Platform: PlayStation 4
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Platinum Games
Review Date: 5/31/17
"I wish I could save every one of us, but the truth is that I'm only one girl."
"NieR: Automata" is a semi-sequel that takes place in the "NieR" universe, which is a spin-off of the "Drakengard" series. But you don't need to know any of that to enjoy the game. Thousands of years from now, aliens invade Earth with a machine army, and Mankind is forced to retreat to the Moon. From there, they construct an android fighting force known as YoRHa, and send them back to Earth to destroy the invaders. The war has been in a perpetual stalemate for several thousand years, and it's not clear that either race even exists anymore. Only the machines of war remain, and they've evolved into sentient beings with intelligence, free will, empathy, feelings, and culture. A combat android named 2B is sent to Earth with a support android named 9S, and together they battle deadly robots, perform data collection, and assist a group of android resistance fighters who live in the ruins of what used to be human civilization. During her time on Earth, 2B encounters many mysteries and learns a great deal about who her friends and enemies are.
Having no history with the franchise, I bought this game solely on the fact that it features a stylish and attractive female protagonist who wields a giant sword. Perhaps that's a bit shallow, but female action games are my favorite genre and everything I saw appealed to my particular gaming sensibilities. The game starts out rough, with an hour-long tutorial mission that throws you into one of the game's hardest battles. There are no opportunities to save your progress along the way, so you have to get through this mission before saving becomes an option. Thankfully, after surviving this gauntlet, the game becomes much easier and much more enjoyable. Once you touch down in the city ruins, the game world opens up for exploration and convenient save points become available. The gameplay primarily consists of leveling up your skills and experience through combat, exploration, and completing missions that various characters give you. While your main objective is to destroy enemy robots, it quickly becomes apparent that they're not the mindless killing machines that central command believes them to be. They exhibit human speech patterns as well as emotions, self awareness, rational thought, spirituality, moral codes, and social networks. In many ways, they seem more human than the humanoid androids do. There are even pacifist robots who are helpful and friendly, as well as carnival robots who simply want to sing, dance, and have fun. Clearly, there's more to the alien incursion than meets the eye, and an emerging YoRHa conspiracy becomes evident as you spend more time in the field.
Unraveling the heavily anime-themed story is very satisfying, but also leads to the game's biggest flaw. Once you complete 2B's main story arc (which took me about thirty hours), the only way to continue the story is to play through the entire game again as 9S, and then a third character becomes available for the final act. To me, this is a completely unreasonable ask, as it offers very little new art. Plus, I don't like 9S at all. He's annoying and underpowered, and the only advantage he has over 2B is his ability to hack into machines (which isn't particularly enjoyable). It's like saying "here, play the game again, but at half capacity." It's also a huge time sink to repeat everything you already did, but you do get some deeper insights into the story along with the opportunity to wrap up any side quests that you missed.
The game looks and sounds fantastic, and the art direction is superb. The game world is huge and seamless, and the only loading times you experience are when the game first starts up. Ironically, when the "fast travel" option becomes available, it's often faster to travel to your target destination on foot than it is to transport there. The greatest benefit to using the transport feature is to avoid any enemy encounters along the way, but that robs you of any extra experience and items you might gain, and you miss out on the breathtaking scenery, which never fails to impress. Thanks to Platinum Games' involvement, the action is fast and fluid, and the controls are tight and responsive. My only criticisms would be that forced changes in perspective are annoying, and 2B's walking speed is just a little too slow. Much to the designers' credit, the game features advanced tools for dealing with disorienting camera issues, under the clever guise of maintenance options for androids experiencing motion sickness.
Combat consists of light and heavy melee weapon attacks, along with ranged attacks from a floating support pod that follows you around. You can equip your character with different combinations of swords, spears, and bracers, while assigning various programs to the multiple pods that you have access to. You can also customize 2B's skill set by purchasing plug-in chips that upgrade her abilities. This is by far the most confusing and cumbersome element of the game, and requires a lot of experimentation. I made the mistake of letting a maintenance android set up my chip set, and it completely changed the controls and the way the game played. I actually had to reload a saved game to get back to my previous configuration, because there was no way to tell what happened without extensive knowledge and research. The ability to fuse chips isn't explained ANYWHERE, and even the Internet offers little insight. It's worth spending some time trying to figure out the plug-in chip mechanism, because it really can enhance the game to match your playing style. At the very least, equipping the "auto use item" chip is a literal life saver, because it automatically consumes health items when you reach a certain threshold. With so much action taking place during combat, keeping an eye on my health meter is a distraction I'd rather not have. The game offers a surprisingly wide range of difficulty, so you can tweak the settings to best match your gaming personality. I found my sweet spot to be in the easy setting with all auto combat features disabled. This kept me engaged and challenged without becoming bored or frustrated. I also liked the fact that it described the normal difficulty as "The standard, most enjoyable difficulty. Probably."
The music is phenomenal and does an outstanding job of reflecting the desolation and despair of a ruined Earth. The various themes blend seamlessly into each other as you enter new areas and complete mission objectives, which is very impressive. Unfortunately, the repetitive vocals can become tiresome after a while, and the lyrics are sung in a bizarre sounding fictional language similar to "Gravity Rush" (2016). The voice acting is excellent and the game features both Japanese and English audio options. I played through the game in Japanese, which preserves the cultural and anime-styled presentation. The only time this became a problem was during boss fights, where the characters like to talk about crucial story elements in the midst of battle. Maybe it's my age, but I don't have the bandwidth to read subtitles while I'm focusing on trying to stay alive.
The writing is very good and the world of "NieR: Automata" is full of quirky characters and emotionally resonant themes. The localization team should also be given credit for their translation effort, which sets the sly tone of the game and really brings life and personality to the characters. There are happy robots, sad robots, shy robots, creepy robots, religious robots, pretentious robots who spout philosophy, robots with anxiety, lovesick robots, robots who wear makeup, and robots who act like innocent children. Love and loss are the primary themes of the game, which is intriguing because there are no human characters. The non-stop carnage and destruction illustrates the futility and pointlessness of an endless proxy war that neither side even understands, and there are deserters on both sides who question their purpose and simply long for peace and co-existence. At one point, 2B encounters a group of friendly robots who are waving white flags and pleading to not be killed. It's a major turning point in the story and one of the most emotional moments I've ever experienced in a video game. I actually started crying and had to put down the controller for a few minutes while I processed what was happening and contemplated my next moves.
2B is a fantastic and fascinating character who is an extremely capable and serious minded fighter, but also has the capacity to think for herself and make her own decisions when things don't seem right. Like nearly all of the other YoRHa soldiers, she wears a sexy and completely impractical gothic lolita dress, complete with thigh-high stockings and high heeled boots. Leave it to the Japanese to use teenage girls as the mould for advanced military personnel. Much like Bayonetta, she moves with the grace, poise, and agility of a fashion model and is mesmerizing to watch. Her assistant, 9S, is a young male android with the personality of a whiny and overeager teenager. He comes in handy, but is a constant annoyance throughout the entire game. The other support androids in the orbital command center have the emotional maturity of young teenage girls, and the story often plays out like a high school anime drama. Android attitudes, interactions, and interpersonal relationships are of the "more human than human" variety, so it's easier to not think of them as machines at all. Operator 60 is a bubbly and overly enthusiastic airhead who is more interested in looking pretty than providing mission support, and is constantly trying to get 2B to loosen up and act more feminine and demure on the battlefield. Since all YoRHa combat androids are female, they tend to prefer same-sex relationships, while ground soldiers tend to prefer opposite-sex relationships. 9S clearly has a crush on 2B, but she expresses no interest in him and routinely shoots down his advances. The purpose of android intimacy is unclear, and the fact that androids have genders at all is probably the biggest mental stumbling block. Even enemy robots exhibit gender identities and familial roles, which is one of the game's most intriguing facets.
I thoroughly enjoyed playing "NieR: Automata," even though I didn't get to experience the entire game. While the main objective is always clear, it's extremely easy to get distracted by side missions. Most of these are simple fetch quests that require lots of backtracking, and some are combat oriented and extremely difficult. Guarding a robot parade from a group of aggessive machines is quite possibly the hardest and most surreal task in the entire game, and I'm thankful it's only optional. The side quests almost always result in big rewards, so they're definitely worth your time. It's also worth interacting with the various characters, as it adds to your knowledge of the world and reinforces the tragedies and casualties of war. You can also spend your time meditating at various fishing locations and attempting to ride wild moose and boars that wander around the forest and the city ruins. The world of "NieR: Automata" is beautiful and emotionally captivating, and the open nature of the environment encourages exploration and quiet contemplation. The game's overall weirdness may put off some people, but once you embrace the characters and the story that it's trying to tell, it's hard to put down the controller.
Favorite line: "Thanks, grumpy lady!"