Note: This review was conducted primarily on a retail-grade PlayStation 4 copy of NieR: Automata prior to the availability of the PC/Steam version.
While users will typically have a great experience with the port, those with AMD RX 4xx or Nvidia GTX 780ti GPUs will likely run into the ‘white screen’ crash until Square Enix finish identifying a fix. It’s possible a driver downgrade will help, but it’s having mixed results. For those who’re looking for a boost in frames, try this third-party tool.
Coming into existence through a surprise announcement at E3 2015 during Sony’s bigger press event, there’s a good chance the vast majority of the audience both in the event and watching externally through its various livestreams wasn’t quite sure what to think of NieR Automata. The original was considered a sleeper hit like most of the Japanese role-playing games releasing during the last console generation, so to see an obvious sequel take centre stage at the biggest gaming event of the year was newsworthy in more ways than one.
But now that NieR: Automata is out and into public hands, what’s the thought of the game that will, ultimately, put its director Yoko Taro in the spotlight for whatever it is that he conjures up next?
We’ll start with this; don’t even attempt to guess as what kind of game this is. Just like that shady Frenchman in the Simpsons who tried to explain the concept of brunch to a working class maiden like Marge on the polished floors of a bowling alley, it’s not quite an RPG, it’s not quite an action title - but there’s a bit of a bullet hell shooter on the side and you get a good game. Somehow.
Even the start-up screen tells you little about it. If you’re coming from the demo released late last year, you have a decent enough idea already, but for those coming solely from the original gameplay reveal of the theatre room boss battle, the opening moments will make you think you picked up the wrong box or the Steam screenshots were placed in error. From the get-go, you’re piloting a gun-totting mech through the sky in a top-down, zoomed-out perspective as your squadron - sent in to fight against a Goliath-class mechanical monstrosity - is picked off by rogue laser beams leaving only you still flying.
It’s at this point you’re fighting off waves of encroaching, airborne enemies with your machine guns and giant swords until there’s nothing left. The perspective shifts to a more isometric view but you’re still in the realm of a classic arcade bullet hell shooter like Ikaruga or Gradius.
Eventually you disembark, and you’re running through the narrow corridors of the Machine Factory swatting robots left and right as the sword-slinging Android 2B and her rapid-fire ‘Pod’ while they’re still throwing black and white bullet balls at you that are usually far bigger than the tiny guns attached to their equally tiny bodies. You run around, kill more things, level up and eventually put up against giant chainsaw arms before squaring off against the Goliath that brought you here in the first place - but not before meeting 9S - your Scanner-type partner in crime for the next few dozen hours or so. We go from arcade shooter to a standard action-rpg; then to a side-scrolling beat em’ up and back again.
Overall, it’s a mightily impressive first chapter that’s chock full of enough unorthodox gameplay shifts to keep the general low-level melee combat from feeling too flimsy. Between the weapon strikes, you’re holding down another button to unleash an endless flurry of bullets from your Pod while occasionally tapping two more to dodge around their attacks and hurl a more powerful beam back at them every 10 seconds or so.
It’s hectic, twitchy and hell of an introduction to what was a generic Japanese shooter not 3 minutes ago. It’s just a shame you’re left to your devices early on with such a vague tutorial. Should you die during the entire 20-30 minute sequence, you’ll receive your first of around 22 bad endings and have to do it all over again. There’s no auto-save here, so don’t take that for granted.
Following on from that, you’re thrown back into the jaunty somewhat open-world of Yoko Taro’s dead Earth. After a quick trip to the Bunker up in space, that is - a command post for the Androids down on the surface world tasked with reclaiming it from the Machines while Humans are living out their existence on the moon.
Taro himself might have called the whole scenario ‘poop’, but it unfolds into a tale and conspiracy theory about artificial creationism, the meaning of life and the growing sentience of the machines constructed to claim Earth for a higher being and the fate that befell their commanding mind. It’s fragile, thought-provoking and, more often than not, strikingly emotional depending on how deep you let it dig. While one playthrough won’t last 15-20 hours, each subsequent run adds a new perspective to its events and even gives you different characters to control throughtout.
Character driven moments, for the most part, end up being where NieR: Automata shines most despite Taro’s modesty in its highlight being PlatinumGames’ combat sequences. Taro’s writing, while not exactly perfect and not all too serious of its own self-worth, adds much needed depth and personality to a world that has, by design, been decimated over thousands of years. The concrete jungle of the old world quickly shifts between urban, desert and forest regions throughout its story and side-quests with only one or two landscapes really standing out at all.
With every single piece of information being tracked on a cumbersome 3D map within the Start Menu at all times, accepting side-quests quickly becomes a problem for a navigation system that boils down to a short-range radar in the corner of the screen. Cluttered with countless unclear objectives, re-spawning monster locations and animals that, for the most part, serve no purpose, the sheer fact that barely anything on the surface world stands apart from the rest means there’s little hope in a landmark being a viable point of reference when running around on dry land. Thankfully, the copious amounts of hidden lock boxes, doors and weapon shrines make exploration at least somewhat of an enjoyable experience. Weapon and skill upgrades ultimately feel unnecessary, but they offer a welcome way to mix things up ever so slightly.
And it’s a damn shame with character-driven dialogue interactions being the game’s strength when it comes to breaking apart its moody main scenario that makes little sense the first time around. It’s a game designed to unfold with the retelling of familiar events through a different view-point, and while it’s good to note side-quest progression carries over for the most part, it’s difficult to work out how to pace the two.
In regards to the story; whether you’ve played the original NieR, Drakengard or neither, it isn’t absolutely necessary to understand the underlining scenario - but it would likely help. If possible, watch a couple of recap videos on YouTube to get the most out of your first playthrough; though some of its charm resides in how it compels you to start over immediately the credits roll to see the other side of things.
With 3-4 official ‘Good’ endings spanning out from each other to 20+ comedic bad endings ranging from entertaining a Resistance Fighter’s want to feed, running away from the problems of the world or rushing into a fight where there isn’t one, there’s a certain degree of fun to be had in not only pressing onto the true ending and learning more with each subsequent run, but trying your hardest to mess things up enough to gain another route letter on your save game for dooming the world.
And, of course, every moment of discovery, sorrow and wonder is backed up by a phenomenal soundtrack composed by industry veteran Keiichi Okabe. It’s certainly one you’ll want on your player of choice to keep the memory of its story fresh in your mind just a little while longer.
NIER: AUTOMATA VERDICT
Going into NieR: Automata completely blind is, arguably, the best way to go about it, but it keeps itself firmly under wraps with a lot of intricate plot points, a killer script and plenty of interesting characters. It’s a shame the world itself feels relatively sparse, nonsensical and unpleasant to look at, but beneath the lack of environmental style is a well cared for Action-RPG that throws in enough twists and turns that leave you utterly compelled to play through it three or even four times to fully come to terms with.
What is lacks in scale is made up for in its sense of style - and improving upon both next time around could result in something utterly remarkable.
Copious amounts of replay value from scattered collectables and alternate endings to hidden character conversations and zany sidequests
A combat system that, while lacking in complexity, has enough additional extras to never feel like a chore
Incredibly well directed voice acting with some stellar performances all around
Characters that, despite their situation, still manage to show their individuality in world typically void of the idea
Absolutely superb soundtrack
Lack of auto-save feels trivial and misplaced in a game of its kind. Especially with the body recovery feature.
Fairly uninspired surroundings make continuous back-tracking feel tiresome. No notable landmarks are hindered by its convoluted and cluttered mapping system