NieR: Automata is completely out there. The work of the idiosyncratic Yoko Taro, whose vision has guided both the Drakengard series and its Nier spin-offs, the game asks questions of mortality, the nature of humanity, existentialism and what it means to take a life. Meanwhile, it’s the first entry in the series to be developed by PlatinumGames, whose expertise with action games is renowned, whose own atypical franchises like Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101 remain amongst the best examples of the genre. Nier: Automata has a lot going for it, with a unique and refreshing take on the standard JRPG narrative combined with rock-solid action gameplay. It’s also completely mental.
You take on the role of 2B, a YoRHa combat android who, along with the rest of her organisation, is tasked with taking the Earth back from the alien-created robots who now inhabit it. Mankind have been sequestered to the moon, and from here they send you on missions to the planet.
If you haven’t played the first Nier game you can leave your expectations at the door. Just like the first game, Nier: Automata cribs ideas from various genres and works them into a cohesive whole. The game’s opening couple of hour alone sees the game blending bullet hell shooters of all forms with 2D platforming and 3D hack and slash gaming. The action combat is reassuringly familiar, yet painstakingly executed, with light and heavy attacks mapped, as ever, to the Square and Triangle buttons, and the expected jump and dash moves also in place.
What is different is the addition of Pods, robotic minions that accompany you at all times in the field and are capable of being upgraded with various abilities. They provide constant ranged support with their machine gun, and while your Pod possesses a secondary powerful laser at the start of the game, you can swap it out for shields, or various other support or attack moves. Fans of the original may well recognise them as a replacement for Grimoire Weiss, and at times your robotics are capable of other similarly impressive attacks.
The original Nier was, in all fairness, an ugly game, utterly missing out on the production values that so many other Square Enix games are known for. That’s not a claim that can be levelled at Nier; Automata though, with striking cutscenes and attractive gameplay that does a great job of conveying the loneliness and separation at the heart of the narrative. There are times where it feels a little cold, and some locations could have perhaps done with a touch more life to them, but they’re always evocative and distinctive.
The game’s atmosphere is one of its biggest selling points, and visually and aurally there’s a real sense of isolation and damage, besides the beauty, life and companionship that can also exist there. There are unsettling undertones at every turn – this is a Yoko Taro game after all – and some of the imagery and themes can be quite uncomfortable, though always in service to the narrative as opposed to being purely provocative. Composers Keiichi Okabe and Keigo Hoashi have turned in a remarkable soundscape with stirring orchestrated motifs that live alongside subdued and melancholic piano pieces and the more playful and idealistic.
2B, and her companion 9S, are beautifully drawn, designed by long-term Square Enix alumni Akihiko Yoshida, and you’ll come to be deeply involved with the pair and the mystery that they’re wrapped up in. She manages not to be too overtly sexualised, barring the odd scene that’s specifically meant to quicken the pulse, and she is the epitome of a strong female character.
There are various nods to the Dark Souls series, including losing most of your equipment when you die and having to return to the same spot to retrieve it after you’ve been revived. If you’re connected online other player’s deaths are also apparent in the game world, and you can choose to pray for them, which in turn gives you the option to retrieve them, gaining a small XP boost and three random buffs, or repair them, gaining you an extra android companion to assist you in combat for a while. It can be cool to see where you’ve made it past a section where many have died, or indeed it can set you on edge as you approach somewhere littered with other player’s bodies.
There are some neat nods to the first Nier game, such as some recognisable weaponry appearing in the shop, though overall it couldn’t feel more different. The excellent production values, combined with action gameplay that comes close to the best work Platinum Games have ever done, making Nier: Automata a fantastic example of the action-JRPG. As a game with multiple endings, we’re not quite ready to give our final score, but right now it’s looking like a big success for Yoko Taro and his team that’ll please fans of the original and those of Platinum’s action-orientated output, approaching the genre-leading Bayonetta 2 for the sheer joyous carnage 2B is capable of wreaking.