The reclusive Yoko Taro, a sort of anti-Kojima in the Japanese game development scene, updates the NeiR series in a game that pits androids against automatons. Though this studio is behind some massive action titles, NieR: Automata is part of a series that never reached the prominence fans would say it deserved. Does NieR: Automata continue that legacy? Or is the creativity of Yoko Taro only for some?
NieR: Automata takes place thousands of years in the future after an alien invasion unleashed an army of machines and forced humanity to flee for the moon. In an effort to reclaim Earth YoRHa was formed, sending android soldiers to fight the machines and reclaim their home for the “glory of mankind.” After their first mission, androids 2B and 9S soon learn that their mission is more complicated than they believed.
There’s a lot of recognizable sci-fi tropes in NieR: Automata. 2B and 9S wonder about shopping centers and where people would fit into a ruined city, which we’ve all seen in these kinds of post-apocalyptic games before. Add to that a lot of heavy-handed exposition that waxes angrily about the inhumanity of mankind, and it almost feels like a parody of robot stories. Side characters, like Pascal and Jean-Paul (obvious nods to philosophers Neon Dystopia readers ought to know by now), manage to stand out more than the main heroes.
Nearing the end players might find themselves none too impressed with what transpired in terms of narrative, then a notification pops up, and they’re alerted to a new ending at the end of a second playthrough. It reads like a cheap incentive to go through a new-game+. In truth, it’s an entirely different narrative with new cut scenes and the perspective of 9S rather than 2B. This goes a long way in reconciling the narrative mishaps the first time around, not because 9S is a better protagonist than 2B, but because the new narrative thread actually serves all the characters better than the first playthrough.
In total there are 26 endings that depend on what choices the players make and whether or not they’re playing for the first time. And while the multiple endings go a long way in making the narrative better, players will have to sit through hammy “revelations” androids dig up about humans in between yelling and crying.
There’s nothing impressive in NieR: Automata’s graphics department. Most of the city is drab, the desert that appears later in the game is the same. Even design choices like matching goth schoolchildren uniforms which may have appeared striking to someone stand out in ways that doesn’t inspire wonder but confusion, this is also true of the YoRHa.
Machines fair better in design. While there are three basic types (rotund, floating shooters, and tall tanks) they evolve along with the narrative. The best character designs for machines premiere early on in the Amusement Park section and on to meeting Pascal. This doesn’t slow down through to all the playthroughs, which helps keep the game fresh by peeling back layers of what was previously known about the enemy through NieR: Automata’s visual language.
The best design element, however, is select set pieces on missions. When specific story locations are given real identity to set them apart from the drab city 2B first lands in, these are the instances where players will most likely to stop playing and simply gaze at their screens. That’s how stark the contrast is.
Voice acting is so-so, and hackneyed lines make it hard for an actor to stand out in memory. Pascal is one of the few exceptions because of who the character is and what the levity in its voice says about the circumstances of the narrative. In fact, the mindless machines have some of the best delivery throughout the game, partly because the narrative offers them that position. Hearing chants of “Become as gods! Become as gods!” while chased by dozens of machines into the path of dozens more is symphonic and terrifying.
Music doesn’t suffer from the same complacency. Tracks were cut specifically for locations and story moments, which make first encounters stand out in players minds. Early on, Machine Village will linger in their heads because it’s just so fitting for Pascal and friends.
NieR: Automata’s music carries as much narrative weight as its visual language, making it just as responsible for making this little world come alive.
Platinum Games is the same studio behind some notable action games like Mad World, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Bayonetta, and a lot of their DNA can be found in NieR: Automata. After a couple of hours, players will be comfortable enough with 2B that they won’t just fight enemies but float around them, executing a violent dance with all manner of blades, assisted by lasers and missiles from their trusty pods.
The floating robots that accompany YoRHa soldiers can be outfitted with chips that can upgrade its offensive capabilities and take over simple tasks like provide 2B with recovery without the player having to worry about it. That assistance will come in handy because NieR: Automata has a significant learning curve.
As the game progresses new machine types will appear along with the standard models evolving, become more aggressive, powerful, and plentiful. This is also true for boss battles. No two are alike, and their capabilities complement the setting where they are located and their design. While the first boss is a hulking titan rising out of the Pacific Ocean, the next is a cackling doll in a cage dress that conceals lasers and missiles.
Combat never gets boring with enemies that provide this kind of challenge, and with the change in perspective players will always be engaged. Side-scrolling, top-down, over the shoulder, stand-up combat, mid-air combos, pilot fighting–the variety of opposition 2B and 9S have at their disposal when facing machines is on a constant upward track. Players will be grateful for such a robust system when moving between locations because they will be tempted to engage every machine they see, and in doing so will encounter the biggest enemy in NieR: Automata.
Invisible. Walls. Few things are more frustrating in this late stage of open-world games than going up to an open doorway or a gaping chasm between a decaying building and a collapsed tree only to find a force field preventing a character from progressing. There is no shortage of places where the largest of machines should be able to pass through, yet 2B and 9S can’t. There are ledges that they can jump higher than but never land on.
Bad design such as this prevents exploration, which is the last thing developers should want in their open-world action RPG. With nearly all side-quests boiling down to fetch missions and kill orders, what incentive do players have to explore this ruined world when every other route taken is a dead end that shouldn’t be?
NieR: Automata doesn’t make the strongest first impression. While the combat system is both intuitive and challenging, giving players a sense of accomplishment with the defeat of every boss, the survival of every isolated level, the main narrative takes a great deal of effort to get to a point where it gets good by most measures. Yoko Taro headed a creative development effort that makes for a world that has a beautiful background littered with little things that make it more engrossing with every step. To get there, players will have to accompany two characters that don’t offer much through multiple playthroughs in order to get enough story to justify the main narrative. That may be asking too much for those not familiar with the series.
For those willing to put in the time to explore something new, they’ll find that their investment in hours does have a payoff. NieR: Automata is a game with a drab outer shell hiding a rich center that takes a particular kind of patience to move through a badly designed open map and a willingness to sit through hours of ho-hum narrative to get to what could be considered a master class in world building. That this is broken up by sections that feel like an entirely different game only make it more enjoyable to get through, it’s the first hours to get there that’s the chore.
That division makes it easy to see this game slip into obscurity, like its earlier installments, becoming a cult favorite of a console generation that only a few will remember. But those will be fond memories.
NieR: Automata – 8/10
You can experience NieR: Automata yourself here.
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