In my forty hours with NieR: Automata, I fought a giant construction site, watched machines conduct their own twisted version of Romeo and Juliet, and unraveled one of the most philosophically interesting stories in video games. I did this all while playing the game as a third-person hack and slash action RPG, a top down bullet hell shooter, and a side-scrolling platformer. Despite all this craziness, I spent most of the game either bored or frustrated thanks to underdeveloped combat and tedious questing. However, beyond all reason, the highs in NieR: Automata are so powerful and perfectly executed that I will look back positively on my time with the game for many years to come.
NieR: Automata is set nearly 10,000 years in the future on a post-apocalyptic Earth entirely devoid of human life after aliens took over the planet with the aid of machines who still terrorize the planet. Humans fled to a base on the moon and are working to reclaim Earth. To even the odds, humans created a group of androids known as the YoRHa. You start the game as one of these androids, 2B, a battle android tasked with taking down a large machine base as part of the ongoing war for the future of humanity. 2B teams up with a scanner android known as 9S, and the two of them work together to take down the machines.
If that sounds slightly boring then you would be right. And also incredibly wrong. The moment-to-moment story beats can be incredibly dull, especially in the first half of the game. Early missions have you traveling to a camp to deliver a machine part, which you’ll then take back to your base, before taking another part back to the previous camp as payment. The main quests are worse than most side quests in other games.
The game’s story doesn’t start to shine until you reach the first of its ‘endings.’ After this ending, you’ll play the game again as 9S and move through the same story beats, except this time things feel a little different. You’ll uncover mysteries and start to see the truth of the world around you. And… then the game ends again. Playing the game for the third time is entirely different and just goes to show that all the talk of multiple ‘endings’ is largely nonsense.
The third playthrough is an entirely different game and this is when the story starts to reach Metal Gear Solid levels of crazy. It’s a little convoluted at times. Like Hideo Kojima, Yoko Taro likes to do what I can only describe as ‘weird shit,’ and it doesn’t always pay off. One scene in the second half of the game was clearly designed to give me the feels, but the only feeling it elicited was frustration. The frustrating moments were worth it by the end of the game when the ‘weird shit’ transcended to ‘utter genius.’ The way Yoko Taro makes the player contribute to the ending will be something I’ll remember forever.
While the game’s story moves from boring to weird to brilliant, the world you inhabit rarely moves beyond bland. You’ll spend most of the game in a city full of crumbling buildings, rusty cars, and trees that have grown in ways which seemingly defy gravity. You’ll also spend some time in a desert and a forest, but it’s the amusement park that steals the show both visually and thematically. After a few hours spent slogging through groups of machines, you’ll stop and stare in wonder when you reach the amusement park and see machines throwing confetti and dancing instead of trying to kill you.
With the exception of the amusement park, the world is drab and rather empty. The cars scattered around feel like a late addition just to make sure there is something in the world that isn’t a building or a plant. The sacrifice in detail isn’t for nothing: on the PS4, NieR: Automata runs at 900p and maintains 60FPS most of the time. The occasional dips in frame rate to about 45 FPS tend to come when you’re moving from one location to another and rarely, if ever, impact the combat. Given NieR: Automata’s focus on fast combat over visual fidelity, it’s a compromise well worth making.
If NieR: Automata’s story has Yoko Taro’s fingerprints all over it, the combat is easily attributed to Platinum Games. Early gameplay footage of 2B and 9S taking on large groups of machines brought back fond memories of Metal Gear Rising and Bayonetta, but the end result felt more like Legend of Korra on steroids. Like a Michael Bay movie, it looked flashy and fun but ended up feeling shallow and boring within an hour. 2B has a light and heavy attack; however, the potential for combos is shockingly limited. Two attack buttons–R1 and L1–are given over to controlling the pod that floats around the androids. While the pod is undeniably helpful in combat, it can’t be integrated into combos which means your only options are to do three light attacks followed by a heavy attack or a long light attack (by holding square) followed by a heavy attack. The only way combat ever gets vaguely interesting is by executing a well-timed evade and then following it up with a special version of the standard attacks.
The evade function is one of the many abilities that can be improved by installing chips in your android. You can pick and choose chips as you see fit to suit your play style. There are a fair amount of basic chips such as enhanced short and ranged attacks, melee defense, ranged defense, health boosts, and the like. You can also regain health for defeating enemies, enhance your speed, or stop time on the execution of a perfect evade. If you’re feeling particularly creative, you can remove HUD elements like your health bar and the mini map to create extra space for more exciting chips. Unfortunately, there aren’t any chips to improve the dreadful map which might as well not exist for all the good it does. Once you’ve got a decent setup, the game will almost certainly become too easy on the normal difficulty setting, while still being full of one-hit-kills on the hard setting.
The reduced difficulty contributes to making the game rather boring. You’re rarely at risk of dying, but machines still take a large number of hits to kill. It ends up becoming a real slog to take on large groups, and occasionally I just switched off and ran around in circles while my pod did all the work. The combat occasionally looks flashy, but it rarely feels satisfying. Bayonetta encouraged you to be creative by rewarding long combos and difficult attack moves, but there’s nothing like that in NieR: Automata and the game suffers as a result.
NieR: Automata tries to mix things up with side-on and top-down combat, but this only really feels exciting when in the mech suit, which opens the game up to some frantic bullet-hell action that is always over far too soon. The game’s best bosses are found in these mech suit sections where you’ll take on machines like the massive weaponized construction site in long drawn out fights that look as spectacular as they feel. Conversely, the bosses you’ll fight on foot are either giant spheres or humanoid opponents, the latter of which can be easily cheesed.
While I didn’t enjoy the combat, I still enjoyed playing NieR: Automata because of the incredible musical score throughout the game. Each section has its own distinct theme and nearly every one of them is brilliant. I can’t think of a better musical score in a game of this generation, or maybe ever. The music plays a surprisingly active part in contributing to a rousing ending that I’m still thinking about as I type this.
For half of my time with NieR: Automata, I was debating in my head whether the game had done enough to earn 3 stars. The combat was so dull and the story so bland that I couldn’t find many redeeming qualities. However, in the second half the of the game, there are highs that are so powerful and so well executed, that I ended up thinking about the game for days after I finished it. I don’t want to play NieR: Automata again, but I could talk about it for hours on end. NieR: Automata has far too much padding and would be better as a 20-hour experience instead of a 40 hour one. Despite all that, there are parts of this game that simply have to be experienced. The music and the story are phenomenal; it’s just a shame the combat isn’t of the same quality.