NieR: Automata Review – Beautiful Despair (PS4)
When the original Nier came out in 2010, it was met with pretty mixed reviews. Some criticized the Drakengard spin-off for its poor visuals and repetitive side quests, while others praised the quality of its plot and soundtrack as well as its attempt at mixed gameplay. In spite of it not selling well, Nier became a cult classic and the dedicated support of its fans inspired the game’s producer Yosuke Saito to reunite with Nier creator Yoko Taro, as well as many of the others who worked on Nier, to create a sequel with Bayonetta developer Platinum Games.
Glory to Mankind
The story of Nier: Automata takes place thousands of years after the events of Nier. Humanity has fled to the moon after aliens and their machine army invaded and took over Earth. To fight back, a special army of androids called YoRHa were created to battle the machines on Earth alongside an already existing Resistance group composed of older-generation androids.
Much like the original, Nier: Automata’s full story is hidden behind the veil of multiple playthroughs, which the game calls “Endings.” Going through the first chapter of the story twice will unlock the second chapter and completing that opens up the third and final chapter, which in itself consists of two possible playthroughs and multiple endings. But unlike Nier, players don’t always control the same character in all of the game’s chapters or playthroughs, with the latter chapters giving players the option to choose the character route they’d like to play through first. The change makes this style of delivery feel less tedious and lets elements of the story be told and revealed through different perspectives, which opens up opportunities for more powerful storytelling.
In the game’s first playthrough, players take on the role of 2B (or YoRHa No. 2 Model B), a female combat android from YoRHA. She is often accompanied by 9S (YoRHa No. 9 Model S), a male scanner/hacker android who’s also from YoRHA. The two are sent down to Earth from the Bunker, the satellite headquarters of YoRHa that orbits Earth, to conduct missions for YoRHa as well as to assist the Resistance and its members.
Apart from the main storyline, the game features a large variety of side quests. Although the objectives of the side quests are quite typical, which include the usual fetch and kill quests, among others, their presentation and the attached stories give them a bit more flavor and give players additional, and sometimes deep and meaningful, glimpses into the game’s world and its inhabitants. Some of the side quests also offer additional storylines including one that involves one of the original game’s protagonists.
Although the game does feature several connections and references to Nier, including appearances from some of its iconic characters, playing the original isn’t necessary to grasp and appreciate the story of Nier: Automata. This gives both fans of the original and newcomers to the series equal opportunity to enjoy the game. Although, those already familiar with Nier’s story and characters will undoubtedly enjoy how Nier: Automata connects to the original.
In spite its onset dark tones and themes, Nier: Automata’s contrasting character and world design as well as its control of colors make the game’s elements and moments stand out beautifully. Many of its environments and enemies feature dull color tones and aesthetics, all of which make Akihiko Yoshida’s flashy main character designs easily stand out. And while the game is mostly played in color, it switches to black and white several times during the story as well as during several situations, instantly giving the game a different feel and weight.
Most of Nier: Automata is set in several geographically connected locations including a ruined city, an amusement park, a desert, and a forest, each with its own identity and tone. There are also several hubs where players can obtain quests, purchase items and upgrades, and more. Most of the locations can be traversed by foot but a fast-travel system and the ability to ride animals using an item is also made available. The game does have an issue with invisible walls where some of its areas, mostly interiors of buildings, may seem passable but are actually not, leading to a bit of confusion and the need to check each door or window to find out if they’re accessible and possibly contain items inside.
Grace and Chaos
Nier: Automata brings back the same mixed gameplay that helped make the original so enjoyable, and has improved on it tenfold. While the game is primarily played in a three-dimensional third-person perspective, it occasionally switches to either a pseudo two-dimensional top-down or side-scrolling view. Combat is significantly faster-paced than the original, owing to new series developer Platinum Games. It also features shoot-em-up and bullet hell elements, especially during its pseudo two-dimensional sections that sometimes feature combat in flight units. All this in addition to the game’s setting make the mixed gameplay work and fit significantly better than it did in the original.
When fighting as 2B or some of the other playable android characters, players have access to four weapon types – small swords, large swords, spears, and combat bracers – that can be assigned to either the action game standard light or heavy attack, giving players quite the number of options for melee combat. There are a few dozen available weapons in the game and each one have specific light or heavy attack chains, depending where they’re assign them. Light attack chains can also be followed up with a single heavy attack that utilizes both equipped weapons.
Although the chain attacks and combos of melee weapons are enjoyably flashy, the game’s many chaotic battles make it difficult to pull off full chains as players are often forced to alternate between attacking and dodging. Dodging in Nier: Automata is one of the best parts of its combat though. Because while players can typically dodge away from enemies to avoid both melee and ranged attacks, waiting until attacks are split-seconds away from connecting before triggering dodge makes characters perform a special and incredibly flashy dodge move that makes them invincible and gives them access to several powerful and equally flashy counterattacks.
Weapons can be upgraded to improve their damage, lengthen their combos, and sometimes give them special bonuses. Upgrading weapons also unlock the stories behind them called Weapon Stories. Another element from the original that makes a return in Nier: Automata, Weapon Stories add yet another element to the game’s already teeming number of features.
While the playable characters are mostly limited to close-range combat, range combat is made possible with the characters’ Pod companions, small flying robots that act as combat support as well as personal assistants of sorts in the game’s narrative. Players are allowed to equip multiple Pods at once but are limited to summoning and utilizing them one at a time. For combat, each Pod is equipped with a ranged attack such as a machine gun or missile launchers and may also be equipped with a special ability which works on a cooldown. Some of these abilities may be focused on offense, defense, or utility, giving players another level of options in combat. Like weapons, Pods are upgradable if the required materials and currency are acquired.
The game’s multitude of battles can range from senselessly easy to incredibly challenging. In its harder encounters, players are either faced with several tough opponents or a vast number of weaker opponents that attempt to drown you in both melee and ranged attacks. And the boss battles either feature several sequences of bullet hell, shoot-em-up gameplay or singular third-person action combat that will test your reflexes and awareness, both of which play a big role in success in Nier: Automata’s combat.
Nier: Automata also features a hacking mini-game that is used quite a number of times during the game and plays directly into the game’s plot. Featuring classic, top-down bullet hell shooter gameplay, the hacking mini-game can range from quick and simple to fairly challenging. There is also a fishing mini-game that allows players to earn additional gold or find items.
Character progression consists of a leveling system that automatically increases stats and a Plug-in Chip system that players can customize depending on their play style. Plug-in chips are upgrades that can be installed into characters up to an available capacity, which can also be expanded through vendors. There are a wide variety of Plug-in Chips available in the game, from System Chips that control HUD elements such as the HP gauge to chips that improve or add skills and abilities. The chips can be collected from a variety of sources such as chests and enemies and may also be purchased at shops.
While the player can have the game automatically set up Plug-in Chip loadouts that focus on either offense, defense, or utility, players can also completely customize their loadouts, including the option to remove crucial System Chips to disable HUD elements such as the HP gauge. The two options make the system accessible to more casual players while giving those who want to manually increase the game’s difficulty the opportunity to do so.
All the game’s playable characters share experience and levels as well as weapons, plug-in chips, and items. To account for this, the game provides several Plug-in Chip loadouts so players can easily switch if and when the controlled character changes. This makes progression through its playthroughs and chapters more efficient as players no longer need to remake Plug-in chip loadouts or collect new weapons or items for each playthrough or chapter.
Dagger to the Heart
Blanketing and elevating the game’s multitude of experiences is an amazing soundtrack that greatly surpasses the already praised music of the original. The array of vocal and instrumental tracks not only seamlessly transition and flow with each other, they are also almost perfectly timed and fitted to each of the game’s events, ultimately uplifting each moment and giving players a more immersive and deeper experience. Nier: Automata is an excellent example of how music is capable of not only uplifting but also strengthening experiences.
Nier: Automata is a delectable buffet of remarkable experiences that seamlessly and beautifully mesh together. In spite its plethora of elements, the game doesn’t suffer from the sometimes inevitable pitfalls of trying to do too much. This new entry into the series improves on what made the original so great while remedying some of its predecessor’s most glaring weaknesses. PlatinumGames has done an excellent job at taking Yoko Taro’s deep and interesting world and giving it an amazing gameplay experience that fits it perfectly. Fans of the original as well as newcomers to the series will undoubtedly appreciate what Nier: Automata has to offer.
Review code for Nier: Automata provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.