NieR: Automata is already five years old, yet it feels like just months ago that I last played it. It was a game that came out of seemingly nowhere with little reason to exist. Why in the world would anyone make a sequel to 2010’s janky PS3/360 action RPG NieR? Who asked for this? (Aside from the six of us who loved the original and specifically asked for this?) What madman extorted Square Enix and bamboozled the brilliant minds over at PlatinumGames to make a new game in the Drakengard / NieR universe? All of these questions have one simple answer: Yoko Taro.
As a fan of the NieR and Drakengard games, I’m accustomed to something being horribly wrong with them. Drakengard 1 was painful to play through, though I’d argue such suffering enhances the experience. Drakengard 2 exists. That’s all. Drakengard 3‘s performance could be considered poor at best. Finally, the original NieR could likely serve as a textbook definition of jank, thanks to clunky combat and strange controls. NieR: Automata, however, is nearly flawless in almost every way. At least, we here at RPGFan think it’s a pretty good game.
Thanks to PlatinumGames, NieR: Automata’s gameplay is smooth, fun, and incredibly satisfying. As an action RPG, it mixes in as many elements of character action games as possible while still keeping its RPG roots. Combat is comprised of light and heavy combos, aerial launchers, weapon swapping, and a flurry of special attacks from your trusty little Pod. Every slash, punch, kick, and high-powered laser blast is incredibly satisfying. The set pieces, the world, and the moment-to-moment action are second to none. So, how does it fare on Nintendo’s portable hybrid? Quite well, actually.
The developer behind this port is none other than Virtuos, known for the impressive Switch ports of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, Dark Souls Remastered, The Outer Worlds, and the XCOM2 and Bioshock collections. Thus, it’s easy to say that Square Enix made the right choice in picking Virtuos for the job. Initially, I had my concerns and even scoffed at the idea of NieR: Automata running on Switch. After seeing all the concessions other devs have made for Switch ports, it was hard not to be skeptical. Thankfully, Virtuos came through with an impressive port, though not without a few adjustments.
Naturally, the story of NieR: Automata is untouched. That said, the narrative is something truly special. Though it takes place long, long after the original NieR game(s), fans of the series are handsomely rewarded with references, cameos, and familiar bits scattered throughout the world. For those just starting with NieR: Automata, you’re in for a treat, as the story is largely self-contained. In 5012 AD, the Earth was invaded by a malicious alien race. Not long after, humanity began to fight back with androids. Thus, a never-ending cycle of war begins, and in the year 11945, we meet our heroine android YoRHa No.2 Type B, or 2B. At her side, the curious and optimistic YoRHa No.9 Type S, or 9S. Together, they face off against the machines in a world ruined by war and reclaimed by nature.
Though the world is in ruin, the visuals in NieR: Automata are generally a treat for the eyes. Unfortunately, this is where the Switch port takes its first bit of damage. The most noticeable (necessary) downgrade for this port are the lower-resolution textures, which stick out like sore thumbs in both cutscenes and general gameplay. Flight units look like they’re straight out of the PS3/360 era, save boxes look as if they loaded incorrectly, and the overall field and grass textures are pretty blurry — especially at a distance. Speaking of which, the draw distance isn’t too great either, leading to notable pop-in that can be a bit distracting.
In motion, NieR: Automata runs at around 30 FPS in either docked or handheld mode, though it doesn’t feel locked, given the dips I experienced. For comparison, I ran through the first hour or so of the game on both PS4 (technically PS5) and Switch. It was easy to point out spots where the textures were different or where the framerate dipped a bit harder on Switch, but overall the performance from Nintendo’s console was fairly impressive. Another point to note: I spent most of my time with the Switch port in docked mode. I also played in handheld mode for a couple of hours and noticed that most of my issues were heavily mitigated by the smaller screen.
One of NieR: Automata’s greatest strengths is its soundtrack. The music is simply an incredible experience, and it is undoubtedly one of the medium’s most creative and memorable soundtracks. The title screen, the approach to — and subsequent rushing through — the factory, the battle with the giant Engel, the moon base, the ruined city, the resistance camp, and… I could go on forever. The first hour of the game alone contains several memorable tracks that take a single listen to cement themselves firmly in your head. Now, imagine that across forty hours, and you get an immaculate soundtrack that has some of the most beautiful vocal themes, such as “Weight of the World,” “A Beautiful Song,” and “Emil: Despair.” Of course, who can forget the robots singing “this cannot continue” and “become as gods” through “Birth Of A Wish“?
While the soundtrack is impeccable, the voice acting is also top-tier. Kira Buckland, Kyle McCarley, and Cherami Leigh give outstanding performances as 2B, 9S, and A2, respectively. Each stepped into their role and humanized these androids, giving them all unforgettable identities. The actors’ performances elevate every scream, shout, quotable line, and dramatic shift. In-game actions are accented by satisfying tones, whether it’s the swing of a sword, the smashing of steel, or bursts of beams. When mixed with the wondrous music and stellar voice acting, NieR: Automata’s aural identity is simply unparalleled.
Playing NieR: Automata for the first time was such an overwhelmingly positive experience that the game easily made its way into my top five all-time favorites. At the time, it was difficult to even think of any negatives. Even replaying it now, I struggle to find flaws with the game, aside from one notable pacing flaw. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it vague and mention that Route B’s retreading can be a little long. The Switch port does introduce a few more knocks regarding performance. The lower textures and framerate lead to a generally worse experience when compared to PS4 Pro, Xbox One X, and playing via backwards compatibility on PS5 and Xbox Series. However, when compared to the base PS4’s performance, the Switch version’s performance is slightly better with worse textures.
As NieR: Automata is widely available on multiple platforms, you can’t go wrong with any version of the game. If you have access to a PS5 or Xbox Series X|S, I’d recommend the experience on those due to the increased performance and original textures. As I said, the handheld performance on Switch was a notable improvement in keeping a stable framerate, and the smaller screen does mask a lot of the more blurry or awkward textures. Still, it’s impressive what Virtuos achieved with the Switch port, and I can only hope their success bodes well for a possible port of NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139….
NieR: Automata holds a special place in my heart. It introduced me to so many new experiences while simultaneously tapping into my nostalgia for how games made me feel. It’s one of the few games where I sat on the floor, controller in hand, staring up at the TV as if I were playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time again. NieR: Automata is the kind of game with a strange magical power that’ll warp you back to your favorite childhood game, then imprint itself upon your memory so that whenever you see a metal trash can, you’ll swear you heard it say, “this cannot continue.”