Game Review: NieR – Automata (PS4)

I played very little of the original NieR back on the Xbox 360 some 7 years ago. The main protagonist just wasn’t that interesting and the world and gameplay were just nothing really to write home about. When it was announced that Platinum Games would take on the development chores for its long-awaited sequel, I was met with slight skepticism since Platinum Games track record has been less than stellar recently. NieR: Automata at first wasn’t the game I had hoped it to be, but after a solid 20-30 hours with the game, it started to get its hooks into me and frankly, I was glad to be along for the ride.

NieR: Automata tells a few stories from various points of view, swapping control to several characters during the 40+ hours I spent with the title. It’s also a game that is meant to be completed several times over, a concept I’ll touch upon shortly. The game attempts to fuse several different playstyles together to offer not just variety, but ways in which to keep you on your toes, and more or less this fusion of various bits of gameplay works well and gives NieR: Automata a unique voice among its genre.

There are 5 core endings that tell the entirety of the story in Automata, each being unlocked after completing the game over and over. Your first two playthroughs will be very similar to one another, with maybe an hour or two of different moments. The 3rd playthrough; however, was my favorite of the bunch and felt like an instant sequel to the game I had just finished twice over. There are 21 additional endings that are mostly jokes or abrupt endings that relate in some ways to moral issues or character motivations.

There are several characters in NieR: Automata, but only 3 of them that you’ll play a substantial amount of the game as; 2B, 9S, and A2. Yes, those are the names of each of the protagonists and not models of the latest iPhone. You play as a collective of androids, a group called YoRHa. These androids were created by humans to battle a group of invading machines that forced humanity to flee to the moon. YoRHa takes the fight back to earth to reclaim it from this alien machine threat.

You start the game as 2B, partnered up with 9S. 2B is calm, composed, and she is unwilling to let emotion get in the way of the mission. 9S is a scouting class of android, not designated for combat, but glad to have a partner as he usually is solo on his assignments. The two form a strong bond and together must defeat countless machines, both small and colossal in size. Once you complete 2B’s campaign, you’ll swap to the viewpoint of 9S, as this will allow you to see his side of the story during moments where 2B isn’t present. During this playthrough, you’ll see about a few hours or so of new content as well as the ability to wrap up any side quests you didn’t complete or missions that you did not discover. 9S also has a hacking mechanic that can lead to some interesting confrontations and gameplay moments.

Sometime into your initial playthrough, you’ll encounter A2 and it won’t be until much later that you discover who the character is and what they mean to your journey. A2 is also the star of the third playthrough and easily my favorite character in the game. While 2B has some good moments and character work present throughout the many completions of this game, she just wasn’t as interesting as A2. While there are moments where 9S was an engaging character, that second playthrough just hurt the character overall for me, as the repeated 10 hours of gameplay with very little to change it up, just didn’t do it for me. Hearing the same lines of dialogue, the same jokes and the fact that the amazing boss battles are pretty much skipped during his campaign, just made his chapter, and him, my least favorite thing about the game.

The supporting cast doesn’t favor much better, as there are only a small handful of characters who you will even remember their names. Pascal, the robot in the forest is about the only character that even came close to making me care about them. There are some story-focused characters in the main village, a few merchants, and some various toss away characters that peddle their wares near the desert, all of which are easily forgettable. You’ll visit dozens and dozens of NPC’s for various side quests but they all tend to offer variations on fetch quests and rarely anything substantial. Two characters that I really wanted to like were the twins, a pair of girls who you’ll encounter in the main base camp. While most of your interactions are with them in this camp, the moments in the late game where you’ll encounter them outside the camp just didn’t have the impact I wanted and the visual novel that follows that moment really slowed down the game when it really should have been ramping up to the finale.

Platinum Games is known for exciting and fast paced combat and NieR: Automata doesn’t disappoint. Battles are intense affairs that will have you learning enemy patterns to find an opening and knowing when to dodge and retreat to avoid taking heavy damage. Combat is downright brutal on hard and a bit more tolerable on normal. You’ll find katana’s, broadswords, spears, basic swords and a few more variations on weapons that can all be upgraded and set to easily swappable weapon sets to switch on the fly during battle.

Each character is outfitted with a robot companion called a Pod. These robotic helpers can be equipped with skills like lasers, hammers, gravity bombs, spears and more. Upon finding a second pod, I found a nice balance in the game having one set for lasers as the rapid shooting and charged shots to be really effective and during its cool down I would then swap to the second pod and attack with its spear as it handled crowd control rather well. Pods can be upgraded to boost their damage and trust me, it can be crucial to do so.

Swinging swords and dodging attacks are only part of the combat in NieR: Automata as you’ll often take to the skies in a transforming flying mech. These encounters often result in bullet-hell type encounters that will have you dodging energy blasts and small circles of death that will fill the screen constantly. These encounters happen in a variety of different playstyles and often will switch back and forth to keep you alert and entertained. These types of bullet-hell mechanics are not entirely exclusive to the mech portions of the game as many bosses and enemy types will attack you in this way while on foot, it just happens far more often during these flying missions.

2B, 9S, and A2 all share the same upgrades and items that you’ll encounter on your journey, and considering this game is meant to be completed over and over again, the systems of progression feel worth it and it can feel rewarding to put so much time and effort into unlocking new weapons and discovering new skills to see them show up again upon starting a continued new playthrough for each character.

Skills are used through a system called Chips. These Chips have a numeric amount of what can be equipped. If your Chip has a storage value of 40, then all skills must add up to 40. I upgraded my Chip to 120 and was able to kit out my characters with enough skills and passive abilities to my liking. These skills can range from earning more experience during battle, boosting defense or weapon damage, to allowing items to be auto-picked up instead of having to press X on each item drop I would encounter. There is a wealth of skills to learn and should you fuse skills together to make their effects more potent, then those skills will raise in their numeric value and take up more real estate in your Chip. You can setup and customize different Chips should you feel that certain encounters can benefit from a different Chip setup and therefore it can be a deep and rewarding system should you want to put the time into it.

Nearly all the forces against you are composed of various types of robots, some tiny and mostly cute looking, to large and colossal in nature. Most of the typical foes can be taken down pretty easily and without much effort, but larger and more complicated enemies will require some fast dodging and clever tactics. The game also features some incredible boss battles that are a real highlight of the game. My favorite, mostly due to the theatrics of its design is in the amusement park encounter as not only is the boss wonderfully designed, but the whole battle itself is just exciting. There is also a battle near the finale of the game that has you swapping back and forth to different characters battling two separate bosses that are pretty much identical to each other, yet the fights themselves are entirely different and boy is it fun.

While NieR: Automata isn’t a flat out gorgeous title, it still is a very good looking game. There are some sections of green here and there but the game does suffer from a very bland brown color scheme for much of its length. The main cast of characters have some pretty decent looking models but the NPC’s that fill up the game are just painful to look at, especially in a game of this console generation.

If I had to list my favorite element to NieR: Automata it would be its music. Composer Keiichi Okabe, who has worked alongside game director Yoko Taro for quite some time now, has delivered one of the best soundtracks ever created. There are so many songs here that I constantly hum when not playing the game or look forward to when I would jump back in for another playthrough. What I found refreshing about the soundtrack as well was the fact that the songs don’t loop as multiple tracks were created to transition from song to song and given the nature of battle or a change in environment, the song choices would change as well. The vocals of a few of the tracks are also stunning and feature some of the best singing I’ve heard in an original song created for a video game.

When not decimating tiny robot after tiny robot, I’d come across a few parts and mechanics to the game that I found lacking. I found the map system to be poorly designed as it can be hard to read and often I would be set on a path only for it to be a dead end or I would end up going in the wrong direction as there is no compass marker on the mini-map. Because of this, I would constantly have to check my map to make sure I was heading in the right direction and having to do this had become quite the chore. There is also no way to set an objective marker to be seen in the game world as it can only be seen via the mini-map. I also found the menu to be pretty bland and while it can be fairly easy to navigate, it felt almost like a placeholder for a menu system that they didn’t get around to making.

My last complaint comes due to the open-world nature of the game. I found that after the intense and exciting first hour or so of the game that the sudden drop into the open-world made the game’s pacing screech to a halt. I also found most areas in the game to be reused far too often, as several areas lose their charm after you’ve revisited them a dozen or so times. I found myself far more engaged in what was going on when it was focused on a pivotal part of the plot or during a boss encounter. I feel that if the game had been less open-world and more compact that I would have enjoyed myself far more as the large open-world is far too barren for its own good.

NieR: Automata is a game that needs to be beaten more than once and while that sounds like a huge effort of seeing the same content again and again, it more or less isn’t. Each playthrough will almost always leave you with more questions than answers even if you think you know what is going on. The open-world elements can drag the game’s pacing down a bit and the side quests themselves can feel like your typical open-world filler, but the main story beats and the engaging characters, especially A2 and her Pod, can give this game a new and refreshing feel, even after 20 or so hours in.

NieR: Automata was played on a PS4 Pro console with a retail copy and all screen shots were taken via the screen capture software built into the console via its twitter share system.

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