Never trust robots.
Publisher: Square Enix
Format: PS4 (Reviewed), PC
Released: March 10, 2017
Nier: Automata’s prologue hits like a sudden and surprising donkey punch. From the moment you start it up, it drops you headfirst into what amounts to about thirty minutes of intense, pulse-pounding action. You begin in a top-down shooter section, desperately dodging enemy fire as your surrounding allies are shot out of the sky one by one. When you land, you’re staging a one-woman assault against a factory full of dangerous alien machines, experiencing the fast-paced, twitch reflex action that developer PlatinumGames has made their name from. Finally, as a portion of the very factory you were just exploring rises from the ground, you’re thrown into a larger than life boss battle against a colossal foe, surviving by the skin of your teeth.
Based on this prologue, I thought I knew what I was getting into by playing Nier: Automata. I went in expecting the usual fare for PlatinumGames: a flashy, exciting, and potentially cheesy experience that would require a satisfying cigarette upon completion. Cut to twenty-five hours of gameplay later and I can tell you the last thing I want right now is a bloody cigarette. No, what I need right now is a quiet and reflective walk.
In a distant future, aliens have invaded the Earth using an army of deadly robots that bring mankind to the brink of extinction. Fleeing to the moon, the remaining survivors from Earth wage a proxy-war against the machines via their weaponised android program, “Project YoRHa”, in the hopes of one day returning to their home planet. You take the role of 2B, a YoRHa combat android sent to Earth for her most recent assignment to clear machine threats from the city ruins with the help of reconnaissance android, 9S. However, this simple mission quickly becomes more complicated when 2B and 9S discover the birth of android-like machines that threaten not only the success of Project YoRHa, but also the survival of humanity’s remains.
If, like myself, you’re going into Automata without playing the first Nier, a previous-gen cult classic created by director Yoko Taro, I can safely tell you that you don’t need to worry about having prior series knowledge. While it shares the same timeline as the first Nier, the only references that Automata makes towards it are so subtle and insignificant to the story that they may as well be considered Easter eggs for fans to Taro’s previous games.
What might be a little off-putting to some, however, is the overall tone of Automata’s story. Putting it frankly, Automata is not a pleasant tale. While it definitely has its fair share of kooky humour that Taro is known for, Automata is ultimately a story about war, duty versus self-interest, what defines “humanity”, and ultimately, how all living things must eventually accept death. If you’re going into Automata wanting a cheerful and bright PlatinumGames experience, you may actually find that it isn’t the game for you. On the other hand, if what I just said hasn’t turned you off the idea of playing Automata, then great! You’re in for an interesting and thought-provoking experience which, although it won’t have anything remotely resembling a happy ending, will leave you remarkably satisfied despite its constant sombre tone.
Perhaps what best keeps this tone throughout the game is its gorgeous presentation. Despite having a rather small open world to navigate, you’ll find yourself exploring a marvellous variety of locations. One moment you’ll be sliding down the dunes of a barren desert wasteland, the next you’ll find yourself in a DisneyLand-esque amusement park, fighting for your life on a speeding rollercoaster. Every single one of these environments fits the setting of a dying earth, being both incredibly beautiful to behold, yet also depressingly devoid of life thanks in combination to the game’s muted colour pallet and fantastically melancholic soundtrack. This tone even carries over into the game’s enemy design, showing the machines looking eerily similar to old windup toys made out of simple geometric shapes like spheres and cubes. Their design makes them look stupid and comical, but also disturbingly soulless, making you always feel just a little bit uncomfortable when you see them.
It’s unfortunate then that the game has an annoying sense of repetition when it comes to its visuals. While each environment is stunning to look at the first time you see them, the game will ask you to visit them many times over for the sake of completing the main story and side quests. I found each environment slowly lost its sense of awe and uniqueness, eventually to the point that I started ignoring what made each locale different and interesting. Even the enemy designs start feeling a little lazy when their only design variation in each environment is that they’ve just put on a different set of clothing.
As I mentioned earlier, I jumped into Automata without playing the first Nier. So while I don’t have any personal experience with the series, I have been informed that the original game was rather lacklustre in the gameplay department. In fact, from what I understand, it seems that the original Nier was a game that excelled in telling a fascinating and deep story, but essentially failed in every other aspect. With that in mind, it seems like Taro made an incredibly smart choice by getting PlatinumGames, the masters of making stylish and fun action games, to handle the sequel.
If you’ve played any of Platinum’s other games such as Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising: Revengence, you should know what you’re in for when it comes to the action. Combat is incredibly fast-paced, giving you access to a massive list of combo attacks using light and heavy strikes, both of which can be assigned to any weapon from your arsenal, making for highly customizable loadouts. Dodging enemy attacks at the last second, usually signalled with a quickly flashing red light, allows you to deliver a high-damage counter attack that sends enemies flying into the air. Basically, it’s Platinum at their best.
However, one new addition that Automata brings to Platinum’s already enjoyable combat is a heavy dosage of shoot-em-up gameplay. Aside from the occasional moments which turn the game into a top-down or twin-stick shooter, Automata also equips almost every enemy with some kind of projectile attack. These can range between easy to dodge single shots, to intense firing patterns that would make a veteran bullet-hell fan sweat. Thankfully, you also have your own way of firing back, thanks to your “Pod”, a small floating robot that is able to shoot a constant spray of bullets at enemies for as long as you need him too. The pod is also able to use special moves that can be purchased from shops to suit your needs, such as a high-damage laser cannon or a temporary projectile shield. While I can see this aspect of combat being unappealing to some, especially those who aren’t fans of shoot-em-ups, I really enjoyed having another option to approach the game’s combat. I always found it incredibly satisfying to take down a tricky enemy from a safe distance, while still being able to occasionally get in close to deliver a quick combo before it tried to attack again.
That being said, while Automata’s combat is incredibly polished, I think that it ultimately falls short when it comes to its open world JRPG elements. To be honest, outside of its combat and story, Automata is an incredibly boring game. There’s basically nothing to do besides follow the main story or take up some sidequests, which are boring in themselves since they either involve a tedious fetchquest or going to a specific spot and beating up an enemy or two. Combine this with the way the game reuses its small handful of environments and it quickly becomes apparent that most of your time outside of the main story will be spent running around the game’s dull, lifeless and empty map as you bump around from waypoint to waypoint. And while the game mercifully does eventually allow you to fast-travel between save points, you won’t have access to this ability until around seven hours in, long after this problem becomes annoying.
But if you want to see the game’s final ending, you’ll just have to put up with this. To experience the whole story, Automata requires at least three different playthroughs. This means you’ll have to deal with an empty open world for over twenty-five hours if you want to see everything that the game has to offer story-wise.
After my time with Nier: Automata, I think I’m beginning to understand why Yoko Taro’s work has such a big cult following. His games are full of disturbing and hilarious kookiness, but also engaging and stylised stories that tackle philosophical questions and depressing subject matter. And the decision to get PlatinumGames on board as developers to greatly improve upon the previously lacklustre gameplay was a very smart way of attracting newcomers like myself to his brand of storytelling. It’s just unfortunate that, outside of its combat and story, the game eventually devolves into a dull and monotonous grind. And while I was able to put up with it for the sake of seeing the game’s story to the end, I can definitely see it being a major road block for some players, especially when it requires additional playthroughs to see the story to completion.
That being said, I’d still happily recommend Automata to those interested in experiencing a game with challenging combat and a weird, yet thought provoking sci-fi fantasy story. Just make sure to take breaks after each playthrough so you don’t get sick of its repetitive nature too quickly. Especially if you want to see all of the game’s twenty-six different endings.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Final Recommendation: If this has piqued your interest, pick it up! It’s still an interesting experience despite its flaws.
Writer: Tristan Venables