9929 years in the future, we will have cute androids dressed as gothic lolitas.
Two years ago, when I heard that NieR, the 2010 cult classic, would get a sequel, I was ecstatic. That a game as obscure as NieR would be getting a sequel, I was instantly sold. Yoko Taro is back? With PlatinumGames and Square Enix? Every trailer and piece of art showing vague hints from the first NieR game and the Drakengard series had me excited. I was more than sold. 2017 could not come soon enough. Finally, after months of waiting, the game is in our hands.
NieR: Automata is the direct sequel to 2010’s role playing game NieR. It was developed by PlatinumGames and directed by Yoko Taro, the mask-wearing madman that brought us the Drakengard series.
On the surface, NieR: Automata is a role playing game with character-action combat and bullet-hell shmup sections. A pretty strange combination, but this game was developed by PlatinumGames, famed for titles like Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising. In Automata, you play as YoRHa No. 2 Model B, or 2B for short, as she explores the ruins of mankind’s past on the Earth’s surface. 2B is a combat android, wearing a fashionable yet daring dress, tasked with assisting the war effort against the machines that control the planet.
2B has two weapon slots: one for light attacks, and one for heavy attacks. These varying weapon types define her attacks and combos. Your defensive option is a dodge that you can freely incorporate into your combos as you dash around the battlefield. All this, backed by fluid animations that bring it all together, results in combat that is fast, hectic, and exciting.
Elements of shoot ‘em ups, or “shmups” for short, are boldly fused into Automata’s combat. While many enemies prefer to face you in melee, others unleash varying patterns of projectiles. Sometimes, the game enters a side-scrolling or top-down view during exploration and combat, changing how you should deal with certain enemies and their bullet patterns.
Like other shmups, you can fire back via your Pod, a little machine that acts as 2B’s third weapon. The Pod comes equipped with programs that allow it to fire bullets, missiles, lasers, summon spears from the ground, or call forth shields. As you progress, you will find more of these programs, allowing you to customize your Pod to complement your personal preferences.
In addition to customizing your weapon loadouts and robot buddy, you can customize 2B’s chips. Plug-in chips are mixed and matched to modify 2B’s performance and combat features. While you begin the game with a humble amount of chip slots, you’ll eventually have enough options to fine-tune your play style. With chips, you can increase your movement speed, your damage, your defenses, the distance of your dodge. You can also gain attacks that area-of-effect abilities, health boosts when you defeat enemies, the ability to parry, or slow down time when you perfectly dodge an attack, to name a few. You can even remove parts of the user interface, such as the minimap or health bar, to make room for other chips.
However, the chips feature is not all sunshine and rainbows, as the game has adopted a death mechanic similar to From Software’s Souls series. If you die, you leave behind a corpse containing your equipped chips. If you fail to reach your chips because you were defeated again or you took too long, you risk losing them for good. When you do reach them, you are given two options: instantly re-equip your chips or revive your corpse to act as an ally until it is slain, giving back your chips. This cool and unique twist gives players the choice of how to deal with whatever it was that killed them in the first place. This mechanic will certainly make sure that players bring their best to every fight, lest they lose their hard-earned chips.
This game does not only have excellent gameplay, but also a great story, albeit one that is difficult to follow at times. 2B belongs to YoRHa, an army of androids serving as a proxy army for the remnants of humanity living on the moon. The main villain is the machine menace created by alien invaders that began to rule the Earth in the year 11945 AD.
Simple right? If only. Much like in the Souls games, much of the storytelling is hidden between the lines. To get the full experience, one must have played the first NieR, read its guides, played the Drakengard series, and read Yoko Taro’s stage plays, all of which were incorporated into the game one way or another. While this may be daunting to many, it is not necessary to have followed the whole “series” to enjoy NieR: Automata. You might miss details hidden in this game’s story and world, especially if you’ve missed the first game.
The story itself is not what you’d expect from an action game about attractive androids in fashionable outfits fighting giant machines with katanas. Automata explores subjects such as prejudice, loss, emotion, and humanity. Following your first playthrough, the plot is explored from different angles, containing new cutscenes and events. It reflects the views of the other characters and what they think of the conflict. For the completionists among us, there are 26 different endings, some much harder to reach then others. As of writing this, I have reached two endings, one of which I encountered entirely by accident.
The characterization is great, with every character being a distinct soul in the war against the machines. The main protagonist, 2B, is a combat android who tries her best to stay professional and emotionless throughout the plot. Her companion, the support android 9S, is a chatterbox who always likes to voice his opinion on things. 2B and 9S complement each other well and their interactions help build their personalities and relationships, with others affirming or questioning their values as the plot thickens.
The game’s score was composed by Keiichi Okabe and Keigo Hoashi, who have worked on soundtracks for both the Katamari and Tekken games. Automata’s music is outstanding, to say the least. The score is rooted in high-energy, fantasy-style orchestras and choirs, mixing in with a variety of vocalists. On the flip side, some tracks utilize a spacey emptiness accompanied by isolated synth tones. It helps make the world of the far future feel alien and mystical, at least through the eyes of an android. Some plot moments would lose their emotional kick if the music was of lower caliber. In one particular scene, a horde of machines go mad and the player must escape their lair. The entire moment was made real through the soundtrack’s unrelenting dread.
Visually, Automata is nothing to write home about. Some of the world’s textures are noticeably low-res in cutscenes and some particle effects feel flat. The models look no better than those in PS3 games, but this pays off as the game usually runs at a solid 60 frames per second. It’s important to note that I played this game on a normal PS4 while the developers promised enhanced textures on the PS4 Pro and PC versions of the game.
The game, however, does have a couple of flaws that have an impact on the experience. Firstly, NPCs can sometimes fail to perform animations. During a fight against a large machine, I was grabbed and thrown. However, the enemy entered its idle animation instead of the actual swinging animation, and my character went flying around the place like a ragdoll for seemingly no reason. Another time, I was performing a finisher on an enemy; like above, the target remained on the ground in its idle animation while my character slashed at the empty air. Throughout my time playing this game, this and the occasional frame rate drops are the biggest technical problems.
The world map is annoying to work with. It’s a pixelated bird’s eye view of all the areas of the game, and as such it omits details such as paths, their elevation, or anything located underground. There is even an NPC in the game who points out how bad the world map is, saying, “It’s the best we got.” It’s cute, but being being self-aware of the game’s issues does not make up for them. You’d think the technologies of the far future would work better than this.
The world is also exhausting to traverse. Despite your character’s maneuverability and how pretty and interesting some of the locales are, traveling for long distances is not something to look forward to. Thankfully, the game introduces a fast travel system relatively early into the game, letting you teleport between save stations and alleviating some of the pain.
All in all, NieR: Automata is far from perfect, and will not “wow” crowds like bigger titles this generation. It is not a game that will win awards or sell millions of copies (which, admittedly, is Square Enix’s fault for not advertising this game enough). It is both a hidden gem and a special game, if nothing else. Automata is one of the rare games which has maintained my excitement and interest from its announcement to far after its launch. I have yet to see everything the game has to offer and have completed even less, yet I cannot help but love the game and everything I’ve done in it.
If you are looking for a breath of fresh air, look no further than NieR: Automata.
For the glory of mankind.
(Featured Image: NieR: Automata by Square Enix)