Nier: Automata burst onto my radar with a demo release back in December. It was fantastic. It promised high octane action that flitted between hack and slash sections alongside shmup style battles. If that was the whole game then it would have been awesome. But Nier actually has more to say than sublime mindless action. Don’t worry, though, that’s here too.
Set many years after the events of the first game, Nier: Automata takes place after humanity failed miserably at fighting the machines so decided to scarper to the moon. You play as 2B, a combat android designed to fight against the machines because humans were beyond awful at it.
The story of Nier: Automata is engaging, delightfully weird and undoubtedly the game’s greatest asset. Put in control of 2B you are joined by recon specialist 9S as they embark on a journey to make Earth a safe place for people once again. Along the way, they’re forced to question their existence and what they’re truly fighting for. There are so many twists and turns throughout the game that it sticks in your head long after putting it down.
It’s sometimes disturbing, one scene in the desert springs to mind, and very frequently leans on the melancholy side. But it doesn’t dwell on a sombre tone so much that the fun is squeezed out of it. There are some wonderfully whimsical moments that show director Yoko Taro’s delightful off-kilter personality. The machines, in particular, are a great source of entertainment, with many odd iterations of them scattered throughout the small-scale open world. It’s refreshing to see a game tackle heavier topics without losing its sense of fun.
Finishing the game once is only part of the tale though. Further playthroughs reveal more of the narrative and even introduce new mechanics. This may sound like an odd way to do things, but trust me, after playing the game you’ll see the merits of this approach.
Of course, a story is nothing without good characters and Nier has plenty. Both main characters, 2B and 9S, are incredibly likeable. 2B initially comes across as cold and fiercely dedicated to her mission. But a more caring side to her and a justification for her standoffish nature is explored in the latter stages to great effect. 9S meanwhile is upbeat and insatiably curious and as you progress he ends up having one of the best developments arcs in recent memory.
Alongside our two heroes, there are lots of fascinating robots to meet, both major and minor. There’s the pacifist machine Pascal, who leads a peaceful machine village to the bemusement of our heroes who are programmed to believe all machines are inherently evil. There’s also a murderous robotic opera singer whose backstory is more tragic than you’d expect, given that she kills androids and sticks them on crosses. There are many more intriguing characters to discover, some of which are completely hidden away and those who simply rampage through the story will miss them entirely.
That’s why I’d strongly recommend tackling every side quest, though you’d probably still miss out on a few things the game never thinks to tell you. Hidden secrets are a big part of Nier, down to something as simple as never telling you that lightly stroking the trackpad does something. It strives to reward people who love exploring every nook of a game world, rather than just giving them a measly trophy for collecting 100 feathers that add nothing to the experience.
The side quests themselves are a mixed bag. Some are fairly boring fetch quests that see you traipse into the desert or the abandoned factory to pick up a couple of screws or something. Meanwhile, others are much more engaging and have satisfying payoffs, though you may have to wait until later in the story for this. Nier likes to play the long game you see. Though frequently interesting from a lore viewpoint, the side quests are rarely as enjoyable to play as the main missions. This is largely due to Nier’s continued disregard for sticking to one genre in story quests. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a super fancy plane shooting robots out of the sky. Then, that plane will transform into a mech and suddenly you’re playing a twin-stick shooter pitted in the depths of bullet hell. It’s not the focal combat of the game but it’s still expertly delivered and great fun.
Back on terra firma, it’s a similar story, you’ll get your third-person hack and slash affair but sometimes the camera perspective will seamlessly change. Before you know it you’re twin-stick shooting android style or leaping across platforms from a 2D angle. This 2D viewpoint is present in some boss battles too, giving a fighting game vibe as you’re placed in a more intimate 1v1 setting. It’s utterly bonkers but absolutely fantastic.
On the surface then, this is very much a Yoko Taro game, but underneath, you’ll find PlatinumGames making it all possible. At this point, their involvement seems to go one of two ways. You can get the deeply satisfying combat system, with gratifying combos found in Bayonetta. Or, you get The Legend of Korra. Fortunately, Nier: Automata isn’t a slapdash TV series tie-in. Though it’s certainly more immediately accessible than Bayonetta.
The combat in Automata isn’t particularly challenging. You can string combos together with a few quick taps and the window of opportunity to dodge is incredibly generous. Though that doesn’t mean it feels bad. The moves 2B can pull off look great and the graceful way she avoids enemy attacks is rewarded with a brief slowdown that gives you a moment to admire how great you are.
The accessibility shouldn’t be a reason for more seasoned players to ignore Automata altogether though. For those looking for a challenging experience, Nier has you covered. The game has a difficulty setting where you die in one hit and given the bullet hell nature of some sections, this should provide that punishing experience some masochistic gamers crave.
By doing this you will appreciate the real depth of the combat system. 2B’s attacks can be cancelled at any time and her dash can vary in length depending on how long you hold the button. This allows you to abort from any combo that’s leading you straight into the flailing arms of a robot and it’s possible to pull off impressive dodges without the use of the button designated for that role.
Automata also uses a variety of systems to give players a pleasing amount of options for choosing their own style of play. There are a plethora of weapons available such as swords, bracers and spears and you can equip two of these at a time. Each pairing will provide a different set of combos.
Opt for two small swords for a fast-paced, lower damage per hit style or two heavy swords for a more brute force approach. There’s a lot of weapon choice so it’s good to swap them out to see what over the top moves you can perform whilst finding what works best for you.
Then there’s the plugin-chip system. Being an android you have the option to change bits of your software, but obviously being a computer of sorts, you’re limited by memory space. Once you’ve purchased more you can really customise your character.
Effectively serving as upgrades there are things you’d expect like flat damage increases and buffs to health. But there are also more interesting plugins such as Vengeance which sends a percentage of damage caused by an enemy straight back at them or another that unleashes a ranged shockwave from your melee attacks. There’s a staggering amount to tinker with.
As well as slicing and dicing you’re also accompanied by a floating robot known as a Pod. This little fellow will provide your ranged attacks. They come in three flavours – Gatling gun, laser and homing missile launcher. Your chips can also affect your Pod so if you wanted to focus on a ranged approach, then you can. Choice doesn’t just apply to combat either. Nier has 26 endings. Most of these aren’t serious, but they still provide a resolution for making an unorthodox choice. You may naturally stumble on a few of them if you like testing a game to see what happens if you ignore mission objectives. Even though the majority of them are jokes it’s nice to see the game provide a conclusion to a decision you make, even if it’s only a few lines of text.
Nier isn’t perfect, though. There are few niggles here and there beyond the occasionally bland side quest. There are numerous invisible walls scattered around the world that are baffling in some cases and downright irritating in others. The worst example is found in the desert where you’ll have to navigate a maze of the things to get to your objective and this just makes something that should be trivial needlessly difficult.
Graphically it’s also a fairly dated look game, not that this matters really. A good aesthetic can carry a game a long way and Nier certainly has that. The gothic servant design of the androids is incredible and some of the bosses look fantastic such as our favourite opera singer death machine. Even the simple angry pepper pot design of the machines is endlessly endearing, particularly how they stay loyal to this base idea and create a surprising variety of enemies with it.
Chances are you haven’t played many games like Nier: Automata. It’s that rare beast that successfully mashes multiple genres together and provides a brilliant narrative that’s both intriguing and highly entertaining. The plugin chips provide an insane amount of choice, that you can mix up in further playthroughs to keep things fresh. It’s undoubtedly a special title and one that you shouldn’t miss, because who knows when we’ll get another one like it.