NieR: Automata (Playstation 4 Review)
NieR: Automata is a sequel that nobody expected, but here it is. Since the first Drakengard game, director Taro Yoko has continued to create games that sell so poorly that you would expect each to be the final of the series. Despite that, Drakengard now spans five games when you include its spinoff series, NieR.
First released in 2010, the original NieR was about the titular father on a quest to save his daughter from an incurable disease in a post-apocalyptic world, and… it was pretty okay! The gameplay was rough and it looked dated before it even launched, yet NieR was a cult hit. Despite the flaws, NieR offered an unorthodox narrative approach in a videogame with an incredibly powerful, emotional story that was complemented by an astounding soundtrack. It’s a shame that the actual gameplay part wasn’t particularly hot. It looked like publisher Square Enix had shelved the series for good, only dusting it off whenever it was time to release another soundtrack CD. But then something magical happened: PlatinumGames was contacted to develop a sequel.
And that brings us to NieR: Automata, a game that has provided what will possibly be one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in a videogame. Set in the year 11944, some 8,500 years after the original NieR, humanity has moved to the moon to protect themselves from an alien invasion. This turns into a proxy war over Earth, where humans have sent androids to fight the aliens’ machines on the planet. You assume the role of three distinct androids and the AI Pods that support them while they face Taro Yoko’s famous dark atmosphere and absurdities. Expect to be confronted with a questionable eternal war, machines that can be both adorable and incredibly disturbing, and an emotional rollercoaster full of heartbreak with a little bit of hope permeating through. Each of the characters are multidimensional and the expanded cast have rich personalities. The alternative story paths and side quests also explore the different facets of the protagonists, and can cast them in various lights.
Automata explores humanity as a theme using its human-adoring android protagonists, but that’s not actually as cliché as it sounds. The human race has little physical presence in the story; instead, the remains of their culture and history has mythicised them. Even the alien machines want to be human, mimicking what they learn from books and other relics. The android protagonists are our proxy, much like the humans in the story, and it’s through their eyes that we examine what separates us–or doesn’t–from the living machines that seek to erase us. It leads to an interesting clash between two non-human cultures over their own concept of humanity and self-consciousness.
Much like the previous titles in the Drakengard-NieR franchise, Automata offers multiple endings. It totals at about 26 endings, but only five of those are actual resolutions for the title while the others serve as jokes. Don’t be fooled by typical videogame convention for alternative endings–NieR: Automata’s endings aren’t actually alternative, bonus content. Receiving Ending A doesn’t actually complete the game—it just unlocks the next chapter of the story. Each ending fits as a piece of a much larger puzzle, and it takes three cycles before you’ve experienced the real meat of the game. Just make sure you stick around for the Ending E (aka ‘true ending’) final boss. It’s surprisingly brilliant, clever, and emotional and it will absolutely not be what you expect. I promise you that it’s worth it.
Look at this. We’re onto our sixth paragraph in a review for a PlatinumGames title and I’ve not yet commented on the gameplay. It’s safe to say that the studio does deliver, but I’ll note that you shouldn’t expect the usual brawler-style fare that PlatinumGames usually provides. NieR: Automata is a sequel to the defunct studio Cavia’s NieR, and that means there’s already a precedent for the style of its gameplay. Rather than reinvent NieR’s action-JRPG gameplay, lead combat designer Takahisa Taura aimed to polish and refine NieR’s original combat until it was good enough to complement the powerful narrative. The movement of the protagonists feel fluid and swift, responding with great control and power to keep up with the frenetic combat, but it never stopped feeling like a NieR game.
Most of the combat is about keeping up a constant offence with fast-paced, close-range swordplay and crazy bullet-hell shooter mechanics. The actual combat tools provided are simple: each protagonist has a default light combo string, a launching attack, charge attacks, and dash attacks. Player characters 2B and 2A will also be able to take advantage of heavy attacks and combo finishers, while 9S can utilize a hacking ability to take control of enemies, recruit them, or detonate them. Complementing the close-range bullet-hell style combat is a snappy dodge that unleashes a special attack dependent on your response, and the accompanying Pod that enables the use of ranged and special attacks replacing the magic from the original. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, these tools are actually very versatile. With a little bit of experimenting, players can get fairly creative and skillful.
Much like the original NieR, Automata likes to blend elements from other genres in its gameplay. There’s actual bullet-hell shooter gameplay, 2D brawling, mecha fighting, platforming, side-scrolling and so on to be found. PlatinumGames feel at home with the title, as they often like to mix alternative gameplay in their own properties too. The RPG mechanics also feel a lot more polished in this outing, with designer Isao Negishi stepping out of his comfort zone to try and ensure it remained NieR at the core while improving it where he can. The weapons and character customization are rewarding to explore, and there’s some neat power-ups the player can provide to their character (such as the return of a Metal Gear Rising style parry). The side quests might be a little bit less interesting mechanically, but they’re a good excuse for more action or some additional depth to the world and characters. A lot of the backstory to NieR and NieR: Automata is significant to the experience, but left for the protagonists–and the player–to discover.
I don’t often like to compare other games within a review, but the title’s peers need to be considered in order to evaluate it accurately. Typically, this simply involves a passing reference to how it compares to the genre as a whole, but the timing is actually fairly interesting and the genre itself is still rather limited in entries. Square Enix recently published yet another open world, action-JRPG that’s fairly similar in some ways but also take a different approach to the genre. Automata’s visual design is incredibly nice, with some fantastic character design that contrasts with the more muted Final Fantasy XV– he latest release in the publisher’s flagship series. And yet despite this, the environmental design of Nier: Automata can feel rather lacking in comparison. Perhaps this is simply just the result of the post-apocalyptic setting? It’s still atmospheric, and it does give the human race a sense of being more distant and mythological. More importantly though, Nier: Automata delivers the gameplay experience that Final Fantasy XV didn’t quite manage to. The action is vastly more dynamic with more interesting bosses and side quests. Automata separates its different biomes into zones that are structured to be their own stage, rather than an open world hub. Platinum’s influence is fairly clear here, and it’s their approach to incredibly tight gameplay design that makes Automata shine as an example.
What is unusual for a PlatinumGames title is the performance of Nier: Automata. The title will run at a smooth 60 FPS for the first hour or so, but once the open world is reached then the frame rate becomes a little unstable. Later, it can tank pretty badly. This can be pretty detrimental early in the game, but becomes little more than a nuisance as the game picks up. Meanwhile, the camera transitions between different styles of gameplay can feel a little bit awkward,at least until you get used to it,and the camera in general can have issues in certain areas. At times the performance issues can feel a little reminiscent of Taro Yoko’s previous titles, which make me wonder if it’s the ghost of Cavia cursing anything the director touches. Fortunately, Automata never gets anywhere near as bad as the series did prior and readers probably won’t have these issues with a PlayStation 4 Pro according to the reports (though I can’t confirm). I’m normally a bit harsher on titles that have performance issues–videogames are also software after all–but NieR: Automata is just so much fun.
I can’t finish this review without touching on the soundtrack or voice acting. I’d say that since NieR was released in 2010, the Drakengard-NieR franchise has had some fairly strong voice acting and localization. Automata keeps up the trend here with wonderful delivery that really sells the more dramatic scenes. With lead composer Keiichi Okabe returning from Nier and Drakengard 3, the soundtrack is also just phenomenal. Taro Yoko’s directing and story might be really good, but the music just reinforces each scene and takes it to a whole new level. Various tracks carry an incredible amount of emotional weight, whether returning or new, and sometimes the music is all a scene in NieR actually needs to have impact. I’m not ashamed to admit that I still feel a little emotional when I hear the final credits theme.
Honestly, NieR: Automata is an utterly fantastic title. It has some definite flaws, but these flaws just disappear into the background as you get deeper and more immersed in the experience. It’s hard-hitting and poignant, and provides a polished action-JRPG combat in an underwhelming series that really needed it. The original game’s story works as optional background information for the characters and player, making it a great way for those unfamiliar with Yoko’s work to finally get a taste of it. For the first time, Taro Yoko may finally have the hit he deserves.