How is it possible that in the release year for some of the most expected titles, an action game featuring teenage-like androids dressed in tight clothes with visible panties comes on top? Let’s have a look at NieR: Automata, Yoko Taro and PlatinumGames’ sequel to NieR, and what makes it such a good game.
Automata’s action takes place on Earth in the year 11945AD during the 14th Machine War carried between human made androids and a network controlled army of clumsy looking robots created by an invading alien species. The YoRHa organization is humanity’s stand, a continuously evolving army of androids stationed on a spatial base orbiting the Moon, set on reclaiming the Earth by sending wave after wave of androids into an endless war. These androids are self-aware mass produced models with prohibited emotions and a transferable consciousness designed specifically to carry a proxy war in the name of humanity who’s now safely hiding on the Moon. A tragic fate for beings trapped into a hopeless cycle, fighting for a post-apocalyptic world that’s slowly regenerating the wounds of the past just to suffer from those of the present. This is the setting for a game that’s more about asking existential questions than what the ecchi-like anime presentation shows at the first sight.
The player takes control of fighting model 2B in a failed attempt to assault a goliath class robot which has a YoRHa squadron killed and her saved just in time by 9S, an advanced scanner model with limited combat capabilities. The synergy between the two determines the YoRHa commander to send them into a reconnaissance mission in the ruins of an old human city. Following on the commander’s mission while helping the android’s resistance residing on Earth, the two discover the other side of this endless war raising questions even in the minds of those designed to follow a doctrine.
NieR: Automata’s story is weird but extremely coherent in what it tries to convey. At the surface is a war between machines but at its core it has a thought provoking narrative tackling many of the struggles of our race. The story raises existential questions in a mirroring of our history and evolution as a society through MMO-like quests well masked by an intelligent writing which is one of the driving forces beneath this tragic and emotional game. Choices have to be made and the consequences don’t necessarily have to play on the screen to understand the impact of your actions which had no right or wrong answer. The blindfolded female android with a short black skirt hiding a thong that’s meant for everyone to see at one point or another is just a distraction from a story that’s as deeply touching as it is action packed. This narrative that’s constantly switching from ecstasy to agony in ways that are hard to predict spans over multiple routes which aren’t the kind of new game plus we are used with but rather different perspectives or continuations of an evolutionary story that’s centered on three main characters and a few supporting ones. Places will be revisited but the action isn’t the same as the story opens just a bit more, unveiling some of its secrets. This approach is rather peculiar but even after my 6th visit to the factory area I barely felt the repetitiveness as I was captivated by the action on the screen.
Automata’s characters develop alongside the story but at a slower pace through scarce dialogues and simple quests that hide deeper meanings that can easily get past you. Their actions become clearer with each route leading to points of no return where things get so messed up that’s almost impossible not to get emotionally involved.
NieR: Automata is carrying the heavy torch of a story that spans through two series that never made it to the PC and it does it in a way to accommodate the newcomers while providing the much needed fan service for the veterans. During the 40 hours I spent completing the main routes and a few optional ones there wasn’t a second when I didn’t enjoy NieR: Automata’s narrative and that’s something I wouldn’t say lightly. I took delight in every weird moment born out of a grander idea that the game was subtly presenting. Stepping into a machine’s orgy and Emil’s craziness on the battlefield felt natural and properly placed as a comical rebound from the much grimmer tone that was slowly slipping through the narrative. This story just resonated with me at a level I wasn’t expecting and the writing never felt forceful allowing me to take decisions that had unexpected results. It’s almost like the tragedy of life is hiding behind the short skirts and flashy combat as the characters are a saddening reflection of our existence, stuck imitating humanity and falling into the trap of our ever repeating mistakes and but one question remains. If one could start over would he/she make the same mistakes?
NieR: Automata is a semi open world game encouraging exploration through an intricate and partially connected world while at the same time limiting the exploration through barriers, sometimes invisible, placed for navigation purposes. It’s a strange mix of old and new level design that’s perpetually changing to adapt the unconventional narrative and a gameplay that keeps altering the perspective from 3rd person to sidescrolling and even twin-stick shooter while being riddled with hacking mini-games. This cocktail of different gameplay types is properly mixed together with smoothly executed transitions almost every time. It’s hard to put your finger on Automata’s true genre as you get to experience so many at once and while the game seems to be action driven the RPG elements are surprisingly detailed providing an enriched experience.
The purpose of this gameplay design is to keep Automata in an evolving state fueling with its unpredictability the numerous routes required to get to the real ending. It’s a courageous approach that succeeds in its goal of keeping the gameplay fresh while projecting a sense of nostalgia at the same time. You don’t get every day to descend on Earth in a flying unit capable of standing toe to toe in a shmup bullet hell just to transform into a mech a few moments later fighting again from an isometric perspective which has a different cinematic effect. This kind of changes come and go when you expect them the least and the combat system has been adapted for them allowing players to hold their own in every mix of fighting scenarios never feeling that one part is more underwhelming than the other. You can dodge, shoot, melee attack and even use special abilities within the aerial combat sections while the main characters inherit every move from the game’s most common perspective, the analog controlled 3rd person, during the isometric and sidescrolling moments.
Automata is a game presenting the never-ending war between two factions and the combat is a central piece in it. The machine’s network will throw anything at the frail looking yet agile and powerful YoRHa units from small robots that look like a joke to gigantic goliath class machines capable of razing a city all by themselves. There are numerous boss battles that take advantage of this swirl of gameplay styles switching between perspectives with each stage of the fight for epic results.
The combat system in itself is a fantastic experience with just a few exceptions. We get to control three androids whose capabilities are reflected by slightly different combat styles in a Hack & Slash which has additional mechanics to deal with enemies whose power relies not only on filling the screen with their numbers but with their projectiles as well. The pod supportive shooting with customizable abilities and the chainable dodge are the go to abilities to deal with the bullet hell unleashed by numerous types of robots which constantly evolve trying to keep the challenge alive. But while the pod is a useful tool, it doesn’t excel at dealing with multiple enemies at once leaving the bulk of the army to the protagonists and their bad-ass melee weapons.
Split between four extremely different categories, the weapons in NieR: Automata have a great potential that isn’t fully realized. At first they project a very Souls-like feeling having different move sets based on the type of weapon and the two attack options, light and heavy. But the more weapons you find the more you realize that these move sets continue to repeat for each weapon type which is a letdown after the built up expectations in the beginning of the game. This problem is partially solved through upgrades which not only make each weapon stronger but also unlock the story behind them while expanding the move set with a finishing attack. The highlight here is the combo system which allows for an almost unreal transition between the chaining attacks of the two weapons equipped leading to spectacular moves that have to be discovered like many other mechanics hidden within the game.
The combat system seems to be more focused on being a visually pleasing experience lacking a satisfying level of connectivity between the weapon attacks and the target, but it tries to make up for that with tactically engaging options powered by an inspired character progression.
The character progression is a compelling system within the game’s world. The androids have an expandable memory which is filled with basic removable chips that provide the in-game HUD. This memory can be upgraded in terms of storage capacity and filled with new chips gained through combat, vendors or even crafted. The chips provide supplementary passive and active combat enhancements which range from additional HUD options to more powerful attacks or auto-repair. With the chips being split on types and levels which not only increase their stats but their memory requirements as well, there is a good enough variation to create unique builds suitable for each player’s style.
The progression system goes even further in its mission of staying true to the game’s world, taking inspiration from Dark Souls. The players lose all their used memory chips on death and can only regain them by recovering the body without dying again, which isn’t always such an easy task depending on the chosen difficulty level.
The challenge alternates between easy to the point where the game can play for you and almost brutal, rarely managing to find a middle ground. This feeling is extremely intensified when playing with mouse and keyboard because even if PlantinumGames has made visible progress, they aren’t quite there yet and the port isn’t exactly the greatest. Many would say that these issues are excusable since Automata is such a convolution of genres, but I tend to disagree. The versatility of mouse and keyboard should have no problem in dealing with the pod aiming or the twin-stick shooter sequences if properly used. Even more so, there is no excuse for being stuck with double taping for dodge with no rebindable options (less focus Denuvo more focus on porting?!). It’s almost a shame that a game with so many systems combined into a refined gameplay fails to deliver on the technical level.
In a retrospective over the story and gameplay sections, I feel the need to stress out how compelling the mechanical components of this game are, fitting within the context of the story. Saving means uploading your consciousness while dying means losing your current body having to download the preserved data into a new one that’s stripped of the progress made since the last upload. A lot of thought has gone into designing an elegant way to tie in the internal elements of this game in such a way that they make sense at a story level inducing an uncanny feeling of immersion which is only enhanced by the visual and audio design.
As most console ports coming from Japan, NieR: Automata is one of those games far from having cutting edge visuals. At first sight the graphics are quite dated lacking the texture work or visual effects that we often get to see in western developed titles. That doesn’t mean Automata is a bad looking game but rather a missed opportunity to make it even better. For what Automata lacks in technical presentation it makes up for through an artistic direction that adds a certain degree of beauty to a post apocalyptic world. There is a certain feeling of tranquility induced by a subtle and seamlessly transitioning color palette that’s in a constant contrast with the action pack gameplay rendering through visuals the struggle of the game’s world. The artistic team really went crazy on projecting this struggle designing unusual areas that somehow fit into the narrative.
The peak point of the visuals are the animations with serious work going into adding a lifelike movement to the female androids’ rear ends to the point where they surpass Sara Ryder’s facial animations (talk about priorities right there!). It’s the kind of guilty pleasure or fan service you expect from a Japanese game with an anime vibe and I can’t say I was ever bothered by this. The most praise worthy feature is the combat animations which are an impressive mix of multiple move sets that tie together without interruptions into spectacular combos. There is a sexy agility and violence in the combat that captures both the feminine and fighter traits of certain characters, something that I really enjoyed. But this wouldn’t be a console port without technical problems and Automata has plenty which haven’t been officially fixed in more than 3 weeks since release.
Aside of the customary pop-ups or the limited draw distance which most of us are already used with, NieR: Automata is really troubled by performance issues even on potent rigs and by a recurring annoyance regarding the fullscreen resolution. Most of the problems have been fixed by modders through various tricks but the developers haven’t provided any official solutions as of yet and I’m afraid the choppy 30fps locked cutscenes will remain a forever immersion-breaking issue.
Everything I said about Automata so far has a positive tone and that won’t change one bit when talking about the sound design and music. In general, music is used as a mean to complement a game’s atmosphere but Automata does things slightly different even in this aspect. The soundtrack is not only a complementary part of the atmosphere but part of the mechanical cogs that put the narrative in motion. The music is almost a surreal representation of the actions on the screen alternating perfectly between instrumentals with different dynamics and vocals to emphasize sequences with and without dialogue as well as fitting 8 bit songs for the hacking minigames. The seamless transition between songs intensifies this connection between narrative and sound to the point where one transcends the other becoming the same, inducing an entrancing state where looping songs aren’t even noticeable anymore.
The music is part of everything, be it exploration, storytelling or boss battles and it never succumbs to the conventional way of upping the tempo during battle unless it’s necessary, persevering the ambient tone of the explored area. The sound design that inevitably comes on top of the music fuels the action with distinguishable effects during combat scenes but without transferring the cacophony of slashing sounds capable of ruining the audio quality. It’s a perfect blend of ear pleasing vibrations driven by an artistic force before getting technical.
I played half through Automata using English voice over switching in the second half to Japanese. And while the English voice actors did the best they could to represent characters coming from a foreign gaming culture, I have to recommend the natural voice work and commend the developers for allowing us, westerners, to use it. Fans of anime will be extremely delighted to recognize Mikasa Ackermann’s voice in 2B’s combat determination surrounded by other familiar voices that do an excellent job in giving life to characters that feel as a part of an engaging anime rather than a standard video game.
If I had to describe the audio of NieR: Automata in two words, it will be whimsically magical, reawakening my old and dusty passion for anime while forcing me into an addicted state for a soundtrack that I can’t seem to get out of my mind.
NieR: Automata can be perceived in multiple ways. It’s an interactive anime, a surprising RPG and a solid action game with a bit of shoot’em up on the side. We never get to see these elements coming together in a single game which is an impressive feat on its own, but having them almost proportionally equal in quality and seamlessly transitioning is something else entirely.
This was a great gaming experience from the very start to the very end and I mean that literally. Even the end credits oozed some sort of hipstery awesomeness hiding a deeper meaning and choices that tie within the entire story concept. It’s almost as if this game never wanted to let the players get bored always changing for their benefits. Listening to Yoko Taro’s recent interview I know this was an intentional hard work trying to push an evolutionary leap on the overused design framework of today’s video games.
It’s hard to look over this review and not question my own objectivity which has been a driving force for my writing. Is this really an objective review or a love letter to a game that I now hold close to my heart? I can’t answer my own question so I’ll let time settle out the dust over this deeply troubled generation of gaming promising to look back on NieR: Automata when the time is right to judge if it was a strike during a weak moment or part of the generation defining games joining the ranks of cult classics.
+ Engaging and captivating story
+ Intelligently written quests
+ Supports multiple playthroughs with new content and different outcomes
+ A convolution of multiple genres with seamless transitioning
+ Frenetic and spectacular combat system
+ Surreal music
+ Artistic direction
+ A rather complex progression system
– Dated graphics
– Controls with mouse & keyboard
– The game world is too small for the narrative’s scope
– Optimization problems