June 28, 2018
When you mix the responsive, empowering gameplay of a Platinum Games title with the uniquely messed-up vision of Nier and Drakengard’s Yoko Taro, you’re going to get something special. We just didn’t realise how special until our second playthrough of NieR: Automata - that’s when the game really starts unveiling itself to you and showing off just how nuts it really is.
If you’ve never played Nier, the only thing you need to know is that this game takes tropes from the original, but little else: Automata is set way forward in the future from the under-rated last-gen classic, so fans of the series will pick up on some small references, but otherwise you don’t need to know the series to have a good time.
This is a game absolutely brimming with surprises - from the shape of the title as a fully-fledged JRPG with grinding, sub-quests, hidden areas and more to the fact the story is one of the most heart-wrenched, mysterious and compelling we’ve played in a JRPG in ages, NieR: Automata is so much more than the trailers and the demo would have you believe.
It’s a deep, intelligent game that really wants you to think about how you play videogames, how we perceive the notion of ‘the hero’ and it goes to great pains to highlight just how weird it is that we accept the death/birth/rebirth loop of respawn mechanics in games. Yoko Taro has a lot to say, and when it comes across in a clear-eyed, unpretentious way he manages to merge videogame storytelling and mechanics in an artisanal way.
Even down to the fact there’s no auto-save system and the game makes you record progress manually… there’s an intent to that - one that deepens the game and lets you realise just how much we take certain tropes for granted.
The very base form of the plot sees you (2B) and your friend (9S) go to Earth to recon for humanity, who have fled to the moon because alien machines have overtaken Earth. That synopsis makes the game sound batshit - and it is - but wrapped up in that fancy dressing are nuggets of deep philosophical and existential thought that make for one of the most unpredictable stories we’ve played in a game in years.
Between each payload of narrative progress there’s a level to be played - the rhythm generally sees waves of robotic enemies come at you before a gnarly boss turns up. It’s a simple formula, but it’s kept interesting and addictive thanks to Platinum’s combo-based combat, a flagrant disregard for genre (one boss makes you play a twin-stick shooting mini-game if an attack hits you) and the way the game constantly changes what it wants from you.
‘Fight - no, now 2D platform jump - no, wait, now top-down bullet-hell your way out of thi-- oh, you did it. OK, well, dodge this! Kill that! Here’s 14 enemies, a bullet wave and a platforming section ALL AT ONCE! Hahaha’. We can just imagine Yoko Taro maniacally dancing behind the screen, hitting buttons and watching the chaos unfold as we frantically paw at the controller trying to keep our android alive. It’s honestly unlike anything else you’ll get on Xbox One.
The two main characters are likable, driven and ostensibly good - the way they’re acted and scripted really drives home how child-like they are in essence. 2B’s intentionally sultry appearance is dissected and unpacked throughout the game in a way; there are a lot of meta moments that tear down the fourth wall and play with you, as a player, and even 2B knocking the camera away if you try and angle the camera up her skirt plays into this.
Her sexuality is married to her attitude - 2B is very much a ‘I don’t have time for your bullshit’ character but with a deeply caring and concerned undercurrent, and as such that makes her one of the most enjoyable protagonists in the genre.
There is a remarkable level of detail when you dive deep into the game’s DNA - both from an aesthetic and mechanical point of view - and if you’re a fan of brave, modern story-telling in gaming, you owe it to yourself to pick this up.
The game only really reveals itself to you in 50% of its true form on the first play-through, meaning you’re going to want to run through it again to really nail what’s going on - the second playthrough isn’t just necessary for story, either: half the mechanics of the game are nestled deep in the latter 15 hours of the experience, so even if you couldn’t care less about 2B and 9S’ place in NieR: Automata's bizzaro sci-fi world, if you like the Platinum Games-style swordplay, you’re gonna want to dive back in. Especially if you want to collect all the game’s endings.
The generally uneasy, quite unsettling tone of the world is really driven home by the game’s OST - fans of the original Nier won’t be surprised by this, since the first title is held in high regard as one of the best JRPG soundtracks in its generation. The same could be applied here, to be honest; the OST compliments the game perfectly - the vocal tracks seem to kick in when they need to to really hit home an emotional point, the symphonic swells and nadirs activate and die off in perfect harmony with your combat, and the understated menu music is adept at keeping your brain ticking over. English voice acting is OK, Japanese is superb.
The character design and enemy aesthetic is wonderful, but you can tell there’s been a graphical trade-off in order for the devs to allow the game to run at 60FPS in an open world setting. Some textures are flat and some draw distances kinda poor, but the game performs well where it matters.
The very fact the game wants you to play it through multiple times means it has to be playable, really: the open world padding is satisfying enough and the main missions swing by with great momentum and rhythm. The various weapon combinations and Pod options means you’ll still be discovering new mechanics and combat options 30 hours in.
Aside from some graphical concerns, none of the game comes off badly - the open world is realised really well, the characters and the level of detail they share is admirable, and some of the attention that’s been put into the game is ludicrous. Try catching a mackerel and eating it, see what happens. Even that kind of delivery is wonderful.
This is a JRPG, so there’s going to be some grind. But there are a ton of cool secret achievements, too. Do be warned that there are some spoilers in the secret achievements list if you decide to look those up, but they give you an idea of the peripheral stuff you’ll need to do during your playthrough(s) to unlock them. Some really inventive rewards mixed with some more standard JRPG fare.
NieR: Automata makes some very brave choices when it comes to gameplay and direction. Platinum’s work on the combat and the bullet-hell comes off strongly and cleanly, and with Yoko Taro’s insane vision and obsession with morality and philosophy fuelling the narrative, the result is a game with a split personality that makes you fall in love with both sides. NieR: Automata is unlike anything else you can play on Xbox One - all the best bits of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta mixed into a narrative that tastes like what you’d get if Lewis Carroll wrote Ghost in the Shell. A thought-provoking, self-aware romp. Recommended.