Nier: Automata

With an irresistable premise of joining the flashy action of PlatinumGames, the role-playing elements of a Square Enix classic, and a unique philosophical tale told through a daring structure, Nier: Automata is simultaneously intriguing and flawed

It is hard to find two gaming companies that are as different as Square Enix and PlatinumGames. The former is, after all, admired for its epic RPGs, which tend to have lengthy running times, thick plots, numerous characters that are carefully developed, and battle systems underlined by a various deep customization systems. The latter, meanwhile, rose to prominence thanks to its flashy action titles, which are fast-paced and often throw storytelling cohesion out the window to focus on what they do best: putting heroes of iconic design into ridiculous situations that serve nothing but the thrill of sheer visual spectacle, which is usually powered by a solid implementation of combos and distinct moves. With such diverging tendencies, a partnership between these Japanese giants would seem unlikely on paper; yet, defying those odds, that is precisely what Nier: Automata is, since the game was the fruit of a project helmed by PlatinumGames for a franchise owned by Square Enix.

Nier: Automata takes place in a distant future in which humankind has been swept from the face of the Earth. Suddenly attacked by machines that were deployed by invading aliens, the surviving humans had no option but to flee, opting to find shelter in a base located on the Moon. They, however, did not give up on their planet completely, as to counter the extraterrestrial threat they chose to create a defense force made up of multiple android models. Gathered under the banner of Project YoRHa and operating out of a space station orbiting Earth, these artificial soldiers have been on a constant desperate struggle against the machines for many years, fighting with devotion due to the knowledge that they are somehow protecting their human creators. It is in the middle of this conflict that players are dropped, since they take control of 2B – a female android – as she and her peers fly, in an old-school shoot ‘em up style, into an abandoned factory to purge the machines that have taken residence inside it.

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Story-wise, Nier: Automata finds itself in a very curious position. It is a sequel to a 2010 role-playing game, simply called Nier, released by Square Enix and conducted by unconventional director Yoko Taro. That title itself is, in turn, an offshoot of the RPG franchise Drakengard, which was created by the same man all the way back in 2003. Naturally, this might lead newcomers to wonder just how much they should know about these other games in order to enjoy Nier: Automata. And in this sense, the answer is a bit ambivalent, because on one hand the game successfully stands on its own, especially if players go digging around for optional pieces of lore; nevertheless, it has to be said that being familiar with what happens in Nier can go a long way towards amplifying the value of the script.

The plot is, in fact, one of the biggest lures of Nier: Automata and the topic that is most often mentioned when the game is discussed. Although developed by PlatinumGames, the story feels like the kind of material Square Enix could have come up with if they were developing a more experimental type of RPG. This uniqueness, of course, comes from Yoko Taro himself, who adds his personal touch to a tale that is long, filled with twists, and supported by character arches that feel fully realized. The special ingredient coming from the hands of the director lies in the philosophical nuances of the plot, which simultaneously lie beneath the surface of the story as if waiting for those who want to think hard about what is happening on the screen while also being essential for one to truly grasp the meaning behind the script. This intriguing duality is what makes the existential struggle that is at the core of Nier: Automata frequently be referred to an example of videogames as art, as the quest skillfully embraces the ideal of showing but not telling.

If in terms of story Nier: Automata feels like the product of a Square Enix that is trying to push the envelope in relation to how much of the plot’s central message they can hide, when it comes to gameplay what materializes is exactly what one would expect out of the meeting between a company specialized in RPGs and a studio that is bent on creating flashy action. The fact the result aligns perfectly with expectations does not mean, however, that it is uninteresting; quite on the contrary, the content of Nier: Automata is alluring because it finds a middle ground that had never been hit: Square Enix had never made an RPG so thrilling in its real-time combat, and PlatinumGames had never put together an action game with so much customization.

Nier: Automata takes place in a relatively small world that has an interesting structure. A ruined city sits at its center, working as a kind of open hub but also housing plenty of major events that pave the way to grand action sequences. Meanwhile, branching out from it and not being separated by any kind of loading screen, players will encounter differently-themed areas that are designed more like the straightforward set-pieces found in a PlatinumGames project; unlocked as the adventure progresses, these settings contain generally linear paths which feature sequences of goals that need to be cleared and enemies that have to be defeated. And while heading straight for the protagonist’s main goal is certainly a possibility, gamers will usually be free to explore, talk to characters, shop for items, and do a satisfying number of sidequests, which are not too notable in the activities they entail but that do offer a decent amount of world-building.

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The fusion between Square Enix and PlatinumGames is not restricted to that overall framework, though; it happens to be even more visible in the core gameplay. On the surface, Nier: Automata firmly falls in the action genre. There are a few shoot ‘em up sequences such as the one in the opening mission here and there, but its main challenges are thrilling, fast, and decently tough battles against either hordes of enemies or gigantic mechanized foes. And to deal with these, players will have access to a good arsenal of moves: light and strong attacks that can be chained or combined with jumping to activate enjoyable combos; dodging motions that if done right can slow down time for a few seconds; and a fellow sentient hovering pod that can be used to shoot at enemies. It is worth saying that PlatinumGames has come up with more interesting combat gameplay, as Nier: Automata lacks the various dynamic moving parts seen in titles like Bayonetta, The Wonderful 101, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Compared to these, the game can feel a bit like a simplistic sequence of dodging and button-mashing. Yet, it cannot be denied that there is great satisfaction to be found in blasting various machines to pieces.

Under that layer, the RPG elements of Square Enix come into play. There are experience points, meaning that if one skips too many battles against optional foes, the chances of being under-leveled are high. There are different weapons to be found, crafted, and enhanced, which makes exploration, the gathering of materials, and the clearing of sidequests a must to those who want to make sure the androids stand a chance against the machines. The sentient hovering pods themselves can be upgraded and also have their special attack – which can be triggered from time to time with the L button – changed. Finally, and most importantly, the protagonist can be customized via the installation of chips, which occupy a certain number of slots according to how strong they are. As such, these slots, which can be expanded via the spending of a good amount of cash, can be employed to increase the android’s stats, add a few seconds to the slowdown of time that follows perfect dodges, cause healing items to be automatically used when the protagonist’s health falls below a threshold, and more.

Sadly, it has to be mentioned that the chips are tied to a particular gameplay component that feels slightly out of place. Following the trend established by Dark Souls, when the android falls they will leave their body behind, alongside the chips, before respawning. After that, players can try to reach the point of their death to either recover the goods or try to fix the machinery: if that second operation works, they will gain an ally for a a short amount of time; if it does not, they will have to defeat their resurrected remains in battle. The bottom line, though, is that if players fail to reach the corpse and recover the goods upon coming back to life, they will be lost. Truth be told, chips are not that hard to find and anyone who dedicates themselves to a bit of exploration should have multiple versions of the same upgrade. Nevertheless, the feature comes off as an annoyance that does not add much to the game.

To make matters worse, Nier: Automata is very irregular in its checkpoint placement. Sometimes, especially during epic lengthy boss battles, it will automatically send players back to the arena. Occasionally, even during those situations, it will ignore that quality-of-life feature and kick the android back to a distant point in the map. And every once in a while it will be conventional and use the last save point as the respawning spot. Besides causing some stress since it is always impossible to tell just how much progress will be lost upon defeat when a new mission is being tackled, that strange behavior might also lead to quite a trek if one wants to either give battles another shot or simply recover the chips. Consequently, it would have done the overall experience a whole lot of good if the game at least chose to stick to one of these respawning methods.

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Still, despite these punctual stumbles, the gameplay clicks in a general sense. The PlatinumGames combat turns out to be a competent core that gets enhanced by the pieces that surround it, be it the philosophical plot that has the unconventional signature of Yoko Taro or the customization options and sidequests that come straight from the Square Enix forge. The highlights of those auxiliary components, however, are the visuals, the soundtrack, and the very structure of the story, which are so important to Nier: Automata that some might even fairly argue that they are not there simply to brighten the proceedings, but are actually the most valuable part of the journey.

On the topic of visuals and sound, there is almost nothing bad that could said. Graphically, Nier: Automata goes for settings that look realistic, but in the design of its characters, especially the androids, it aims for an anime-inspired look. It is a combination that might not have gelled, but it works thanks to how everything is processed through a pale filter that underlines the dystopic nature of the world, hence giving the game a very distinctive look. The porting of this technically impressive spectacle to the Switch is not perfect, as the performance dips in battles that involve too many machines and larger scenarios display some visible pop-in; nevertheless, it is impossible not to be stunned by what was achieved. In sound, meanwhile, Nier: Automata is a triumph. Its voice acting is excellent, but it is in its music that the game breaks away from the crowd, as it features haunting, sad, grand, and flawlessly arranged tunes – some of which include vocals – that add a touching kind of fuel to pivotal scenes and even battles.

As for the structure of its story, this is where Nier: Automata performs its most daring trick. Rather than being satisfied with one ending or even a handful, as it is common in many titles, the game contains a whopping twenty-six of them. It has to be said that most of these qualify as joke conclusions: they occur when players either perform certain actions during missions or flee from the spot where they are supposed to be; furthermore, they are nothing but a black screen with text detailing what happened. Still, those looking for full completion will certainly try to unearth all of these secrets, especially because the save file lists all endings that have been reached. The real quirkiness of the structure, however, lies in five of the conclusions.

As a whole, Nier: Automata is not a single journey starring one android, but three quests featuring three different artificial protagonists. Yes, reaching the ending of 2B’s quest – which should last a little more than ten hours – will lead to an ending. Nonetheless, it will be a closure that will not truly conclude the plot and not shed a light on many of its mysteries. In order to get to the bottom of the ordeal and really wrap up the story of Nier: Automata in all of its philosophical connotations, players will have to unlock the five main endings, which involve three journeys in total. And this is both good and bad. On a positive note, it means this is a thirty-hour adventure that can extend to the fifty-hour threshold if all sidequests and extra bits of lore are chased; additionally, it is simply enjoyable to see a story told in such a unique way. On a negative note, though, it is awfully easy to wonder if this implementation was done as well as it could have been.

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The problem lies, especially, in the first two quests, featuring androids 2B and 9S. Rather than going on a standalone path, 9S is actually 2B’s partner through most of her journey, and when the game shifts control from one to the other, the plot does not move forward, but instead looks at his perspective on the events that transpired. As such, even if the second journey has a few punctual missions that are different from the first one, consequently qualifying as genuinely interesting, most of it involves playing through the same ten hours of events again but with another character.

Sure, anybody who does not appreciate repetition could just decide not to go through with it, but the third quest – starring android A2 – is the one that actually continues the story and culminates with the three most important endings. Therefore, if one wants to get to the game’s truly satisfying conclusions, they will have to essentially play 2B’s path twice. It is true that PlatinumGames tries to give some unique spice to 9S’ portion of the adventure thanks to his unique hacking ability. With it, he can defeat enemies by pressing X, entering their software, and engaging in fun bullet-hell shoot ‘em up mini-games where he has to destroy a core before a certain amount of time and without being hit three times. This same system is also used in the process of overcoming a few obstacles, such as unlocking doors and disabling systems. Yet, not only is this hardly enough, but it also impacts A2’s mission.

That is because by the time players get there, they will have already traveled the entirety of the world of Nier: Automata twice as well as engaged with its battles, hacking mini-games, and top-down shoot ‘em up sequences too many times; the latter of which could have seriously used some more enemy variety. And given A2 neither goes into new areas nor has any gameplay twists of her own, the whole experience can feel like grinding towards the end. All in all, then, it is inevitable to wonder if the title has enough meat to support the length it tries to reach. More seriously, it is easy to think the second quest could have been implemented in another way, such as by letting players do the unique missions involving 9S interspersed with those starring 2B.

Nier: Automata, then, is a bold project that does not completely land the tricks it tries to pull off. Its premise is nigh irresistible: a game that joins the flashy action of PlatinumGames, the underlying role-playing elements of a Square Enix classic, and a unique philosophical tale told through a daring structure coming from the mind of a director who is known to push the envelope. Augmented by a refreshing visual style and a historically excellent soundtrack, these variables amount to the type of package that gives fuel to the argument of videogames as art. Nier: Automata is one of the most prominent examples of that notion, because while entertaining in gameplay, it also forces its audience to engage with its layers of meaning in very intriguing ways, being a tale whose home had to be in an interactive medium. Sadly, when aiming for those heights, the title achieves its thematic ambitions at the cost of sheer fun. Therefore, it does not hit the mark entirely; but to those who will be dragged by its grasp, moved by its questions, and interested in its structural oddity, it will sure feel like the experience of a lifetime.

FINAL SCORE: 7 – VERY GOOD

8 thoughts on “Nier: Automata

  1. From what I remember of my impressions of it, I’d probably rate this one a notch or two higher, probably near or at a 9. I think the difference is I didn’t feel the drag you describe with 9S and A2’s playthroughs. There was repetition, but I thought it was kept fresh enough with 9S’s hacking ability (which I enjoyed way too much probably) and while A2 didn’t have that going for her, the story was getting to such a climax that I didn’t mind by that point. I haven’t played this game for a while, but I still put on the soundtrack on occasion along with Gestalt/Replicant.

    I’ve heard they’re making an anime adaptation of Automata sometime soon with Yoko Taro in creative control, and knowing him it won’t just be a straightforward retelling but something totally unexpected. I’m looking forward to it!

    1. Yeah, I guess when it comes to scoring I ended up going a little lower than the average here. It’s a top-notch PlatinumGames product with stunning production values (what an incredible art style and soundtrack) but 2nd and 3rd quests did drag for me a bit despite being interesting from a storytelling standpoint.

      I had no idea an anime adaptation was coming. It will focus exclusively on Automata or is there a chance there will be some Replicant stuff in there?

      1. Not sure what the anime will do, but I think it’s definitely possible — anything is at this point, since it seems they’re being quiet about it right now.

  2. I honestly didn’t get the hype or acclaim with this one. It wasn’t bad, but everyone always telling me “wait until you beat it and do the other playthroughs and it really picks up.” But that just reiterated by misgivings. If I have to beat a game twice before it “picks up” something’s wrong. I’d say a 7 is a fair score. If I ever get around to playing it to see every end, I may review it. I’d say a 6 from me personally, unless the finale is really mind-blowing. Great review, as always.

    1. Yeah, those are pretty much my feelings. Given the hype surrounding it, I expected to be blown away, but in the end that didn’t happen. The 5th ending (Ending E) is quite unique, but I am not sure it will be enough to change your perception. It certainly didn’t do that for me.

      Thanks for the comment and all the likes, by the way!

      1. Maybe one of these days I’ll get back around to it. But I have to admit, I don’t expect to “get it” like everyone else did.

        And you’re welcome! I realized I hadn’t read a lot of your recent reviews, so I rectified that. Great stuff!

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