NieR: Automata Review
A multifaceted action romp that's well worth your time
NieR AUTOmata, NieR AuTOMata, NieR: Aux Tomato - however your pronounce the title of this sequel from publisher Square Enix and masters of hack-and-slash PlatinumGames, there’s no denying that, for a game about robots and machines, it’s sure got a lot of heart. The first NieR game, which was released to a lukewarm reception, always occupied my I’ll-but-it-when-it’s-discounted list. And while I did play the Drakengard games - and NieR is part of that series, funnily enough - they never quite captured my attention. NieR: Automata is an entirely different bucket of bolts.
In NieR: Automata, you (primarily) take the role of 2B, an android, as you investigate the remnants of Earth and find a way to defeat an army of quasi-sentient alien machines that overran the planet several thousand years ago. Having near enough wiped out human existence, the last remnants of society now exist on the Moon. Humans created androids - part of the YoRHA program - in an attempt to destroy the machine threat and allow people to return to Earth.
And that’s pretty much it. Or is it?
Much like the Drakengard series of games before it, NieR: Automata plays with several different types and genres of gameplay: mainly aerial and ground combat. The former you engage in right at the beginning. After blasting off from the YoRHa base in space, 2B finds herself in a Zone of the Enders/Gundam-type mech suit, in a vertical bullet hell game. After scrapping several enemy droids, the perspective changes to become more of a top-down shooter experience. Then, a couple of minutes later, she’s shot down, crashing onto an oil tanker.
The first area of NieR acts as an introduction to the game’s mechanics and the on-the-fly changing of styles. As 2B, you’re tasked with rendezvousing with another android - 9S - a scout unit who provides support. Your first boss battle, a giant pair of saws no less, introduces you to one flavour of ground combat, fought on a semi-2D plane.
Overall, ground combat is reminiscent of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, with a hint of Shadow of the Colossus - boss battles are spectacles, where 2B, more often than not, deals with a giant, hulking threat. Characters usually sport two weapon slots for heavy and medium attacks, and over the course of the game you can acquire and upgrade weapons ranging from short and long swords, spears, and fists. Also, providing backup via Gatling gun and missiles is the “Pod” companion. Aside from being a weapon to shoot things, the pod also acts as your guide, informing you about your next destination, and can be equipped with different programs: a missile blast, shield, time slow, gravity, and more.
Not only does the pod provide some witty banter for 2B, it’s the device you use to equip “chips”. Chips function as skills - increase your attack/defence, gain more XP, etc. There are many different skills for you to play around with, and you can upgrade the pod, allowing you to equip more skills. Just don't un-equip the pod’s OS chip. It needs that to survive. With the ability to store up to three different setups, you can have a load out for general mayhem or more focused boss battles. One of the best chips in the game - deadly heal - restores your character’s health for every kill, and makes the bullet hell sections a breeze, as well as dealing with the various enemies you encounter around the world.
This combination of mech protagonist and floating companion in a sci-fi dystopia strongly reminded me of Hyper Lift Drifter. NieR: Automata is almost the bigger budget version of it, not only in combat, but in its indie sensibilities and story. That indie-style feels reflected even in the menu and mini-map: very clean, with colours that, from an aesthetic standpoint, reflect the desolate world. The game chooses when to inject colour and when to keep things monochrome to highlight the lack of colour, especially evident in the “Bunker”, YoRHA’s base of operations, which is entirely shades of grey.
This aesthetic sees its extreme juxtaposition on Earth. Millennia of dereliction has turned the pale blue dot into a peculiar wasteland. One thing that you will notice straight away upon seeing the wider world is that NieR: Automata puts its gameplay and story above all else. The sandbox you’re in is, for the most part, quite bland and I was disappointed that despite being thousands of years in the future, very little in the world building alluded to that. However, for every humdrum city and desert area, you have wonderful locations like the abandoned amusement park, as well as the forest area and its castle.
These areas unlock gradually, and like the aforementioned FromSoftware games, you eventually gain access to shortcuts across the map, as well as the ability to warp to different areas by utilizing (and I’m not kidding) a vending machine. I wouldn’t recommend worrying about sidequests in your first starting hours of NieR because travelling around the map can be a royal pain. Though you can ride animals, you need to buy an item to do so, so you’d better stock up. Luckily, money isn’t difficult to come by in the game, but to make it, you’re best off keeping your console connected to the internet. Why? Well, similar to Dark Souls, you can see where other players have “died”. By examining their bodies, you can gain money and their chips - the latter you can start selling for quite a high price.
Much like any other action game, NieR: Automata has its general mob enemies, which are smaller (and awfully endearing) machines that will jump on you and flail their little, steampunk-looking arms. They’re mostly fodder, and with most mobs, it’s about crowd control and knowing when to dodge and counter. As you progress through the game, you’ll encounter several varieties of machine enemies, including ones that float around like Dr Robotnik, ones with massive arms, ones that look like giant chickens, ones that look like the strange, snake-like things from Beetlejuice, ones that are like leopards, and many more. With every new enemy, it’s about learning which approach works the best - purely ranged, mostly melee, or evasion/counter attack focused. NieR does an exemplary job of mixing its enemies with its different approaches to combat. It’s especially fun when your character rushes through several styles - and strange little minigames - all in the span of a few minutes.
NieR: Automata is not a game that holds your hand. If you want to get to grips with combat, it’s up to you to either fool around with button combinations or read up on the tutorials. I found it strangely refreshing. Aside from “this button is shoot/attack”, it just throws you into the game and, I dunno, expects you to simply discover. The changes from 2D, to top down, to over-the-shoulder views can be abrupt, but are never jarring, and each view demands you adapt to it.
However, though combat is slick and easy to get to grips with, there’s nowhere near as much depth as other PlatinumGames’ titles. I sunk over 50 hours into NieR: Automata, and it was the narrative that kept me coming back. After a certain amount of time, combat descends into hitting enemies as hard and as fast as possible, more akin to the Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors series. That’s fine, but if you’re expecting it to have the technicality of the studio's other titles, you’ll be disappointed.
Sidequests are a mixed bag. There are a great number to tackle, and while they don’t break too much new ground - go here, fetch/kill that - sidequests are most fun when you’re slowly peeling back character motivations or discovering something about the world. For example a character, which is a giant, spherical head attached to a tuk-tuk, has a very simple quest of searching for flowers in the world, but the accompanying novella is very endearing. It’s almost as if the game delivers these interesting stories in bursts so it doesn’t wear itself out.
As mentioned, the narrative and characters are what kept me coming back to NieR. There’s no secret that you play as three characters - it says it right there on the back of the box. 2B, 9S, and the rogue android, A2. The story may seem simple at first: destroy the machine threat and liberate Earth for humans. But this is just the tip of the narrative iceberg, as the game features multiple endings that all offer a unique outcome. Think of the game’s endings like chapters, or sequels in a series of books. You need to play NieR’s multiple scenarios to answer all the questions it posits.
During your journey, you meet resistance members who you’re not quite sure are human or not, and pacifist robots that just want to live, rebelling against their systems. You’ll uncover, piece by piece, exactly what happened to Earth, and, if you boot up your empathy drive, become really invested with numerous NPCs. NieR’s overarching themes are (in my opinion): What makes us human? How does our consciousness, with all its flaws, violence, and impurities, contradict that of machines and AI, which either have a singular purpose or only hope to ape humanity?
The duality of man is reflected in the game’s antagonists, Adam and Eve. Somehow created by the machines, these androids appear human and hope to nurture their humanity, asking the question of “why”? And each of the protagonists and the people you meet align to some philosophical spectrum. What do I fight for? What do I want? They learn about empathy, the truth of why they were created, and you’re right there with them. The voice actors - all of them - do a fantastic job. And I was thrilled that PlatinumGames’ “weirdness” slowly blossomed throughout my experience. A particular highlight is when a group of robots re-enact Romeo and Juliet, which soon descends into a murderous brawl. There are loads of these humorous, light-hearted moments that contrast nicely with the more serious storylines.
What augments NieR, which I’ve not experienced in quite some time, is its soundtrack. The music is fantastic, and each area has its own theme with several arrangements. The peculiar (and I’m assuming fabricated) language used as lyrics can be haunting. When I stepped into the amusement park area for the first time, and the crescendo of music builds from instrumentation to lyrics, mixed with the awesome area design, is when the game shows its strongest hand.
It wasn’t difficult for me to really become invested in NieR: Automata. It’s an honest game, with a lot to say and pontificate on, making the game one of my favourites of the year so far. While some graphical components are missed chances to really breathe life into the overall experience, they are easy to overlook in favour of an engaging story, protagonists, fantastic soundtrack, and slick - if eventually strained - combat.