A few years back, one of the most unique games I’ve ever played came out… a strange gem called ‘Nier’. Nier was not a great game, but it had such charm that it was hard not to love it. It featured gameplay ideas from a wide variety of genres, numerous endings, awkward mechanics, and an amazing soundtrack. Somehow this mix of disparate ideas, awkward implementation, and amazing music created one of the most interesting and memorable RPGs I’ve played, even if the game was nowhere near perfect. And as interesting as it was… it did not sell well.
Given that, you can imagine my surprise when SquareEnix announced a sequel coming, developed in conjunction with Platinum Games, a developer notable for great, unique action games – surprise, and excitement. When thinking about the strange and wonderful ideas the Nier team had to begin with, and matching those up with the polish Platinum is known for… it really felt like the chance for Nier to shine how it deserved. The big question: Did it live up to these escalated expectations or did it disappoint?
Slicing, Shooting, And So Much More
The sheer variety of activities in Nier: Automata is staggering. And every facet is incredibly refined. This game features sidescrolling shooter segments in a few different forms, giant mech battles, puzzles, hack and slash action, and more… but let’s take a step back here. The core gameplay of Nier: Automata is a fast-paced action rpg style where you play as a few different characters over the course of the game’s length. Each of the characters does play uniquely, but a lot of the core combat is very similar. Which is actually quite fortunate, because the game asks a lot of you, especially at its more challenging difficulty levels – the highest one requires literal perfection as its gimmick is one-hit deaths.
The game has a few unique twists on the standard combo based action rpg. Like most games, it features light and heavy attacks, and you can get a variety of different weapons with different styles. Unlike many games, it is both which weapon you equip and whether you equip it as a light weapon or a heavy weapon that defines your combo. The other unique component of the game system is a pod that is always with you that fires ranged attacks to ensure you always have the ability to do damage at range. This creates a dynamic and engaging basic combat system that does a great job of pacing the game.
Of course, there’s far more to the basic combat than just that… but we’d be here all day if I guided you through every aspect of it, and there’s so much more to talk about. The game makes a fascinating use of perspective, changing it to alter the experience. Most of the time it plays over the shoulder ARPG style, however occasionally it’ll switch to being a viewpoint reminiscent of old-school 2d Platformers. During these segments, the controls remain the same, but everything is on a 2-dimensional plane, which really changes the dynamic of the combat.
The other key gameplay mechanics are the ‘flight unit’ and ‘hacking’ segments. Flight Units put you in a dynamic combination of two different styles of top-down aerial bullet-hell style shooter. These segments are a refreshing change, although they can be quite challenging if you’re not familiar with those playstyles, even on lower difficulties. Hacking is a mechanic you’ll get introduced to a fair ways into the game, but it’s a fairly simple geometric shooter, similar to the old-style tank games from the early 1990s, but much more fun. They make really clever use of the hacking for story purposes, especially during the second segment of the game.
A Tale 11000 Years in the Making
Nier: Automata’s backstory is enormous. The game takes place following the events of one of the Nier endings, which takes place thousands of years after the events of one of the endings in the Drakengard series. Yep, there’re literally thousands of years of history here, folks. Much of it relevant. Fortunately, Automata’s development team did not make the mistake of having it be required. There’s no homework here, my friends. You can jump in and the game will provide you all the knowledge and info you need to enjoy this tale, as well as the ability to seek out far more knowledge if you choose to delve that little bit deeper.
What impresses me most here is that the game’s core story is quite engaging. For a game starring androids as protagonists, it was a surprisingly emotional affair. But let’s take a step back here. Humanity has been driven from the Earth, and the machine army used by the aliens have taken over most of the remainder of the planet. What’s left of humanity is operating a base on the moon, utilizing military androids to stage attempts to reclaim the Earth from various satellites that are used as forward bases for the reclamation attempt. This military android force, known as Project Yorha, has just launched a new attempt to establish a greater presence on Earth – sending a squad of a half dozen highly advanced androids in aerial assault suits known as ‘Flight Units’ to attempt to take out a machine stronghold and deal with a major threat they’ve detected. You are android 2B, a member of this force, and your fight starts here.
Fortunately, that is just the beginning and the story quickly expands from there. Unfortunately, for me at least, it is hard to say much beyond that without spoiling. The story is fantastic. I absolutely loved every minute of the time I spent with the game exploring the lore of this future Earth. The structure the game uses is truly fascinating. You see, the game expects you to play through multiple times. In fact, when you unlock the game’s first ending, there’s actually a note from the developer thanking you for playing and telling you to ‘enjoy the rest of the game’. Each time you finish and start anew, you actually get a modified version of the story, expanding events and eventually building up to one of the most amazing endings I’ve ever seen – a scene that fit the themes of the game so well I can rarely say I was as satisfied with a conclusion as I was here.
The characters are surprisingly deep, with one of the long-standing side characters featuring some of the game’s most poignant moments. The initial story is focused heavily on the protagonists, but once you get past that and into the final endings, the game makes very good use of a few strong side characters to flesh out the depths of the story and tie things together. And the game does a fantastic job of rewarding exploration in non-tangible ways. By exploring the sidequests, conversations, and various environments in the game, you gradually uncover more and more of the game’s amazing history.
Above and Beyond
I’ve gone on record talking about how amazing the original Nier’s soundtrack was. But as far as visuals go, Nier and Drakengard 3 were both decent but not spectacular. And the animations in both games left a lot to be desired so when it came to presentation, I was really expecting a mixed bag with some highlights but likely just as many low points. Boy was I wrong… Nier Automata’s visuals, animations, art direction, and audio all blew me away.
The soundtrack is arguably the best I’ve ever heard. Every track is distinct, fitting, and memorable. But that’s not enough these days… a lot of games have great soundtracks. Nier Automata did something so unique and amazing that it is unbelievable that more games haven’t done it before now. While most soundtracks tend to have a mostly static song for each event or region, Nier: Automata’s composer was not content with that. In Nier, each track has a few different versions based off of what is happening, and there is amplification applied to the various layers of the audio to match the circumstances. To use an example, there’s a region that takes place in what used to be an amusement park. When you’re in the central areas of the zone, you’ll hear the track for that area in its full glory, but as you reach the fringe areas you might hear the vocals muted a bit, or if you’re in a dark corridor your might get a part where certain sounds are accentuated to play up the suspense. It’s an absolutely brilliant way to use the game’s fantastic soundtrack, and it really made the music feel more like it was actually a part of the environment, a part of the world.
The art direction was really cool. Of course, the characters looked awesome and the enemies were fascinating… but there were also many intriguing touches all over the place. I loved the design on the machines, with their dull metal and very old-fashioned appearances, as well as the overall aesthetic of the city. While it is fairly uniform, and there’re a lot of similar looking settings, this just serves to add character. In a lot of modern cities, buildings are gradually becoming more and more uniform, so having a relatively monotonous set of structures all over our range of territory in Nier simply feels right. They’re all damaged in different ways, and plant-life has taken them over to a significant extent, but the buildings make sense for the downtown of a city. It adds a layer of continuity that does a lot of good.
It is this sense of continuity that really makes this game special. There are so many little touches that play together phenomenally to ensure that there’s nothing quite like this, and that everything feels like it fits so well. There are so many elements I can’t mention here for fear of spoiling some of the most memorable moments… but it really is a truly amazing experience.
The game has an absolutely fascinating inventory system. There are three different types of equipment you’ll find throughout the game: Weapons, Chips, and Pods. Weapons are obvious, you’ll find a variety of different types of swords, daggers, spears, etc. throughout the game. What is fascinating is that weapons aren’t defined as light or heavy weapons, how you equip them defines that. Each weapon has a different combo style when used as a light weapon or as a heavy weapon, so it’s up to you to make the choice of which combination of equipment and styles you want to incorporate.
You can have two different weapon sets and swap between them on the fly, even mid-combo, creating some really elaborate attack sequences. The animations during combat are so incredibly smooth that these dynamic combos are really satisfying to pull off. The other fascinating thing to mention about the weapons is that each weapon has its own story, and as you upgrade the weapon you unlock more and more fragments of that weapon’s story.
Augmenting your core weapons are your Pods, which offer you constant access to ranged attacks. There are different Pods in the game, each with different stats and attack styles… and you can, again, swap between Pods on the fly. In addition to their basic ranged attacks, the Pods can also be customized with special abilities that give you additional combat capabilities.
But my favourite part of the equipment system was customizing my stats through the chip system. You have a defined amount of memory that can be upgraded throughout the game, and you can equip a variety of different chips that offer you unique special effects. Each chip has an effect and a memory cost, allowing you to build your character however makes sense to you.
One aspect of this that really fascinated me was that certain basic UI elements, including parts of the HUD, were contained within chips so, if you wanted to make your display just a bit more sparse, you could do so and free up a few extra slots in your Memory. While a lot of the chips were basic – bonus damage, defense, and so on – there were some really cool ones that had more unique effects, like slowing time when you dodge and making your melee attacks fire off a shockwave. Since you can only equip so many, you really have to pick your playstyle.
I love that Platinum was not afraid to let us go fast. So many games use ‘slow movement’ as an artificial method to make the game feel longer, but Nier: Automata gives you the ability to run at blazing speeds right from the start and equip chips to increase those speeds even further. It is truly glorious, and it makes the game feel so very freeing.
So as to avoid spoilers, I won’t give specifics, but this game features some of the most clever and interesting boss fights I’ve ever seen. Two of the boss fights near the final ending stand out to me, one through it’s unique victory condition and incredible storytelling throughout and the other by simply being so perfectly executed that it felt simply and utterly right. Most of this game’s boss fights were fascinating, exciting, and well-done, so those two don’t stand alone in awesomeness… but those ones are particularly impressive to me.
Nier: Automata is what the series always should’ve been. It has the same level of unique flair that the first game sported, but without the awkward gameplay or problematic mechanics. The game is uncompromising, engaging, and incredibly fun… all while telling a story that is both thought-provoking and well written. Somehow, they managed to mix an action rpg, bullet hell-style shooting side-scrolling, top-down shooting, mech gameplay, and even some elements of text-based adventure games in one game and none of it felt out of place. It’s an amazing accomplishment, and it shows what you can do when your team has a well defined vision of what they want to create.