Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

NieR: Automata

PlayStation 4

NieR: Automata
Far in the future, a race of aliens dominates the world with their legions of mechanical creatures. The surviving humans retreat to the moon, where they manufacture androids and dispatch them to reclaim the Earth. This war rages for millennia, and the machines still hold the planet. Androids named 2B and 9S are combat models fighting for the sake of humanity, and their current mission drops them into the middle of a ruined city.
It's important to know that NieR: Automata does not hate you, the player.

NieR: Automata very easily could, after all. Yoko Taro's Drakengard titles are vicious creations, and Drakengard 3 remains a fascinatingly savage mockery of violent games and player expectations. It delighted in making you endure a murderous heroine, a maddening final boss, and countless horrific turns in between. Yet Nier, Yoko Taro's tangentially linked 2010 outing, was far more earnest. It told its post-apocalyptic tale with a straighter face and innately sympathetic characters, and that made it all the harsher when crushing tragedy arrived. NieR: Automata wants to do the same thing to you.

The connections between Nier and Drakengard spawn enough alternate timelines and theories to fill several textbooks, but NieR: Automata plants itself in the distant aftermath of the original Nier. In the year 11,945, Earth is in the grip of a long and bitter proxy war: aliens unleashed a plague of machines that overran the planet long ago, while the pitiful remnants of humankind wait on the moon and dispatch androids to combat the mechanized forces in the ruins of Earth civilization.

Nastier truths lurk much deeper in, but the outset NieR: Automata finds the YorHa-group combat androids 2B and 9S at the front lines of the conflict. 2B is a no-nonsense combat model (save for her impractical battle-skirt and high heels), while 9S is a far more inquisitive hacker-and-recon type. Together they explore vast ruined cities, deserts, canyons, and other landscapes scattered with largely hostile machines and the occasional members of a tattered android resistance.

Nier and Drakengard 3 really aren't deficient in gameplay. Both are enjoyable enough in mechanics, but their technical bumps and jarring viewpoints dissuaded some players. NieR: Automata runs far smoother, thanks to Platinum Games (Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance) working below the surface. 2B wields two bladed weapons at any time, and the arsenal steadily expands with new moves and attacks. A floating Pod accompanies her, ready to spew a barrage of laserlike minigun fire or launch an extraordinarily damaging move.

Such a mixture of melee combat and long-range shooting cranked the original Nier well above tedium, and it reaches new heights in Automata. It's easy to lock on to enemies, dodge attacks, switch weapon sets, and quickly use healing items in the heat of battle. Landing powerful close-range attacks puts you at greater risk than whittling down enemies with less damaging Pod fire, and most clashes require a strategic mix of the two. It's a blend that rarely grows old, even when the enemies are the same lumbering rattletraps you've fought a dozen times before.

Nor does NieR: Automata stick to open-field brawling. Like the first Nier, it can switch perspective and gameplay at any time. A trip through a machine stronghold will see the androids dodging enemy bullets from an overhead view and then dashing and jumping in a side-scroller. They might hop into YorHa-issued flying mecha and gun down enemies in a 2-D shooting interlude, itself changing from fixed forward-firing to twin-joystick controls. Or 9S could hack into a foe, which summons a simple virtual-reality shooter of cubes and dots and triangles. NieR: Automata is rarely without surprises, and in that light one can forgive most of the glitches that arise with them.

It wasn't gameplay alone that built Yoko Taro's reputation as a trickster marvel, however. Nier and Drakengard 3 would be nothing without their narrative subterfuge and memorable characters, and Automata runs bland at first. 2B and 9S are pleasant enough as they explore the world and their growing friendship, but they're simple and familiar stereotypes, following a script seen many times before. Nier took only an hour or two to assemble its likeable cast of weirdos, and Drakengard 3's intriguing lunatics and victims laid their cards down within the first level. Even the original Drakengard's uniformly loathsome crew stood out. 2B and 9S are outclassed in presence by the rogue android A2, and she doesn't get as much attention from the story.

The opening banality of 2B and 9S is likely intended, as it makes their machine enemies all the more interesting. Even when they're introduced as thoughtless attackers, there's something vaguely cute and pitiful in their bulbous, twitching heads and tin-can bodies.

That grows as 2B and 9S see more of the world. Within a few hours, it's clear that the machines are a civilization unto themselves. Some run from battle. Some fear outsiders. Some just stand and watch instead of fighting. Some form a kingdom of robots willing to die for their ruler. Some celebrate perpetually in an amusement park. Some start a religious cult with everything but a poisoned tub of Flavor-Aid. And some form a village of helpful pacifist machines who cower and apologize if you're mean enough to attack them. You're not, are you?

The machines add a great deal to NieR: Automata's world of quietly gorgeous decay. It's a place of dull-colored ruins and sand and mountains, but each wreckage pile or gutted building has a vibrant look to it. Everything invites exploration, from the roaming animals to the gorgeous, vocals-heavy soundtrack. And should you explore, you'll find a multitude of side quests that expand the world even further. A few are tedious and distracting, but the majority of them flesh out either characters or overarching ideas.

Sitting on its own, the 2B-centric story would be a perfectly decent game, a well-localized chronicle of a battle android growing just a little human. Engaging, but underfed.

But there's much more to NieR: Automata.

The initial playthrough gives way to a retelling with 9S in the lead. His hacking abilities and their resulting mini-games take center stage during battle, and the story burrows into new layers. It then turns to a third arc and an even deeper and nastier dive through the real reasons behind the android-machine war.

As it did in the original Nier, Yoko Taro's vicious, playful streak emerges slowly. It's not a question of whether horrible things will happen; it's a question of when they'll happen. NieR: Automata holds off just long enough for the characters to grow properly, for 2B, 9S, A2, and their fellow androids and machine allies to endear themselves just enough so the player will care about the whirlwind of revelations demolishing every safe assumption. Multiple endings arise throughout the game, culminating with a brilliant and stirring expansion on the original Nier's biggest gamble. It's among the best finales a game could have.

In fact, Nier: Automata has twenty-six endings. Only five or so really count, as the rest emerge when you deliberately disobey YorHa commands, yank out your central processor, or otherwise mess with the game. And if you should fall in battle, NieR: Automata takes a cue from Dark Souls and lets you salvage experience from your android corpse, complete with a pithily generated epitaph for the defeated android. That's all atop the return of one of Yoko Taro's best little ideas: stories for all of the game's many collectible weapons, with new chapters unfolding with each re-forging.

NieR: Automata demands a lot. Some of its answers hide in obscure lines and side quests, and the deepest secrets land best if you've played the original Nier. Nor is the gameplay forgiving. An easy mode all but runs the game for players, and the lowest satisfying setting is a normal tier that still insists they anticipate enemy attacks, heal frequently, stack chip-based abilities, and stay aware of everything around them.

Some of those demands get in the way, of course. It's occasionally tedious to run through events a second time with 9S, and his enemy-reprogramming skill drags once it moves from infrequent diversion to major play mechanic. One could even say that NieR: Automata's biggest innovations are all side attractions. Most of the game is still about hacking, slashing, hacking, and shooting.

Even so, the only ones truly disappointed in NieR: Automata will be those hoping for another round of Drakengard 3's ramshackle brutality. NieR: Automata has dark humor to spare, but it's all in service of a more sincere end. If it's not as bitterly subversive as Drakengard 3, that's a fair trade.

Yoko Taro's path to cult stardom was a rocky one, but NieR: Automata finds him in magnificent form and paired with the industry's best action-game developers. The result is almost too slick in presenation, and perhaps too slow to build its protagonists, but it's an amazing, memorable creation that brims with great ideas and makes good on nearly all of them. It might be cruel at times, but that's because it wants you to remember it. And you will.

(This review is based on a PlayStation 4 review copy provided by Square Enix. The PC version of the game is scheduled to arrive on March 17.)

Overall : A-
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : A-
Presentation : A-

+ Enjoyable combat paired with clever, experimental storytelling
Replaying some parts gets repetitive, as does the hacking minigame

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