It’s E3 2015, the year of dreams. Following Sony’s explosive showing, Square Enix decided to have a quaint little conference of its own. Gamers all over the world were still reeling after seeing a next gen render of the back of Cloud’s head in the Final Fantasy 7 Remake reveal, and what a glorious head it was just by the way. At this point, nobody was really expecting any major announcements, but then Yosuke Saito took to the stage. Is this related to Dragon Quest we all thought? It couldn’t be Nier, could it? Then the words Platinum Games came on screen followed by the name, Yoko Taro, and it indeed turned out to be a sequel to Nier. Loud cheers could be heard from all over as the crowd instantaneously turns into confetti and fireworks started bursting from Shinji Hashimoto’s hands, as he chanted, please be excited!
I’m Just kidding though, humans can’t just magically turn into confetti you know but it doesn’t change the fact that Nier Automata’s announcement was a major surprise as the original wasn’t wildly successful even though it did have a cult following. Nevertheless, it was still a welcomed treat for fans and those hoping to see more of the universe, and I as one such fan, am eternally grateful. Nier Automata takes place several thousand years after the events of the first game. Aliens have now invaded earth and waged war against humankind with their army of killer machines. Suffering crippling defeat, humans were forced to retreat and seek refuge on the moon. It was not long after that they created androids to send to earth and reclaim the planet. You play as 2B, a battle android who is part of the unit known as YoRHa, tasked with eradicating the alien and machine threat and carving a safe way back home for the last surviving humans.
The driving force behind 2B and her companion 9S’ conviction is undoubtedly the loyalty and sense of obligation they have towards their mission for mankind, as even the slogan for YoRHa is ‘glory to mankind’. Over time however things change, and drastically so, as the game delves deeper into the android’s psyche. Character motivations and development are much deeper than they initially appear and the consequences of their actions and the resulting emotional impact weighs heavy on not just them, but the player too. It is hard to really get into the finer details of the story, but I would rather be as vague as possible than ruin some of the best twists and turns in gaming.
Yoko Taro, the game’s director, has a real knack for manipulating players. Now, that could come across as a really malicious thing to say, but the subversion of expectations is what makes this game’s narrative so powerful and I would go as far to say that he often reminds me of Kojima in this regard. While the androids display a great amount of intelligence and self-awareness, to the point that you could even call them human, so too does the machines back on earth, though, their level of understanding of the world around them is still in its infancy, for the most part. It’s odd that I am playing as a powerful android but the first enemies I am greeted by are chubby little robots that are quite literally called, Stumpy. A huge enemy quickly contrasts this as if to remind you that machines are evil and they will destroy everything. This confliction is only compounded as the game progresses, both by the main story and the side quests.
The side quests in this game are among my favourite in any JRPG that I have played. Their basic structure falls into tired tropes like collecting X amount of things or going to a certain point on the map to kill a mob of enemies, but it’s the stories that accompany them that made it joy rather than a chore to do. They highlight the best and worst of both the androids and machines, and for the most part, are never truly what you expect. Mind you, they are not all this way and some are really just boring fetch quests, but majority are interesting and often unnerving. They are most effective in the early game, before you really know some of the more shocking revelations as they explore the world and the characters within, allowing you to formulate your own view and opinion of what is right and what is wrong, which often resulted in me residing in a permanent grey area to be honest. When you eventually progress in the story, the side quests would have often already implanted within you a certain way of viewing both the machines and androids, which results in a thought provoking journey.
The main story itself is also divided into multiple routes, with the next route opening up once you complete the previous one. I refer to it as a route, but completing one actually means getting to the ‘end’ of the game. Nier requires multiple playthroughs to get a full and holistic view of the characters and story. While there is some repetition in replaying these sections, each route warps your view on the previous one by telling the story through a different perspective and often introducing a ton of new cutscenes, lore and even new gameplay mechanics. Don’t think of it as replaying it multiple times, but rather, just progressing through the chapters of the game. This structure just works and creates a compelling way to keep the narrative engaging and exciting, but enough about the story now as I could honestly keep talking about it for days, it’s just that amazing, and is probably the most heartfelt, emotional, funny, tragic and memorable tale I experienced this generation. So we know Yoko Taro delivered on the story front, but what about Platinum Games? Is this a return to form for the famed developers? Short answer, a resounding yes!
The combat in Automata is fast, stylish and oh so fluid and fun. 2B’s basic moveset consists of light and heavy attacks where a weapon is equipped to either action, meaning you could have a small sword equipped for light attacks and a spear for heavy attacks as an example. There’s no extensive list of traditional combos you can pull off though, but combat is not bereft of depth as there’s much room for some advanced moves. You have two weapon sets, which you can switch between on the fly, even mid-combo, couple this with your usual juggles and launches and you can create some truly flashy moments. I also have to mention how happy I am that dodge cancels are instantaneous. I always appreciate games like this that don’t lock me into animations and allows cancelations even a second after an action is executed. Dodging is also accompanied by what seems to be Platinum’s trademark Witch Time-like mechanic, where dodging at the right moment allows you the opening to retaliate with a special attack and there is even another ability later which slows down time when this happens as well. The foundation of combat is rock solid, but being an RPG, there are many customization options to enrich the experience further.
A little floating robot known as a Pod, which acts as your ranged weapon, accompanies you. You can find multiple Pods over the course of the game, but they serve as a replacement to the original’s magic system. They can be equipped with special attacks known as Programs, which range from firing a powerful laser beam to summoning a giant hammer to smash enemies. The later Programs you find are really fun to use, but most of the customization lies within the Plug-in system.
Plug-in chips are augments you can equip to your character to enhance their capabilities. There are basic ones, which grant standard buffs such as increasing your attack by x%, but then there are more interesting chips, which you can use to mould your character. You can have three different sets of loadouts and I found myself switching between them depending on the situation. One set focused entirely on maximizing my health and healing abilities, which I would use if I found myself without healing items (which can sometimes happen on hard mode). Another set was more balanced with various buffs equipped for both my defense and offense. The last set was more experimental but it would usually contain outrageous builds such as increasing my power by 100%, adding shockwaves to attacks and allowing combos to continue even when dodging. The beauty of the system is that the depth is there for those that want it, and if you don’t really care for it, you can just have the game automatically choose chips and you’ll never have to worry about it much again.
Much like the first game, Automata blends various genres together. One moment you’re operating in a 3D space, the next, the camera is fixed to a 2D plane and it turns into a sort of platformer. The game at times even becomes an actual schmup which makes sense seeing how there’s obvious bullet hell inspirations. There’s a twin stick shooter hacking mini-game as well and as much as I appreciate the varied gameplay styles, it became a bit tiresome after a while, especially hacking, which is a prominent feature later on in the game. Nier Automata also has a washed out looking world, but thankfully it has some interesting locations and although I wouldn’t call it open-world, there are lots of secrets, lore pieces and other interesting things to find in its wide, open space.
Graphically, Automata can look stunning at times, but as I mentioned, the washed out colours can give it a bit of a drab look, which never bothered me at all as it suits the game thematically. The only real issue I have with the presentation is the framerate as it’s really all over the place, which sometimes results in minor hitching. It’s not game-breaking at all though, but it is noticeable at times. The one thing I have to give a special mention to is the soundtrack and my God, is it one hell of an OST. The game would not be as good as it is without the music as every track only serves to enhance every single moment of the experience. The first time you hear spoken dialogue transitioning into chants, which from part of the actual lyrics of a song is really, really special. Keiichi Okabe created an absolute masterpiece of a soundtrack.
Nier Automata is the game Yoko Taro deserves. While Drakengard and the original Nier are cult classics, I’m overjoyed that he finally has a game with great gameplay to back up his amazing stories. It’s the perfect, symbiotic relationship between Platinum and Taro, where the gameplay feeds off the story and vice versa resulting in an unforgettable experience. For the first time in years, I am sincerely, and genuinely sad that a game is over.