The original NieR, released in 2010, was a hidden gem that featured a great and touching story, a weird but lovable cast of characters, an amazing soundtrack and a strange mash-up of different genres such as Bullet-Hell Shooters, Sidescrolling Adventures and even Text Adventures. It’s because of these qualities that NieR gained a cult following despite obvious weaknesses such as mediocre combat, technical hiccups and bad graphics. Although the game flopped critically and commercially Square-Enix decided to greenlight a sequel which surprised even the biggest NieR fans when it was announced at E3 2015. Called NieR: Automata, this game was developed in collaboration with Platinum Games which was mainly responsible for the gameplay portion while Yoko Taro once again served as the director for the game. For many fans this sounded like a match in heaven, but were they able to deliver?
Glory to Mankind
NieR: Automata is set several hundred years after the events of the original NieR. Mankind has been fighting a war against extra-terrestial invaders and the last remnants of humanity were forced to flee to the moon. In order to continue fighting the alien-made machines, humanity has created combat-androids that are tasked with defeating the aliens and to make Earth habitable for humanity again. Over the course of the game, the player takes control over 3 different android characters 2B, 9S and A2 which all have their own playstyle and strengths. It doesn’t take long into the game for the protagonists to notice that the machines in this world aren’t all dangerous enemies, but that some of them have developed different personalities and even ideologies that they follow. In the beginning the story can feel like a standard Sci-Fi story about robots, but that’s far from the truth. Without spoiling too much, NieR Automata features a complex and intriguing story that is told in a very unorthodox way and explores themes of humanity, the sense of life, love and death. The way of storytelling is unorthodox (for people new to Yoko Taro games) since it requires the player to complete several routes in order to gain the complete picture, similar to many Visual Novels. That’s why players should not assume that the game is finished after seeing the credits for the first time, but should continue playing to see the “real” ending of the game. It’s a shame that I can’t go into details on Automata’s story because of spoilers, but I genuinely feel that other medias would not have been able to tell the same story as video games can (Ending E is just brilliant on so many levels).
It is probably important to note that newcomers to the series do not need to play the first game in order to enjoy it. I’d recommend doing it anyway since it provides useful background information for understanding the whole story.
Another aspect that makes the story so great are the characters. 2B for example feels like the stereotypical stoic android fighter at first, but turns out to be a quite multidimensional character over the course of the game and the same can be said about her scanner partner 9S. The cast in general consists of many likable and relatable characters and at the end of the game many of them became very dear to my heart. It didn’t hurt that the voice-acting in this game is top-notch in both Japanese and English and it was therefore a bit disappointing that not all scenes have been voiced.
In the gameplay department Platinum Games has lived up to its reputation as a premium developer for fast-paced action games. While Automata’s combat system is more accessible and less deep than Bayonetta’s or Metal Gear Rising’s, it’s still a blast to play. The combat animations are amazingly fluid and 2B almost feels like a floating dancer while slashing through hordes of enemies. 2B can equip 2 different weapons which are then assigned to either the Square (Weak Attack) or the Triangle Button (Heavy Attack) respectively and can then be chained together to perform various combos. Players can also switch weapon sets mid-combo and also dodge cancel out of combos anytime (Dodge Offsets can also be learned later in the game). 9S is less capable in combat, but has the ability to hack enemies in order to either destroy or remote-control them. Every hacking attempt involves a short shoot em up section and turns the music into a 8-bit arrangement which is a very cool touch. On normal difficulty the game feels a bit too easy towards the end, especially because of a lack in enemy variety, but the game offers 2 harder difficulties for those who are looking for more of a challenge.
Each android is also accompanied by a flying robot pod that can be used for constant gun fire or in order to use special abilities like a gravity bomb. As in the first NieR, Automata also features a weird genre-mix and there are sequences in which the game turns into a Shoot em Up, a side-scrolling action game or a Visual Novel, but in contrast to the first game, the gameplay feels much more polished this time around.
Players can also further customize their characters by equipping various chips that give different bonuses and perks. Every chip takes up a specific amount of memory and memory is limited, so players need to think careful about which chips to equip. In this regard the game brilliantly combines its HUD and UI settings with the game itself since the HUD that the player sees is supposed to be the android’s own HUDs as well and can be turned on or off by equipping the respective chips. Players can even remove the OS chip which leads to your character shutting off (dying). The HUD also visibly starts bugging whenever your characters takes serious damage.
Apart from the main scenario players can also partake in various sidequests that are picked up from various characters around the game world. Most of these sidequests involve standard activities like killing x enemies or fetching certain items, but they reward you with very interesting background information on certain characters, events, locations or the game world. A lot of the character development of the main protagonists is also hidden behind some of the sidequests which is why I’d recommend doing as many of them as you can, even though some of them can be tedious.
Visually the game looks good and is a clear improvement compared to the first NieR, but not spectacular either. The washed-out colors of the game fit the overall atmosphere of the game and the various areas look good enough to incentivize exploration. It’s a shame that Automata is suffering from technical hiccups even on a PS4 Pro and during traversal there is visible stuttering and the frame-rate can drop into the 40’s. Fortunately the performance remains quite stable during combat sequences, but it is definitely a bummer nonetheless.
One cannot talk about the first NieR game without mentioning its amazing soundtrack and it is thereofore not surprising that fans’ expectations for Automata’s soundtrack were very high, especially since Keiichi Okabe was once again helming the music production and Emi Evans was returning as a vocalist. The end result is nothing short of amazing. While the soundtrack certainly resuses some themes from the first game, most themes are completely new and are once again a perfect blend of beautiful, sad and melancholic melodies paired with amazing vocals. In addition to that, the game makes perfect use of its dynamic soundtrack and you’ll be able to listen to different arrangements of the same tracks whenever it is fitting, be it an arrangement without certain instruments, with additional intruments or without vocals. It’s a great example of brilliant sound design and always gives the game the right tone for each and every moment. The year is not even half over yet, but I dare to say that no soundtrack this year will be able to beat NieR: Automata’s.
All in all NieR: Automata is a brilliant game and as a fan of the first NieR game I couldn’t be happier that the dream collaboration between Yoko Taro and Platinum games turned out to be a match in heaven after all. Automata has sucessfully taken the formula that made the first game so great and refined it even further thanks to the great gameplay by Platinum. It’s difficult to find true auteurship in video games, but with Nier: Automata you can feel director Yoko Taro’s influence in nearly every element of the game. It might not be for everyone, but his games always offer new interesting ways on what games can achieve compared to other media. In the past, players had to tolerate weak gameplay, technical issues and/or bad visual quality in order to enjoy his quirks, but for NieR: Automata this won’t be neccesary any longer. Also, one really has to commend Square-Enix for giving this franchise another try, since most publsihers probably wouldn’t have done this for a game that flopped on nearly every level and it is great to see that it turned out to be a huge success for them.
Tl;dr Pro & Contra
+ Amazing dynamic Soundtrack
+ Great voice-acting
+ Believable characters that you feel for
+ Unorthodox but intriguing way of story-telling
+ Great story that explores themes of humanity, sense of life, love and death
+ Sidequests can be tedious but usually reward you with interesting bits of lore or character development
+ Great animations
+ Combat feels fluid and is a lot of fun even though it’s not as deep as Bayonetta or MGR
+ Fun genre-mix of 3rd person action, sidescrolling action, shoot em ups and Visual Novels
+ Embedding the UI into the game mechanic is brilliant
+ Dual-Audio Option
– Not all scenes are voiced
– Lack of enemy variety especially towards the end
– Game feels a bit too easy on Normal
– Some technical issues on PS4 and PS4 Pro
– Route B can feel padding at times