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.
It’s such a gorgeous combat system, and it only gets better as the game progresses. On the second playthrough an entirely new combat mechanic is added to the game, hacking, which allows players to bypass fighting in favor of a simplified shooter mini-game. If the player wins, the enemy detonates. If the enemy didn’t see the initial hack, the player also gets the option to charm their foe to attack his compatriots or, even better, take control of them completely.
PlatinumGames has a reputation for satisfying combat, and it lives up to that reputation in Nier: Automata. The developer also has a tendency to slip over-complicated mechanics into the back end (see Transformers: Devastation’s weapon upgrade system.) They do that here, too.
Upgrading weapons and pods is easy. That just takes gathering the right resources. It’s the chip system where things get a bit convoluted. As the player levels up, they gain more space in their android memory to load attack, defense, support and hacking chips. These are items that increase abilities as well as offering various upgrades to the game’s HUD.
It’s dense. In a game where most everything else is lightning-fast, I found trying to make heads or tails of the chip system to be a real drag. I’ve got an inventory full of random chips, with an option to combine the same chips into what I guess are more powerful ones? It’s not quite clear to me. I’m sure more patient folks will get a lot out of the system. As for me, thank goodness the option to just let the game sort things out exists.
Giving players the option to enjoy the game on their own terms is something Nier: Automata does very well. Challenge-hungry players can ramp the difficulty all the way up, doing away with silly things like targeting and aiming. Folks who just want to enjoy the nice game with the pretty androids can set the difficulty to easy, which allows for the equipping of special chips that auto-heal, auto-fight, auto-dodge—they almost play the game for you.
That’s my favorite thing about Nier: Automata. Knowing that it’s accessible to all sorts of players means there’ll be plenty of people to revel with me in this equal parts charming and macabre world that Yoko Taro and PlatinumGames have built.