Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 4, Windows
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Release Dates: February 23, 2017 (JP); March 7, 2017 (US PS4); March 10, 2017 (EU PS4), March 17, 2017 (Windows)
The first Nier was met with middling reviews when it was released around 7 years ago; it was an ambitious title, with great ideas, that fell a bit short on its execution. Nier received quiet the cult following because of its somber and complex plot, interesting characters, myriad of clever gameplay choices, and references to other games. It didn’t sell well though, and what fans it had feared there would never be another game like it helmed by the same director, Yoko Taro. Taro continued Nier’s story through the form of other media like books and a stage play, but a new game seemed like an impossibility. Five years later, at E3 2015, Taro announced a sequel to Nier that was being made in collaboration with Platinum Games. Nier: Automata is the result of their hard work, and it has all the charm and nuance of the original game, but with all the style a developer like Platinum is known for.
Nier: Automata follows the stories of three androids: 2B, 9S, and A2. 2B and 9S are members of a resistance group called YorHa that fights against machine lifeforms that forced humanity off the surface of the earth long ago. 9S typically does his work alone, but gets paired with 2B when the rest of her unit is wiped out in an operation gone awry. From there the story begins to focus on the business and personal views of the two androids as they explore more of the Earth’s surface and encounter more and more machine lifeforms. A2 is a YorHa unit that went rouge after uncovering information about the military group she used to be a part of. Her story doesn’t take off until closer to the end of the game, but it doesn’t detract from the overall narrative, even if she feels like a weaker character until around the end. Automata’s story covers a lot of topics from the typical “what does it mean to be human?” theme popular in science fiction, to things like the absurdity of violence and war, and learning to look at things from another’s perspective.
Automata peppers these serious subjects with some absurd images and situations. Enemy designs range from cute to intimidating, and it’s the former that has a larger impact on the player. It’s really hard to not get attached to the smaller machine lifeforms after you’ve had a chance to talk to a few rather than slaughter them. Robots and androids both seem to reason like humans, and as 2B and 9S venture further into machine culture the odder side of things begins to surface. The more you get into Automata’s story the harder it becomes to not feel emotionally involved. A lot of this comes from how good the translation and voice acting is, 9S being the best example. He goes through the most changes and realizations out of any of the main cast, and his actor is able to carry the emotion behind every line. The characters feel natural whether they are calculating ridiculous plans or spouting existential melodrama. It takes a lot to get away with some of the crazy plot twists Automata does, but its quality script and acting do just that. Despite this though, the plot does have a couple of hang ups, but that has more to do with how Taro approached writing in the game’s multiple endings.
Yoko Taro’s writing is rather spotty at times, mostly because he tries to include so much into his stories. The original Nier left way more questions than it did answers to a lot of its smaller plot points, and Automata follows pretty closely in its footsteps. Every now and then small things will pop up that feel out of place or make little sense unless you’re familiar the first Nier’s story. It’s somewhat easy to pass these things off with the rest of the game’s crazy plot, but there are some sections and references that might have players unfamiliar with Nier scratching their heads in confusion. Thankfully, the main plot centered on the three androids doesn’t suffer from these issues as they have zero ties to first game. You can enjoy the story and characters Automata has to offer without having played its prequel, but a some of the side-material will probably be lost without some understanding of Nier’s lore.
Automata’s world and story also blends into its gameplay in a way that many other games do not. Automata is an action RPG at heart, but it combines elements of many different genres across its 30-40 hour story. Combat combines elements of hack-n-slash action with bullet hell, with differing amounts of each element depending on who you’re playing as. 2B and A2 are combat model androids, so their sections play like a simplified version of an action title with hints of bullet spam. You can’t just mash your way to victory as enemies often pile on you in groups, forcing you the weave in between bullets and dodge melee attacks before landing your own. 9S is a support unit, so his combat abilities are much weaker than his female counterparts’. The scanner android’s primary way to deal with machines is to hack into and destroy them from the inside. Hacking sections play like a twin-stick shooter, and give 9S a unique twist on fighting. Playing as 9S reveals a bit more of the story, since he sees visions from the lives of the machines he hacks into. It’s in his sections where those themes mentioned earlier start to ground themselves in the plot.
Weapons and characters are upgradeable in typical RPG fashion, but each with a special twist. Every weapon has a story tied to it, and more of that story is revealed with each upgrade. You can increase the capabilities of the androids through computer chips. It’s a pretty hilarious concept in execution, because you gain more room for skills by buying more RAM rather than leveling up your characters. You can also mess with your androids basic functions by adding or removing certain chips, one of which leads to a joke ending. There’s a lot of thought put into every gameplay decision in Automata, and it’s what makes it such a fun and charming title. The amount of thought and polish that Platinum put into the gameplay is enough to overlook the minor hiccups in the writing.
The game’s presentation is also exceptionally well done. Automata’s world is post-apocalyptic, but its palette is surprisingly varied. No one area looks or feels like another, and it helps flesh out each individual section as its own thing. In particular, some of the better looking areas include an abandoned carnival brought back to life by peaceful machines, and an old castle that’s become overrun by forest and foliage in the centuries since its construction. 2B and 9S have plenty of ways to interact with the environment as well; they can ride the giant boars and moose that inhabit the human-less planet, get wet with rain and river water, and trip over rocks and shrubbery if they run into them head on. This all cycles back into the attention to detail Platinum put into the gameplay, and makes the over world fun to explore and mess around in despite occasionally rare frame drops.
The real crown jewel of Automata’s presentation is its music. Keichi Okabe and Keigo Hoashi have pulled together an orchestral and vocal soundtrack that is as varied as all the locations in the over world. Every track perfectly matches its location, and brings out the emotion the player should be feeling for that particular part in the game. The vocal renditions of certain tracks are where things really start to have an impact on the player and bring out the sense of fantastical wonder and tense drama that Automata’s world has to offer. If there were ever game that deserved an official soundtrack release on Square-Enix’s online store, it would be Automata.
All of the positive things in Nier: Automata outweigh the negative. Its story is absurd, yet interesting, its characters feel human despite their mechanical makeup, and it’s all layered with unique gameplay elements that keep it feeling fresh and fun. Automata makes a very strong first impression, and it’s able to carry that weight through its myriad of story arcs and endings.