A few years ago (I think it was while reading a Cracked article), I learned about the Drakengard series and was immediately drawn to its dark and quirky narrative, despite its purported quality. Gameplay issues aside, I can at least applaud a work for being unique and pushing boundaries. As I learned more about these games and their spin-off, Nier, I became more and more intrigued, quickly gaining an interest in the series. I went out of my way to avoid reading too much about the stories and didn’t have any way to play the games, but the little that I knew made me desperate to experience them for myself. So, just like that, I became a huge fan of a video game series I never even played.
When Nier: Automata was first announced, I was actually not very excited for it. I was a bit turned off by how it focused on machines and sci-fi elements rather than the fantastical stories I knew the series for. I dismissed it as one of Platinum’s, at the time, series of flops, unnecessarily reviving an old, forgotten franchise to meet its disgraceful death, so I ignored it and quickly forgot about it. Eventually, the demo was released and I figured I might as well try it because why not? Instantly, I was blown away. The gameplay, voice acting, writing, and music were all not only well above the mark but were some of the best I’d ever seen in a video game. Although I was initially planning on playing through this series in the order they were released, I became far too enthralled by this game to patiently sit and wait for that elusive Drakengard Collection to come out. I knew it was gonna be something special. I knew I liked this series for a reason. Having now played my first Yoko Taro game, I guess I must have a pretty good idea of what I like, since Nier: Automata has become one of my favorite games of all time.
Its story centers around a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by a seemingly never-ending army of machine lifeforms. Tasked with the destruction of these machines for the glory of mankind, are the Yorha androids who reside on the moon with the last vestiges of humanity. The player controls the battle android 2B who, along with her scanner partner 9S, is sent to the frontlines to tear through these mechanical hordes. As the two duty-bound androids set out to various locales to complete their missions, they begin to learn of the both the beauty and the horrors of the world they inhabit. While the story is presented as a simple two-sided conflict between cold and calculated lifeforms, it quickly becomes apparent that there are much deeper mysteries buried behind both sides. And so begin a journey of self-discovery that envelops the characters, the world, and even the players themselves.
The gameplay primarily consists of hack-and-slash style combat in an open world environment. Since it is a Platinum game, one would expect fluid and responsive, dodge-centric combat with light and heavy attack buttons, and this game delivers on that beautifully, with several distinct additions, such as pod programs, that set it apart from their other games. Supplementing this are several 2D bullet hell sections that find the player avoiding countless red orbs while shooting down their enemies. The game seamlessly transitions between these styles, often blending the two, always keeping the action fresh and the player on their toes. It is a hectic and fast-paced game that feels constantly challenging but never unfair. Barring some unexpected camera changes, mistakes can generally be blamed on the player and not the game. This makes the combat feel consistently fresh and fun, which is good because, in true Drakengard tradition, the player is forced to mow down enemy lines by the hundreds.
Supplementing the core gameplay are plug-in chips, which can be used to augment existing abilities or give access to new ones altogether. Tied to these chips comes a Dark Souls-inspired gimmick of being able to encounter other deceased player bodies while online and harvest their chip abilities or rebuild them as a temporary companion. Similarly, being an android, when the player is killed in combat, the body is left behind with all of its chips, which must be retrieved before the player dies again lest they be lost permanently. For this reason, there is no auto-save in the game. Instead, the player is forced to upload their memory via access points. This not only creates an interesting twist that adds a real weight to each death, but it also ties the narrative universe together with the in-game mechanics in a way that is both interesting and poignant.
That said, the game is most enjoyable when played at a difficulty that is challenging to the player, as many mechanics become moot if the player can breeze through everything. The game’s opening segment is absolutely brutal on hard and above but the difficulty can be changed at any time. I personally recommend normal at the start and hard once past the prologue. Very hard is only for the masochistic as the player dies from any hit and the hits will come. A lot. Even on hard, the deaths are numerous and unexpected, forcing the player to carefully consider their actions in what would otherwise be a mindless beat ’em up.
The constant deaths tie together the cyclic nature of this game, clearly established by the opening narration. This theme of never-ending failure is exemplified by the 26 total endings in this game, most of which are simply jokes, but some of which tie together the narrative in fresh and surprising ways, supplying new information from different perspectives and constantly toying with the player’s view of the world. Nearly everything in this game is strung together in this manner, from the mechanics to the characters to the music.
A special mention should be made of the soundtrack, which defines the game in a way rarely seen in any medium. This is easily one of the best soundtracks in gaming. Each area, event, and cutscene is punctuated by a very loud, vibrant score that permeates through every element of the game, giving each location its own unique mood that shapes the player experience. Every track is a beautiful, haunting melody that each sound distinct but work together as a greater whole to give life to this desolate but somehow calming world. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a score so memorable used to such a great effect.
Even with the across-the-board solid production, of particular note is the astounding quality of the writing and voice acting in this game. This is one of the few cases where the English dub may actually be superior to the original version. All of the Japanese voices are great but the English actors go above and beyond, with 9S standing out as a particular improvement over his Japanese counterpart.
The writing is layered and to the point, often revealing much about the characters and the world without wasting time or seeming forced. And much like the androids themselves, cutscenes are similarly succinct, punctuating the action and emotion without ever taking the control away from the player for too long. It’s very clear the developers knew they were making a video game as the majority of the story is told through in-game dialogue, either during combat, while interacting with NPCs, on ancient documents, or by the environment itself. This creates an interesting sense of progression where the game slowly reveals itself to the player and, before you know it, you are drawn into these characters and this world, without there ever having been a real break in the action.
On the graphical side of things, this game doesn’t fair quite as well, especially when compared to its contemporaries. The game generally runs at 60fps, but there are a few very noticeable drops when the action gets going or when the player starts running (very quickly) through one of the game’s many huge environments. It’s not enough to affect the gameplay but it’s a bit visually jarring. The game itself often looks like a high-end PS3 game, with some textures being so low-res to the point of being embarrassing, especially when they get close ups during cutscenes. Invisible walls also plague the open world experience, showing the designers clearly cut some corners to sharpen up the gameplay to the extent they did.
And yet, despite all of these shortcomings, this game’s sense of visual style helps it be one of the best looking games this generation. While the industry is no longer plagued by a sea of brown and gray to the degree it has been in recent years, big console releases like this seem to lack a strong sense of visual design. Despite its desolate and huge world, no two areas look the same, with each place having its own distinct feel. Nearly every moment of this game feels like it could be photographed as a beautiful still.
Although this is an action game, it’s surprisingly easy to take a step back and appreciate this world, the calming music and beautiful desolation providing a sharp contrast to the many life-or-death battles the player goes through. This something I feel narrative-driven games sorely lack, that moment of reprieve between battles. It is something that defines life but is rarely found in games, and yet is all too common here, really helping to sell the experience despite the lack of graphical fidelity.
After journeying through its world so many times, one can easily find their way around, with the map playing a role primarily in helping (perhaps a bit too much) with the game’s numerous but entertaining side quests. A few hours into my playthrough and I felt like I’d lived in this world for years. There was a certain comfort and familiarity to it. Yet, by the end of my run, I was surprised by how much the world had changed, both physically and in terms of my own perspective on it.
The characters themselves are similarly distinct. Although the majority of the androids wear black and white Yorha uniforms and the simple machines look exactly how you’d imagine they’d look based on that description alone, every major character and enemy type is easily distinguishable and visually pleasing. Those concerned with 2B’s looks will be glad to know the game’s creator has a refreshingly honest reason for it and those unimpressed by the machines’ cute design will find that the game manages to use their simplicity to great effect. I wasn’t entirely on board with these designs before I played the game, with the machines being a key criticism of mine in the demo, but I can now safely say that these robots make the game what it is and it wouldn’t be the same without them.
Although Nier: Automata succeeds on every front, its most defining aspect is how much heart was put into its creation. This is a game for gamers and for Yoko Taro fans, specifically designed as a game first and foremost, and it takes advantage of everything that statement implies. Despite Drakengard’s and the original Nier’s lack of success, a small group of devoted fans made this game possible, and the passion of the team, grateful for being able to see this grand vision come to life, is evident in every aspect of this game. It is one of few singularly VIDEO GAME experiences out there.
Despite its shortcomings, Nier: Automata is a very focused game, a rarity nowadays. It is a game first, never holding the player’s hand and stretching the boundaries of what a video game can do. It’s clear that this wasn’t the biggest budget title and that some shortcuts were taken during its production but the raw beating heart of this game can be felt during its every moment. It says so much in so little, never feeling pretentious or judging the player for their actions, but instead forcing players to draw conclusions for themselves. It asks many questions, answers some, and then asks even more. Rarely is a piece of media both so honest and so smart.
Nier: Automata challenges what games can and should be, all while delivering a fiercely entertaining and consistently intriguing journey.