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.
Combat aside, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Automata is the way it incorporates the game’s story and lore into the gameplay mechanics themselves. From the very beginning, the game makes it quite clear that you, the player, are an android. The information you see on your HUD is determined by which chips you choose to install into your android’s body. Even the way you adjust the game’s brightness and voice output settings are ingrained in the android’s own operating system. Automata presents the most basic of game settings and mechanics in such innovative ways, and the game is all the better for it.
If you play online, and you should, you’ll occasionally come across the android corpses of other players who have died on their journey. Upon death, you can choose to leave a death message for players who might stumble across your body. You form a sentence by picking from a series of pre-selected phrases, and you use those to best describe your android’s personality and how they met their demise. Some of the messages I’ve come across can get pretty dark, but that’s not surprising, considering the desolation and loneliness of this post-apocalyptic world.
Interacting with these corpses offers three options: pray, retrieve, and repair. Repairing a corpse will reanimate it, allowing it to fight alongside you for a short period of time. Personally, I felt this was a rather superfluous addition that only served to make players feel like they could recruit more androids into their little party, but the other two options were far more interesting. Retrieving a corpse would allow you to scavenge it for resources and a few temporary combat bonuses. It’s a mechanic that makes sense in the world of Automata. YoRHa units drop like flies when they give their lives to the battle for humanity, and throughout the course of the story and its side missions, 2B and 9S are seen poking around android corpses pretty frequently, taking whatever they can salvage – whether it’s for personal use, or for memory.
The final option, which is to pray, is probably the most useful one and also the most profound choice, in terms of the game’s lore. Praying for an android corpse restores your health, and that’s it. Praying seems like an odd option, especially considering the fact that these characters and dead androids aren’t human. Yet, despite the fact that “emotions are prohibited,” it’s fitting for 2B and 9S to pray for fallen comrades precisely because they, too, understand that an android’s sole purpose is to serve humanity and that the android’s death was a tragic but necessary sacrifice for that very purpose. Besides, androids are modeled after humans. Why wouldn’t they try to be more like their creators? And that’s a question that gets brought up very frequently in the game.
Everything about this game, from its system menus and volume settings to the online functions, is steeped in the world’s lore and setup. Nothing feels out of place or at odds with Automata’s setting.
Because it’s a semi-open world game, NieR: Automata also comes packed with side missions and optional objectives for you to pursue. Thankfully, fetch quests are very few and far between in Automata, and most of these side missions actually proved to be almost as interesting as the main story itself. The side missions added a lot of depth to the game’s world and helped to flesh it out even further, so doing these never felt like a chore.
Automata likes asking a lot of philosophical questions about existentialism, and it becomes intriguing when these questions are applied to the androids and machines during the side missions and main story. 2B and 9S struggle with these questions too, and there’s a lot of talk between the two about what would happen when peace is finally restored and the humans come back to Earth. Would the androids still have any purpose then? 9S tells 2B they should go shopping when that day comes. He says he’ll buy something that looks good on her. A t-shirt, maybe.
These characters remain charming and likable, even in the face of difficult questions.
Like Taro’s previous games, NieR: Automata tells a pretty heavy story that’s punctuated with light and sometimes self-aware humor. After making players feel comfortable with the regular ‘story and side mission’ pace we’re used to in open world RPGs, Automata pulls the rug from under your feet without warning, and launches you towards a whole new direction you never saw coming. It’s difficult to talk about the story without spoiling its best parts, but suffice it to say that the narrative here is definitely on par with the quality we’ve come to expect from NieR’s creator. The game features multiple endings, and you’ll need to get all of the main story endings in order to fully understand the plot. Don’t let that turn you away, though. The story is well worth the effort, and everything culminates in a satisfying and appropriately fourth wall-breaking conclusion.
While you don’t have to play the original NieR to enjoy Automata, I feel obligated to tell you that your experience with the sequel will be significantly improved if you play the original first. Automata has cut off most of its ties to its predecessor, but it does justice to the familiar faces who do return for a second go-around. The growth and characterization of the returning characters feel believable and earned, even if their roles are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.
NieR: Automata isn’t without its flaws. The game could’ve done away with its fetch quests completely, and the combat could’ve been a little more balanced. Even so, Automata is a game that isn’t afraid to take risks – something that’s made abundantly clear with its bullet hell, side-scrolling, and text adventure segments. It commits fully to the story it wants to tell, and the result is a truly special game that feels incredibly innovative and unique at the same time. There’s nothing like it. As was the case with its predecessor, NieR: Automata is a game that will be talked about for years to come. Hopefully in less hushed tones this time around.
Score: 5/5 – Exemplary