit in with the game’s setting in an unexpected but ultimately incredible way. The open world and town tracks in particular are disarmingly peaceful, and while that’s not really something you’d expect from a game about a world that’s been completely decimated, it works.
As lovely as the soundtrack is, NieR: Automata also knows when to layer its music. The sound design and mixes are simply wonderful. The way the vocals gradually fade into play when you talk to a certain NPC, or the way the tracks ‘evolve’ as more instruments layer on top of the existing strings – it’s a slow burn, but as you progress further into the story, you start to hear more and more of the instruments as you’re treated to the full weight of the song. It’s a pretty freaking awesome way to have the music grow and adapt to what’s going on in the story.
That’s not to say that NieR: Automata doesn’t have more intense tracks either, which brings me to the game’s boss fights and big set pieces. (How’s that for a segue, huh?)
Without spoiling too much, Automata features some incredibly fun and well-designed bosses. One particular early game boss is a mix of the fun hack ‘n slash formula, bullet hell segments, and sudden mini games. On top of that, the boss itself has various phases and move sets for you to keep track of. The result was an extremely exciting and intense fight, complete with gaudy red orbs filling my screen, insane surprises, and the feeling of being yanked in all directions as a talented vocalist overwhelmed me with quite possibly the best music track in the game. That fight left me breathless, and I made a separate save file so I could come back to it whenever I wanted.
It’s an unfortunate case of the game peaking a little too early, however, as the game’s remaining bosses, while awesome in their own right, couldn’t quite compare to the one I referenced earlier. Still, Automata’s bosses were all a pleasure to fight against, though it has to be said that the game does tend to fall a little bit on the easier side.
Don’t get me wrong; NieR: Automata’s combat feels great. The controls are responsive, it’s fun to build combos with different weapon types, and everything about the fighting style just looks stylish and elegant. That said, the game starts to lose most of its challenge as your character levels up and gets better skills. In fact, the inclusion of a mobile Pod robot that lets you fire bullets with R1, coupled with a somewhat broken dodge mechanic, trivialized a lot of late-game encounters. The game becomes too easy way too quickly on Normal difficulty, and it’s definitely recommended that you bump up the difficulty to Hard once you feel yourself letting your guard down during these fights.