Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PC
Has a video game ever made you think, even for a second, what the meaning of life is? I’d imagine most would answer ‘no’. While I’m not about to suggest that Nier: Automata is deeply thought provoking, it is mature in its narrative and capable of asking tough questions without feeling corny. That reason alone is enough for me to recommend this Platinum Games joint, despite some baggage the game carries as a result of that narrative.
Nier: Automata is the franchise successor to 2010’s Nier, a game often referred to as a cult classic due to its ingenious and quirky gameplay variations and the inevitable jankiness that comes with that. Automata follows in the original Nier’s footsteps by continuing its unique tradition of blending several gameplay genres into one generally cohesive game. Series creative lead Yoko Taro tends to attribute this conceit to his being easily bored. Whatever his reason, it makes for a wholly unique and memorable game.
Building a Dead World
Writing an elevator pitch for this game is a task I would not volunteer for, but if one had to boil it down to its core experience, I would imagine most would describe it as a high-style, third person action game with a rather weak RPG backbone. The majority of your time with the game will have you positioned behind your character, executing combos and finishing moves while holding down on your auto-aimed machine-gun style turret for an extra damage boost.
Not too out of the ordinary, but remember, this is a distilled elevator pitch. Of course, there are plenty of wrenches thrown to shake things up, but the core experience is darn good. Platinum knows how to juggle thrilling action, stylized animations, and steady frame rates, and they made no exception with Nier: Automata.
You begin the game more than 3,000 years in the future as agent 2B, a model of android built to wage war against invading aliens and the cliché looking robots that now populate Earth. Meanwhile, humanity’s dwindling civilization waits on the moon for an end to war and an eventual homecoming to their native, ravaged planet. Much of Automata focuses the player on navigating 2B and her companion 9S through a deserted, time worn, open-world city where the duo makes companions, battles machinery, and eventually unravels the mysteries of Earth’s plight.
Adjacent to the central city ruins are several large areas where the plot’s main beats play out. Fortunately, these areas aren’t your typical open-world biomes (although one is a desert), but rather themed mini adventures in different-enough looking environments. As you traverse from the city ruins to, say, a medieval robot kingdom, the environment does transition to its own thoughtfully designed aesthetic. In one scenario, your character is surrounded by hordes of enemy robots that believe they’re knights, wielding lances and large shields, proclaiming their self-sacrifice for king and country. It’s these moments that provide variety throughout Automata, as opposed to a tundra region of the open world.
These are the game’s main quests, and they offer lots of gameplay variety by way of genre-switching, the game’s foremost gimmick; I say this affectionately. For instance, in one scenario you’ll find that the camera pulls away to a fixed distance on a 2D plane, forcing you to move more like NES’s Samus and less like Bayonetta, while in another, you’ll pilot a jet-suit harkening back to the twin stick, on-rail shooters of yesteryear. These are just a few of the genres presented, though perhaps the most notable. These moments are interesting, undoubtedly, but where the third person action shines, the rest of the genres feel good at best.
I often found myself looking forward to returning to the third person action that admittedly is the majority of the experience. Obviously, it should be mentioned that your mileage will vary depending on your affection for these genres. And, despite my personal subjectivity, it was easy to observe the development prowess on display as the gameplay seamlessly transitioned from one scenario to the next; no small feat.
Despite its genre juggling, the most notable aspect of Nier: Automata is its narrative delivery. As with its predecessor, Automata requires several play-throughs of its campaign (which I completed in 13 hours the first time around) to fully understand the story. The plot, while succinct from a macro view, is intricate in its details. This, coupled with the sci-fi setting almost begs for a deep narrative dive, and so no one would blame the team for wanting to show different perspectives of the game’s events (no doubt a difficult task for any games writer), but there is a lot of gameplay baggage that comes bundled with that idea.
Why Won’t You Die Already
Consisting of 26 endings, each marked by a letter of the alphabet and stamped on your save file, Nier: Automata weaves a tale that is both nuanced and interesting despite the occasionally melodramatic dialogue. Five of the 26 endings are considered to be real, while the remainder come abruptly and with a dose of humor to keep things light. I was pleasantly surprised when I bumped into a few of those along the way.
This could be considered spoiler territory so I’ll be vague: having to play the campaign five times to figure out what actually happened is my biggest issue with the game. It is absolutely true that there are gameplay variations throughout each subsequent campaign to keep things fresh, but there was no escaping that feeling of I’ve done this several times before, because even when another play through changed the script, I found I was refocusing on how 2B was still wielding the same sword I picked up in the 2nd hour of the game. At any given time, something always felt a little stale, drawing closer attention to the light RPG systems that hold Automata together.
That’s the crux of the situation with Nier: Automata. The action-heavy moments are really polished and a pleasure to participate in, the story is interesting when it feels like divulging itself to the player, and the entire theme of the thing is just downright cool (there’s a sect of robots that live at an amusement park and literally exist to throw confetti in the air at all times); but when you boot up this Square Enix title hoping for some RPG character building mechanics to fill the gaps in between the barrage of action that’s presented, it can be difficult to maintain your zest for an otherwise mesmerizing experience. There’s a reason straight-up action games aren’t 40 hours long, and unfortunately, Automata is worse for it.
Nier: Automata is a game I will absolutely never forget playing. It’s wholly its own unique product, ripe with those brilliant, eccentric moments I’ve come to expect from Yoko Taro - the father of Drakengard - and Platinum Games, the storied developers behind Bayonetta, MadWorld, and a host of other fantastic action games. In the end, I’m glad to have spent so much time with a game that’s so clearly the product of genuine passion, even if it didn’t know when to roll the final credits.