NieR: Automata Review

By Kevin Tavore, 3 months ago
It's hard to approach a review for a game like NieR: Automata. On one hand, I could introduce it as an action game from Platinum Games, a developer who's made as many duds as hits. On the other, I could refer back to its prequel NIER, a cult classic RPG known for its unique storytelling. But to do either would do the game an injustice. Automata is not just another good game, it's a masterpiece that weaves story with gameplay in a way quite unlike anything you've ever played.

Review

Automata's structure revolves around three "routes" you take through the game. Route A sees you playing as the main heroine, 2B, an android trying to save humanity. After completing Route A, you'll play through Route B which sees you moving through largely the same events from the perspective of 9S, another android. Route C then takes place after A and B and ultimately completes the story. Some players will refer to these routes as playthroughs, but in truth they are entirely different and the structure is important to the story. But before we get to that, it's important to explain how the game handles the repeated sections in a successful way. Requiring "multiple playthroughs" sounds like a negative mark against any game, but Automata's gameplay is designed to ensure the game stays fresh throughout the two dozen hours of your experience.

Route A is functionally a standard character action game but it mixes in segments from several genres, many of which you don't see outside of the indie space these days. If you've played Platinum's other titles like Bayonetta, you're familiar with using simple combos and different weapons combined with dodging to weave around enemies like a river. The combat is not particularly difficult but does require some thought, and if you'd rather not think, the game offers the ability to have your character played basically for you as you button mash. The combat does lack the depth of some other character action games, but that's forgivable here because Platinum has also injected so many different and interesting gameplay scenarios that the variety can only be called outstanding.

For instance, you'll run into a room and defeat a group of enemies before entering a new hallway where the camera switches to 2D and you play a platformer mixed with run-n-gun shooting and melee. Then you jump in a jet and play a bullet hell twin-stick shooter. Then it switches to a vertical-scrolling shooter, then horizontal-scrolling and finally drops you back into melee combat somewhat akin to a 2D fighting game. None of these separate genres is a one-off in Automata and the sheer variety is welcome. In Routes B and C, additional gameplay quirks are added to ensure you're playing something different enough that you never feeling like you're treading water.

Review

Automata is somewhat less than a AAA game and the open world shows that. While you can see far into the distance at times, you're not always able to go there and there are many invisible walls to halt your progress. Still, the world is not made of corridors and there is some sense of exploration to be found if that's how you'd like to play the game. There are over fifty side quests to complete, all of them giving you a new look into the game's lore through often humorous or serious tones. As one would expect, these quests offer in-game experience, gold and relevant crafting materials to reward you for your efforts. The result is an open world that feels a bit bigger than its budget should have allowed. Of course, if you prefer moving from A to B without the exploration, the game absolutely works that way too and you'll never need to spend time grinding out levels if you don't want to.

To accompany the open world are RPG elements that help you continue to feel more powerful as you progress. To be clear, this is an RPG in the traditional Japanese sense. You won't make more than a handful of choices throughout the game. Instead, the RPG elements come from the mechanics. You'll level up to get stronger, upgrade your weapons and focus your build based on how you want to play. These upgrades give you some freedom in terms of how you build your character, though on higher difficulties there are some that are clearly way better than others. These upgrades are complimented by a Souls-like punishment for death where you lose all your currently-equipped upgrades if you fail to recover your body after you die. This sounds punishing, and it can be, but you may find you don't die too often. I only remembered the mechanic after losing a bunch of upgrades and being confused as to why. Luckily, it's not hard to get right back to where you were.

Background

Overlaying the gameplay and game systems is the highlight of the Automata experience: the story. Route A is your basic save the world JRPG story that you'd never remember. While the world of Automata is one where humans are nearly extinct and machine AI do battle with android AI, Route A barely scratches the surface of that, only intimating that there may be something more as our heroes 2B and 9S slaughter countless machines pleading for mercy. Route B, which sees you playing through the same story again, is necessary because it gives you a fuller perspective. Mysteries are uncovered and resolved which add depth to the machine struggle and the apparent attempts of machines to become living. This could have all been shoehorned into one playthrough, and online discussion is filled with people saying it should have been, but the experience as-designed works marvelously as a way to high light the new content that fills in Route A's gaps which might have been glossed over if you at the whole cake at once.

Route C then kicks things up another notch, telling a story subsequent to Routes A and B. We see the breakdown of some beloved characters as the machine-android war kicks into high gear and we see the destruction of what's arguably life in AI form. At the end, one of the AIs says that not all questions need to be answered, which seems to break the fourth wall as some players will no doubt be asking why some questions were not directly answered by the game. Still, the answered questions are earth-shattering within the game's universe and those that remain have more than enough to open up a conversation among friends or an internal dialogue about AI, the meaning of life, and our role as humans. Overall, the payoff for everything feels worth it and it's still popping into my mind days later.

Artistically, Automata strikes a perfect tone. The game's soundtrack is superb, with each area featuring its own tune you'll find yourself humming along to just like those classic RPGs from when you were younger. The songs are well matched to the theme of the area, with the highlight being an orchestral reimagining of Requiem for a Dream that plays as you fight a boss framed as a machine opera singer in a theatre. Visually, the colors of Earth are muted, which matches the post-human apocalyptic landscape. The sheen of gray adequately conveys to the player that this is a desolate place that's absolutely depressing, which works quite well when 9S and 2B are calmly dismissive of machines' ability to feel as they cry out for help and run in terror. The areas you'll visit are worn down even where they should be happy, such as an amusement park, which again speaks to excellent art direction. The only downside is the game's HDR implementation, which is absurdly bright, but not colorful, and not calibrated properly to match the abilities of most TVs — in layman's terms, it means you'll need to manually reduce your TV's brightness to way below normal levels and even then you won't be fully taking advantage of the feature.

Review

The achievements are perfect. If you look at the list, it looks like a massive grind full of collectibles, weapon grinding, and all kinds of other things. To make matters potentially worse, upon completion of Ending E (which is after Route C), your save data gets deleted so that you have to start over. Luckily, the developers clearly realized that the achievements might dissuade players from doing that, so they created an in-game merchant from whom you can literally buy achievements from with end game currency once you get to the end game. In effect, this means all you have to do is play through the game and enjoy it at your own pace and in any way you want. The achievements will all flow later with total ease.

Check out our Best Xbox RPGs Available in 2017 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

NieR: Automata is without a doubt one of the best games of the generation and it's likely going to remain one of my personal favorite games ever. The gameplay is sensibly designed to ensure you're always having fun and the world itself is full of enough content to keep you going without forcing you to go on a Ubisoftian collect-a-thon. More importantly though, the story has impact on both a base level and philosophically, and will no doubt leave you with questions to consider for days after you finish if you enjoy that kind of thing. I wish I could have more games like NieR: Automata, but I'll probably be waiting a while — it's only so often a game this excellent comes around.
5 / 5
Positives
  • Intricate story worth the time investment
  • Thought-provoking for those with an interest in AI or humanity's role in life
  • Outstanding gameplay variety
  • Artistic direction is excellent, matching the game's tone perfectly
  • Wonderful soundtrack
Negatives
  • HDR implementation is poor
  • Some may see Route B as an unnecessary retread of previous content
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately 19 hours exploring the game's endings, slaughtering machines and ultimately giving thought to the game's questions. Along the way he unlocked 48 of the 48 achievements for 1000 Gamerscore, with half of them coming from the achievement merchant. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Kevin is a lover of all types of media, especially any type of long form story. The American equivalent of Aristotle, he'll write about anything and everything and you'll usually see him as the purveyor of news, reviews and the occasional op-ed. He's happy with any game that's not point and click or puzzling, but would always rather be outdoors in nature.