“I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle…and wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to kill him”
With this rather bold opening monologue, Nier:Automata wastes no time in establishing its ambitions, or its pretentiousness. An open world action RPG from Platinum games, Automata is a quasi-sequel to 2010’s cult hit Nier, which itself was a spin off to the Drakengard series.
Far into the future, Humanity has been driven off to the moon following an Alien Invasion. Murderous Machine created by aliens have ravaged the Earth, while Humanity created Androids to counter them. The Android and Machines have waged a seemingly perpetual war, and the game starts with you in control of one such android, 2B. 2B is partnered with 9S, an inquisitive ‘scanner’ android and the duo take on routine missions against the ‘evil’ machines. Except things aren’t so black and white – the player encounters pacifist machines, machine forming families and settling villages. Machines acting a bit too human.
Hack And Slash (and Fire and Zap and Hack and….)
Automata plays like a standard Hack n Slash but with a seasoning of other genres like side-scrollers, arcade shoot em’ups, bullet hell twin stick shooters and even mild platforming sections. The camera does a good enough job of switching between the free flow 3D and locked 2D planes. Melee combat trades the depth of Platinum’s previous creation like Bayonetta or Metal Gear Revengeance, to make room for Pods.
Pods are your constant companion and provide projectile fire and alternate, recharging actions. These actions, or Pod programs as they are called, can be swapped at any time for heavy attacks like devastating laser beams, defensive measures like shields or tactical manoeuvrers like time distorting fields. Melee attacks and pod actions are independent, so skilled players can bombard one enemy while slicing up another. Interestingly, pods are much more than weapons, regularly providing tips, information and exposition to the player. The Pod and sword combination is augmented with the chip system for active and passive abilities. Provided with limited slots, the player can juggle between chips that enhance offensive and defensive abilities. The game also ties the UI function to chips, so one can trade the ability to use Map for squeezing in that 10% extra damage chip.
I’ve Been Here Before
Nier:Automata takes place in open world that is a bit too compact for its own good. While the overall level design is good, it is also filled up with invisible walls and barriers. Traversing the game’s world is never taxing, and the differing areas have distinct visual flairs, ranging from muted coasts, stark bright deserts and lush forests. Unfortunately the rather small map is tread and retread so many times during the game that the scenery soon becomes old and tiring. This is not helped at all by the dated design of side quests. Seemingly all of the side quests consist of collecting 3 things or escorting the slow moving NPCs or running back and forth between 2 points. Skipping side quests denies the player potentially important bits of story and access to precious materials, which otherwise need to be farmed.
So Nier:Automata is bogged down with simplistic combat, dull side quests and a small world map. What does earn it plaudits is its array of utterly wild ideas. It will subvert players expectations, break fourth walls, and make the player revise his understanding of the situation. Even something mundane like the game’s menus become part of the actual gameplay. Rectangular flying thing (pods) that were just weapons play important parts in the story, and have personalities of their own. A story about androids and machines somehow manages to examine the human condition.
I Told You I’ve Been Here Before
An important word about the endings. Normally we don’t discuss anything related to endings or otherwise spoiler-y. However Automata is far from normal. What the game likes to call its (initial) ending is more akin to first act of a stage play. Playing from there on, the player encounters new events or revisit events from a fresh perspective, with new gameplay mechanics thrown in. There are a number of ‘normal’ endings that await you after the first one, and are essential to fully experiencing the game.
Wrapping It Up (in leather and high heels)
Nier:Automata is a game full of contradictions, and not an easy game to recommend. Cliched anime aesthetics of its main characters might turn off (turn on?) many, yet it tries to examine topics reserved for high brow literature. The lighting in outdoor levels is gorgeous, but many flat textures keep popping up. The game celebrates and explores gaming as a storytelling medium, yet curbs player agency at crucial junctures. The music is exceptional, if a bit too vocals heavy. If you are a fan of action RPGs and don’t mind some dull moments, the game provides a singular experience unlikely to be matched soon.