Review: Nier: Automata
Sometimes you'll miss out on a game that you never knew existed. In 2010, Nier (the original) was that game for me. This was probably because it was released for PlayStation 3, and I didn't own one at the time. This was still sort of the era when you could go into a game store and actually find games you hadn't heard about in mass marketing. I wouldn't learn about Nier until I saw that its sequel, Nier: Automata had released in 2017. Nier: Automata didn't immediately catch my eye, but sometime early this year, I figured maybe it was time to try out this game so many game news outlets spoke highly of. After figuring out how to play the original Nier without a PS3 (you can find my review for that game here), I finally felt ready to play Nier: Automata. Here is my review.
Nier: Automata is hack-and-slash, open-world RPG set in the far future, where sentient androids are locked in a seemingly endless war against machine lifeforms brought to Earth by aliens. You alternate playing as a few of these androids, designated as 2B, 9S, and A2. These androids are part of a special squadron called YoRHa, and are tasked with the mission of bringing an end to the machine war so that the surviving humans can return to Earth from their refuge on the Moon. Along the way you play different sections of the game as these three characters, which allows you to see the story through their different perspectives.
Nier: Automata's game play is very simple, like most hack-and-slash games appear at first. For ground combat, there are light and heavy attack buttons, with a couple combos for each, a dodge/counter, and a button for special attacks that you can swap out with a few different attacks in a menu. Like in the original Nier, you also have to dodge a barrage of energy attacks from enemies in bullet-hell fashion. While dodging around enemy attack patterns was engaging, I found the attacking side of combat to be a little stale. I mostly stuck to only one of the special abilities and mashed the square button to get through fights. Other games of the genre, like Bayonetta or the older God of War games, like to add variety to the gameplay by having a myriad of combos and special techniques for the player to use. Another approach to adding variety can be seen in games like the Rocksteady Batman: Arkham series or the recently released Spider-Man game for PS4 (although these are more stealth or action based games). While most of the combat in these games is mashing a button or two, they manage to keep things from getting stale by giving you high mobility and adding a load of gadgets that you can easily switch between mid-fight which allow you to take down a variety of enemy types. While I could see that the bullet-hell elements of Nier: Automata's combat were meant to provide variety like the above examples, I still wish there was something more to the ground combat.
But Nier: Automata's combat doesn't only take place on the ground. There are several arial fights where you switch to piloting a small flight unit. These sections play more like traditional bullet-hell arcade games, where you have a rapid-fire main gun and a larger attack that wipes out quite a few enemies. Additionally, you have light and heavy melee attacks in case any enemies get too close. I found these sections fun at first, but later on in the game they just feel like a chore that you have to get through because at higher levels your attacks are strong enough to kill enemies very quickly, which really cuts down on the challenge.
Another layer of complexity is revealed when you get to switch between a couple different characters throughout the story, as these characters come with interesting differences in the way they approach combat. Depending on who you are playing as, you may have the ability to hack into enemies by playing a minigame to deal a large amount of damage, or activate a berserk mode that greatly increases your damage output for a little while at the cost of lower defense. While I used the hacking ability pretty often, I found myself largely ignoring the berserk mode.
One last mechanic to mention is the plug-in system, which allows you to add some minor buffs and abilities to help out in combat. To utilize this system, you need to search the world for upgrade chips, which you can acquire by killing some enemies or buying them at shops. Additionally, you can create more powerful chips by combining any extras that you find or buy. The catch is, you only have a limited number of chip slots available to use, and the more powerful a chip is, the more space it takes up. This makes you have to carefully choose your chips, and weigh the pros and cons of equipping each one.
Graphically, this game looks stunning. The open world is highly detailed, with a variety of different environments to explore. I really enjoyed looking around for cool places to take screenshots. Enemy energy attacks are easy to see, and their attack animations are distinct and very readable. I never felt that an attack came out of nowhere. However, in some of the more intense fights, especially in the desert areas, it could get a little difficult to see what was going on due to the sheer amount of stuff happening on screen.
Character models are excellent, and the boss characters you encounter have really interesting designs. It really feels like each main character's look was very well thought out. And while there some characters, namely 2B and the YoRHa Commander, have a bit of anime fanservice in their designs, I feel like the game keeps it tasteful. I've definitely seen worse.
Menus and HUD items have a clean, minimalistic aesthetic to them, which goes along well with the far-future setting. Map locations are clearly marked with contrasting colors, making them easy to see. One thing that was very visually interesting is the effect that some stronger enemy attacks have on the HUD. Sometimes you will be counter-hacked or hit with an EMP blast that disrupts a large part of the screen or messes with the controls. Many action games try to stay away from hijacking player controls (for good reason as it's usually annoying), but given the fact that you are playing as androids, it makes sense in the context of Nier: Automata. Additionally, it doesn't happen often, so I never felt annoyed by these effects. Overall, this game has a very obvious aesthetic it is going for, and it nails it perfectly.
One of my favorite parts of Nier: Automata is the soundtrack. For starters, this game has an incredible amount of music in it. Each zone has its own theme, as well as almost every named character. Each boss fight has a unique song, and almost every quest, even siquests, have their own songs that play on completion. Additionally, anytime you enter a hacking minigame, whatever music is playing is run through a chiptune filter, effectively doubling the amount of music in the game. Finally, each of the 5 acts has a unique spin on the final credits music, that all come together in a beautiful way for the final act's credits. I won't say anymore than that to avoid spoilers, as this game should be experienced blindly. In my experience, many games have soundtracks that, while appropriate for the game, aren't really worth listening to after the fact. However, as soon as I completed Nier: Automata, I added quite a few of its songs to my Spotify library.
The story and central theme of Nier: Automata is hard to discuss without ruining some of the experience of the game. That being said, what I can say about the game's message is that it addresses some interesting philosophical topics. Quite a few characters and bosses are named as references to famous philosophers, and there are a few famous quotes thrown in too.
Without revealing too much, Nier: Automata tries to pose an answer to the question of how one is supposed to find meaning in their life. Incidentally, the game's central theme also applies to the question of why someone would want to play video games in the first place. As someone that has probably played at least a couple hundred, if not more, games, sometimes you may start to question why you even continue to play games. For me, this is especially true when I play story based games that can only truly be experienced once, like Bioshock or Metal Gear Solid. Once I've played an impactful game, sometimes I wish that there was more to experience after it's over. It's a weird feeling, but it makes me question why I'd want to keep playing games if they ultimately have to end. However, I feel that Nier: Automata helps to answer this by essentially trying to show the player that the meaning of playing is not about the end of the game, but about finding a message in the game for you to relate to. The reason for playing games is to get some sort of enjoyment, or learn a lesson, or to take away something from the game. While you can't continue the game after it's over, it doesn't diminish the impact the game had on you.
I feel like everything that was wrong with the original Nier was improved upon in Nier: Automata. A lock-on feature was added, which was probably the biggest help with the combat. Additionally, mobility was greatly increased, which allowed for more entertaining and strategic combat. The biggest improvement though, was in the way Nier: Automata handled getting to the different "endings" of the game. In the original Nier, there were four different endings. Endings A and B were simple to get to. Essentially, you just had to play through the game twice. You got to see some additional scenes in the second play though, but other than that, the game was exactly the same. For endings C and D, you had to find all the weapons in the game, and fight the final boss twice to see both endings. Needless to say, this was a bit tedious. In Nier: Automata however, the five "endings" are treated more like five continuous acts in the story. You don't have to play the same exact game over and over to get each ending. And thankfully, there are no bizzare conditions you have to meet to get to the "true" ending of the game. I feel like this was a much better way to approach a story with different endings. I always disliked games that have a load of different endings, as I get a case of FOMO if I can't experience the "good one". Also, I really enjoyed getting to play from the different perspectives of the three different androids in each act. It helped to see different sides of the same story, and the different motivations of each character.
In conclusion, Nier: Automata is an interesting game that I would highly recommend to anyone that wants to experience the full potential of what the video game medium has to offer. It's difficult to explain exactly what I mean by that sentence without ruining the experience, so if you have the chance to try the game out, I strongly suggest you do so. If you go in with an open mind, you may come away from Nier: Automata with a new and interesting perspective on things. But even if this game doesn't move you, I think you'll still have a good time.