Yoko Taro’s Drakengard on PS2 was a bit of a mess, but underneath the mounting frustration was a sign of something brilliant. The way the creative director formulates dark tales and digs into the human psyche is unlike any other on the planet. NieR, Yoko Taro’s 2010 action RPG based on the 5th ending of the original Drakengard, suffered from similar issues, like repetition and unsatisfying combat, yet it’s a game that touched a lot of people and amassed quite a cult following along the way.
It’s been nearly seven years since NieR graced the PS3 and Xbox 360. In what seems to be a continuing theme, NieR: Automata isn’t the prettiest game on the market (sometimes resembling a late-generation PS3 release) and can be a little insane at times, but there’s no denying how incredibly special it is to me. It’s a rare gem that comes along every so often and turns everything we know about video games, storytelling, genre definitions, and the emotional engagement of its players upside down.
In short, NieR: Automata is not only a worthy sequel for a game many thought would never receive one, but one of the strangest, most compelling, thought-provoking, and beautifully heart wrenching games I’ve had the pleasure of playing.
Set well after the events of the original NieR, an invasion of alien machines have since conquered Earth and forced humanity to evacuate to the moon. In an attempt to retake the planet and recon for resources that clearly aren’t available in space, humans engineered a division of battle androids called YoRHa that are frequently deployed to assist their lesser equipped fellow-android resistance fighters down on the front line.
Without humanity’s presence on Earth, the machines and androids have started to lose their focus. Androids exist to protect and serve humanity above all else, though some of them have abandoned their duties in search of freedom, family, and peace. These are foreign concepts they’ve only become aware of thanks to their human creators, which has, in turn, been picked up by the machines as well.
The machines that once banded together to purge humanity have since split into various factions. Many are still aggressive, simply following their initial computations, but others live a pacifist lifestyle, study philosophy, question their existence, or live under a monarchical regime inspired by our own history.
Despite this, YoRHa androids are still trained and programmed to exterminate machines as their primary duty–machines are evil, they’re a threat to humanity, therefore they must all be destroyed.
It’s how NieR: Automata explores the evolution of both species and the development of its cast of characters that stuck with me throughout all three of my playthroughs. The problem, then, is explaining what makes it so special without spoiling the experience as a whole.
You see, NieR: Automata is not a game meant to be played only once. Rather, the game is only beginning after the credits have rolled for the first time. Think of your initial playthrough as an extended prologue, full of character introduction and world building that lays the foundation, the bedrock, for the rest of the story.
Your first playthrough focuses on 2B, a no-nonsense female YoRHa who specializes in eliminating machines and dual-wielding various weapons. Throughout your time with NieR: Automata, you’ll also take control of 2B’s partner, a scanner YoRHa named 9S who can only use one weapon at a time, but has the ability to hack and control enemies. The final playable character is A2, who, like 2B, can dual-wield weapons, but also dash further and trigger a berserk mode for increased damage.
Developmental duties have since been given to PlatinumGames Inc., known for their stylish, over-the-top action games like Bayonetta, Vanquish, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. The Japanese studio has been hit or miss as of late, weaving in critical duds like Star Fox Zero and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan, while also recently suffering the cancellation of their most ambitious title, Scalebound, well into its development. Despite the rollercoaster of quality we’ve all been riding since 2009’s MadWorld, this was clearly the best decision.
Combat is intense, presenting itself as a ballet of timed evasive dashes, weapon combos, special abilities, and ranged fire on behalf of each YoRHa’s POD companion. Players can find, earn, and outright buy and upgrade a plethora of weapons, which range in attack speed, damage, passive bonuses, and combo durations. Larger choices, like broadswords and axes, feel weighty and destructive, while traditional katana and pugilist gloves offer speed and mobility over tactical precision.
Additional customization comes by way of plug-in chips. As androids, 2B and company have a certain amount of storage space that can be filled with plug-in chips to provide a number of helpful benefits, like increasing movement speed or evade distance, emitting a pulse of electricity on attacks, or magnetically collecting surrounding loot drops. Your initial Gatling gun-equipped POD can also be swapped out for hidden weapons, like lasers and rocket launchers, and provide you with powerful attack spells that summon massive hammers, a phalanx of spears, a protective barrier, or even a sonar that detects hidden objects and NPCs within the environment.
It’s worth noting that combat in NieR: Automata never feels as tight as Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, nor does it exhibit their depth and complexity, but it’s arguably the best feeling action RPG since Dragon’s Dogma or Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Platinum’s take on combat is far beyond passable, even bordering on great at times, but a linear action game this is not.
Automata is a post-apocalyptic open-world RPG, first and foremost. Players can freely explore the ruins of Earth, from an overgrown industrial park and a once bustling city to barren deserts and the crumbling remains of a long-forgotten coastal town. There are labyrinthine caves and a functioning amusement park that are now home to machines and androids alike. The world design excels at making it feel abandoned, due in part to sparse enemy placement and the smattering of run down makeshift camps I stumbled upon.
As an open-world RPG, the map is fairly expansive and features a ton of side-quests. Unlike most games in the genre, however, many of the NPCs providing these quests are interesting and the tidbits you learn about them in the process feel incredibly meaningful. One side-quest, in particular, didn’t even feel like a quest. I’d randomly stumble upon lonely robots questioning their purpose in a world without humans, ignoring my prod for conversation in favor of standing atop tall buildings and peering over the edge in contemplation. I protected a troupe of machines as they paraded the city in protest of violence, assisted a game developer in debugging their latest creation, and confusingly watched a swarm of unattentive machines mimic human sex acts in an attempt to start families.
When broken down, no portion of NieR: Automata’s genetic makeup carries the weight of the others. Rather, it works so well as the sum of its parts. What makes it such a standout is not solely Yoko Taro’s trademark dark humored, “pull no punches while stabbing repeatedly at your heart” storytelling. It’s not PlatinumGames’ stylistic approach to combat that they’ve seemingly mastered over the years, the way in which Automata shifts from RPG to side-scroller to bullethell, nor the studio’s newfound appreciation for the open world of role-playing games. And it’s not just one of the single greatest musical compositions in gaming’s history by way of Keiichi Okabe and Keigo Haoshi.
The way the music plays with your exploratory nature in the open world, or during a gut-wrenching cutscene, it makes you feel things; to experience a deeper connection that transcends what is shown visually on your TV. Where other developers just nonchalantly cram emotion and motive into the narrative and pray it connects, NieR: Automata drip-feeds smart writing and brilliant characterization, presenting a world that feels as sorrowful, hopeless, and depressing as the music pulsing and aching its way through your speakers. Characters are dynamic, their opinions and motivations evolving and shifting in ways that seem anything but forced.
On the surface, NieR: Automata appears to be a hack-and-slash action game with sexy looking characters and flashy, acrobatic combat. But it’s just so much more. The sudden shifts in genre expectations and storytelling, delving into the minds of machines struggling with identity and what it means to be human, fiercely connected with me as someone who struggles with emotional distress and questions the purpose of existence on a near daily basis.
I understand that asking consumers to play through your game three times in order to get the full experience is a little absurd, but there’s enough variety in NieR: Automata’s delivery that dulls the sting of repetition (the third playthrough is essentially an entirely different story).
Despite the time commitment, which only ran me ~40 hours to reach all 5 major endings; despite the dips in framerate; despite its graphical inferiority to most modern releases, I cannot recommend NieR: Automata enough. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears, as well as the mind, and one incredibly intriguing, albeit depressing tale of what it means to be human. Just the simple act of existence can be painful.
For the glory of mankind.
So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PS4 copy of NieR: Automata that I purchased myself. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for a game is irrelevant.