YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED THE GAME WHEN YOU THINK YOU HAVE FINISHED THE GAME, reads a key section of the NieR: Automata reviewer’s guide (yes, in capitals), and it succinctly sums up the entire game. You may think you know what NieR: Automata is, but it takes delight in twisting and warping itself in unexpected and welcome ways. Where innovation in gaming often simply means a new weapon or slightly redesigned HUD, NieR: Automata embraces the weird and wonderful and it, surprisingly, works far more often than you would initially think. It energetically defies genres and categorisation.
Developed by Platinum Games and creative guru Yoko Taro, NieR: Automata is technically a follow-up to 2010’s Nier, but there are almost no direct links between the two. Instead, Automata more closely aligns itself to Platinum Games’ other titles like Bayonetta 2 and the underrated Transformers: Devastation. And this is no phone-home title like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan, this is a game into which Platinum have clearly placed a huge amount of energy and soul. It goes well beyond the basic mechanics and structures of its previous titles, with twists, turns and surprises not only in the narrative but also in gameplay that take this game well beyond a hack and slash brawler.
And that’ because Nier: Automata isn’t afraid to shift things up. One moment you’ll be controlling the android protagonist 2B in a fully 3D world, then the next minute – within the same Level – be moved to a 2.5D platformer before being shoved into a top-down shoot-em-up. That’s without mentioning the surprisingly deep RPG mechanics – upgrades to your stats, weapons and pods which houses your ranged attacks. It keeps you on your toes, and it made me curious approaching every major fight. What new or bizarre twist would I face?
NieR: Automata is a game that is designed to be replayed. Your “playthrough” isn’t actually complete at the end of the credits. The game opens up after multiple “finishes” and seeing the credits is more like finishing a chapter in any other game. As anyone who has replayed a game before can tell you, it’s often only after a few goes through do the mechanics, lore and environment come together in a way that can be sometimes revelatory. Trying games on different difficulty levels, for example The Last of Us, can vastly alter how you approach individual scenarios and the game as a whole. Automata explicitly not only recognises this, but rewards it. There are even a number of joke endings that take the seriousness and weight of the game and self-reverentially throw it all out the window.
A strange, but deliberate omission is the lack of auto save and most check-pointing, which the game warns you about repeatedly. While there are lots of save points anyway and the PS4’s suspend function can cover over this somewhat, make sure to let anybody else who uses your console know lest you lose any progress [speaking from experience!].
It seems all the creative energy went into the gameplay, not the graphics – at times Nier looks like an upscaled PS2 game, but it does attempt to run at 60FPS. This is good trade-off for this sort of game, although I had noticeable lag, frame-time spikes and frame drops in the game. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that Automata is pushing the system to the limits, judging by how many decibels the fans were kicking out on my PS4.
One of the more intriguing systems in the entire game is an innovative online death system. You encounter other downed androids, real players, in the environment and can pray for them and refill health but also reap them for parts. Alternatively, you can have them fight alongside you for a while. However this is risk/reward as they may turn against you.
The combat is typically excellent Platinum Games fighting. Light and strong attacks, combos and movements are all here and feel great. Like in Bayonetta, dodging at the last second gives you the opportunity to get some free hits in. You can switch weapons and even loadouts on the fly and when done mid combo can create some very stylish moves. If you have played any Platinum Games in the last few years, you know what you’re getting, and you’re likely excited about that.
With a number of allies and enemies on the screen, it can become very difficult to identify your target and see their telegraphs. With dodging such an important part of the combat flow, not being able to see when an enemy is attacking you can be fairly annoying. This is not a problem in fights with larger enemies but some human-sized fights were quite confusing.
A few slightly missed elements mar what is otherwise an excellent experience. The lack of auto-saves seem unnecessarily punitive, and out of step with modern game design. The map is difficult to follow, and it can be hard to know at times where you need to go next (hint: try walking out into the main world, it usually triggers a conversation). The level of detail on some of the artwork is disappointing for a 2017 title, especially given the sumptuousness of some of Platinum’s other titles. But in the end this is a game about combat, and it does that extremely well.
It’s hard to say what is individually so great about NieR: Automata. Its world-building perhaps? Well yes. Its combat? With Platinum Games at the helm, obviously? Its soundtrack? Yes, it’s amazing. Its story? Melancholic and reflective, it’s one of the best in the developer’s stable. But in my view its nearly everything else that makes the game so special. It’s a restless game, always hungry to try something new and never let you get bored. In a game that attempts so much its almost surprising that it really does pull it off. If you’ve become a bit bored with games of late, excellent as they’ve been, NieR: Automata was made for you. To me, the game represents not only a great play experience, but a challenge to other games to step up and give us something as fresh, complex and unexpected as what this game presents. While none of its parts individually is that innovative, as a package, and the very specific way that it is wrapped makes this an experience not to be missed.
Released: March 2017
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Genre: Action, JRPG
Developer: Platinum Games