Note: While I’ll be making every attempt to avoid spoilers as much as possible, I will be talking about a few gameplay elements that may spoil some level of what players can expect in their playthrough.
Yoko Taro is an interesting man when it comes to the games he dreams up—a fact I knew without ever having played even one of them to completion before Nier: Automata. In the few hours I’d experienced of the original Nier and Drakengard 3—the third part of the series the Nier games spun off from—it was already clear that Taro likes to take his projects in interesting and unexpected directions. Plus, hanging out in the gaming circles that I do, it’s been impossible to not hear the overflowing love that exists for his weirdness expressed over and over. (I honestly have meant to get farther into the first Nier, but I just couldn’t stand the main character of Nier: Replicant, the version of the game we got over here in the West.)
So, Nier: Automata looked to be the perfect way for me to finally experience the mind of Yoko Taro—even if it would come in a package that was more like a traditional PlatinumGames “stylish action” release and less like its older sibling.
Well, chalk that up as the first chance Nier: Automata took to throw me for a loop. While the game’s opening area very much plays out like it could be a more linear adventure akin to Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (mixed in with a dash of shoot ‘em up segments), get past that and you’re tossed into an open world that gives you a number of options for what to do next. At first, I wasn’t sure what to think about it all, in part because it doesn’t take long to realize that Automata’s world is relatively small on the sandbox scale—and I worried it wouldn’t be enough to make up for the lack of constant action I once had hoped for. I’d come out of last year’s demo a little worried, and my first hour or so with its finished form wasn’t exactly calming those concerns.
Like many games, however, Nier: Automata simply needs a chance to fully kick into gear. When it does, it does in part thanks to the quick ramping up of the overall story, an element that is nearly impossible for me to talk about in much depth without drowning you in spoilers. Essentially, some time ago, aliens attacked the Earth, and went to war with us humans using an army of machines. The remainders of mankind escaped the ruins of their home and fled to the Moon, where they created YoRHa, a specialized team of androids tasked with destroying the machines and taking back the Earth for their creators.
One such team member is 2B, a black-clad female android with short platinum blonde hair that initially serves as the game’s main character. As a battle type, 2B is sent down to the Earth’s surface to assist in the war that continues to rage. Shortly after the game kicks off, she meets another android, 9S—a friendly yet slightly naive boy whose job it is to do reconnaissance for YoRHa and hack into enemy networks. When 2B’s mission suddenly goes awry, the pair work together to try to deal with the growing threat they’ve uncovered.
As I said, I’ve heard a lot of people say so many good things about the original Nier, and how it’s a so-so game on a tech and mechanics level that is then elevated much higher thanks to its narrative and thematic twists. While I’m not at all saying that Nier: Automata is weak in the gameplay department—more on that in a moment—what weaknesses it does have can often be overlooked thanks to how engrossing the adventure is. Even in its lower moments, I still found myself caring so much for 2B, for the world she exists in, for the other beings that she meets along the way, and for finding out what’s going to happen next. At one point, Nier: Automata requires that you go back and re-play a huge chunk of what you’ve already been through as 9S, a decision I rather hated at first. However, even that—the weakest part of my 37-hour playthrough—still gave me reasons to keep pushing forward through the plot.
There’s something else story-wise that really hit home when I was deep in the game’s later hours. Video game foes oftentimes exist because they simply have to, and if you’re lucky, at least a few of the bosses or antagonists along the way will be compelling enough to offer joy from fighting (or foiling) them. Here, though, I grew to hate the enemy on a mental and emotional level, to a degree that I haven’t seen a game accomplish in a long time. Many times, when running off to take care of a particular quest or head to the next story location, I’d stop and take out some of the random groups of machines that were hanging around. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to—I wanted to see those machines die.
When it comes time to bring down justice upon the machines, you really remember that this is a PlatinumGames production. 2B has a number of weapon options to choose from—from swords to spears to even her bare hands—and every one of them feels great when used for either light or heavy attacks. Though it doesn’t get quite as deep as the studio’s best offerings, combat in Nier: Automata is still hugely satisfying, and really shows just how much a well-developed battle system can improve games that might be weaker in other areas. 2B slices through enemies with almost a beautiful grace as her swords twirl and spin through the air at opponents—but there’s also a wonderful brutality to it all.
In those times that you play as 9S, gameplay shifts to a more defensive nature. He can still equip any weapon that 2B can, and get into the thick of battles like his partner, but 9S only has one attack strength (light) and can only wield one weapon at a time. Instead, his focus is more on hacking. When targeting any enemy, he can hack into them, switching things to a retro-style top-down shooter where blowing up a defended core will either do damage to the enemy or be an insta-kill if they’re low-level enough. It’s an interesting and quite powerful ability—one that plays well into the idea of robotic life forms fighting robotic life forms—but it can get a little tedious at times. 9S’s hacking ability slows down battles quite a bit, and while that’s fun in bursts, at times I found myself wishing I could just get back to 2B and her more direct approach. Nier: Automata’s final playable character—the mysterious female android A2—definitely gave me that, though. While she plays very similar to 2B, she comes with one extra feature: she can overload her systems to give herself a temporary boost in power, perfect for unleashing a cathartic bout of rage.
Expanding your offensive abilities are Pods, little floating robotic assistants. 2B’s companion, Pod 042, can fire an endless stream of bullets to help manage those harder-to-reach foes, but can then be outfitted with an array of special abilities. Some of these are simply damage dealers, some assist in crowd control or locating hidden items, while still others can directly enhance 2B’s fighting methods and combo potential. The other important area of customization in terms of combat are Plug-In Chips, which are essentially an array of skills that can be equipped, removed, or fused together for better stats. Again in keeping with the theme of technology, these are represented as chips that literally plug into the android’s motherboard, and there’s a maximum amount of “bandwidth” you have to use them at any one time (the more powerful a chip is, the more it requires).
Plug-In Chips are an important part of the game, and between the wide array of options to choose from, and the ability to have four different chip sets that can be swapped in and out on the fly, you can really tailor things to how you want to play style-wise. However, there is a catch: you can lose all of the chips you have equipped if you aren’t careful. In a very Dark Souls-esque fashion, your corpse will remain wherever it was that you died. If you can get back to it without dying again, you can recover and re-equip your previous chipset; if you can’t—or if you wait too long to do so—those Plug-In Chips will be gone forever. In an interesting twist, instead of just recovering your body, you can also repair it, bringing it back to life as an AI-controlled partner. As well, you’ll also come across the bodies of other players if you’re online, and after deciding if you want to send them a supportive boost or not, you can reclaim some of their chips or resurrect them as that same kind of partner. I’ll be honest: playing on normal, there came a point where my Plug-In Chip loadout helped assure that death wasn’t something I had to fear on that level. So, this whole thing will probably be more of a worry when playing on harder difficulties, or if you’re not as adept at what the game throws at you. Still, it’s a neat idea.
No review could be complete for Nier: Automata without mentioning the game’s soundtrack, which is nothing short of fantastic. Once again I go back to the idea that quality in the proper places can make up for rough spots in others, and my travels through the game were made more memorable by having haunting melodies or emotionally-charged tracks playing during key scenes or moments. Even now as I write this, I’m listening to the Japanese version of “The Weight of the World,” a song I didn’t care for too much at first but which now has stayed on repeat for days at this point. In terms of dialogue, the game is playable with both Japanese and English voice acting. After trying both, I tended to like the Japanese voices more, but the localized version is thankfully equally great. A warning, however: not every moment in the game has translated subtitles, so if you do play in Japanese, there will be a few moments where you’ll miss out on what’s being said unless you speak the language.
Still, as I’ve mentioned a number of times now, Nier: Automata is not a game without weak points. The smaller style of open-world the dev team went for does work out in the end, and it has more complexity to it than you’ll originally think, but it feels under-developed at times—especially given how much more of this world you may end up wishing you could see. There’s also a feeling of cheapness to how it was designed in some ways, with environmental elements such as buildings sometimes feeling more like Hollywood props than actual structures. (When you’re trying to figure out why you can enter one hallway of a building but not another, when both of them have the same size of openings, you’ll understand what I mean.)
Side quests offer up some really great conversations and character building—par for the course with the wonderful script and localization—but they can also get bogged down in tedium. One particular quest had me talk to one character, then have to talk to three different characters, then deliver items from them back to the original character, then go back to each character again and tell them the original character’s response, then go back to him yet again to finish things up. The amount of travel that you’ll need to do for quests like those—or simply for progressing through the game—can get frustrating due to a teleportation system between checkpoints that is constantly taken away from you or neutered for seemingly no good reason. And, while there are some great boss battles at times, I was left wishing there had been more—especially since we know the kinds of stuff that PlatinumGames is capable of.
Finally, let me get one final jab in at 9S. In all fairness, by the point that he needs to be a compelling character to help carry the story along, he does indeed become one. Still, I think he’s given too much focus in the game, and I wish some of the abundant time spent playing him had instead been divvied up between 2B and A2.
Even given those complaints, when I think back to my time with Nier: Automata as a player instead of a reviewer, it’s so hard to dwell on its weaker points. I’ve played so many Japanese games over the years that were technically or mechanically imperfect, yet which became unforgettable classics thanks to their stories, or their characters, or their creativity—and Nier: Automata could indeed join those ranks as we get a better chance to look back upon it. The tragically beautiful tale of an android named 2B and the world she fights for may not satisfy those raised on a diet of triple-A offerings, but it’ll be one hell of a ride for anyone who can appreciate the artistry of imperfection.
While Nier: Automata at times feels unpolished or under-developed, when taken as an entire experience, it’s a fantastic journey of a group of androids struggling to live up to their purpose in life. Here, unconventional narrative design meets tightly-developed combat gameplay, and that turns out to be one heck of a combination.
M - Mature
|Nier: Automata is available on PS4, PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by Square Enix for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.