Nier: Automata begins as a scrolling shooter. Then it’s a twin-stick shooter, a third-person action RPG and a 2.5D platformer. It’s equal parts comedy and tragedy. It’s a game that’s whatever it needs to be at any particular moment to be completely amazing.
There’s nothing simple about Nier: Automata, but I will attempt to simplify. Nier: Automata is an action role-playing game, developed by PlatinumGames and directed by developer Yoko Taro. Taro is the man behind Square Enix’s Drakengard series and its spin-off, the original Nier. He’s a little eccentric, and it shows in the games he creates.
Nier: Automata is technically a sequel to 2010's Nier, though the connections are tenuous. It takes place on the same world, thousands of years in the future. Some familiar names and faces make an appearance, but for the most part Automata stands alone.
The Earth has been taken over by alien machines. Humanity has retreated to the moon, leaving behind a force of humanoid androids tasked with reclaiming the planet. We initially play as the android 2B, joining her on a mission to take down a goliath machine enemy.
If you’ve played the PlayStation 4 demo for Nier: Automata, it’s basically that same mission, only with an opening that demonstrates a broad range of gameplay types.
The demo led me to believe that Nier: Automata would be a mission-based game with some sort of central hub, so I was pleasantly surprised by the way the game opens up after that initial encounter.
Once 2B and her companion, survey android 9S (Nines) recover from the first massive battle, they’re dropped into a fairly large open world, filled with strange characters to meet, side quests to accomplish and secrets to discover.
When not exploring or engaging in side quests, 2B and Nines attempt to unravel the mystery behind the alien machines. The mechanical creatures they thought mindless are demonstrating distinctly non-mindless behavior, in some cases acting (and looking) quite human. Secrets are revealed. Then secrets about those secrets are revealed. Nothing is quite what it seems, leaving the player guessing up until the very ends.
That’s not a typo. Like much of Yoko Taro’s previous work, Nier: Automata features multiple endings. And while some of them are cheap (save before doing anything that seems stupid), several lead to new chapters in the game’s narrative. It’s not just more gameplay, it’s different gameplay. My second playthough granted me a completely different way to destroy enemies. My fourth granted me a new Berserk mode, sacrificing defense for ridiculous attack strength. Who knows what my fifth will bring?
I don’t, and that’s the biggest joy of Nier: Automata. One moment I’m wandering through an overgrown forest, hacking away at robots dressed up as medieval knights. Then the screen glitches, and I’m in a custscene from hundreds of years in the past, learning how the bizarre feudal robot society was formed. I walk into a room expecting a major battle, and instead a group of robots perform their rendition of a famous play.
This is a world where machines battle over the fate of humanity, while striving to find humanity in themselves, no matter how inadvisable that might be. Why would perfect mechanical beings strive to become something so flawed? That’s the question, isn’t it?
Nier: Automata is Yoko Taro’s writing and game design at its very best. It’s because of him we have a game where every weapon has its own story that unlocks as it’s upgraded. Who else would give the player the option to kill themselves in the inventory menu, ending the game instantly? Narrative asides, winks to the player, comedy walking hand-in-hand with horrific tragedy—that’s all Taro’s touch.
That touch also extends to the game’s soundtrack. Composer Keiichi Okabe of Nier and Drakengard 3 fame once again manage to perfectly translate Taro’s odd combination of drama and whimsy into a stunning series of songs sublimely suited to the events and locations they accompany. From epic choral pieces punctuating key moments, to they oddly-endearing chanting of “children” in a village populated by robots with a desire to be human, the music is always perfect.
The action is all PlatinumGames. The Japanese developer has established itself as the go-to studio for blazing fast, viscerally satisfying combat. 2B battles with speed and grace, owning the battlefield like an avenging android angel. She switches weapons on the fly, dodges an enemy’s strike and retaliates with a stylish rebuttal with sword, spear and fist as her ever-present pod drone fires an endless stream of bullets.