Title: Nier: Automata
Alternative Title: Nier 2, Nier: New Project
Developers: Platinum Games
Publishers: Square Enix
Genre: Action-role playing, Hack n’ slash
Engine: Platinum’s in-house game engine
Format: PS4 (reviewed), PC
Release: March 7, 2017
Nier: Automata is the sequel nobody expected to get.
Developed by Platinum Games due to their sheer love to the 2010 cult original, Nier‘s director and main writer Yoko Taro led the team to finally make a game that could handle his ideas.
Automata was seen as a big surprise and a huge gambit to both Platinum Games – who were in a decline after couple of mediocre titles – and Taro – whose games have received noticeable cult following, but where always criticized for poor gameplay and sold moderately.
Following the cancellation of Platinum’s other big title Scalebound, I was very worried for Automata, especially when it was Platinum’s first open world and RPG game.
I can only say that I was a little ashamed that I put my doubt on Taro and Platinum’s fruitful collaboration.
Story & Setting
The story of Nier: Automata takes place thousands of years after the events of the original Nier and is, for the most part, a stand-alone game. Aliens have invaded Earth and after centuries of battles mankind was driven away to live on the surface of the moon, from which they send battle androids against the aliens and their army – a legion of mechanical beings known as the “machine lifeforms” (so damn original, I know). This series of wars eventually culminate with the creation of the YoRHa project whose aim was to create stronger and more powerful combat androids to battle the machine threat.
Using this backdrop, the main plot of Automata follows YoRHa battle android 2B and her Scanner companion 9S on a mission to defeat much larger machine lifeforms known as “Goliath-class” machines and provide support for the local Resistance movement led by older androids. But what starts as a simple mission quickly grows into something darker and far more sinister…
Nier: Automata starts off rather deceptively with a very straightforward and simple infiltration mission to an abandoned factory controlled by the machines, during which we are introduced to 2B, 9S and their occupying pods.
This opening hour of Automata serves as mere example to the YoRHa’s battle against the machines and following that Automata takes a couple hours more to explain the current state of the decaying earth, investigate the warring forces, and explore landmarks across the setting.
The first time one plays Automata they are treated to a somewhat short but nevertheless intriguing story seemingly dealing with machines warring against one another as our main protagonists understand that there is far more into their enemies than just metal cores and wires.
It’s a good, enjoyable story, but nothing too outstanding or special.
Not on the first playthrough, at least.
Nier: Automata has – I am sure you’ve already heard it more than once – a rather ‘special’ approach to the idea of storytelling in video games, and simply beating it once is not enough to uncover it in its entirety.
It’s a game that toys with the various concepts of multiple endings, New Game+ playthroughs, character perspective, forth wall breaking and plot twists.
As players finish the game again and again they slowly but surely discover more pieces to the puzzles, with shocking plot twists, additional scenes, backstory information and new elements that change Automata’s world upside down without any warning beforehand.
Scenes that may have implied one thing get a whole new meaning as the story unfolds with some disturbing and heart-wrenching revelations that keep twisting Neir’s narrative and the roles of its protagonists within it.
A lot of characters have their secret and most private sides unearthed and new motivations and agendas are followed by unexpected grand revelations about their true nature, and by the end of the tale players might question everything related to the game.
It makes progressing the game that much more rewarding and intriguing, with the promises of more puzzle pieces to gather and build the whole picture rather than just completing the game once and moving on with your life.
It may tire some players, but Taro’s piece is something that could only work to its full potential as a video game and it shows, with an admittedly creative take on the medium that few games manage to capture, and even fewer to the level of Automata.
In total there are five main endings that the game requires to unlock one after another in addition of twenty one more “joke” endings that make fun of the “multiple endings” concept.
It’s weird to talk about how the story is told without actually touching on the real meat of the narrative, but knowing about Automata’s unique pacing and approach is a principal aspect to fully appreciate Taro’s script.
Automata is a story about the well-known theme of humanity; it delves deep into what humanity was, about its achievements and falls, about emotions and their role in life, and about the culture and society of the one dominant species on earth.
It is certainly nothing new in fiction to talk about, but Automata steps further by presenting the effects of humanity’s downfall on its mechanical cast of androids and machines.
Automata’s main cast of characters features no actual human beings.
Instead, the majority of the cast deals with the idea of being human; for the androids, they see humanity as its gods, and forbid themselves from showing emotions so they won’t fail their organic creators. This, however, does not stop some of them from developing relationships or even defect.
The machines, on the other hand, fully embrace the idea of a human-like society, and begin to imitate and express feelings while also living in groups and building nations. Many of them decide to give up on the war, build themselves villages and “kingdoms,” develop interest in politics and religion, and altogether live away from their original programming.
The game spends a long discussing on humanity’s ups and downs with characters slowly letting themselves to live as more ‘free’ beings with actual conscience and decisions rather than puppets of other factions. It praises free will and determination, but at the same time shoots much criticism at violence and hatred.
Automata could just throw some philosophical quotes and debates concerning Nietzsche and just be done with it to look smart, but Taro shows a much more sophisticated understanding to such elements and goes all the way to dig deep into uncomfortable territories to answer disturbing questions.
Were humans good creatures? Were they bastards? Are their emotions a strength or a weakness? Were they really all about violence? Or they actually into building life? Are androids and machines rightful to live the way humanity lived?
Automata boldly asks the questions most games would just like to touch upon with kid gloves or make sarcastic comments about, and has no problem answering some of them on its own, but at the same time the game asks the player what their stand is, and whether or not they agree.
Characters deal with their inner demons, good intentions quickly get punished in horrific ways (you will see just how bad…), simple curiosity grows out of control and violence continues up to eleven. But with all the dread 2B and her allies have to face throughout the game, Automata keeps giving optimistic cues that things can get better and people can learn from their mistakes.
Alongside the lighter and hopeful undertones going with the generally dark story is a quiet bizarre sense of humor and amusingly snarky remarks coupled with the lead protagonists’ sarcastic lines. 2B’s annoyed responses to her pod’s “captain obvious” comments are simple gold.
It’s a fascinating and complex narrative with a slew of genuinely intriguing themes such as mortality and fate, but at times Taro’s work can grow exhaustively convoluted and confusing.
Several plot twists, backstories and ultimately some of the key driving forces of the entire narrative fall apart when placed under keen eye and observation.
Others either make almost no sense at all or feel genuinely redundant, and I have no doubt some of the revelations near-end of the game – like the origins of Project YoRha – would make people scratch their heads amidst the thick and sometimes impenetrable narrative.
The reasoning behind 2B and 9S working together, its role in the grander scheme of things, the machines’ leadership, etcetera. All those plot points get intriguing and jaw-dropping twists to them that are interesting and captivating at first glance, but stumble upon further observation.
The final phase of the game is particularly guilty of this, with more and more plot twists and elements are being discovered in a rapid pace and the main villains finally put their cards on the desk – it’s getting increasingly hard to talk about the game’s story issues without getting too much into the heavy spoiler territory at this point, but it’s even harder to ignore them.
To Taro’s credit, however, he still nails a pretty impressive, bittersweet finale to his work, and without revealing too much about it – it is probably the most optimistic ending he has ever conceived. And one that constantly encourages the player to not give up.
In the end, despite some glaring Deus Ex Machina moments and confusing twists, Automata still features a deep, complex story about human emotions with unique methods and pacing, and I can assure most people will come out of this game pondering its questions themselves.
And I really liked it, especially the ending, which is so bittersweet yet heartwarming. Huh, talk about “earn your happy ending”…
Gameplay & Design
If there was one part where both the Drakengard trilogy and Nier were often accused to have fallen apart, it’s the gameplay. Most referred to the games as poorly designed, overly simplified or extremely repetitive. Despite this, it was hard not to notice the experimental nature of the games.
Well, fear not, gamers, for Platinum Games has entered the stage as main developer on Automata, and it shows.
While I wouldn’t exactly call it Platinum’s best work to date – that title still belongs to the Bayonetta franchise – the core battle system of Automata is a joy to experience, with fluid attacks and responsive controls to power up the elegantly brutal combat.
Players initially take control over 2B who is armed with two weapons whom she uses for both – beautifully animated – light and heavy attacks, and players can experiment and switch between various weapons and weapon loadouts to perform new and potentially stronger combos.
It can be surprising how fluid and consistent combat can become, with vivid animations and an unbreakable sense of flow. As it is with most Platinum games, dodging often takes a major role during the action and rewards players with swift leaping and deadly counterattacks.
Weapons themselves come in many sizes and shapes – from smaller swords and katanas to longswords, spears and axes, each one being upgradable to cause even more damage while also uncovering a piece of its history which, while not adding much gameplay-wise, gives much personality and identity to Automata’s arsenal.
Alongside her short-ranged weaponry, 2B can also use her trusted (if somewhat meddling) pod bot to shoot turrets and stall against the many enemy waves, with upgrades available to increase its damage prowess and attack variety.
Outside of the core combat system, Automata follows its predecessors’ routine with always-changing genres, toying and experimenting with new ideas and concepts.
This ranges from twin-stick shooter sections, 2.5D side-scrolling and, of course, bullet hell segments – nearly all of them done wonderfully thanks to tight controls and clever camera shifts.
Whenever the game shifts its style from the usual hack n’ slash gameplay, Automata packs stylish and well-designed encounters that are both creative and challenging with bizarre and flexible attack patterns that require quick thinking and well-timed maneuvering.
Automata’s ever-changing gameplay keeps things from growing too stale or repetitive, with Taro and Platinum delivering increasingly complex and smart genre shifting with much success in making the game feel very familiar but still new and different.
If there is something to be held against Automata’s genre shifting is that sometimes Taro just does not know when to end certain sections, and players may get tired of increasing frequency of bullet hell moments and shoot ‘em up segments.
A certain (fish-like) boss is fought mostly from the aforementioned perspective and can be living hell when played on higher difficulty thanks to its absurd amounts of mooks, to the point of becoming jarringly exhausting, and that’s only one example.
That boss aside, where the action and camera shifting show their full potential is during the boss fights; Automata is pleased to continue Platinum’s insane tradition of showcasing some incredibly creative and fun bosses that take Nier’s action up to eleven.
Boss fights constantly play with and toy with the game’s mechanics in ways that match up some infamous Metal Gear and Undertale fights and encourage players to be sharp and swift with their grandiose and unexpected strikes. Boss fights like the notorious Opera Singer from Automata’s trailers change perspectives and escalate the battle to ridiculous points and so much can happen on the screen at the time.
A lot of them also boast some surprisingly strong emotional impact to their battles and that feeling is also shared with multiple lesser enemies 2B and 9S may encounter.
Later on hacking makes its ways into gameplay, with a rather short but intense bullet hell-like action as players need to break the machines’ defenses.
Hacking starts off as a somewhat easy alternative for the usual combat but quickly becomes more and more complex as stronger enemies show their faces, with players being encouraged to solve their patterns before time dies out.
Due to the focus of hacking later on, the action may become frustrating and repetitive as time goes on, and the reliance over the practice hampers the enjoyment gathered from it.
I would have rather recommended Platinum and Taro to make hacking an equally relied with traditional combat (which feels rather limited when hacking becomes a full-on course of action at that point) rather than heavily advising the former, but this is far from a deal breaker.
Back to enemies, many of them tend to telegraph their actions rather obviously with unique animations but despite this they pose a noticeable threat and their attacks can cause some serious damage to players if one fails to evade them.
Their appropriately clunky and mechanical movements hide vicious attacks and neat strategies to stall and take down our pair of androids even though the majority of them can be fend off with relative ease should players reach the necessary level.
For an action RPG, Nier is mostly standard fare, with level systems, item management and ability upgrades that blend very well as operational systems within the androids. Due to the limited space available, upgrading can become quite intriguing and it is best advised to think before adding new, larger chips.
You also have an OS chip that will kill you should you remove it. Why? Because why not.
While sometimes the genre switching and hacking feel a little too much, Nier: Automata’s open world may be one of the game’s biggest issues.
While it is – quite admirably – intricately designed Souls-style and packed with many secrets and easter eggs, I can’t help but feel that the entire space just feels so empty and lifeless.
One may say that this is in tone with the game’s story, but it still makes for a rather poor open-ended area with little meaningful and meaty stuff to do in there.
Not to mention the surprisingly large quantity of invisible walls.
I might even call it overall unnecessary and that it just muddles with the game’s pacing. The majority of the land is covered with bland locations and somewhat boring quests.
Side quests often boil down to mere fetch quests, and while the stories behind them are surprisingly either touching or amusing in their execution, they mostly tell the player to slaughter a few machines, find some new item or just escort someone that are nowhere as memorable or fleshed out as the main missions.
A muddled open world aside, Automata has quite the tasty meat on it, and the main narrative alone may take some good 30+ hours to complete, alongside a dozen more to finish up side content and unlock over 20, silly joke endings the game has to offer.
Also, you can bloody fish here, so there’s that.
Square Enix really loves ‘em fishing…
Visuals & Sound
I am going to break my usual tradition of first talking about the game’s graphics and then talk about the sound department and do it in reverse to start with the sound first, specifically the music.
It is no secret that Nier 2010’s strongest point was – beside the story – its music. And Automata definitely doesn’t disappoint with its glorious soundtrack.
There is an appropriate melancholic and mysterious aura surrounding Automata’s music, and even the more action-oriented pieces possess this attitude alongside their more intense style and progression.
It’s amazing just how well the music compliments the game while retaining much of its identity and presence. It is epic, intense, heartfelt and sometimes even bizarre – with boss themes taking the cake as they continue. Each offers a unique sound and style, but despite the variety they all feel connected.
Also, did you know a lot of the vocals (if not all of them) are using a made-up language?
Continuing with the sound department, as far as localization of Japanese games goes, the voice acting is really among the best. The cast provides a wide range of reactions and emotions with a gentle balance between subtlety and over the-top deliveries. Kira Buckland (2B) and Kyle MacCarley (9S) contrast each other believably as the lead protagonists and the majority of the (admittedly small) cast often hits the bull’s eye.
And special mention goes to Ray Chase as Eve who has vastly improved his acting abilities since Final Fantasy XV, and I really mean it. He nailed it here as a crazed but fun manchild with some great emotional turn.
As for the visuals… They are serviceable.
Graphical strength was never Platinum’s specialty and while they game isn’t exactly ugly I would say it’s subpar in comparison to other games of its age such as Horizon: Zero Dawn or Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Environments are bland and some suffer from several texture pop-ups while the general colors of the game world feel washed out and faded.
On one hand, it makes for a rather unimpressive environment, while on the other hand it goes brilliantly with the game’s setting of a post-apocalyptic earth. But I wouldn’t mind a little more color to its cheeks, and save for the carnival level, most levels are rather forgettable with their design.
Character animations deserve some notice for how beautifully and elegantly executed they are, and even some enemy animations can be jaw-dropping thanks to their level of detail.
After spending much time playing Nier: Automata and thinking about it constantly for weeks, I can safely say that Automata is a game for ages. While I may have some glaring issues with the way Taro sometimes decided to unfold his story, Automata features a unique style of storytelling that finally masters the style Taro has employed in his game for over a decade.
Its empty open world aside, Automata is also a sheer joy to play, with a slick combat worthy of the name Platinum and a genuinely brilliant mixture of genres that often feels spot on and keeps the action engaging and memorable. It may sometimes last more than it needs to, but Automata‘s hybrid gameplay is like nothing you’ve seen in recent AAA games.
Nier: Automata is the type of game that every self-respecting should play; it may not be a flawless masterpiece, but this game is certainly one-of-a-kind experience and unique design should be seen and played to be believed. Not to mention its thought-provoking story that despite its confusing content sometimes – is more than worthy the term “thought-provoking.”
To summarize it, Nier is great. Play it.
For my alternate recommendations I present you with my now-usual two choices:
- My first recommendation is a rather obvious one: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Aside from being from the same developer and serving as an actionized sequel to its own series, Rising also boasts a fast, fluid action and explores similar themes to Automata, although… To a much lesser extent as it doesn’t focus on story that much. However, if you liked Automata, you might also like Rising. It’s available on both the PS3 and X360 consoles, while there is also a rather decent port to the PC, so pick whichever version you can.
- My second recommendation is Horizon: Zero Dawn, which came out a couple weeks before Automata, but deals with a surprising amount of similar themes including a post-apocalyptic world left by remnants of humanity. I also recommend Horizon because I feel it has a done a better job at presenting its open world than Automata did, considering both games were inspired by similar origins.
- A unique approach to storytelling achieved only as a video game, alongside a deep, complex narrative that really makes you stop and think about its themes and ideas
- While not Platinum’s best, the combat system is slick and stylish and the mixture between the usual hack n’ slash gameplay with other genres keeps things fresh
- Glorious soundtrack and strong vocal performances
- Story can get increasingly confusing and impenetrable as more revelations are being unfold, some feel very redundant when diving into them
- Overall, the open world feels empty and limited in its content, while side quests boil down to mere fetch quests and the like
- Genre shift sometimes last for a little too much
& The Ugly:
- Okay, why isn’t Platinum Games’ name on the cover box?!