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Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: March 7, 2017
Copy provided by publisher
Nier: Automata is a piece of art that could only effectively exist as a videogame.
Like previous installments in the shared Nier and Drakengard series, Automata meddles with genre and utilizes the unique interactivity of videogames as a medium to craft an expanding story that cannot be appreciated or fully comprehended upon merely concluding the campaign.
In fact, to “beat” Nier: Automata once is to merely begin it.
There are 26 endings, five of which are mandatory when grasping the full scope of the story. If that sounds like a lot of time spent replaying a game, you’d be wrong – Automata goes beyond simply repeating itself with extra features. Subsequent playthroughs of Automata change things in ways I simply wouldn’t want to describe for fear of ruination.
As android 2B and her allies battle the machine lifeforms that have driven humanity to the Moon, players will uncover a dense plot full of twists and conspiracies, a world with thousands of years of considered history, and characters whose suffering is beyond heartbreaking.
Digging underneath some hammy dialog and awkward fanservice reveals a surprisingly sensitive production, a provocative piece of existentialist storytelling that does more than simply ask questions about life’s meaning and the nature of humanity.
Rather than simply spouting Nietzsche to look clever (though it does that too), Automata digs into the dark implications of self-awareness in a universe categorically proven to hold no meaning for those both fortunate and tragic enough to gain sapience. Many games play at examining “the human condition” but Nier does the legwork required to turn that examination into a meaningful, heartfelt endeavor.
Automata doesn’t just ask the questions and act smug in the afterglow of philosophical posturing. It puts on the gloves and goes elbow deep into the uncomfortable answers.
True to the prior work of director Yoko Taro, this is a sorrowful experience, a game concerned with pain and trauma that has no intention of letting its players look away from the horror. Nevertheless, it’s a witty little beast as well, using humor and ingenuous breaks of the fourth wall to temper an otherwise overwhelming despair with bittersweet comedy and a cast of adorable characters.
Like its predecessor, Nier: Automata is an action-RPG with a sprawling hub map and branching dungeons akin to most classic Zelda games. However, while the first Nier (or should that be Niers?) featured a sluggish combat system that frustrated its otherwise intriguing narrative, Platinum Games has stepped in to craft a fast, fluid, intensely overdramatic approach to battle.
2B glides around the arena, utilizing two sets of dual weapons that can be mix-and-matched to create visually stunning combos. From swords to spears to gauntlets and more, there are many weapons to uncover and equipping them in different pairs can significantly change the attacks 2B is capable of.
Her enemies come in all shapes and sizes, though the machine lifeforms almost always resemble disarmingly cute wind-up toys that risk stealing the show from any of the main protagonists. Even the smallest, clunkiest little robot is an utter darling to the point where killing them in the hundreds feels increasingly cruel – and this is a Yoko Taro game, so you know it is… for reasons that will subvert your expectations regardless.
As has become standard for Platinum, battles are heavily focused on dodging enemy attacks and answering with quick strikes. The machines telegraph their moves quite clearly, though the speed with which they swipe can still take an unprepared player by surprise. Perfect dodges allow for brutal counterattacks, and evasion is quite forgiving, so rarely will one not feel exhilarated in the swift and brutal fights on offer.
Also, being a Nier game, prepare for bullet-hell sequences. Lots of ones. Lots of ones that are thrilling as hell.
Death is an inconvenient thing for an android, but it’s not the end of the world. Dying in Automata will see the player spawn at the nearest unlocked terminal (essentially save points and later, blessedly, fast-travel locations) albeit without any of their upgrades. Fortunately, Nier is one of the many games to have riffed on Dark Souls‘ death mechanics, leaving the player’s previous body in place so those important upgrade chips can be recovered.
Upgrading is, itself, an experience the player can lose a lot of time to.
As well as leveling up traditionally through battle, 2B can be enhanced with plug-in chips that offer a range of benefits. From damage boosters to HP extensions, fairly obligatory upgrades are joined by some powerful alternative skills – chances to reflect damage taken back on the enemy, regenerating health, and even one upgrade that simply lets robots scream in pain after dying a certain way.
Almost all of these chips can be fused with identical ones, increasing their level and making them more powerful. Investing money in fusing chips can create Godlike results but it’s all gone if the player dies and fails to recover the body. Recovery isn’t difficult – I’ve never lost a corpse yet – but it can be annoying the find the charred, hard-to-spot body on the ground even with a map marker helping.
Equipping chips is a further challenge. Even if players buy enough equipment slots to max out their storage (which doesn’t take long), there won’t be enough space to hold all the upgrades you want. Being physical chips, they get bigger as they’re fused together, meaning that if you desire the upgrade granting a 50% heal for every enemy defeated, you’ll be giving up massive real estate that could be used for other abilities.
In that case though, it’s really quite worth it, and Nier thankfully offers multiple loadout slots so you can experiment with alternative setups and switch them on the fly. I do wish switching loadouts was more convenient than dicking around in the menus though, for reasons that wouldn’t be obvious unless you’re on your third play.
Oh, and things like the mini-map, the experience meter, and other HUD elements? They’re plug-in chips too, and can be taken out if you like. You can also take out your OS chip… the thing keeping you alive. Because Nier.
Nier loves to fiddle around with genres and will often change perspectives throughout the course of a dungeon, adding top-down combat sequences and sidescrolling platforming to the typical third-person action. Additionally, minor text-based scenes harking back to the original Nier are present while an entire hacking minigame that becomes a crucial part of the experience is represented as its own full-fledged twin-stick shooter.
Drawing inspiration from the likes of Metal Gear Solid, there are many times when the interface will be screwed with, or gameplay interrupted entirely for unexpected surprises. This becomes more evident as Automata expands and is used to great effect in keeping multiple playthroughs fresh.
Like other games in the series, Automata does have a bit of a problem with not knowing when to let a thing go. The hacking schtick grows tedious over time, especially some of the more involved, maze-like segments seen in later stages, while a number of smart ideas are reused to the point of not being all that smart anymore.
Furthermore, the story has its slow points and some inconsistent characterization that detracts from the overall writing. 2B and her partner 9S have interchanging attitudes about the machine lifeforms they’re designed to kill, especially the ones that seem to have broken their programming and are less interested in fighting. Sometimes 2B sympathizes with them, sometimes 9S does, and both of them are prone to feeling nothing but contempt and disregard for the same characters they’re simultaneously aiding or consoling.
A handful of these inconsistencies are addressed later, and some confusion can be handwaved away by the very nature of the characters and their erratic sense of self-awareness. However, a significant portion of the characterization is just plain muddled, and the constant theme of “machines are unfeeling… or ARE THEY?” becomes too heavy a sledgehammer to take seriously before the ultimate conclusion.
These missteps stop Nier‘s story from being all it could be, but it remains a remarkable accomplishment regardless. From the denizens of Pascal’s robot village to the jerkass cynicism of the defecting android A2, there are so many characters to love and pity in equal measure, so many genuinely shocking moments, so much angst that actually works instead of just being mopey garbage, that it’s hard not to be in love with the whole bittersweet tale.
Automata‘s world is not hugely open, but it becomes progressively packed with sidequests and secrets as the game ends and the adventure continues. In truth, players may get sick of seeing the same old environments, and some of the most stunning areas lose their effect after being visited so many times, but the conservative use of space breeds a familiarity that Nier knows how to disrupt for maximum shock value.
Like Resident Evil or Beneath a Steel Sky, the weakness in reusing relatively restricted space is also a strength. It’s hard to forget Nier‘s world because one spends so much time in certain locations they begin to feel almost like home in a desolate, apocalyptic way.
However, sending players back to the amusement park time and again was a massive mistake. Discovering it for the first time was incredible for both its visual weirdness and jawdropping music – each subsequent revisit diluted the effect until it became just another gameplay area.
You can ride boars and mooses in this game, by the way. Just wanted to make sure it was clear that’s a thing this game lets you do.
Nier lets you do a lot, including ending your game in a variety of undignified and funny ways. Those endings in addition to the five core ones are almost all jokes, unconventional “game over” states that are often triggered in unexpected ways and come with their own sped-up credit sequences. Abandoning missions, playing around with an android’s built-in self-destruct program, there are many ways to screw up, and the game accounts for them with a pithy epilogue.
Those less lighthearted routes through the game, however, showcase some of the best game design to come out of Japan. As I said, this could only work as a videogame – the ways in which audience expectations are defied through interactive sequences and the very concept of the popular “New Game Plus” feature are nothing short of astounding.
And the music, good God in Heaven the music. As far as soundtracks go, there are few as integral to the tone of a game than this. Each piece of music is beautiful and regularly insinuated into gameplay itself to make it just important to the experience as everything else. Visually, the game suffers from the same washed out colors that plague this series, but character design is fantastic and trumps the fact it’s less graphically polished than many other recently released titles.
If you are so inclined to play Automata, I urge you to at least play it three times. It’s a shame one has to invariably spoil a portion of the surprise when describing just how clever Automata is, but it’s important one does so. The game itself doesn’t do the best job in convincing its audience to play again – I was compelled by word-of-mouth, and I have to pay that word forward.
You need to know how important it is to play Nier more than once.
Nier itself is important. It is, as far as I’m concerned, historically significant in terms of its design and the way in which it uses the framework of a videogame to tell an evolving story. If I had my way, every budding game developer would play this game to the point of acquiring endings A, B, C, D, and E before acquiescing to its final and alarmingly direct request.
Few games are able to showcase the power of the medium like Nier: Automata.
If history forgets this game, then fuck history.