Nier: Automata may be the strangest game I’ve ever played. One moment, it’s an awe inspiring action game pitting sexy androids against arm flailing robots inspired by the latest trends in round-top garbage bins. In the next, you’re in a 2D side scroller, clashing axes on the back of a moving roller coaster. In another 10, you might just be playing a dual stick shooter against a giant oil-rig with saws for hands. Through it all, the story twists and turns taking you from one off the wall encounter to another, making for a decidedly off-kilter experience made all the better for its RPG elements.
Having never played the original Nier, any existing backstory was lost on me. Thankfully, playing the original isn’t important, as the essentials are easy enough to understand. It’s an alien invasion story. Humans escaped to the moon as our newfound alien overlords unleashed their robot army on humanity. Now, as mankind lays on the brink of annihilation in a bitter stalemate with the bots, an elite group of androids called the YoRHa are sent to even the odds.
Over the course of the game, you’ll play as three different androids, each with their own specialties. Initially, you’ll be limited to 2B, her flying pod sidekick, and her companion 9S. 2B is about as monotone as monotone gets, but as the game goes on sparks of life sparkle from her icy veneer. She’s never exactly relatable, but she’s nothing if not stylish. Like all of the main humanoid characters in the game, it’s as if she were ripped from the pages of a fashion rag, making her equally suited to walking down a runway as saving all of humanity.
Together with 9S, a much more human android, 2B is an utter mech-wrecking machine. With combat developed by Platinum Games, the team responsible for Metal Gear: Revengeance, it should come as no surprise that close quarters combat is incredibly tight, responsive, and when pulled off correctly, makes you feel like an utter powerhouse. Though none of the characters learn new moves, per se, 2B’s pod can be outfitted with new ranged attacks and support maneuvers to fit your playstyle. Later, secondary pods can be found opening up even more possibilities.
Dodging and weapon switching are the basis for Automata’s combat depth. I was put-off when I discovered there was no combo list hidden in the menus. Instead, you’re forced to learn in the heat of the moment. I see the merit in this, the sense of ownership that it might lend to certain players. For me, I found myself squinting at my screen trying to decipher whether this animation was different from that animation and ultimately feeling like I was doing a whole lot of button mashing. Changing between weapon sets on the fly and chaining together well-timed dodges is great and opens up new combo possibilities, but it would have been nice to feel like I was mastering something rather than muddling my way to the same end point.
That isn’t to say that combat isn’t satisfying. It would need to be because nearly every mission will throw you into it at some point. Apart from the main quest path where Nier’s most exciting moments lie, side missions are also peppered through the world. Some are interesting but most fall into the Kill/Collect camp MMO players will be so familiar with. The experience rewards alone make it worth not skipping too many, but it’s too bad that so many of these characters are pure throwaways existing only to get you back into the fray.
The RPG systems are only so-so. Nier: Automata is an action game first and foremost with RPG systems existing purely to add depth to the action experience. The main storyline is interesting, especially so once you get to the first ending only to see the game open up before you, but what’s missing are real, meaningful choices. Dialogues exist to get you from point A to point B and that’s disappointing.
What’s more interesting is the character progression system. Following the android motif, you can install upgrade chips to add passive bonuses and augment your attacks. You’re initially limited in how many you can install, but rather than limit you by level (which only increases your base stats), you’re instead gated by cash to expand your memory banks. Plug-ins are dropped from enemies and found in the wild but can also be purchased from merchants. Should you die, you have one chance to retrieve your body before it, and all your plug-ins, disappear entirely.
Apart from that, RPG fans may find Nier: Automata lacking. Gear is limited to weapons and outfits, the latter of which is sorely lacking. Weapons can all be upgraded but actually changing out to something new becomes less and less appealing the more you spend to upgrade what you already have. There are temporary enhancement items, potions, and the like but none of it really screams character building. It’s all in service to the wider action game.
The open world, too, is a bit disappointing. It’s beautiful, at times, and the use of color and saturation to demonstrate life is brilliant. It’s also filled with invisible walls, doorways that can’t be entered, and the too-frequent sense that you’re running through a series of hallways rather than open spaces. I loved seeing Platinum’s take on Earth After Robots, the juxtaposition of the decrepit and the serene, but the scale is certainly smaller than you would expect, even running through it yourself.
Which is probably the greatest joy that Nier has to offer. Movement. 2B and her companions run like the racing wind, leap from the highest heights, and dart and streak around enemies with the balletic freedom of whole abandon. Locomotion is the glue that adheres each piece to the next, elevating the sum of its parts to a level that each independently would never achieve. Combined with the alluring strangeness that permeates its story beats, its willingness to genre-shift, and a thought provoking message that only crystallizes many hours into the game, Nier: Automata is an easy recommendation to make, so long as you’re not looking for the depth of a pure roleplaying game.
- Excellent, deep combat
- Movement is a joy
- Deeper, longer story than first appears
- Utterly compelling strangeness
- Constrained open world
- Limited character customization/building
- Limited choices
- Bland sidequests