Review: NieR: Automata

NieR: Automata is the perfect example as to why I don’t like to use scores in my reviews. It’s the kind of game that is so original in its intent, and some of the tactics that are employed are likely to be so polarising, that it’s virtually impossible to be able to justify an objective approach. For me, NieR: Automata is a very strong contender for Game of the Year, and may even make a spot on the coveted “Greg’s favourite games of all time” list – and yet I know that it’s absolutely not for everyone, and is imperfect in many ways (most of which are likely deliberate on the part of the designer, to be fair).

NieR: Automata is the sequel. of sorts, to NieR (itself a sequel, of sorts, to Drakengard), but it’s set so far into the future that any knowledge of the prior titles isn’t required (I never played either, but I don’t feel this has impacted my experience in any way). In brief, you play the part of Android special forces who are deployed to Earth in order to battle the robot army that forced humans to vacate the planet thousands of years prior (*takes  breath*). A somewhat simple premise (further complicated by the fact that the robot army was created by a bunch of menacing aliens) with tenous emotional ties for the modern human, I was initially unsure how to feel in regards to the protagonists and the strange world into which they are thrown.

In fact, I was initially unsure how to feel in regards to the game as a whole. Things kick off with a kind of prologue, which exposes the player to different aspects of the core gameplay. Initially a top-down shooter, then a third-person mech fighter, later a third-person action adventure, side-scrolling platformer, bullet hell shooter – the list goes on. The game allows for this flow very deliberately via clever use of the in-game camera, so the action moves seamlessly from one genre to another, never getting in the way of what had come before and always feeling quite natural. All of this leads up to a grand battle with a very large boss.

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However, there are no save points at this stage of the game, so death will put you right back to the start. While this is frustrating (the whole sequence takes around 45 minutes), it makes sense – you really need to get your head around the battle mechanics and health management before entering into the game proper, and this forces you to do so. It’s also likely somewhat of a dark joke implemented by the game’s designer, Yoko Taro – and beware, the game is full of them.

Once you do succeed, however (and you may well do so on your first try, it’s not that difficult), the game switches to somewhat of an open-world RPG, and for the next 4 or 5 hours of play, I was confused as to what I’d gotten in to – as an open-world, it has it’s limitations, you see (I’ll get into those shortly). It’s also somewhat drab, and there is no genre switching in these open-world sections, so I guess I felt a little lost in comparison to the impressive prologue mission. What was I doing in this game? Where were those jaw-dropping genre-switches and titanic bosses that I initially encountered, and why were things suddenly moving so slowly?

But boy, am I glad I endured. Again, I often feel that certain aspects of the game design are very specifically implemented so as to fit in with the very themes of the title. Without giving too much away, I would suggest these are (at times): helplessness, melancholy, frustration, naivety, innocence, complacency, and – wait for it – existentialism. These themes come up not only within the narrative itself, but are also forced on players during the course of the game itself. This can lead to a rollercoaster of emotions, not the least of which being anger in certain situations counterbalanced by exhilaration on achieving success, but most surprisingly, a great deal of introspection.

Where do I go from here? How do I describe a game that is simply so different from everything else that has come before it (except perhaps, it’s predecessors)? I guess I’ll start by covering those areas where it’s NOT so different…

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Much of the game plays out within the open-world map. Here, players are free to roam about, either following the main storyline, or seeking sidequests to fulfill in order to gather more resources. The map itself has a few distinct regions (a desert area, a flooded city, a forest, an amusement park, an underground area, and the city itself), but it isn’t a large map overall, and it’s not really all that open, to be honest. In fact, the map changes given certain situations in the storyline – but the changes aren’t really all that major.

Spread throughout these areas are machines that look very much like vending machines, but are, in fact, much more. You will use these initially to save your game (something I recommend you do EVERY TIME YOU SEE ONE), and can later transport between them (among other functions). This fast travel makes moving about the environment easier, at times, but frustratingly is not always an option, for various reasons.

Activating one of these “vending machines” will also clarify the local area somewhat on your map, but don’t expect your map to be a very detailed tool. In fact, it seems to be there to guide players only – it’s highly pixelated and very much lacking in detail, so it’s really only useful to determine which direction you should head in. Quest and story markers also are often just either dots on the map, or large highlighted areas, indicating that the thing you seek is… somewhere around here (but sometimes underground, or not where you might immediately expect).

The gameplay loop is simple  – choose a quest, find the destination, go there. Along the way you’ll battle enemy robots, and if you’ve chosen a story quest, the story will proceed. Story sections tend to include genre-switching sections, whereas sidequests do not.

Battle, while quite straightforward, takes some getting used to. There is a light and heavy attack, and a specific weapon can be assigned to each attack (if you like, you can use the same weapon for both). There is some variety in weapons, and each can increase in level (and comes with their own story to boot!), but once I found a combination I liked, I found myself sticking with it. You can create two loadouts, but even then I  found I still stuck with the weapons I liked…

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You also have a small flying pod following you around, which is used for ranged attacks, among other things (it shoots projectiles). It also has a special function, which recharges after use, and over the course of the game you can upgrade your pod, and discover/switch out special functions (heavy laser versus melee shield, for example). Throw in a jump and evade button, and you have quite a complex set of commands that, in practice, can lead to very enjoyable battles.

In regards to the character design, I was at first puzzled by the robot enemies. Their design is very simple – globes for heads, cylinders for bodies, and so on – and I kind of felt that perhaps they were too cute or simple for a game of this type. However, the robots themselves are very unintelligent/childlike (for the most part), so it became evident to me over the course of the game that the design perfectly embodies their behaviour. Of course, there’s a lot more to the game than just these simple characters, and some of the designs are simply gorgeous, but I must admit it was off-putting at first.

The story itself contains plenty of Japanese quirkiness to it, and to be honest I’d rather not spoil anything, but suffice it to say that a great deal of laughter was had – and sadness in equal measure. It’s a dark comedy, and touches on so many different facets of human nature (yeah, go figure) that at times I was taken aback. Sometimes touching, and other times incredibly sad…

Equally haunting is the soundtrack. Slow and melodious, sometimes melancholy, sometimes hopeful, NieR: Automata contains some of the best music I’ve heard in a videogame. In fact, I can say that this is the first game I’ve played in which I feel absolutely COMPELLED to seek out the soundtrack. Gorgeous.

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Now… all of this sounds very much like a regular old videogame, you might say. In many ways it is, but it’s the way in which the game plays out that is mind-blowing – and I’m not just referring to the genre-switching here. Not an hour went by during my playtime in which I didn’t voice my surprise at something that occurred. Something to do with the writing. Something in regards to the character design. Something those crazy robots did. Something that happens in the story that just BLOWS MY MIND.

And it’s here that NieR: Automata shines. If, like me, you ignore most of the side quests, and fight your way to the final struggle with the “final” boss (and struggle you will if you are under-leveled like I was), you’ll reach the first ending in around 10-12 hours.

Note I said first ending. Now this is where I need to be careful – I don’t want to give too much away, but the concept is so different that it needs to be carefully explained less it be misunderstood. On completing the game initially, you are prompted to start again, but don’t get this confused with the “New Game+” that can be found on any other game of this type. No, in NieR: Automata, you are actually starting a new game. In fact, the WHOLE game, with all of the core story, is probably somewhere in the realm of 30-40 hours long, depending on how much grinding you do. At minimum, in order to see all of this core content, you need to complete the game at least 3 times, representing 5 different endings (again, to explain this better would be to spoil how it all works). On top of that, there are more than 20 other endings, most of which are awarded for silly deaths (for example, one ending is awarded for dying in the initial prologue).

However, all of that said – you will rarely repeat anything during these sessions, and things will happen in subsequent playthroughs that will explain things that happened in prior ones – sometimes even as simple as explaining why a robot is behaving in a certain way (in great detail). New characters will be introduced, core story ideas will be deconstructed, and the very idea you had in regards to the nature of the game will be flipped on its head almost entirely by the time you finish the game.

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And I haven’t even mentioned the upgrade system yet! In many RPGs, players will come across armour and weapons within the world, and it’s the armour and weapon perks that upgrade their character – they might find a fire sword that deals fire damage, for example, or some powerful boots that boost speed. Here, leveraging the fact that the protagonists are Androids, players come across plug-in chips, which are used as upgrades. Players start with a certain amount of memory, and chips each utilise a very specific amount of memory, so you need to be careful about which ones you actually want to use. Chips can be fused to upgrade the chips themselves, and the amount of memory can be upgraded, making the system extremely flexible – if they should choose to, players can remove chips that perform standard UI functions (such as the lifebar and minimap) in order to free up space for attack or defense chips. Alternatively, on easy mode, players can use “Auto” chips, which essentially perform certain commands on behalf of the player, to make fights somewhat easier. I’ve never seen a system like this in a game before, and I found myself really enjoying trying different loadouts.

Of course, there needs to be an element of risk with a system like this, and NieR: Automata leverages a system similar to Dark Souls – if you die, you drop all of your equipped chips, and in order to get them back, you need to track down your body. If connected to the Internet, you can also come across the bodies of other players, which you can loot for random upgrades, or repair and have them fight alongside you.

On the negative side, there’s also a lot not to like about NieR: Automata – for example, there’s a lot of grinding involved. The map issues outlined previously can be frustrating at times, and navigating about the world can occasionally be annoying, as it’s not so easy to tell what can be climbed/jumped over, and what can’t. The colour palette is very plain, with lots of browns and greys, but this is a post-apocalyptic world after all (and the design is very deliberate and consistent, which some may actually see as a positive). Later stages of the game (particularly the third playthrough) can be extremely unforgiving, and the game doesn’t tell you where to go or what you need to do, and this can lead to many a frustrating moment. The story is convoluted, and nonsensical at times – although in the grander scheme, everything becomes clear. Above all, though, if you disregard the story, and you don’t care about what the game is trying to do or say, there’s not a lot to it – go here, fight robots, repeat – and the battle mechanics are the same at the start of the game as they are at the end. But really, for me at least, the story and the way it’s told are the very reasons to play this game, as are the cheap shots the developers take at players (“loss of visual systems” I’m looking at you), the many jokes, and the frequent introspective looks at humanity – and all of this far outstrips the negatives. Plus, it’s just damned fun.

It really is an impressive achievement. Given the quality og games released this year, I’d hate for this to slip through the cracks, as it’s easily one of the best, from my perspective. In some ways, NieR: Automata is a simple action-adventure, and if you were to play through to the first ending and stop there, you might have an OK time, whack a 6 or 7/10 on a review and call it a day, but you’ll be missing out on more than half the game and a hell of a ride along the way.

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