NieR: Automata – Glory to Mankind – Review

Gare – Tuesday, June 13, 2017 7:53 PM
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Born from the mind of director Yoko Taro and made possible through PlatinumGames’ development team, NieR: Automataserves as a follow-up to 2010’s cult classic NieR and aims to form a healthy marriage between Platinum’s well-known brand of high-octane hack & slash action, as well as Yoko Taro’s memorably unique form of storytelling. Set in a world where androids wage a desperate war against machines in order to ensure the survival of the human race, NieR: Automata offers a thrilling ride of non-stop action, held up by a narrative that manages to engage, surprise, and even provoke thought.

2B or not 2B

Automata kicks off with quite the apocalyptic premise – aliens have invaded, forcing the final remnants of humanity to flee to the Moon. Earth is in ruins, and humans – in a last-ditch effort to save what is left to save – utilize an army of androids to fight the machines for them. This is where you come in, following the exploits of androids 2B and 9S down on Earth. Without going into spoiler territory – in fact, the game itself outright notifies you of this – it must be pointed out that NieR: Automata is not a game you play just once. Or even twice. In order to experience the entirety of the storyline the way it was intended, one must make sure to complete at least three playthroughs – trust me, you’ll understand why once you actually get there. So, if you’re wondering why Automata gets all this praise these days, do not – I repeat, do not – stop after your first playthrough.

Developed by PlatinumGames, Automata features the fluid and fast-paced combat system gamers have come to expect from the Japanese studio – and indeed, while not particularly challenging on Normal difficulty, Automata’s battles feel slick, satisfying, and endlessly spectacular. The game offers a range of different weapon types to choose from, alongside a variety of support- or offense-themed bonus skills that can be equipped to the helpful little floating robots accompanying our heroes. Your play style can further be customized through equipping Plug-In Chips, items that grant passive bonuses to your character, and can be upgraded to the point (and here’s a warning for the hardcore crowd) they make combat utterly trivial – once I found a Plug-in Chip that allowed me to regenerate a good chunk of my health after every enemy slain, there was no going back: I had turned practically invincible. In fact, I could probably count on one hand the amount of times I died during the campaign.

“Hacking” and slashing

Despite the somewhat lacking enemy variety and difficulty, though, Automata will rarely have you sleeping at the wheel: with inventive, spectacular encounters and a healthy dose of “bullet hell” elements – that is, constantly dodging a rapid stream of enemy projectiles – I never found myself particularly bored, even on repeated playthroughs. Speaking of bullet hell: Automata does feature a hacking minigame as well (9S is capable of hacking enemies to damage or take control of them), which I imagine will find itself both loved and hated by would-be players. During said segments, you hack into an enemy to partake in a mini bullet hell challenge – you control a little “space ship” sort of thing and work your way through enemy projectiles to defeat your target in a secluded arena meant to symbolize the inner wirings of the robot you hacked. I certainly appreciated the novelty and overall presentation of it, and there are indeed a number of memorable scenes that utilize this particular mechanic. However, I also felt it was needlessly overused, and occasionally a touch frustrating as well, considering that each time you fail said bullet hell challenge, you need to start the entire minigame from scratch. And trust me, there will be a number of parts in the storyline where the game tries its best to jam this minigame down the player’s throat, to the point where I honestly couldn’t wait to finally start playing as another character so I wouldn’t have to do these segments anymore.

As a tiny little addendum, I must also note how the PC port of Automata seemed... less than perfect. Now, I’m not a tech expert myself, so I won’t go into a detailed technical analysis here, but the game’s odd, semi-frequent crashes and freezes seemed to have reared their ugly heads on the machines of several other players, not just mine – which is frustrating, to say the least. Naturally, I’m not saying that every user is guaranteed to experience said issues, but it’s still worth a mention, at the very least.

Secrets and side quests

Being more of a semi-open RPG experience rather than just the usual Platinum hack & slash romp, Automata does include the age-old staple of the RPG – side quests. Indeed, there will be several dozen extra tasks for you to undertake during your travels across the ruined landscape, and while most of them amount to no more than the average MMO fetch quest in terms of gameplay, checking out at least a portion of them can be a worthwhile effort. The reason is simple: Automata’s side quests, I feel, form a fairly important part of the overall world-building process, with each of them – well, most of them – serving to further enrich the game’s already quite fascinating machine world, or simply shed some light on a number of interesting tidbits.

Nonetheless, despite their charm (I did personally enjoy the side content, this much must be said) this is one aspect of the title that could, potentially, wear down those looking for a constant stream of action as opposed to, well… more laid-back activities such as slowly escorting a lost robot across the desert or pushing crates around. Still, other than side quests, there’s not much else to do in Automata’s atmospheric, but ultimately barren landscapes, so the opportunity to kill some time between storyline missions was, to me, a welcome distraction – at the very least, it gave me an excuse to spend some more time in – and learn more about – the game’s otherwise pleasantly moody world. For others, though, they might be too tedious to bother with.

Hiccups in characterization

The actual storyline of Automata, while certainly replete with surprises and unexpected moments, is not necessarily one I would call flawless – it does throw a curveball or two your way, but is not quite fleshed out enough to satisfy everyone. In fact, its expert presentation, execution, as well as the underlying existential themes it explores and expresses, are probably more essential than the actual – otherwise still fairly good – story being told on a surface level.

Furthermore, Automata, I find, suffers from one critical flaw that holds it back from realizing its true potential, and this takes me back to what I stated just now about the story not being fleshed out enough. Unfortunately, the same could be said of the characters – the supporting pillars of the plot. The main protagonists – even the one that gets a tad bit more exposure than the rest – aren’t nearly in the spotlight enough, so when the time comes for them to partake in some truly breathtaking and emotional moments, I felt like I barely knew any of these characters. Granted, as I have said before, the storyline and some of its twists are… neat, to say the least. On paper. Even if one particular twist was woefully predictable. Still, it’s a wonderfully bittersweet tale, and just thinking about it gets me all excited – which is exactly why I would have loved to see Automata devote more screen time to properly telling it instead of rushing through a set of plot points at an all-too-fast pace. Sure, the game does try its hand at character-building with some truly heartwarming banter, email messages, charming side quests, and visual novel-esque segments, but it’s not quite enough in the grand scheme of things. The bottom line is that when your characters are not fleshed out enough, it becomes tougher for the player to connect to them, which consequently makes the plot’s more monumental, emotional scenes feel… well, I wouldn’t say hollow, but at the very least, not as powerful as they could’ve been. The potential was there, the situations were there, and the musical backing was definitely there (in fact, the soundtrack would deserve its own article’s worth of praise for being one of the best video game OSTs to date), but the characters, sadly, weren’t. Or at least, only partially.

Redemption song

Nier: AutomataPlatform: PC, PS4Genre: Action, RPGDeveloper: Platinum GamesPublisher: Square EnixRelease: 02/23/2017So at the end of the day, where does this leave us? Well, it leaves us at a point where I must call NieR: Automata a flawed gemof a game, one that I must critique for its obvious shortcomings, yet also one that I cannot help but love and admire. It is an interactive celebration of artistic expression through the video game medium; a title with a mechanical heart of its own, one that pumps life-oil into every little aspect of the whole, filling it with personality and charm. For any gamer willing to look past its flaws, NieR: Automata will offer a unique experience built with passion and care – and I urge you to give it at least a chance.