Nier: Automata is an unpredictable game. It’s a game that switches between twin-stick shooting, third-person action and 2D side-scrolling at whim. It can be a beat ‘em up like Bayonetta one moment, or a run and gun like Contra the next. It’s a game that unapologetically embraces the weird in gaming, and one that does it well.
In a post-apocalyptic Earth inhabited by constantly warring androids and robots, humanity has been exiled to the Moon, forced from its home by Alien machines hell-bent on destroying all mankind. Humanity’s only hope lies in a series of combat androids tasked with destroying these Alien machines, which the two lead characters, 2B and 9S, are a part of. 2B, a tough, stoic android, is partnered with 9S, her ever-curious male companion, and is tasked with aiding a local Resistance force settled on Earth. Since this is set so far beyond the events of Nier, the story connections are intangible at best, so new players can jump right in without missing a beat.
Taro Yoko’s games always had interesting stories, even if they weren’t all necessarily good ones. His games were often hindered by the gameplay - Drakengard making Dynasty Warriors look like Devil May Cry in comparison - so when it was announced that Platinum would be developing Nier: Automata, I was understandably excited.
And, of course, Platianum delivered in spades. Nier: Automata is a quick, stylish and often challenging game. 2B’s moveset isn’t quite as deep as Bayonetta’s, but it never feels lacking. The weapons all feel different, and even though there are only four subcategories - those being small swords, large swords, spears and combat bracers - each weapon can be paired with another to create new combinations. For example, pairing a spear with a large sword allows 2B to use the polearm as a makeshift dance pole and spin around with the sword extended, attacking all enemies within reach. Weapons can also be levelled up, which both increases their attack and unveils a small story unique to each weapon. 2B can also dodge, counter, parry and launch enemies into the air, all of which can be combined to create an intense flurry of stylish attacks that feels fluid. It’s a great feeling game.
Along with her vigilant companion, 9S, 2B is equipped with a Pod companion that provides her with a ranged attack. The Pod’s default attack is one that deals surprisingly good damage, but it also has a cooldown special ability called a program that deals devastating damage. Pods can also be customized with different programs to utilize different special abilities. For example, one creates a decoy that attracts enemies, and another spins the Pod around the player at high speed, annihilating any enemy that gets too close. If you have more than one Pod, all of which have their own unique default attack, you can charge up these special abilities to make them even more powerful. Unfortunately, being a Platinum Game, it often fails to point out certain small but useful abilities. There are a couple of Pod moves I accidentally pulled off before I knew they existed. Embarrassingly enough, I didn’t even know how to launch enemies into the air until about 10 hours in. It’s jump and attack, not back and attack, by the way.
When the game shifts perspective, which it often does, Nier can become a 2D side-scrolling shooter akin to Contra, one of Taro Yoko’s main inspirations, with the Pod becoming 2B’s primary weapon. This is also the case for when the camera shifts to a bird's-eye view and turns the game into a twin-stick shooter. These camera shifts sound like they could be jarring, but often change slowly enough to allow the player to get used to this shift in perspective. These changes keep the gameplay fresh and exciting; you don’t know when the camera’s going to shift while exploring a new area. Ironically enough, the only time the camera becomes a problem is when the game’s in 3D. There’s usually a lot going on visually, and sometimes the camera gets trapped on a wall, or even behind a multitude of enemies. Because of this it can be easy to lose yourself in large scale battles.
The RPG in this action RPG is based on the Plug-in Chips system. 2B, being an android, can be equipped with different chips for stat boosts and abilities. One chip can add a shockwave to your melee attacks, effectively making them ranged attacks that reach far-flung enemies. Another chip can heal you every time you destroy an enemy. Chips take up 2B’s memory, so you will have to sacrifice two weaker chips for a more powerful one. The HUD is controlled by these chips, so it’s possible to remove the whole HUD to save on memory. You can also combine chips, improving their stats and how much memory they use. You are given three separate loadouts, allowing you to experiment in combining chips.
The Alien machines come in many shapes and sizes. They range from blocky, cumbersome tin-man-looking fodder to giant, writhing snake-like fiends. Going toe to toe with these enemies always feels great. It’s epic diving headfirst into more than a dozen robots, dodging each of their devastating attacks, launching them into the air and vanquishing them one by one. Visually, the alien machines you fight make for an interesting juxtaposition with the elegant and stylish 2B and 9S.
Sadly, Nier’s boss battles aren’t the standout I hoped they’d be, given Platinum’s credentials. They are usually visually engaging, but don’t quite provide enough interesting gameplay distinctions that separate them from battles against common enemies. However, there’s one extreme exception: a boss that went through so many twists and turns my brain was scrambling in trying to keep up as the camera constantly changed perspective.
The aptly-titled City Ruins is the first area you visit, and also the dullest visually. From this zone, the game opens up to a surprisingly varied world which boasts some beautiful and interesting environments - from a vast, barren Desert Zone, to the bombastic Amusement Park. The world may be aesthetically diverse, but it’s one that isn’t filled with much to do outside of the main story and side quests. The side quests function like short stories focusing on the inhabitants’ perspective of the post-apocalyptic world they inhabit; filling in the lore of the world. A few are also integral to understanding the main plot. They may not all be exciting to play, a lot are merely fetch quests, but even these ones feel rewarding for the lore they provide.
I said before that Taro Yoko’s games always have an interesting story, and story is where Nier: Automata’s leaps beyond its peers. Taro has always been interested in the darker side of humanity, and here he explores this motif through androids created by humanity, rather than humanity itself. The main themes of Nier: Automata are of fate and self-determination; specifically fate within recurring loops. It explores this both through the 14th android/Alien machine war and the progressive characterization of 2B & 9S. Without going into spoiler territory - as this is a story that should be experienced for yourself - the way Taro Yoko seamlessly integrates these themes between the story and gameplay is something I don’t think I’ve seen done before: Nier: Automata is about androids and machines, so every part of the game reflects this from the chip system to the design of the menus and the intentional visual/audio glitches. It’s fantastic and beautiful storytelling, that’s really only possible in a videogame.
Nier: Automata is Taro Yoko’s crowning achievement. Apart from some minor gameplay inconveniences, it’s a strikingly captivating game that is equally charming, bizarre and depressing. One that is completely unpredictable and ultimately beautiful.