Review: NieR: Automata

After feeling a tremendous amount of pressure from having to preview NieR: Automata about a week ago, with it being what may very well be the biggest game of the year in our eyes, you can imagine the amount of bullets having been sweat out over the task of having to actually review the whole game as a follow-up. After all, a big open-world game about having to battle massive machines in a post-apocalyptic world (the third game fitting that bill to be released within the span of a single week, oddly enough) makes for quite the imposing feat and you do not want to be the one who botched things up when it comes to tackling that. After getting a quick refresher course on the original NieR, I ventured forth nervously…and then emerged later, with a trail of scrap metal behind my character now, ready to declare this beautiful, intense and freaky romp that is Automata to easily be one of the best games of 2017.

Taking place long after the original game (and thankfully making sure that it can serve as a mostly standalone title), NieR: Automata is set in a futuristic world where an alien invasion ravaged humanity, with the remnants engaging in a war between a resistance and the killer machines that the aliens have left behind. The remaining humans on the moon send down a series of combat androids to assist the resistance, and that’s where our main heroine 2B comes in, with her operator 9S, as they arrive on Earth to help out. Of course, when you have a war between androids wielding massive swords that have been trained to suppress emotions versus an army of small wind-up robots with faces like Baymax, you do begin to question things, and sure enough, things quickly spiral into insanity when machine truces, lethal humanoids, rogue androids and even more complications turn up, so now you and 2B have to scour this world in search of some answers.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t exactly the type of story you can go into detail about without some notable spoilers. In fact, there were quite the hefty amount of moments that provoked a lengthy “What the fuuuuuuu…?” reaction, and that is meant in the best way possible. Every bizarre twist just make you want to keep going, to learn even more about this universe and the people and machines that inhabit it. 2B and 9S are also some interesting characters, largely in how they play off of the other cast members and each other, providing some cute and enjoyable, well-written dialogue. It helps that the world they’re in gives them a lot to work with, and looks good while doing so. Granted, the more mind-blowing sights would again provide spoilers, but even just wandering the land in search of items, quests or secrets leads to a lovely, nicely-designed open world full of beautiful ruins reclaimed by nature, with quite a bit to do in it.

But let’s get right to what makes a Platinum Games titles a success already: The combat. If you’ve ever played the likes of Bayonetta or Transformers: Devastation, you’ll know just how ridiculously smooth their signature hack-and-slash/beat-’em-up/spectacle fighter style of gameplay can be. The gameplay is easy to figure out, combos are quick to pull off, attacks make a satisfying impact, special finishing blows are stylish, and it’s all just so damn FUN. And wow, does their style translate into an action RPG perfectly! Everything is designed to be as gleefully chaotic and action-packed as possible while still being manageable, rewarding pure skill.

Allow me to provide an example of how good this all is: while working on particular quest in the game, it was suddenly discovered that it led me to an enemy caked in blood that was a good twenty levels or so above me. In a similar scenario in most games, your typical solution is to run away as quickly as possible, then either come back later or just grind for experience. And while those are still legitimate options in NieR: Automata, my own personal though upon seeing the situation was “Okay, this looks bad, but I’ve got some pretty good weapons and a lot of recovery items, so if I keep moving, hit and run, and don’t let up on my pod’s gunfire, I can still probably take this guy.” And you know what? It worked.

The point of this little anecdote is to showcase that NieR: Automata is challenging and always puts of a fight, be it a crowd of machines, a massive, hulking boss (which make for some truly superb, well-designed skirmishes, by the way), but it is never cheap or too difficult. It is, indeed, some of most thoroughly enjoyable third-person action in recent memory. And it helps that you have several customizable tools at your disposal, such as various weapons to purchase or hunt for that you can upgrade with various supplies you find, pods to rig and dig up with direct attacks and super moves you can swap out, or in a particularly unique bit, the game’s use of chips for additional skills.

These chips can provide various effects such as increased movement speed, extra experience, the ability to drain health from defeated enemies, et cetera, but the twist is that they have a setup like a briefcase in a Resident Evil game, where they take up certain amounts of space. You can purchase more room with various scrap that you collect, but in order to install the chips needed for the more powerful buffs, you need to fill up a lot of space, meaning you have to manage things carefully. Heck, you can even uninstall the chips making up the various parts of your HUD if you’d like, if you think it improves your game in the end. It’s just a clever and fun addition that allows for a bit more strategy.

But as expected, it isn’t the only twist to encounter. Similar to a few roguelike games, when you die, you have to retrieve certain chips and items by making your way back to where you died, where your old body now lies. But you can also come across the bodies of several other players as well when connected online, having left bizarre customizable epitaphs behind in a manner similar to Rolling Thunder 2 passwords. You can pray for these bodies, given the fallen players a boost when they come back, and then you can either retrieve or repair them. Retrieving from them gives you access to various loot, while repairing them gives you a temporary AI ally that assists you in battle. You will more likely find yourself retrieving more than repairing, though, if only because bodies tend to either be in calmer areas where you have no use for them, or combat-filled areas where you can’t spare time to resurrect them. Still, either way, it’s a terrific little touch that adds a little bonus.

Oh, and this isn’t even getting into the multiple styles of gameplay that NieR: Automata presents you with. You have third-person, 2D, and occasional top-down sections, shoot-’em-ups, games of Asteroids, bullet hell shooters when it comes to virtually every ranged attack thrown at you, and even fishing segments, among other things, should you choose to participate in them. Weirdly enough, it reminds me of the later Sly Cooper games, where you have to master multiple genres at once in order to pull off certain heists. And like how those games made the different sections easy to learn, transitioned to them smoothly, and were fun to play with, here we have a setup that can swap you from Devil May Cry to Gunstar Heroes in a instant, without losing any of the charm that the combat and gameplay in general has.

Now, concerning length, NieR: Automata should take ten to twelve hours to get through on an initial playthrough. Or fifteen to twenty, if you aim for every side quest on your first go. And if the game had indeed stopped there, I would still be happy. There was enough action, enough challenge, and the ending was satisfying, although there were a few loose ends and some inaccessible stuff that you seemingly can’t get to that you wonder about. But if you know anything about NieR, you’ll know that the first playthrough is never really the end. Indeed, starting up another new game brings a twist to the narrative – which I naturally won’t spoil – that invites you to delve even further into the game’s world, ready to uncover more secrets, and aim for the many multiple endings. In other words, while you can blaze through things in a solid amount of time, you will indeed find yourself coming back for more.

Oh, and the soundtrack by Keiichi Okabe and company is absolutely fantastic, to the point where more than a couple of orchestral dream-like pieces have still been stuck in my head for a while now. I realize that’s not a particularly good transition between parts of the game to focus on in a review, but all you need to know is that the music is amazing and an absolute treat for the ears, so therefore a quick bit like that is what you get.

Actually, if we attempt to go into detail about every single feature in NieR: Automata worth mentioning, we’ll be here all day, so let’s just get to some final bullet points. The save system where there’s no auto-save and you have to hunt for your own points to back things up at and fast travel to and from? It adds to the challenge in a subtle way without ever being annoying. The side quests? A few cliches at times, but still worth it alone just for the stories they provide, and they still make for some enjoyable hunts. The platforming controls? Done quite nicely. The enemy designs? They make the best possible use of the contrast between their adorable faces and a legitimate threat they provide, and there’s a grand variety of them that are both amusing and challenging in different ways. Seriously, is there a toy company making figures of these guys yet? If not, somebody needs to get on that ASAP.

Any flaws? Well, as others have noticed, the fact that the game never informs you as to which of the final missions locks out all remaining side quests is an annoyance, especially since the point of no return initially appears no different than any other mission. Also, like a lot of other open world games, it does almost give you too much to work with, to the point where it can become easy to end up underplaying a few elements. Aside from that through, any remaining flaws are trivial, including a slight excess of invisible walls in areas where it looks like you should be able to logically cut through to a different path, some instances where aligning yourself to trigger the prompt to examine an object is tricky for a few seconds (not helped in 2D sections where a partner can get in the way), or the fact that, while it doesn’t affect anything, the game is a bit random when alternating between spoken dialogue and subtitles, which is a tad awkward.

But on that note, they fixed the subtitle speed, which was the only flaw with the game so far as previously mentioned in the preview, so…yeah, call it near-flawless now, yay!

Closing Comments:

NieR: Automata is an absolute masterpiece from beginning to end (or ends, to be a bit more accurate). Even for what was our most anticipated game of the year, I still didn’t expect to be blown away that much, but this was an absolute thrill ride in every area, from just running through a gorgeous wrecked city with wild boars roaming around to surfing down sand dunes in a desert in a cool little touch to fighting off an army of twenty-some robots vomiting corrosive material with some of the finest combat in recent video game history (oh, not to mention the actual thrill ride at one point). It is an addictive, joyous, haunting beauty with a surreal mystery at the center of its captivating world to uncover, and like the best games of its kind, you’ll find yourself diving back in for as much as you can. The saga of 2B and company is one that is not be missed, and Platinum Games and Yoko Taro should be commended for something this excellent. Bravo, you mad geniuses, bravo. Now let’s see if anyone will pick up Scalebound, because I’m jonesing for more Platinum Games combat…