NieR Automata Review
System: PS4, PC
Many gamers might not be familiar with the name Yoko Taro, but he holds a special place in the hearts of a few who have ever played one of his unique games. Like a really great indie director known for flawed but fascinating films, Taro’s games while never lauded by critics due to poor gameplay implementation and a lack of polish were nevertheless cemented in the realm of cult for their unique perspective that challenged the medium in terms of gameplay and storytelling. Think of him almost like Hideo Kojima’s less successful but talented crazy brother.
I never spent more than a handful of minutes playing one of his previous releases – I vaguely remember playing a demo of the original Drakengard on the PS2 – but was always fascinated by the gospel that the church of Taro would wax poetically about with regards to his collection of idiosyncratic games. After the release of the original NieR – a spin-off of the aforementioned Drakengard series – gamers swore that behind its very flawed execution, the ideas behind that game deserved a second chance. Fast forward almost seven years later and what was once going to be no more than a mobile game has sprung into a full fledged next-gen title backed by the AAA talents of renowned action game developer Platinum Games. It wasn’t until I picked up NieR Automata, that I could finally see just why this man is so revered by this small but vocal fanbase.
Whereas, director of Final Fantasy XV, Hajime Tabata’s sole purpose was to please as many fans as possible with the latest game in Square Enix’ long running franchise, you will find no shred of compromise in their latest co-production as the person helming the project is far from a man of compromises. Just look at the flippant response you get from an NPC when you ask them, in so many words, why the world map is such a pain in the ass – which it is – to use. He simply responds along the lines that it is the way it is and you’ll just have to get used it. Usually a statement like that would be a frustrating breaking of the fourth wall, cheekily covering its own ass for poor design, but there’s something about this confidence that pervades the whole experience: a confidence that usually only reserved for madmen, geniuses or both.
The story of NieR Automata is a prime example of this confidence. It’s one part philosophy and another part existentialism, using the remnants of a ruined earth many thousands of years in the future as a backdrop. Where humanity, mostly wiped out by an alien invasion, has retreated to the moon and sent Androids in its stead to fight its war by proxy. It’s a story that follows 2B, a steadfast battle android part of YorHa – an automated infantry squad – and 9S, a precocious scanner android and fellow YorHa member. Their job is to take out the alien’s machine menace that resides on Earth, in hopes that one-day mankind can return to its rightful place in the universe.
2B is a totally badass heroine and maybe a little too non-descript at the beginning, but like the story itself, her character develops in a lot of unexpected ways – it also goes for 9S. The story is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting (well, mostly heartbreaking), dealing with heady and interesting topics such as the meaning of life and the human condition; most importantly it makes you think. It’s one that resonated with me emotionally, so much so that when I got to the true final ending – which there are a total of 26, canon and non-canon – it had me pondering the questions it presents long after I put the controller down. Without going too deep into specifics, if you are expecting a satisfying conclusion the moment you reach the credits for the first time you might come away disappointed, but if you see what the game has to offer beyond these usual constraints; if you decide put in the work in, like any great piece of art it’ll be more than worth it. It truly is one of the great achievements in videogame storytelling.
It also helps that for the most part, the game plays like a dream. This is where bringing in a studio like Platinum Games really adds to the vision, since when they are at the top of their game, nobody does third person action better and they are most definitely at the top of their game here. NieR Automata continues the most popular trend of today, that of making every game an Action RPG. Where most games fall under this label, they usually fail to deliver on either one or the other of these genre staples – or sometimes both. Either the action is not fluid or precise enough or the RPG elements are not deep or apparent. In NieR Automata, we get a game that fully delivers on both of these promises and might be the most complete realization of the term Action RPG.
Just like 2B’s cold and calculated no-nonsense exterior, the slick weapons-based combat is very reminiscent of previous Platinum Games joints like Bayonetta. At any time you can equip 2B with up to two weapons. Long swords are heavy and pack a punch, spears give you that extra bit of range, bracers trade range for a quick hand-to-hand approach and standard issue swords act as a nice middle ground giving battles a wide variety of options. These options open up as attack combos will change depending on where you slot your weapons – ie: equipping a long sword in the first slot and a short sword in the second will net you a completely different arsenal than vice-versa. Light and heavy attacks are doled out through the dozens of unique armaments you will find throughout the game – each sporting their own cryptic stories that unlock the more you upgrade them – and feel as good to use as any action game has felt this generation.
On top of the short-range offerings, 2B is equipped with a unit known as a Pod. These pods allow for long-range battle as they offer firepower in the form of rapid-fire bullets to more methodical lock-on missiles that are especially useful on any airborne units. They also can be outfitted with special abilities known as Pod Programs. These Programs act as this games version of super-moves and range from a large energy canon blast to an AOE shockwave that can hit many units and change the tide of battle in key moments.
Taking on any foe, from the smallest machine to the large building of a Goliath Class unit becomes a satisfying ballet of bullets and cold steel and it’s this interplay of attack styles that give NieR Automata its unique flavor.
When it comes to the more stat-based RPG elements, the game adds an interesting Plug-In Chip system on top of the typical leveling up structure that the genre is known for. These chips take the armor and equipment sets and ability upgrades from other RPGs and meld them into one pool. Chips come with passive abilities such as heath and attack upgrades to more physically altering treats such as adding a ranged shockwave to any melee attack or slowing time for a few moments with each successful dodge. These chips, which are gained from mowing down machines or completing quests, can also be upgraded to higher levels, which is addictive and beneficial. You see, these chips come with an equip cost, shown visually through a hard drive capacity graphic, and throughout your travels you can find one or more of the same chip with varying chip costs. For example, you might have a chip that increases melee damage chip that costs you 6 points to equip and another one with a cost of 8, both affording you with the exact same benefits. Say you find another one of these chips with a cost of 6, you can combine it with your other chip and fuse it to become a +1 melee damage chip with added abilities for the low cost of 7 chip points, which is better than that other +1 chip you found that costs 12 points. It’s this strive to not only arm 2B with the best chips, but the most efficient, that makes this system so rewarding. By the end, I had a character that could heal itself when dishing out damage; dish out damage when taking damage; and regenerate health when not taking damage. I was a fucking tank and it was glorious.
NieR is at its best when it is constantly playing with player’s expectations and flipping the script. At one point you will be fighting gigantic machines one-on-one, only to have the perspective and gameplay change, sometimes mid-action, into an over the top arcade shooter where you are taking out foes akin to bullet-hell games like Ikaruga, only to be transformed yet again to a twin-stick shooter, only to finally be switched right back to a 2D Metroidvania/Ninja Gaidenesque game. It’s not only a delight to see the way the game can change on the fly like that, but also a testament to how well it plays in any of these situations. Controls are always tight and responsive in any mode and where one might be worried about a jack-of-all-trades, master of none situation here, those fears are quashed. It’s only in a select few areas, including a string of box-moving puzzles, where some of this polish is lacking.
Where the game does falters a bit is when it tries to be too much like other games today, mostly with its open world philosophy. It’s not to say its open world isn’t interesting and rife with notable landmarks or secrets – it does have those. But compared to the lush and dense open world games today, it’s just largely empty and serves more as moderately pretty set-dressing for the story is trying to paint – did I also mention the world map is pretty shit?
While side quests themselves bring about interesting nuggets of information on the world and its inhabitants, it’s the boring structure of these quests that pale in comparison to what’s offered in today’s more robust efforts. For every interesting mission that revolve around testing a machine’s arcade game for bugs or racing another machine across the ruins of the city, there are 5 more that revolve around racing around the world, fetching materials for resistance members. These aren’t side quests as much as they are errands, an archaic reminder of open world games from yesteryear, and they drag down some of the majesty that is the main campaign. Thankfully travelling through the world is at least fast and fluid enough that it doesn’t become a huge chore and fast-travel points open up later on in the game.
The game, for all of its wonderful and well-executed ideas, also suffers from a general lack of polish. While this is nothing new to Yoko Taro’s previous entries – and not nearly at the same level – it was still disappointing anytime the game spazzed out while 2B dashed through certain geometry or when the game straight up hard crashed, which happened close to half a dozen times. This became more of a pain when it came to the game’s lack of an auto-save option, forcing me to replay small chunks of progress I lost due to these crashes.
Also for as well as the game plays, it can be severely unbalanced in the case of difficulty and the way it scales enemies, with some lowly peons having as many hit points as some full on bosses. The more you upgrade your character, the easier the game becomes near the end, so much so that I would take out the thoughtful and well-designed boss encounters much quicker and easily than was surely intended.
A final sore note is the way the game performs. While it strives for a smooth 60FPS, you’ll be lucky to see it stay anywhere near that outside of the carefully crafted set pieces. It often jumps all over the place in the open world, dropping as low as the teens in some places. For a game whose buttery smooth gameplay requires an equally smooth engine to compensate for the quick reflexes the game requires of the player, this becomes a bit of an issue. This would be more understandable if the game was a graphical powerhouse, but that is not the case, with simple geometry, poor ancillary character models, and bland textures straight out of the Stone Age – i.e. PS2 era.
Yes, the game is no looker overall compared to what we’ve seen from most AAA experiences this generation – and frankly some last gen efforts – but that doesn’t mean its all bad news. For one thing the art design is immaculate with a special attention to detail to 2B and her garments. Her Gothic Lolita battle attire is as chic as it is eye-catching and this sense of style is noticeable on all of the main players you meet during the story. This attention to detail is also very evident in the countless machine life forms you will take your anger out on. They might stem from a simple design, but each has their own personality and it’s this restrained and almost retrograde approach to design that when juxtaposed with the distinct anime noir of the androids that really stands out and works surprisingly effectively. It’s also in the little details of their animations that give them more personality and life than most games treat their human counterparts, all the way down to the sounds and screams they make, really driving home the question of whether they are sentient or not.
Also, for as bland as some of the texture work is in the open world, it houses some incredible standout locales where this a non-issue, including an amusement park run by clown-painted machines that is bursting with so much personality and panache that you wonder what it would look like if the team had more resources and time to give the rest of the overworld the same tender love and care.
If there is one aspect of the presentation that is a rousing success and the game’s greatest achievement – even over its story and gameplay – is its soundtrack. Scored by Keichii Okabe, who also composed the music for the original NieR, the original compositions on display are nothing short of breathtaking. We have been treated to some of the best scores to ever grace the industry recently from Yoko Shimimura’s turn on FFXV to the most recent effort in the Legend of Zelda franchise, but this one stands even above those giants. We are treated to pieces that elevate every battle, every quiet scene of introspection, every single facet of this story to even greater heights, with tracks that weave stirring vocals in and out at the most unexpected of times, or ones that even veer into 8-Bit without a moments notice. It’s a generous collection of pieces that will stay with you even when you’re not playing, including the catchy and surprisingly powerful “The Weight of the World” that is a befitting reminder of the game’s main themes. Trust me, you will have this whole soundtrack on repeat sooner than later.
4.25 out of 5
I was really excited when I booted up NieR to find something new, fresh and exciting, but I never expected the more time I gave it, the more it would keep giving me back. Nor did I expect its story to be so captivating and profound that I would be still thinking about it days later. NieR Automata is a truly special game; one that not only imbues the best qualities of a visionary artist, but also finally backs it up with the gameplay chops that only a studio like Platinum, at the top of their game, could.
While an improvement in almost everyway in the gameplay department from his previous games, Yoko Taro’s latest still suffers from a lack of polish that a bigger budget and more time could have afforded, but I think its almost fitting. For a man who flirts with ideas and questions that are almost impossible to achieve or quantify, perfection wouldn’t only be impossible, it would be boring. Because like life itself, there is only so much we can ever know, but if we shoot for the stars sometimes we are afforded with something special. Who knew it would be a spin-off of a middling and forgotten video game franchise?