“Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment? I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle…and wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to kill him.”
These are the first lines of dialogue you hear in Nier: Automata, and if this doesn’t immediately tell you what kind of game you’re about to experience, then you are in for one hell of a trip; one that could only have come from a director like Yoko Taro. Anyone familiar with his work kind of had an idea for what to expect but for a newcomer like myself, no amount of research into his previous games could prepare me for what this one had in store. I thought I knew after listening to those opening lines, but that was, appropriately and obviously, only the beginning. First, though, let’s get some backstory out of the way.
For those who may have never heard of him, Yoko Taro is a game director who has become famous and popular for his… eccentricities (he’s rarely ever seen without wearing a creepy mask and once did a video interview using a sock puppet) and his work on the Drakengard series and the first Nier title – action-RPGs that, while not as recognised as the likes of Final Fantasy, gained a cult following in Japan and a very niche fan-base in the West. Not because their fun to play or anything but because of their storytelling, atmosphere and themes, usually exploring nihilism and the darker sides of humanity. In fact, even fans of these games will admit that the worst part of them is the gameplay themselves.
Cut to 2017, and the aforementioned Nier finds itself getting a sequel, with Square Enix publishing (they were also the publishers for Nier and the Drakengard games) and action-game darling PlatinumGames developing it. Fans of Taro and his work were thrilled to see a new game from him and with a studio as renowned as Platinum attached to it, it meant a more mainstream audience could be tempted to enter his weird and wonderful world too. And after trying out a demo for the game myself (which covered the opening prologue section), I was very much on board too.
“But what is Nier: Automata even about?” you must be wondering. You might also be asking “What the hell is a Nier and why is it sometimes spelt with a capital R?” but I can’t answer that one. I can answer the first question, though. Set thousands and thousands of years after the events of the first game, the Earth has been invaded by aliens. Actually, more specifically, it’s been invaded by machine lifeforms sent by aliens. Whilst the human race is evacuated to the moon, an army of androids called YorHA are created to combat the machines in a proxy war to take back the planet. You take control of three of these androids – the stoic and professional combat model 2B, the curious and rather cheery hacker/scanner 9S and the ruthless renegade A2 – as they battle the machines, and this is all I will write on the matter because one of this game’s biggest draws is its plot and I don’t want to spoil any of it.
On the surface, it seems like a very basic narrative with a simple set-up (one helpfully provided very early on, and with more backstory and lore spread throughout) but it quickly becomes obvious that all is not as it seems, even if you’ve never played one of Taro’s previous games and dealt with his subversive writing. Hell, those who played the first Nier will be suspicious right off the bat for reasons I won’t explain.
And besides, the war between the androids and the machines is merely the backdrop for the real story, which is honestly more about exploring the two sides themselves. The androids, despite looking exactly like human beings, are prohibited from displaying emotions, yet many of them openly do so anyway. Every single one of them is designed for a specific role, be it combat, support or otherwise, yet all have varied personalities. Both 2B and 9S are in constant contact with operators stationed on their space-bound reconnaissance base and both act like completely different people, with 2B’s being overly chatty and 9S’ acting more like a strict school teacher.
One android laments over the loss of his leg because it was the one he had when he was first built and he questions, with how much of his body has been replaced, whether he’s really the same android anymore. Some fall in love, some fear death; they are borderline indistinguishable from human beings yet they, and we, are routinely reminded they’re not – 2B in particular constantly telling 9S not to show emotions and not to question the bizarre actions of the machines, who also start to display human traits and some even acting friendly to the androids. The game tackles so much about the theme of what it means to be human from various angles, and even covers stuff like religion, family and loss with nuance. It’s intellectual, but not in a snobbish way. It simply presents what it wants to convey and leaves a lot of the assumptions down to the player. Its ideas aren’t completely original but they’re done in such a way that it feels fresh and new, and it certainly manages to leave quite the impact.
Word of warning, though – this is not an entirely happy game. Some scenes, including certain side-quests, can be rather depraved and leave this awful sense of futility. The machines’ desperate attempts to be human come across as borderline twisted and depressing and some of your fellow androids are capable of being horrible people, leaving you to wonder how they became so or if they were designed to be this way in the first place.
That’s not to say that the game is entirely morose. It has its moments of levity throughout that bring a quick chuckle so as not to completely demoralise the player, particularly in the many alternate endings this game has, of which there are 26 of the bloody things. Don’t worry, though. Only five of them are needed for the main story and you acquire them by just playing the game. The rest are optional “game overs” that occur by performing certain actions and are only really there for shits and giggles. For example, you can acquire a mackerel from one android and if you choose to eat it, the oil clogs up your character’s inner workings and they die; their final thoughts being that it was worth it because it was so delicious. Some are harder to find than others but they’re a fun reward for the most curious of players.
And if you’re worried about not getting the plot because you didn’t play Nier, don’t be. Nier: Automata easily stands on its own, though there are certain callbacks to not only Nier but the Drakengard series too since they all technically take place in the same universe. There’s plenty of fun fan-service for the long-time fans but it never feels like its alienating new players. Even when the references show up in the main plot, the information provided is enough to keep newbies up to speed. Oh, and the voice acting is fantastic too. Pretty much everybody delivers an incredible performance, with Kira Buckland and Kyle McCarley as 2B and 9S deserving a lot of praise, especially the latter during the second half of the game (if you’ve already played it, you know what I mean).
I also want to mention that the environments, while maybe not particularly interesting for the most part, are visually impressive and have amazing atmosphere. The abandoned, ruined city isn’t anything we haven’t seen before but there’s something hauntingly beautiful about its ravaged and empty state. Same for areas like the desert, which is mostly just a seemingly endless stretch of sand dunes, and the dark, oppressive factory, which proves that murky realism doesn’t necessarily make a game visually boring. They may be a bit hard to navigate at times (the in-game map isn’t all that helpful, which may have been an intentional design choice?) but some players may love getting lost in these areas, since there are hidden details and treasure chests throughout, as well as getting soaked up in the atmosphere and general feel of it all. I think it ultimately boils down to the music; seriously, this game’s soundtrack is phenomenal, with a fantastic range of tense action-themed pieces, sorrowful melodies and, my all-time favourite, ominous fake-Latin singing.
But what if you don’t care about the good writing, atmosphere and music? What if you’re an action game and/or Platinum fan and just want to know if the gameplay is up to the same standards as Platinum’s previous work? Well, fortunately, it is. Combat is fluid, responsive, fast-paced and incredibly varied. 2B, 9S and A2 have access to a wide variety of different weapons that are split into four different categories – small swords, large swords, spears and combat bracers (essentially gauntlets) – with each one having different combo strings for light and strong attacks and can provide passive buffs when they’ve been upgraded using the many materials you’ll pick up throughout the adventure.
Unlike previous Platinum titles, there aren’t any combo lists because the core combat is incredibly basic and you’ll most likely discover the different combos and extra attacks yourself just by playing, like dash attacks and charged moves. You even have a pod constantly floating nearby that you can use as a gun to fire at enemies from a distance, and even these can be upgraded and equipped with extra modifications so they can fire lasers, missiles etc. You can also hold onto them after jumping from tall buildings and such to gently float down to the ground so as to avoid damage and they’re perfect for destroying the enemies’ own projectiles, which turn battles into a bullet hell. Being able to slash at machines with your sword while simultaneously shooting at another one off to the side is thrilling to pull off.
And in another deviation, there’s no grading system like there was in the likes of Bayonetta or The Wonderful 101. Need to use a healing item? Go ahead and use it; the game’s not going to punish you by lowering your score or anything. It may play like a Platinum game but it’s a RPG first; something I know Nier fans appreciated, and might help bring in those who may be put off my some of Platinum’s previous titles due to their steep learning curves.
There’s a lot of customisation when it comes to the combat too, since while your characters level up naturally by defeating enemies and such, you can equip them with different Chips that can boost stats, provide extra abilities like a counter, improve already existing abilities like your dodge or even add an extra level of challenge, like a Chip that dramatically increases your attack when you’re low on health. There’s a ridiculous amount of these to acquire and they allow you to perfectly craft your own experience tailored to how you play games. And you can create upwards of 3 Chip sets to interchange between if you want to prepare for different situations e.g. have one focused on keeping your health bar filled and one focused on dealing as much damage as possible.
You only have so much room for these Chips, with the best ones needing more space to equip, but even stuff like the mini-map and being able to see the enemies’ health bars are dependent on Chips, so you can remove those if you want to make room for others. You can even remove the Chip that acts as the android’s OS – it does immediately kill you but hey, the option’s there which is neat and leads into one of my favourite aspects about this game – how the mechanics are given in-universe justifications for existing.
Here’s another example – whenever you die, you’re taken back to the last save point you were at. Save points are these fake vending machines that act as secure locations to hold android bodies. So when you die, you’re consciousness is actually being re-loaded from the reconnaissance base into a back-up body. You can then return to where you died and recover your last body, which is recommended since dying causes you to lose whatever weapons and Chips you had equipped at the time. Recovering your body means getting all those items back but, if you don’t get there in time or die again, you lose it forever. The vending machines also act as transporters for quick-travel, but you’re not actually being teleported – your consciousness is, again, being transferred into another body that’s been left in the other transporter.
As time has gone on, a lot of games feel obsessed with trying to be more like movies, but Nier: Automata doesn’t do that. Sure, it’s cinematic in a lot of places but it never forgets that it’s a game first and it wholeheartedly embraces that identity, resulting in all manner of cool details and set-pieces that can only be done in the videogame format. This may sound like an exaggeration but I can’t think of any other game that has managed to blow my mind with its mechanics alone. I wish I could provide more examples but these need to be discovered and experienced blind.
Going back to gameplay real quick, while 2B, 9S and A2 all fundamentally play very similarly, there are some slight differences to mix things up. 2B and A2, for example, can wield two weapons at a time whereas 9S can only use one but he can hack enemies, where you play a brief top-down shooter mini-game that sometimes results in you able to make the machines blow themselves up to damage other enemies, make them fight alongside you or even take control of them directly, which is a lot of fun to mess around with. Get used to this, by the way, as the game loves to swap to this genre a lot. In fact, the game begins like this with you piloting an air-mech and engaging in some Galaga-esque shenanigans. They never feel intrusive, though, and are fun to play through. You’ll even sometimes have to explore areas like a 2D side-scroller, solely because that’s what the game wants to do.
I think this a major factor as to what makes Nier: Automata so great – it’s been made with so much freedom. You can tell that Taro was able to make the game he wanted to make his own way with very little interference and, as a result, it led to something that I think anyone who has an even remote interest in videogames should play. I know the word may be over-used and maybe a tad trite but it really is an experience – an experience I feel I can comfortably recommend to almost anyone.
Do you want a tough-as-nails action game that pushes your skills to the limit? Do you want a game to just relax with after a long day and get lost within its story and world? Do you want a game stuffed to the gills with optional side-quests and lore to discover? Whatever it is you’re after, chances are Nier: Automata has it for you. As for me, officially consider me a convert – I am more than eager to see what else Yoko Taro might create next after the roller-coaster of a journey I went through playing this. First things first, though, I need to go give all the machines in my house a hug.
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