Two years ago, the cynic in me would not have believed this game existed. Nier didn’t sell well, Drakengard 3 was a mess, and all these IP’s and resources are under the control of Square-Enix, a company that complained games that sold over a million copies did not sell enough for their liking. But due to a series of events I won’t get into, including the involvement of Platinum Games, Square-Enix gave their blessing for this game to happen.
It is important to be aware of one’s biases when reviewing games, and I think it will be no surprise to any long time reader of the site that I am a Yoko Taro fan. I have played all of the games he has put out on console, which doesn’t sound like much of a feat as there are only three of them. But it is, because the gameplay of his previous games fluctuated from “Oh my god I can’t believe I got the true ending for this” to “I don’t recall it being THAT bad.” Because of this lack of quality on how his games play and perform, Yoko Taro has not reached the top echelons of the video game auteur that some of his contemporaries like Hideo Kojima, or Hideki Kamiya have reached. Rather, he seems to languish closer to the David Cage and Peter Molyneaux end of the spectrum. But with the release of NieR: Automata, his star might finally rise; his unique design sensibility has finally found a game with amazing gameplay.
The year is eleven… thousand… something. Aliens have invaded the Earth by sending an army of machines. Whatever remaining humans were left after the first game fled to the moon, sending impressively lifelike human-like androids to do the fighting for them in turn. Our main characters are battle android 2B and scouting/hacking unit 9S. They are member of YorHa, and android army that operates from an orbiting space station, and we join them as they undertake a mission to take a mission critical factory that will allow the androids to finally go on the offensive. Like most Yoko Taro games, the plot has many twists and turns. Some are obvious and others aren’t. But this endless war is not really what the game is about. It is merely a vehicle to get closer to the world and the characters, and to present the themes that the game talks about. These themes are the usual android fare, with realizing both androids and machines behave suspiciously human like. It also pulls off some surprises that are very common for its auteur director, many of which come from other games. I won’t spoil them but they are likely to surprise new comers, and be a nice reference for fans.
The gameplay in NieR: Automata cycles through different styles. There are Galaga style bullet hell sections where the player takes over a flying unit and tries to make it through the gauntlet of enemies. This mode will have you shooting at foes that attack you with these big, red bullets, some which are destructible, and some which are not. There a few more tools at the player’s disposal. There is a dodge roll that grants a few invisibility frames to get out sticky situations. There is also a rechargeable attack that sends a devastating volley of missiles into enemy ranks. Occasionally it also changes from a ship to a mech, which includes the ability to change direction and use a heavy slash attack to deal heavy damage to enemies. By contrast, the hacking mode is a real, and far more challenging bullet hell shooter. During the hacking segments, the player is placed in a barren, unique interface and represented only as a cursor. Enemies and other key pieces are simple geometric shapes. These sections are fast, with faster bullets and no other real tools other than the bullets you can shoot, and a time limit given to complete the objective . After a point in the game, just about any enemy can be hacked. Most enemies have a simple mini-game where you have to shoot down one target in a small room in a couple of seconds. However, bigger enemies, some locks, and other story based hacks are far more complex, with multi room lay outs and far more enemies that make it really feel like a classic bullet hell shooter.
The real focus of the gameplay is in the third person action combat, which is what one would expect from Platinum Games; Fast, fluid, and responsive. There are several characters in the game, and they handle differently. More combo focused characters typically equip two different weapons, one for light attacks, and another one for heavy attacks. As expected, light attacks are faster, but don’t do as much damage. Heavy attacks have far more wind up, but they pack a punch. Combining them into combos is intuitive and satisfying. Characters that are more focused on hacking have only a light attack, and the heavy attack is replaced by a hacking meter that starts the minigame after a few attempts have been landed successfully. All characters also have an evade button. In true Platinum Games fashion, a regular evasion will let you dodge the attack, but if you time it correctly so that you dodge just as the attack is landing, you will get a special dodge that will let you unleash a powerful counter attack. This is a great system becasue you can finish the game without necessarily knowing how to use dodge properly, but not only does it feel great when you do, it can help elevate your game and take on far more dangerous foes, as well as make runs in a higher difficulty level viable.
Each character also has pods, which are the small boxes that fly by their side. These pods have a primary attack, initially a machine gun that fires fast bullets that do small amounts of damage, though more can be found later, and also secondary programs. These programs can have several uses and can be changed depending on the situation. As the player acquires more pods, each of them can be equipped with a different pod program. This allows you to dynamically switch between pods and their programs as needed depending on the combat or exploration situation, as some programs are geared towards navigation.
NieR: Automata also features a wide arrange of weapons, all of which have their own move set. They fall into four broad categories; small swords, large swords, spears, and bracers. Each category shares some similarities, and part of the same move set, though there are different moves for different weapons. If you like a particular weapon, you have the option to upgrade it. There are four levels to upgrade, and in the first three levels their stats will go up, as well as reveal a part of the surprisingly well written stories each of the weapons have. At the final level of each weapon they each gain a special trait. It can be an elemental attack, or an improved dodge. It all depends on the weapon. Players can equip two sets of two weapons at once, and change on the fly during combat, which again works to be more adaptable to different situations. Between this and the pods, every player should find some combination that works for them.
While the game does feature Platinum Games’ signature combat, it is also an RPG, and taking full advantage of the android theme surrounding the characters it takes of what most games call equipment with the use of chip sets. Chips drop from enemies or are often in chests. There is a large variety of them, with a lot of of effects. Some of them are straight forward, such as increasing the character’s HP, or the damage their weapons make. Others, have effects such as getting some HP back when an enemy is killed, auto healing, or increasing certain effects. In easy mode, you can even purchase chips to even auto aim, dodge or attack if the game is too hard. Chips can be sold, and combined to make more powerful chips, which are very valuable if you want to specialize in a specific playstyle. There are a limited number of slots for chips, and more powerful chips take a larger number of slots. The question becomes whether to use a smaller number of more powerful chips, or have a larger number of capabilities that are not as powerful. As the game goes on, the player can buy additional slots. Craftier players will also notice that many of the HUD functions are tied to chips, and as the game allows for multiple chip sets to be created.
The chip sets sheds light on some problems the game has. They are clearly balanced for the harder difficulties of the game. In normal the game is a breeze once the right chip set is discovered, but hard is no joke. Even the introductory tutorial section can very easily kill the player. And as there are no save points in the tutorial, this means restarting the game from the beginning. There doesn’t seem to be a middle point in the game. It either becomes to easy, or it is very tough. Never the less, using the chip system correctly also allows you to punch above your level. NieR: Automata does have a leveling system, and those levels do matter quite a bit when it comes to calculating how hard your characters it, how effective their attacks are and now much punishment they can take. Initially I was a bit disappointed that it seemed that level locks what the player can accomplish. But it quickly became evident that proper management of the game’s systems: Chips, weapons, and pods. It rewards careful attention and mastery of these systems.
To call NieR: Automata an open world game is not entirely accurate. Rather, it has a few interconnected hubs where the game takes place. There are a few distinct areas, all which are interesting and fairly different in their own right. They game is filled with invisible walls holding the player in where the developer wants them. While they do use this as a way to include interesting secrets and alternate route through levels with the obvious intention of rewarding player exploration, I found them restrictive. In a way it discourages exploration, as frustration mounts when you are trying to get somewhere and are stopped from making jumps you should be able to by an invisible wall. There are also often holes in some of the walls in the game that are also invisible walls, though that’s not the case for all of them. It makes navigation into essentially a trial and error affair, and one has to wonder why they would bother to spend the assets to make holes that they player can’t access, when just making a solid wall, tree, etc… would have probably worked better and been less work.
The map is somewhat small, especially when compared with other RPG’s, but I found that the game uses that space well. It is not afraid to change it as the game goes on, and it reuses it quite nicely, often playing off of the familiarity to make plot points more obvious and dramatic, or to set up ambushes or other game play surprises. This does lessen the feeling of repetition as you are required to traverse the over world, but during my first playthrough I started to feel some weariness. However, as I played the game through subsequent playthroughs, I realized that the clever use of space on an otherwise limited maps works very well with the structure of the game. NieR: Automata has 26 endings, five of which make up the main story line of the game. Having the world be of a smaller scale than normal, but at the same time using the space cleverly keeps it from becoming a chore to navigate through subsequent play through. If this game was the same size as most RPG’s out these days, I doubt many players would feel the inclination to finish it. It helps that the enemies change as the story goes on, allowing for traversal to simultaneously take advantage of the combat system.
As enjoyable as the game is, there were a few things that bothered me, though they aren’t very big. The game does switch often to a fixed camera angle, and the devs love putting enemies right outside of your vision to attack you from off screen, usually with ranged attacks. This can feel cheap in a game that is otherwise fairly well balanced. In general the sidequests and main quests are great, they add a lot to the world building. However there are a few lazy side quests that feel that are just made to pad the length of the game. They are not many, but they do stick out when you get them. Speaking of padding, if you decide that you want to upgrade all of your equipment, be prepared to kill a lot of enemies. Some of the components have a low drop rate, and are hard to get, and in order to level everything up you will need to get a lot of these components. There are compelling reasons I won’t go into to want to upgrade your weapons. Bosses are generally good, but a lot of the fights seem to end with the oponent running away, telling you how hopeless you are after you kicked their butt, which can be something of an anticlimax. Finally, there doesn’t seem to be a good balance in the difficulty of the game. It is almost a breeze in Normal, however, I can see many people starting it on hard and then dialing back the difficulty as they fail to clear the tutorial on hard after many attempts. A shame, because once that hurdle is cleared, I feel that is the way the game was meant to be played. By having to take advantage of its systems with a small margin of error, to experience the thrill of the battle.
Despite these issues, it feels good to recommend NieR: Automata to just about anyone. The experience of Yoko Taro’s strange idiosyncrasies, and the themes and ideas he brings into his games, informed by a different world view than many other game directors, make for an experience that you probably cannot find anywhere else. And this time around, the gameplay can actually stand alongside the narrative of the game! Platinum is a developer that I feel needed a win badly, after having a bad couple of years that saw the release of the Legend of Korra, Star Fox, and TMNT, and the high profile cancellation of Scalebound. NieR: Automata brings out the gameplay that Platinum is famous for, in some of its best combat. But it does new things for the developer as well. If you are looking for a solid action game, a good RPG, or just a different experience than what is usually offered by these games, I recommend you go ahead and pick NieR up.