"It's been a while since a game shattered my expectations to the extent that NieR: Automata has."
I didn't know what to expect when I first jumped into NieR: Automata. I had skimped out on the original NieR after hearing some less than stellar opinions on it from close friends, and Yoko Taro's past track record for games didn't leave me too eager to buy his next release. Yet there was a certain kind of magic to the game that was clear to see on the YouTube gameplay reveal video last October, and that made me want to take a chance with this game. A chance that I'm incredibly glad to have taken.
Thousands of years into the future, aliens attack Earth with legions of machines. Thoroughly overwhelmed, and almost entirely annihilated, the few that survive flee to the moon and set up a base dubbed "The Bunker." In order to take back their home, the "YorHa" androids are created and sent back down in order to reclaim Earth bit by bit in the perpetual struggle against the machines.
The game starts off with a bang. You take control of android "2B" as she embarks on a mission with fellow combat model androids. Unfortunately, she's the sole survivor of the attack and pairs up with "9S," a reconnaissance model android, to finish the job. From here on, Automata's story branches off into all sorts of directions, tackling topics ranging from high level conspiracies to more philosophical questions, like what it means to be a human. I was most surprised by just how adept the game is at weaving these ideas into the main narrative without ever losing its focus. All the big questions and mysteries Automata presents throughout its thirty-odd hour campaign are tied back into the main cast, not only giving the characters a lot of depth but also developing the world incredibly well. I was actually thoroughly enthralled by the narrative for the entirety of the campaign, and considering how I usually gloss over the stories of games as action packed as NieR, that speaks volumes about the quality of the writing itself.
I found some of the social commentary, however, to be incredibly on-the-nose and lacking any sort of subtlety. This, of course, doesn't really soil the main narrative in any way, but deliberating over killing a robot that clearly means no harm while your character mumbles on about the evil nature of machines felt overbearing at times. Thankfully, most of these moments are tied to sidequests, so there is no obligation to slog through these unusually sloppy moments of writing as you make your way through the game.
Gameplay-wise, Automata oozes with quality and polish. The controls are tight and superbly responsive, and the hack-n-slash nature of the game is as deep as it is accessible. You can make your way through the game by simply mashing buttons randomly and still enjoy it just as much as someone who delves into the surprisingly intricate weapon and combo system. Whether you're arcing gracefully through the air with a katana and a spear, or pummeling enemies with greatswords twice your height, no playstyle feels underdeveloped, keeping your subsequent playthroughs rife with content. However, the skill system here does feel a bit too eccentric for its own good. You collect "chips" throughout your journey and these chips boost various stats, such as weapon damage, or they add entirely new abilities to your character, like the ability to hack machines to fight on your side. Sadly, this system goes entirely unexplained; I had to hit a solid brick wall during my first playthrough before I even found the appropriate menu to slot these chips into my character. Fortunately, it's easy enough to understand once you figure it out, but it does feel like Yoko Taro made this part of the game obscure just for the sake of it.
Speaking of content, Automata feels like a water balloon that's about to burst with how many things there are to discover and unlock. I'm not just talking about fancy looking trophies or Easter eggs that you take a screenshot of and forget in your steam folder; this game has a metric ton of unlockable stuff that you can actually tinker around with in game, such as weapons, friendly companions, items and characters (to name a few). It almost feels like a game that was released 10+ years ago when not everything was locked behind DLC. Some of the items are gated behind some pretty frustrating RNG walls, where you simply have to play the waiting game, but by and large Automata intelligently squeezes every last ounce of its map and gameplay design to pack in an absolute treasure trove's worth of content.
The visuals certainly aren't slacking either, and the worldbuilding in particular is absolutely master class. Earth is in ruins, humankind as we know it is all but wiped out, the enemies you fight appear to be endless, and Automata makes sure you feel the desolation of the ravaged planet throughout your journey. Rather than trying to fill up the empty space with a bunch of bright quest markers and arbitrary NPCs, Automata basks in its emptiness, riding the fine line between engagingly creepy and utter boredom with complete grace. Decrepit buildings serve as grim reminders of the civilization that once was, while the sparse population of rusted robots really drives home that this conflict has been going on for centuries. Admittedly, the whole magic of the beautifully designed world loses some of its luster once you unlock fast traveling, but up until that point just traversing by foot is more than enough entertainment.
All of this is complemented by one of the best ambient soundtracks I've heard to date. From the minimalistic, icy melodies that whisper in the background as you traverse a ruined city, to the bombastic scores that accompany you through major boss fights, the sheer range that the soundtrack offers is nothing short of amazing.
A quick warning for those who want to play this game on PC. While it is well optimized, Automata suffers from a multitude of bugs and glitches exclusive to the PC version, such as the game automatically selecting integrated graphics cards over dedicated high-end GPUs when first starting up. While these bugs aren't deal-breakers, their frequency is definitely worth noting.
It's been a while since a game shattered my expectations to the extent that NieR: Automata has. Despite my initial reluctance, Automata has easily become one of my favorite gaming experiences in recent memory. The game could have taken so many wrong turns with the number of risks it took in terms of its storytelling, world building and gameplay, but instead it delivers on all fronts with such style and elegance that it's hard not to crack a smile at the sheer brilliance of it. Automata reaches for the stars, but unlike many other games that do the same, it actually achieves the greatness it sets out to attain. Now if you'll excuse me, I have two more save files to clear, and this game certainly isn't going to play itself.