NieR: Automata is a special game. It’s special not because of its great combat, amazing animations, or its magical soundtrack. It's special because of the questions it asks. What does it mean to be alive? It’s a question that arose throughout my journey and one that even after I finished Automata I continued to think about. NieR: Automata is an exceptional game through and through, and definitely a title Platinum Games fans will enjoy and action fans shouldn't miss.
NieR: Automata tells the story of an Earth overrun with machines after a war broke out between humanity and an invading alien menace. After facing near annihilation, humanity escapes to the moon and begins building an army of androids to combat the alien's machine weapons. The bases of the game’s story is simple, but the more I played and experienced it, the more the story offered twists and turns. It was definitely enough for me to continue to play not only to see how it all plays out, but also because the story expands and gives different perspectives of events with differently playthroughs. It's hard to explain without spoiling parts of the experience, but believe me, playing the game multiple times is highly recommended.
Outside of the main narrative, which is presented though character conversations and cutscenes, the best part of Automata's storytelling is done through your own hands. As an android, your mission is to exterminate every machine you encounter, but that choice is seemingly left in your hands. Throughout the journey I encountered machines that simply walked around exploring the world around them. Some of them even called each other brother and sister. These surreal moments are the heart of Automata.
As you encounter machines you are constantly reminded that machines have no feelings, they can't think, they have no emotions, they don't know the concept of love, and their only purpose is to kill. It's in these moments that you have to question your own personal actions, unlike other games where you are giving a dialogue choice, or choose to kill this boss or spare him. In Automata, it feels like a more personal choice rather than a choice a developer put in for you.
If you choose to attack every machine you encounter, you will see them try and run from you, and they will even beg you stop killing their family while also trying to defend themselves. I don't know why, but it actually started to affect my mood and how I played the game. It became harder and harder to kill something as it asked you to spare it, as their child will be left alone in this cruel world; but how can it have a child if it can't reproduce? Moments such as these tested my moral compass: Are the machines lying to save themselves? Is there something more going on that I don't know about? These situation weave into Automata's main narrative. What's even more gut wrenching is finding out the motivation and backstories of some of the bosses as well as the much older machines that have lived for hundreds of years. Some of this information you won't get on your first playthrough but will learn more about in your second and maybe even your third run though the game.
Automata puts you in control of 2B and her companion 9S as they are sent to Earth to help a resistance group in their battle against the machines. What I didn't know going into Automata is that it's an open world game. The ruins of the city you start in expands to some interesting locations. A city consumed by a massive desert and a medieval castle in the midst of a massive forest. Locations are varied and are great fun to explore. Being an open world game, there are plenty of areas to explore and secrets to find. Crafting material and hidden treasure chests can be found in the most obscure areas, areas that at first glance look like they can't be reached. There is plenty to explore in this world, and it’s rewarding to do so. My only complaint about the open world is the thick distance fog that accompanies it. It's worse in different areas than others but is definitely a distraction, especially when the vistas and art design is so strong.
The world is also full of side-quests which again go beyond expectations and provide some interesting scenarios. Each side-quest provides a plethora of things to do from your simple fetch quests to more elaborate quests, like solving a murder and tracking down rogue androids. The great thing about the side quests is the approach Platinum Games took with them. I didn't get to experience all of them on my first playthrough, new quests will unlock in second and third playthroughs, and some quests (which I initially thought were glitched) can only be completed on another playthrough. When I didn't finish a multipart side quest, that quest didn't reset on another playthrough. It simply picked up right where I left off, and those side quests that I did finish were recorded as completed, and I didn't have to do them again. It's an interesting mechanic that keeps the questing fresh with each playthrough.
Combat is Platinum Games' forte, and it shows with Automata. Moving away from things like style points seen in Bayonetta, Platinum Games has instead settled for a more simple yet very flashy combat system. Each machine forces you to adapt and utilize different tactics. Melee combat is where you will spend most of your time and plays like you would expect., switching from light attacks to heavy attacks to mix up your combos. As there is no block button, dodging becomes key in every combat situation.
The other part of combat that comes into play is your assistant pod. These flying machines provide long range attacks as well as support during combat. Holding down the R2 Button utilizes a variety of attacks, such as a gatling gun, an energy stream, or missile attacks. The pods also provide support in special abilities that can both be offensive and defensive. Equipping different skills on your pod will allow you to create a shield to protect you from damage, or create a gravitational pull that sucks in the enemies in its radius.
Of course it's not all hack and slash in Automata. What helps Automata stand out is Platinum Games' ability to blend different genres together. When I first started the game, I was surprised and shocked that I was playing an Ikaruga-like battle hell arcade shooter in my flight unit. This transitioned into a side-scrolling R-Type shooter; it's also important to note the sudden camera angle changes that take place in the indoor environments. I appreciate them as they help with what i’m sure would have been camera problems when fighting in enclosed environments, but some people will have issues with large scale battles in a top down perspective or a side scrolling camera angle where your options for dodging are reduced to three directions.
There is also a type of mini-game which plays like a twin-stick shooter as you hack into machines to destroy them from the inside out. Breaking down firewalls and antivirus software is great in concept, and is actually kind of fun and presented pretty well, but can get repetitive, especially when the hacking battles provide the same layout and encounter.
Automata also utilizes a manual save system. At first this decision infuriated me, especially when I encountered some of the game’s numerous glitches, which forced me to restart hours from my previous save. I eventually got used to saving at every save point encountered, and I also began to appreciate the decision to use a manual save over an auto-save, simply because it plays into the story. As an andorid, all of your information is stored on a server, so everytime 2B and 9S die, they are uploaded to a new body and sent back down to Earth.
What’s cool is Automata utilizes a kind of Dark Souls system, where if you die you lose all of the Mod-chips you have equipped and you have to return to your dead body to collect them. When you do collect them, they are automatically reinstalled the way they were and you are able to bring your android body back to life as an extra companion to help you until it dies. It won’t act or fight like 2B and 9S, but it’s a neat little addition. This can also be done if you are connected online. Automata uses a network feature where you discover the dead android bodies of other players in the world and have an option to pray for them. This helps them in their game, and you get the option of repairing them, making them your ally, or you can utilize the Retrieve option, which gives you some of the Mod-Chips that player had equipped along with some items, currency, and materials.
Customization is key to survival in Automata. Utilizing the aforementioned Mod-Chips, you are able to add abilities to your androids and increase their stats. Mod-Chips range in a variety of ways, but you can only equip a certain amount. Each modification comes with a point system, which tells you how many slots it will take out of the maximum you can have. The better the mod, naturally the more slots it will take up. Fusing mods is also an option.
Fusing two mods of the same type will increase the buffs and stats but also increase how much space it takes up. Working like a loot system, mods will come with different cost numbers. You may find a mod that will take up five slots and other times you will find the exact same mod that will take up ten slots. Paying attention to this allows you to maximize the amount of mods that can be equipped. Essential mods can also be removed like a HUD display and your core mod that keeps you alive. Removing that one will kill you but that attention to detail is very welcome.
Upgrading your weapons and your pod is also essential to survival in Automata. Collecting parts from defeated machines and organic life forms, like mooses and boars, are used to upgrade a variety of weapons you find. Each weapon has a story to tell as well, and each time a weapon is upgraded it will unlock a new part of the weapon's history, which in turn expands on the lore of the world. The bad thing about upgrading the weapons is that they all pretty much have the same stats at max level, but the additional buffs they add are what will decide which one best suits you. Buffs like having a chance to stun the enemy with every attack or increasing the attack speed of the andorid. The other problem is you get no information about which machines drop what material. So you kind of have to kill everything or collect them in the environment and hope you get what you need.
The best part of NieR: Automata is, simply put, the magical soundtrack. I fell in love with Automata's soundtrack almost immediately. Each song fits the setting perfectly, from the action to exploring a deserted desert city it’s quite literally in my opinion a perfect soundtrack, and that goes double for the great voice acting and amazing sound design. If you can get the soundtrack, get it immediately, you won’t be disappointed. Each tune also changes as you transition to new locations, vocals will start to blend into another song, and when you go into the virtual hacking mechanic, you will get a retro sixteen bit version of that same song. It's amazing.
As much as I want Automata to be perfect, it does suffer with some performance issues. The frame rate can drop to some surprising levels; but not in combat, instead when simply exploring and running around the environment. As I mentioned earlier, the dense distance fog should have helped with pop in and texture issues, but it doesn’t, I encountered them all the time when exploring the city scape of the open world but didn't have issues in other areas.
The biggest performance problems came from putting my PS4 on Standby mode. I discovered that after returning to Automata after leaving it in standby mode caused a plethora of issues, like not being able to climb ladders, screen flickering issues, and not being able to talk to NPC's. Thankfully the day one patch fixed a lot of these issues but not all of them. These issues appeared even when I quit the game and turned off my PS4, but they were increased by the use of Standby Mode.
NieR: Automata is the best surprise I could have asked for. Automata is easily the best game Platinum Games has produced. It’s thought provoking story, which made me question my own morales, and Platinum's signature combat raises the bar of these types of titles. It's just a shame that the numerous technical issues hold it down, as if it weren't for them NieR: Automata could have been a true top tier classic.
NieR: Automata review copy provided by Square Enix.