Looks can be deceiving. On the outside Nier: Automata looks like a run-of-the mill hack n’ slasher where you cut up walking trash cans wearing a French maid outfit. But is that really all it is?
“Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse, or some kind of punishment? I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle… and wonder if we’ll ever have the chance to kill him.”
The cold open for Nier: Automata is certainly brimming with nihilism. It’s the kind of poetically existential thing you’d expect to hear from someone who’s been reading a bit too much Edgar Allan Poe. But after finishing it’s 30+ hour campaign and starting anew, only to see those words cross my screen once more, it feels like quite an apt conclusion to such an amazing ride.
Or Not (2) Be
You begin your journey as 2B, a combat android belonging to the organization “YoRHa”, who is tasked with fighting to protect what remains of mankind. Hundreds of years have passed since the Earth was invaded by aliens and swarmed by their robot minions, and to this day the battle rages on. Humanity now resides on the moon, hoping and praying that someday YoRHa will land the final blow, and they can reclaim the planet.
2B is a hardened veteran of war, and it shows through her cold, distant demeanor as she ruthlessly and precisely eviscerates anything standing in her way. Very shortly into the introductory act however, she is joined by her counter-part known as 9S, who is a reconnaissance model. He primarily assists by gathering data and hacking enemies, using their own weapons against them. He also seems to grow quite bored with his work and is prone to idle chit-chat, much to the dismay of his colleagues.
“Despite their stark differences, all of Nier’s characters share one important trait: they all feel intrinsically human.”
The farther you get into the story, the more you begin to realize that these two androids are the perfect yin to each other’s yang, and that this balance is an underlying theme throughout the entire experience. A large and intimidating-looking male robot may have a soft and endearing female voice, for example. They also might be the most memorable and tragic character in the entire game, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Despite their stark differences, all of Nier’s characters share one important trait: they all feel intrinsically human. They feel pain, fear, sadness, and even love. This is true right down to the most basic enemies you encounter. Some cry out in terrified anger at the sight of you, vowing to avenge their fallen brothers, while others beg for their life as you cut them down. It slowly becomes apparent that there is more to this world than what is initially presented, and not everything is what it seems.
Plot and character development aren’t the only areas where you’ll find nuance, however. The game primarily functions as a third-person action brawler, but often shifts perspectives to become everything from a bullet-hell shooter to a visual novel. These transitions between play-styles are often a refreshing change of pace in key scenes, and make for some of the most ear-splittingly satisfying gaming moments I’ve had in a long time.
That being said, the core combat mechanics that you’ll be spending most of your time with are no slouch. Platinum Games didn’t just dip it’s finger into this game, it went full Gallagher and smashed it out of the park. And all over the walls. You slash at your foes with dizzyingly-fast combos that bleed directly into your next attack without even flinching. You can also do a familiar last second teleport-dodge maneuver and follow it up with a brutal counter-attack. The game wears its Bayonetta influences on its sleeve, and I’d be damned if I said it doesn’t work heavily in Nier’s favor.
Although the fighting is amazing and immediately approachable from the start, the way you level and augment your character’s abilities is initially a bit confusing and daunting. Leveling up in general is quite bone-standard: every time you gain a level you get a little bit more health, hit a tad bit harder, and that’s more or less it. Where you find the real meat of this system is in the use of “plug-in chips” and “pod programs”.
Each YoRHa unit is assigned a floating helper bot called a “pod”. The pod can fire projectiles towards hostiles at will, and never runs out of ammo. They can also be upgraded and customized through the use of “pod programs”, which gives them special abilities and attacks. You start the game with a very powerful laser blast program, but can later buy and equip many others such as a giant digital hammer, or a black-hole gravity trap to hold down your foes while you wail on them.
The plug-in chips are a bit harder to explain. Your character has what is essentially a memory pool. Everything from the operating system that keeps you alive to individual elements of the HUD take up chunks of memory, and you only have so much memory to spare. Plug-in chips also take up this space, but grant you special benefits such as more health, stronger attacks, or a bigger window to dodge attacks. You get these chips by either buying them, receiving them as quest rewards, or by killing tough enemies.
This provides a fascinatingly-deep level of customization, as you can cut back parts of your display that you don’t need to make room for upgrades, or instead add even more information like enemy HP and damage values. Also, if you are on easy mode, you can install “auto” chips for literally any combat action, and the game will do that action for you. So if you aren’t particularly skilled at dodging for example, equip auto-dodge, press L1 to activate “auto mode”, and you won’t have to miss a dodge ever again.
Will I Dre(A)m?
Some might scoff at the idea of an auto-mode, but I absolutely welcome it, because it means more people can enjoy what Nier has to offer. As far as I’m concerned, If I could convince even one person who was on the fence/turned off about this game to give it the ole’ college try, I’d be over the moon. I also feel personally that it is imperative to understand a few key things about the game’s structure in order to get the most out of it. As a result, the following paragraphs may require me to spoil very minor aspects of the game.
Now I know how sensitive some people are to even the most minute of spoilers, so I’ll say this bolder and more clearly: MINOR SPOILERS INCOMING. Scroll all the way past this part if you are absolutely convinced to get the game or want to go in as blind as possible.
For those of you still here, let’s get into a few things. Firstly: the game pretty much requires you to play through it multiple times to get the full story. I wouldn’t usually disclose something like this but I feel like it’s, as Burt Gummer would say, “critical need-to-know information”. If you finish the campaign once after 10 hours and put it down, you may walk away from the experience unsatisfied.
Secondly: If you do decide to play through the game a second time, I implore you to play it through a third time after that. This may seem like an odd proposition, and arguably a bit unnecessary, but believe me when I say that the game was designed this way. Each playthrough is different, and gives you more insight on the story the deeper you go. But trust me when I say that playthrough 3… Oh mama, it’s a doozy! Don’t cheat yourself by stopping short, you will regret it!
Hang On, R(2)!
I am absolutely floored by Nier: Automata. Every character, friend or foe, is presented fantastically and has you constantly questioning what it really means to be human. Each step of the way it continued to surprise me, and even 30 hours in is still introducing new, meaningful game mechanics and concepts. It made me feel like an action anime super-hero one minute, and want to fall to my knees and weep the next. Buckle up people, it’s gunna be a bumpy ride!