WARNING: This review will contain spoilers for the story of NieR: Automata. We highly recommend that, if you are interested in this game or plan on picking it up, you don’t read this review until after you have completed the story for yourself. Of course, if you don’t care about that, then by all means please read on.
NieR: Automata is the most recent brainchild of Yoko Taro, the director behind the Drakengard series, the first NieR game and currently the creative director on SINoALICE. This would normally be of little importance aside from it simply being a namesake more than anything, but if you’ve ever played any Yoko Taro game, you know why his name generates such a buzz: in the same way that Michael Bay is known for being Explosion Man in any movie he directs, Yoko Taro is well known for being Deep Story Guy. And for very good reason.
Set thousands upon thousands of years in the future from NieR: Gestalt & Replicant, Automata sees you play as android 2B together with her partner 9S in a world overrun with hostile machine lifeforms. According to the game, these machines were created by alien invaders to earth, and the last remnants of humanity fled to the moon to survive the onslaught while creating androids to fight in their stead. The entirety of the game will be comprised, therefore, of Android VS Machine battles while you experience a developing story with more twists and turns than you might expect. It’s important to note at this point that the game will require multiple “playthroughs” in order for the story to be complete, but don’t be fooled: each playthrough acts as a different “Route” of the game and you won’t be repeating the same content twice. Or… well, you will for Routes A and B, but you’ll be doing it from the perspective of 2B and 9S respectively and the story does branch at several points because REASONS. This is your final warning for spoilers, folks. You’re heading into the point of no return.
Also, you can ride wild boar and moose in this game. If that doesn’t make it a contestant for game of the year in 2017, I just don’t know what will. Did you know you can even get albino moose? How cool is that? Look:
We should start this review by saying that the game is not perfect. It has received high praise from many places, and rightly so, but no game is without flaws and NieR: Automata had some pretty intensive ones on first release. The game is locked at 60FPS for all gameplay purposes, and cutscenes are locked at 30FPS as per standard for pre-rendered Playstation cutscenes. However, those same pre-rendered cutscenes seem to stutter wildly, and not even play at their capped 30FPS half the time. It can be a jarring experience, especially because a lot of story and exposition is delivered through the use of those very cutscenes. Similarly, on certain graphics cards, the gameplay also stutters and sometimes loses frames it would seem. I cannot attest to have had frame drops during the game at any point, but I’m on a fairly high-end rig, so my experience is more the minority than the problems were. Similarly, while I never dropped frames, my game did struggle with loading smoothly between areas and it would briefly stutter and freeze before resuming smooth play. These can also be somewhat jarring and particularly disruptive if you’re in the middle of a battle, and there isn’t any sort of fix for those. The game struggled to play on various resolutions and a third party fix was released in order to fix this for a number of people, with Square Enix never patching the game themselves to try and fix the issues. (There have been patches for PS4 and, to my knowledge, they wound up including some pretty disruptive bugs that could make games unplayable due to text no longer loading properly in the English language specifically.) And, finally, the game also experienced some pretty gnarly texture pop-in, on both PS4 and PC alike.
Overall, it wasn’t a smooth release, and while Automata did go on to sell many copies and do extremely well overall, I would be remiss not to point out that the number of problems experienced by the PC port in particular was… high. Very, very high. It also resulted in a large number of refunds, which is never what any game wants.
Yet though these problems, individually a little troublesome but combined fairly disruptive to the experience overall, the game still managed to do exceptionally well. As the third party resolution fix helped clean up the worst issue and brought the game back into playable territory for many - though not for all - the game was played and loved by many loyal fans of the series and was also the entry point for many new folks into the rather crazy world of NieR and Drakengard. And for me personally, I had very few issues overall with my game; texture pop-in and loading stuttering were the only problems I had to deal with throughout my entire 65 hour experience of completing all five main endings, gathering all twenty-one joke endings and completing all quests. The story was fascinating to explore and learn more about, piecing together what I knew of the universe of the first NieR game together with the events happening in Automata to try and come up with a timeline between the two games where possible. My favourite part of Automata is almost certainly the narrative that it offers to us as players, to us as humans, and the experience of discovering this message wrapped up in a powerful and emotive story easily outweighed any personal complaints I have with the game overall. While it wasn’t perfect, there was a lot to enjoy.
The story of the game follows, at first, the androids 2B and 9S on their quest to defeat the machine threat. The first two routes of the game, A and B, have you play through the same story but from the perspective of each individual android. The story is remarkably light for a creation of Yoko Taro, with a lot of hope and happiness to be found even amidst far darker tragedy that hints at terrible things to come. The game’s foreshadowing is exceptionally subtle at times, to the point I will be playing through the entire thing start to finish a second time to see if there are details I naturally missed that I might pick up on now I’m more knowledgeable. After the first two endings, you enter the two routes for endings C and D, and the game will allow you to play as the third playable android of the game (and one who features as a boss in your preliminary runs): A2. These routes of the game are undeniably heart-wrenching, and everything that could have been going well for our protagonists falls away under their very feet. For any who don’t enjoy hopeless stories - stories where nothing you can do in the game changes the ultimate sad fate of characters within it - this is probably the part of the game that would be the hardest to play through if not turn you off of it completely. Many characters find their demise in these routes, and the game does very little to offer comfort - because that is rather the point of the narrative it offers. NieR: Automata is a very grim and gritty outlook on the human condition as a whole, with intrinsically deep commentary on identity, self-consciousness, emotion and morality. The game looks at these things as concepts and challenges our - the players’ - notion of them as we know them. What does it mean to be a human, and when could one conceivably advance from being not-human to being human themselves? Do our justifications for our actions actually justify what we do, and what ramifications do those actions have on those around us? How far are you willing to go to achieve a goal? And this is the tip of the iceberg that NieR: Automata truly is, and it asks many more questions on top of these ones. It’s an experience, to be sure.
And not always an enjoyable experience, but this is most certainly intentional and the game doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. Ending E, the final main ending of the game that can be achieved immediately after completing C or D - whichever ending you’re doing second - is the “light in the dark tunnel” ending and is quite surprisingly uplifting. In an intense (and almost but not impossible) bullet hell ending against the title credits, players embark in a journey to defeat the masterminds of the game in an attempt to say an overwhelming “no” to the ending the developers force upon us. It’s actually a very powerful ending with an incredible symbolism behind it about enduring hope even in the darkest hours, and about the power of determination to achieve a certain goal no matter the cost or expense, and about the power of working together even against seemingly impossible odds because you want to believe that something better can be achieved, all played to a beautifully constructed song called “Weight of the World”. And, speaking of music, the soundtrack for this game is a masterpiece - something that the first NieR game was renowned for. Many tracks are crafted to be dynamic, matching the tempo of the actions going on in the foreground, and almost every track also has a rather adorable 8-bit version of itself played during Hacking minigames. Truthfully, I find the musical experience in Automata to outperform that of Gestalt&Replicant, and I think this soundtrack has been better crafted and offers a better listening experience than the first game did.
Graphically, NieR: Automata is a rather pretty game, but I’ll go on the record saying that it isn’t because it has good graphics. Rather, the game has a very specially crafted visual direction, and together with the music of the game, it works extremely well. As far as actual graphical score goes, NieR: Automata is not that impressive and is considerably outperformed by other games released over the last couple of years. It wasn’t a big budget title and that shows, but the game does a very fantastic job of tailoring what graphical power it does have into a very finely made visual experience that has a lot of atmosphere to it. I think if the game had lacked the atmosphere it has, and if the art direction had been any different, Automata might have actually looked rather ugly. (We’ll also insert an obligatory comment about 2B’s rather fine posterior, earning her the nickname 2Booty amongst some of the community. I mean, it is a pretty good ass, for an android at least.)
OVERALL SCORING: 8.5/10 - recommended
Acting as a good entry point for people new to NieR and Drakengard overall, and being a damned good experience as long as you don’t mind dropping in the hours to play through what the game says are “multiple playthroughs” even though you play as vastly different characters (and the game practically sequels itself for C and D endings) I would highly recommend NieR: Automata. I would caution, however, that players who don’t enjoy stories that feel “hopeless” or “pointless” might find it to be almost too dreary at times and too defeatist in tone, and although I promise that Ending E makes it worthwhile putting up with that, I also fully accept that these kind of stories just aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. The combat is responsive and fluid - Platinum Games doing what they do best in this regard - and nothing in the game generally overstays its welcome. Specifically I’m talking about the twin-stick shooter sections, which I didn’t mind but didn’t enjoy either, and they are thankfully short in nature with the exception of one boss fight roughly half way through routes A and B. The game gives an absolutely glorious soundtrack for you to listen to while you play, and offers engaging and challenging boss fights in a variety of locations and different styles. For those who like a harder difficulty to their games, I would caution against playing the tutorial on Hard simply due to it being a forty minute segment in which you can’t save - death puts you back at the very start. Switch to Normal for that, Hard once you can save and you may find that you need to switch back to Normal for boss fights, as the game doesn’t really have a good balance between a more casual difficulty and then a more “kick your ass to Sunday” difficulty. And of course, if you feel like you enjoy this game, you can always check out the predecessor to it, NieR: Gestalt&Replicant, and the Drakengard series before that as other Action RPGs that might just give you something to talk about for a while.