In a year full of high-profile sequels and shiny new releases, NieR: Automata is a surprise. Sure, it’s a sequel to a Square Enix published game, but the original NieR faired poorly in both sales and reception. We loved it here at RPGFan, and even awarded it an Editor’s Choice. In fairness, NieR is a difficult game to get into — it plays awkwardly, looks stagnant, and won’t suit everyone’s tastes, but thematically, conceptually, and musically it’s fantastic. It was entirely different to anything else on the market and is looked back on fondly by fans. NieR: Automata is the sequel we didn’t expect we’d ever get. With Cavia, the developer behind the original game, now defunct, PlatinumGames has been handed the reigns with Yoko Taro still very much in charge of things. And boy, does it live up to the fans’ high expectations.
Thousands of years have passed since the events of the original game. Mankind has since fled to the moon, following an alien attack where machines and robots were unleashed on the Earth. The events of the game start off rather spectacularly, with you controlling the combat android 2B as she arrives on Earth to destroy the very machines who’ve stolen her masters’ home. She teams up with a younger male android called 9S, a scanner whose primary function is to scout for information. Together, the two embark on a journey beyond their mission.
One of the biggest concerns I raised in my preview was just how NieR this game was going to be. Would I be left questioning my actions? Would I be left picking over each and every thread the game provided me with after finishing the game? Luckily, I was wrong to be so worried. Don’t let the flashy introduction fool you; beyond the first action-packed hour is a fantastic storyline that answers many questions and asks even more. There are some truly heart-wrenching moments, some that make you stop and think, and others that throw you completely off balance. NieR: Automata is heavy hitting and unusual, and it manages to balance the tone perfectly to create a truly unique world.
I got very quickly attached to 2B and 9S as they wandered across Earth. 2B starts off very focused and cold, clearly determined to carry out the wishes of her masters and destroy all the machines. 9S is the perfect counterpart, all parts curious about the world, and at times very human. He talks about taking 2B shopping after the war is over and even tries to understand the concepts of family and friendship. Their relationship is the core of this game, giving it a lot of heart. The voice actors truly do their characters justice, bringing them to life in a believable way. I do feel the original NieR’s cast was stronger, and that their struggle was more touching, but the development the two primary androids go through is wonderful to watch.
Equally as touching and intriguing as its main heroes, Automata introduces us to a colourful cast of supporting characters. Only Yoko Taro could make machines and androids as interesting as the ones in this game. These characters are developed throughout the game’s sidequests, which see you do the usual fetch quests, escort missions, and enemy encounters. While most of these are pretty formulaic, they reward you with either hilarious dialogue or wonderful moments of character development. You end up caring for characters who’re only present for around 20 minutes of game time. One quest even has you carrying out errands for a machine version of Jean-Paul Sartre. This is all best experienced rather than explained. It also rewards replayability: You’ll encounter quests you won’t be able to complete until your second or third playthrough, and that’s okay because you carry everything over with you. When you go back and revisit certain areas or view cutscenes, the pieces will begin to fall into place and you’ll begin to understand just how much work has gone into this game.
One thing you’ll quickly notice with Automata is just how polished it looks. When you step out of the car park and into the ruined city for the first time, you can’t help but stop and take in the sights. It’s a truly beautiful scene. Each of the game’s environments feel a lot more open and a lot busier than in NieR. There are many more points of interest, such as gushing waterfalls, destroyed buildings, abandoned complexes, and an empty shopping mall. So much care and attention have been put into the world that I never got tired of exploring. Despite enjoying my exploration of Earth, I found the game’s frame-rate would drop, which caused me to falter at times. This was only really a problem when I was surrounded by hordes of enemies, but it still became a distraction.
Much of the bewilderment and wonder of this game’s world come from the absolutely amazing soundtrack. NieR came with a stellar soundtrack, and its sequel follows it up with a melancholy, ethereal, and frantic score which is one of the best I’ve ever heard. The trend of excellent vocal tracks also continues, with many tracks filled with haunting vocals that will cause chills to run down your spine. The emptiness of Earth is conveyed perfectly by Keiichi Okabe’s score. I can hardly fault it.
The combat is vastly improved when compared to its predecessor. PlatinumGames has really shown its hand by crafting a seamless and smooth battle system. I can only reiterate my colleague Samer’s praise. The fluidity of the combat really shines through the varied boss battles, which see you battle many things, from humanoid robots to gargantuan behemoths made of metal. The game doesn’t simply rely on seamless hack-and-slash combat, though. At times, Automata throws your character into a flight unit and has you speeding through the skies shooting down enemies a-la Ikaruga. There’s more variety beyond that, but to say anything would spoil the fun for everyone. It felt like an absolute dream to slice through the scraps of machines during the entirety of the game.
I briefly mentioned skills, and one thing NieR: Automata neglects to do is thoroughly explain just how its skill system works. Being an android, 2B can equip data chips that can either boost her attack or defence, give her shockwave attacks, or even grant her the ability to see her opponent’s health. This enables you to customise your game as much as you want. You can even kill 2B by removing a certain chip. Just be careful when you do this, though, as there’s no autosave feature. There’s a hilarious addition to the game, which would be telling if I explained it, which causes you to lose progress if you haven’t saved, and while the payoff to these little quirks is great, I’d imagine it’d be less funny if you haven’t saved for two or three hours.
NieR: Automata is a surreal and special game. It’s a game that needs to be played more than once to really understand and appreciate everything it’s offering. There’s so much I can’t tell you without ruining major parts of the plot, but as things begin to unfold, and as you reach your third and fourth playthrough, you’ll start to understand what makes Automata such a wonderful experience. Its oddball tone won’t always be for everyone, but if you’re looking for a stellar action RPG with a provocative and thoughtful storyline, NieR: Automata should be the first and only game on your list.