The time has finally come: Neir: Automata has arrived and is proving itself to be one of the strangest action RPGs in ages. Our review code just came in this week, so we haven’t gotten far enough to write a full review quiet yet (stay tuned for that next week). Instead, let’s talk about what we’ve experienced so far, entering the world of Neir for the very first time. It’s been crazy.
Warning: mild spoilers follow.
So far, I’ve spent around five hours with the game. In that time, I’ve fought skyscraper sized mechs with sawblade hands, tiny bowl-top robots giving their best impression of Bart Simpson, big guys with axes and shields and mallets, and a moose that was stronger than them all. I’ve flown a jetsuit in a shoot ‘em up, button mashed in a 2D beat ‘em up, laced together combos against mechanical hordes that would feel at home in a Dynasty Warriors game, and experienced over-the-shoulder bullet hell against a robot just convinced she was a Victorian aristocrat. And in the quiet moments, I’ve had conversations with quest givers, bought and sold and upgraded, explored off the beaten path in hidden cave systems, and tried to make sense of a backstory I missed the first part of.
Having never played the first Neir, Automata is not what I expected. Knowing the game was being developed by Platinum Games, the team being Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Bayonetta 2, I was prepared for the tight, stylish, and rapid combat system that characterized those games. But all throughout development, I kept hearing about the ‘RPG’ of it all, how the roleplaying systems were coming to the forefront to fundamentally change and deepen Neir for the better.
For the first hour, I struggled to see what any of those previews were talking about. That hour – a tutorial – leads you through a mission designed to show you everything but the roleplaying systems. In fact, the very first thing you experience is a top-down bullet hell shooter, which transforms into a dual stick shooter, which then becomes a kind of tunnel racer before finally settling into a combination 2D, 3D, and top-down action game. It was weird and frenetic and a little bit wonderful how off-kilter it left me heading into the final boss battle. There, any expectation I had was completely shattered by an over the top, crank-it-up-to-11 melee against what I can only describe as a living oil platform with giant sawblades for hands.
As you move forward, things settle to an extent. The general lore is easy enough to understand. Sometime in the not-far-flung future, aliens invade earth and humans escape to colonize the moon. Seeing we were outmatched, the surviving mankind developed androids to go and fight our battle for us. You are one of those androids, a combat specialist named 2B (though you control others later on) in the YorHa unit, humanity’s last hope in breaking the stalemate against the robot aliens.
With all of that scene setting out of the way, you’re sent out on your first real mission. Neir’s vision of Earth thousands of years after we’ve left it just begs to be explored. Buildings still stand, moss covered and decrepit. Chunks of highway stand, pillars to nowhere. But with just a little running, the greenery of the cityscape gives way to sprawling deserts where 2B surfs along the dunes. Run in the other direction and you’ll find a lush forest with the world’s most unlikely amusement park.
It all beggars belief, no question. But if the tutorial made anything clear, it’s that this isn’t a game that really gives two wits about what is or isn’t possible. It’s about the spectacle and wow factor, and yes, a backdrop from some extremely video-gamey gameplay. Once you sink into the systems and stop thinking so hard, two things become apparent: this is one of the weirdest and most creative games in years, and, wow, crossing all of these genres is a lot of fun! Four hours later and I’m just as off-kilter and compelled as I was in the beginning. That’s an accomplishment.
The roleplaying systems are only so-so at this point, but that’s mainly because the lid is still on some very clear potential. Take character advancement, for example. Rather than unlock new skills as you level, you open up slots for plug-in chips. Essentially, these are buffs that stay with you until you die and lose your corpse or swap them out for something else. If you want to augment 2B with an attack shockwave and 3 movement speed buffs, you can, becoming both the thunder and the lightning. At my current level 10, however, I can only fit two or three augments, so I’m not quite there. These chips can be lost for good if you die and can’t make it back to your corpse on the first attempt, forcing you to re-buy them or find them in the wild. It’s a shame that there are so many invisible walls that put a damper on the sense of exploration.
Dialogue and player choice are, so far, barebones. I’ve yet to encounter a dialogue option that was more than flavor text. As a character, 2B is also falls flat, even for an android. This could change as our journey together continues.
Questing, on the other hand is a high point. Not only is it an entry point to the excellent combat system, but the main quest leads you from high point to high point in the game’s creative landscape. I’ve had more WTF moments in the first four hours of Neir: Automata than any other game this year and, dare I say, that last. There’s a genuine sense of wonder at what’s going to happen next and exactly what the truth is behind the alien-robot invasion. There are hints of some deeper questions at play, too, like what it means to actually be alive. Do machines feel or is it all an elaborate program? That it’s androids asking these questions makes it all the more interesting.
So far, Neir: Automata is proving to be one of the most pleasant surprises in video games this year. Check in next week for our full review after I’ve had much more time with the game.
Are you playing? Let us know what you think in the comments below!