July 23, 2019 at 3:21 PM #751
Rating: 5.0 – Flawless
This review was written on April 15, 2018 for Version 1.06 of NieR: Automata on the Playstation 4
Disclaimer: this review is for the Playstation 4 version of this game, and will reflect my opinions of that version only. The game’s PC launch has been a monumental debacle, and continues to be so as of this writing. If you’re interested in playing this game on PC, please read current Steam reviews or news articles before purchasing.
The first Nier, released in 2010, was the hidden gem of the seventh console generation. It didn’t perform well commercially, and critic scores reflected its shallow combat system, but over time it developed a loyal cult following due to its unconventional storytelling techniques and masterfully written characters. When NieR Automata was unveiled at E3 2015 along with news of a larger budget and collaboration with PlatinumGames, the cult rejoiced! All indications seemed to point towards a game with its bases covered: Yoko Taro’s story writing paired with Platinum’s expertise in combat systems seemed a match made in heaven. However, not even the best predictions could have prepared audiences for the finished product.
NieR Automata tales place in the far-distant future of the first game and follows the drama of 2B and 9S, combat androids of the elite YoRHa squadron engaged in a perpetual war against machine lifeforms. Humanity has long since retreated to their new home on the moon, leaving the androids to fight and reclaim the Earth in their stead. As 2B, you are sent to the surface to assist the android resistance in their war effort while gathering data on anomalous robot activity, but what begins as a routine investigation blossoms into a discovery that threatens to change the course of the war itself.
While exploring the ruined remains of Earth, Automata’s brilliant art direction speaks volumes to the attention to detail the game displays. The world has an intrinsic sadness to it, explored subtly with muted greys and soft earth tones. Each area has a distinct visual theme, which is further enhanced by smaller details like running water or endemic life. Ruins of civilizations – long-forgotten or fairly recent – keep the adventure steeped in well-guarded mystery. An unobtrusive atmospheric murkiness is present in most of the game’s locales, which helps make the player feel isolated in a cold and uncaring world.
The masterful art direction doesn’t end in visuals, however. Each part of the game – whether emotional story beat or intense combat segment or quiet exploration – is accompanied perfectly by a truly evocative soundtrack composed by Keiichi Okabe and vocalized by Emi Evans. Automata’s OST makes remarkable use of a wide range of worldly instruments and even a made-up language to expertly tie the game’s audio and visual components together. The music is every bit as self aware as the rest of the game, knowing when to fade or stay in situations to deliver the maximum impact. Certain tracks, like the Amusement Park track, are overlaid multiple times, resulting in a piece that plays only certain parts of itself, swelling or diminishing based on the tone.
Music and visuals are merely the most overt methods of Automata’s passive storytelling. Everything in Earth’s far-future has a story, be it expressive locales, reoccurring supporting characters and even enemy placement. Side quests use world building and lore development to break up the monotony commonly associated with fetch and kill quests, giving players actual reason to explore the world around them. Important character files, enemy documents, and even the individual weapons each have bits of backstory that fit neatly into the bigger picture, weaving dozens of smaller stories into the larger tapestry.
At a first glance, its easy to perceive the story as disjointed or poorly-constructed, or pass off certain plot points as forgotten or miswritten, but there is reasoning to this. In order to deliver the game’s themes in a way that’s resonant within its audience, it’s critical that the story be told piecemeal, from a series of limited perspectives that sum to a greater whole. For example, you play a significant part of the game from 2B’s perspective, culminating in rising action and a "final boss," before you play through the same events, but this time as 9S. Because 9S is a Scanner model android, he sees things that 2B cannot, which is shown through internal monologue or twin-stick shooter hacking minigames. It’s jarring at first, and potentially demanding of a player’s memory, but the eventual payoff is absolutely worth it.
In this way, the most disastrous pitfall Automata stumbles into is its usage of the term "ending." The game possesses twenty six endings, twenty one of which are jokey "what-if" endings that are technically fail-state scenarios. They’re fun to collect, but the term "ending" is intrinsically off-putting, especially when not explained well. It’s a common mistake for players to reach the end of Path A, see credits, and assume that they’ve finished the game when they’ve only seen the first third of it.
Combat is admittedly not as complex as other Platinum games, but it’s not shallow by any means. Players assign a variety of melee weapons to either the light or heavy slot, which changes the available moveset. Weapons within the same class distinguish themselves by damage output, combo length, and skills, which can be unlocked by upgrading individual weapons. Additionally, an entire arsenal of missiles, lasers, and energy weapons are also available, offering a mixed set of powerful melee techniques and offensive or supportive ranged abilities to compliment your preferred playstyle. The melee weapons and ranged abilities are meant to be used creatively in conjunction with one other, and while the combo web might not be ludicrously complex, animation lead-ins are more than varied enough to keep the action fresh well into the endgame.
Though this game is an RPG at its core, stats and mechanics mostly take a passive role compared to the action combat system. The nuance comes into play with the Plug-in Chip system, which lets you tinker with your stats in ways that augment very specific aspects of your build, like movement speed, critical hit chance or i-frame duration. Each chip comes with a potency that determines the strength of its effect as well as a value to show how much free inventory space is required to use it. Through this system, Automata’s relatively simple action combat system gains a ton of complexity, giving players the freedom to customize their play styles down to the detail. The chip system affords flexibility within the game’s mechanics, letting players personalize their own playstyles and even modify on the fly in order to combat specific bosses that might require different strategies altogether.
The combat really begins to shine during Automata’s grandiose boss battles. Over the course of the game, you’ll find yourself slugging it out with skyscraper-sized behemoths and dueling with dangerously agile androids with the same frequency, but each boss manages to blend their own unique mechanics seamlessly into both the mechanical and narrative aspects of their fights. In one battle, my opponent attempted to hack 2B, forcing me to beat the hacking mini game before I could resume the fight. Another battle took place from a fixed camera perspective, temporarily turning the fight into a 2D side scroller. Some bosses might have ridiculous amounts of HP and temporary periods of vulnerability, while others might force you to fight with finesse and timing, but for all the diversity the game’s bosses provide, their fights share the same intrinsic sadness pouring from this game.
It’s because Automata takes great liberties with its gameplay that it’s able to incorporate its mechanics into the narrative so well. At its finest moments, every individual part of NieR Automata coalesces to make one beautiful bigger picture, from heartbreaking narrative context in the game world to strong philosophical themes permeating every inch of the game. It builds strong foundations on set-piece moments and supports them with layers of subtle details, using breadcrumb lines of dialogue and lore to coerce the player into grand revelations in ways that games rarely do. It uses the conventions and the perceived reality as a thematic frame which houses a much more profound philosophical examination of sentience, civilization, and life itself.
If there exists a game to argue the status of video games as the highest form of art, NieR Automata would be it. Not only does it exhibit mastery over every avenue of artistic expression, but it takes full advantage of the one attribute exclusive to the medium of video games: the player. Automata is keenly aware of its status as a game with fun, action-oriented combat, but never forgets its identity as a window between the artist and the audience. It breaks the fourth wall in imaginative ways, it rewards active engagement with the game’s story and rich cast of characters, and it oozes with attention to detail, from dozens of beautifully handcrafted animations to small nods to the events of the original Nier. This game is simply too beautiful to miss, and will undoubtedly be remembered as a pioneer in the medium of video games.
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