NieR: Automata is the epitome of a sequel you didn’t know you needed. The original NieR was itself a spin-off to the Drakengard series, and one that, whilst gaining a cult following, certainly didn’t achieve the kinds of sales that most risk-averse publishers would consider worthy of a sequel. Yet here we are, with a second Yoko Taro-helmed NieR game, this time boasting the action-gaming heft of PlatinumGames firmly behind his uniquely dark vision.
From the outset you control 2B, a female-form combat android, who’s joined by the companionable recon unit 9S. Their interactions and journey form the framework for everything that follows, and you’ll likely become deeply engaged with their tale as you slice your way through it. While the original NieR boasted an interesting narrative, its combat and presentation left a lot to be desired, and both of these aspects have been soundly dealt with by PlatinumGames.
Combat shares a number of similarities with their Bayonetta series and Transformers Devastation, with swift, stylish and satisfying attacks combining with a system of dodges and counters that help the player to feel empowered and utterly in control. You also have a robotic companion called a Pod, who lends you their ranged support, and their standard machine gun is joined by an upgradable second ability which includes lasers, shields, or even a giant hammer with which to do some serious damage to your foe.
NieR: Automata’s upgrade system is particularly interesting, with your skills and many of your stat increases controlled by a set of plug-in chips. You have a maximum threshold to work within, which is expandable, but uniquely even your HUD elements are included in it this system. You can decide that you can live without the text log or the damage values of your attacks being shown, in order to then be able to add in an extra weapon attack increase or auto heal. You’ll likely find yourself tinkering with it fairly often, though you can have the computer do it for you if you’re looking for the path of least resistance.
In fact, those after a simpler time are surprisingly well catered for in NieR: Automata. Easy mode does more than just reduce the damage enemies can take, it also provides you with Auto Chips – though you’ll lose your enemy lock-on – and when activated the game basically does everything for you beyond simply pointing 2B at the nearest enemy. It’s a bold move, especially when Platinum games are so focussed on player skill, but it allows you to follow the involving narrative and characters instead, which could be a godsend for those with less than stellar reflexes. Again, you can choose which Auto Chips to use, so you can tailor what level of assistance you need.
With welcoming and enjoyable combat, the narrative has a lot to live up to, and it’s safe to say that this is the most cohesive and coherent piece of Yoko Taro’s work that I’ve played. Just as with the original NieR, there are multiple endings, each of which give you a different sense of the overall whole.
Across the sprawling thirty hour adventure you’ll come to a deeper understanding of a number of the characters, and the world they inhabit, though you’ll still likely come away from it with questions, as much about our world as theirs. This is a mature and evocative story that touches open the notion of self, loneliness, religion, aggression and mental illness, though to go any deeper into it would ruin Yoko Taro’s vision, as well as his dark sense of humour. It’s not standard fare, and it’s all the better for it.
The world of NieR: Automata does at least look incredibly pretty, with the interconnected areas doing a great job of conveying both the loneliness and alienation of an android’s existence, combined with the potential for new life, and for hope. The burgeoning reclamation of the cities by flora and fauna is also very well done, though at times there can just be too little life to the large areas, and while it works narratively, it can come off as being held back by the limitations of the game’s budget, or of the available processing power.
The game’s sense of freedom is actually quite limited once you come to understand the different areas, and you’ll come up against invisible barriers time and time again. There are sections where the game becomes quite linear, in so far as most games take you from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, but there were moments that I couldn’t shake the feeling of being funnelled to my designated point. Having said that, the mini-map becomes quite unwieldy once it’s stacked with a bunch of side quests, and it can look as though there’s a point of interest in every direction. You can overcome it by heading into the full map and placing waypoints, but the system would have benefitted from some clearer delineation.
While it doesn’t quite attain the visual production values of something like Uncharted 4 or Horizon: Zero Dawn, the game’s atmosphere and sense of place is helped immensely by the versatile and hugely enjoyable soundtrack. With soaring vocals, delicate piano, and stirring anthems, it’s an incredible piece of work, and one which compliments the game’s kinetic action and its more thoughtful moments.
There are some odd design decisions, and a few technical mis-steps. The latest patch that went live just prior to launch remedied some graphical glitching, but replaced them with frame-rate drops that weren’t there before in the most built up areas. The switches between viewpoints can also cause problems, whether moving from 3D to side-scrolling, or to top-down. You’ll easily lose your bearings for a moment, which in the heat of combat can be the difference between life and death. It can mean some annoying damage being taken, or jumps being missed, though thankfully the occurrences aren’t too often to become hugely troublesome.
Yoko Taro’s unique storytelling ability has matched perfectly with the committed development culture at PlatinumGames, making NieR: Automata a mature and thought-provoking action-JRPG. Its tight combat and compelling narrative sets it apart from both its predecessor and the Drakengard series, and it’s utterly essential for fans of the genre.
Version Tested: PS4