We don’t like the robot’s chances.
Originally developed as a spinoff of the Drakengard series, NieR met with decidedly mixed reviews when it arrived for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 back in 2010. Despite that and less-than-stellar sales, Square-Enix announced a sequel at E3 2015. That follow-up has finally arrived in the form of NieR: Automata, and it’s safe to assume we won’t be waiting seven years for the series’ next entrant.
For an action RPG, NieR: Automata is surprisingly robust. Yes, the core light/heavy attacks have been used for decades, but the game smartly introduces unique variables to spice things up. Front and centre is your Pod, a small robot that hovers around you and provides offensive (or defensive) support, depending on its weaponry and whatever ability you have equipped.
It makes for a chaotic scene when strafing with your Pod while also hacking away at enemy robots, and though a lock-on function exists, it seems to have a mind of its own, often jumping from one target to the next when your reticule crosses — which, ya know, kind of defeats the purpose of a lock on. Deploying your Pod’s special attack when locked on also feels a bit clumsy since you’ll need to hit L1 while holding down L2.
In addition, your character, known as 2B, is often accompanied by a wingman (9S) that assists in battle, and he has a Pod of his own. 9S handles himself well, and you’re free to switch up his tactics to complement your play style at any time. For instance, if you like pecking away from range with your Pod, you can instruct 9S to concentrate on close-quarters fighting.
You’ll have access to four different weapon types (small/large swords, spears and bracers), each with their own strengths and weaknesses. As with Pods it’s easy to switch back and forth to juggle attacks for massive combo damage. The combat reminded us of games like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, and that kind of variety is a Godsend for an action RPG.
As you’d expect with its RPG slant, pretty much everything can be upgraded as well, unlocking more powerful attacks for your Pods, weapons and so on. At the heart of this are interchangeable chips that grant unique abilities or add boosts and buffs to your health, attack and so on. The more slots you gain, the more chips you can equip. It’s straightforward, but it works well.
Although most of the combat falls under the “free roam” category in which you control the camera, NieR does script certain sections to be played from a fixed perspective, which adds some wrinkles in terms of difficulty. Areas where you control what’s essentially a Veritech fighter from the Robotech universe look cool yet feel limited relative to the freedom of hand-to-hand combat.
Played on a standard PS4, NieR: Automata is not a visual powerhouse. Comparisons between the PS4 and the PS4 Pro indicate superior performance, particularly in resolution (1080 vs. 900), but no matter which system, the game’s focus is clearly on action and effects, not eye popping scenery. That isn’t to suggest it’s ugly, but a lot of the spacious locales are pretty sparse by modern standards.
Character and enemy design are solid, particularly the look of the YoRHa, though the true star is the combat itself with the flips and juggles and elaborate strikes. It definitely takes some time to really grasp what you’re capable of within the context of the game. Once you do, however, there’s a perverse thrill in finding new and interesting ways to eviscerate your metallic foes.
There isn’t a ton of dialogue, and what there is would rate as average, but it gets the job done. Where the game is much more interesting is the soundtrack, which features a robust mix of instrumental tracks and fully voiced songs. Its diversity is a definite strength.
Hundreds of years have passed since the end of the original NieR, and Automata finds humans forced to inhabit the moon after aliens attacked Earth. To fight back, mankind has created androids known as the YoRHa to augment the remaining androids on Earth in their efforts to destroy the machines. It’s into this reality that YoRHa units 2B (that’s you) and 9S are sent.
Once on the ground it quickly becomes apparent that strange things are happening, including machines displaying human emotions and social behaviours. This evolution looks to be the work of a pair of robots with human appearances going by the names of Adam and Eve, but there’s much more to unravel bubbling beneath the surface.
Although the fundamental story beats aren’t too difficult to follow, the minutia of the narrative becomes quite dense and tracking the various twists and turns is challenging. For some, the convoluted story might be a drawback, but even within that, the game effectively creates emotional connections and is also pared with fantastic action.
As with any modern RPG, Automata features a main quest along with plenty of side missions to acquire valuable items and experience while being given reasons to explore the world. It isn’t the most user-friendly interface (perhaps it was designed with PC in mind), particularly the map, but the mix of fetch and combat quests is solid and offers more story payoff than most.
You should expect to spend in the neighborhood of 40 hours to complete the game, though you can certainly sink considerably more into it if you choose — particularly if you start going after the game’s multiple endings — and NieR offers plenty of incentive to do just that.
In a year already brimming with Game of the Year contenders, NieR: Automata deftly tosses its hat into the ring. Its pacing is nearly perfect, the combat is delightful, the boss fights are memorable… it just does so many little things right that you’d be making a mistake not to play this. Immediately.