There’s a line in NieR: Automata that’s repeated a few times, in different contexts. To paraphrase it, it’s that something – be it an item or an emotion – “reflects what’s in your heart.” To my mind, that’s very, very true of NieR: Automata itself.
NieR: Automata is ostensibly a game about a war between androids and machines. An alien invasion forced humanity to evacuate to the moon, and the aliens’ machine army still roams the Earth. Humanity have built their own androids to fight back against the machines, in the hopes of someday retaking control of Earth so that the humans can return to their planet once again.
However, saying that NieR: Automata is about androids fighting machines is sort of like saying that Les Misérables is about a guy chasing a criminal. It’s technically true, but it’s drastically underestimating the nature of the thing, because NieR: Automata is about religion, war, evolution, preconceptions, humanity, morality, loss, despair, revenge, determinism, and about a dozen other concepts. It is considerably more than a hack-and-slash game about robots. Which parts of this you consider to be most overt and most important probably say more about you than they do the game; I found it to focus more on a couple of those concepts than others, but I in no way believe I’ve got the “right” interpretation. Or maybe this is just my past as an English Literature student trained to find meaning in everything coming into play.
If that’s turned you off, don’t worry. It’s also a game with a lot of large explosions and over-the-top action scenes. I mean, the prologue closes with a fight against an ambulatory oil rig, which ends when you beat it to death with its own giant arm.
And it’s hauntingly beautiful. Seriously, the presentation of this game borders on the impeccable, both visually and aurally. In visual terms, different areas are tinted different colours at different times, evoking particular feelings. In audio terms, all of the music in the game is “layered”; you might hear the vocals of particular track slowly fade in as you approach a huge building, or everything but string instruments might fade out as you walk out onto endless sandy dunes. And – thankfully – it’s mostly not ominous Latin chanting. The vocals to the music seem to be a mish-mash of languages; I swear I’ve heard Japanese and French, at least, though it’s hard to be certain.
There are also some wonderful juxtapositions of this stuff. There’s something to be said for having a high-octane battle against 20 machines, dashing and slashing and dodging strikes with perfect timing, while the background music is mostly a child’s humming and the entire screen is tinted grey. Eerie? A little, but mostly it just serves to pin moments like that in my forebrain. And NieR: Automata does this shit a lot. Even the occasional shifts into 2.5D, where you suddenly find yourself playing a side-on platformer, simultaneously feel like smooth transitions of the mechanics you’re used to, while jarring enough that they stick in your mind.
This also makes it a bit of a joy to explore. It’s not a particularly large open world – indeed, it’s mostly a bunch of open-ish areas stitched together through corridors – but some of the vistas are utterly spectacular. Traversal gets considerably more pleasant once you get access to the game’s fast travel system (although, annoyingly, this will probably be after you’ve done the first batch of side-quests), but spending a few minutes sliding across a desert or hopping across a very literal urban jungle still evokes a “wow” every now and then, even when you’re doing some irritating backtracking.
As with most of Yoko Taro’s games, though, it’s got some fairly obvious flaws. Side-quests are mostly fetch quests that involve a lot of trudging backtracking. A couple of the antagonists are (initially at least) incredibly bland and dull. One of your companion characters, 9S, is so very annoying, and he has a very large role in the game. It maybe says something that I think that’s somewhat intentional, though, and bits of the plot wouldn’t really work without it.
Unlike some (Drakengard) it’s actually fun to play, probably in part because Platinum do third-person hack-and-slash stuff really well, but even that’s got its issues. The hack-and-slash combat, for instance, is a little on the light side; you won’t be unlocking dozens of new combos and memorising attack patterns, despite how flashy and frenetic the combat is, and how challenging it can sometimes be. The exploration is (predictably) a little limited by invisible walls, and things you can’t climb on even though it appears you can. The SHMUP sections are over-long and not particularly interesting. And the twin-stick shooter bits can, on mouse-and-keyboard at least, fuck right off.
I talked about that stuff a fair bit in the PC Technical Review but some of it bears repeating and elaborating on here, having now had significantly more play. This is entirely playable on mouse and keyboard – I’ve gone through to Ending A doing so. A controller is arguably a better option, but there are a few benefits to using default PC inputs.
The main one is the camera controls. While the game often opts for a cinematic camera (like the aforementioned 2.5D bits, where it obviously has a very enforced camera) it’s pretty easy to control with a mouse outside of that. The camera does have some inertia, which makes precise aiming a pain, but you can get used to it. Even with these limitations I still prefer mouse camera to gamepad camera, and it meant that using the game’s lock-on functionality (disabled on the higher difficulties) felt far less essential.
The downsides are a bit more regular. Dodging – activated by a directional double-tap on the keyboard – feels less precise than having a dedicated key for it, and I’ve been hit a bunch of times when I know damn well I’d have evaded them on gamepad. Platforming is a bit more problematic with eight directions of movement rather than full 360 degree movement afforded by an analogue stick. Swapping Pods (your ranged weapons) requires you to hold down Alt and press an arrow key. And then there are the twin-stick shooter sections, which are totally unplayable on mouse, but can be played by using WASD to move and arrow keys to aim… but, again, this only gives you eight directions of movement and attack, and these segments are designed around you having more. While playing on mouse and keyboard is possible, then, a controller is mostly the better way to go, and I sort of feel like whoever designed the keyboard and mouse controls only had a cursory play of the game with them to check that they were largely functional. Unfortunately, “largely functional” is pretty different from “good.”
I sneaked one thing in there: “Ending A.” I’ve been doing my damnedest to avoid going into much specific detail in this review, but NieR: Automata does something quite unusual in that it has multiple endings. I don’t mean that in the sense of “make a decision at the end to get a different closing cutscene”, either.
After finishing the game once and getting Ending A, you’re then casually advised to play through again, and that is not the last time you’ll need to play through it. If you feel a little unfulfilled by the time you reach Ending A, that’s not a surprise, because you really haven’t finished. That ending message doesn’t quite hammer home that your second playthrough is most definitely not “the same game again”, and you’ll need to play through the game more than just twice to actually experience the whole story. I’ve played through all of the story endings (as well as a bunch of the “joke” endings) on the PlayStation 4, and gone through to Ending A on PC, which I think gives me a good balance of “experiencing all of the content” and “playing it through on PC”. This also has the upside of me not having screenshots from any further in.
There are lots of other little mechanics that are unusual, too, especially if you haven’t played a Yoko Taro game before. Every weapon has a hilariously bleak story tied to it – usually focusing on murder or arson or the death of an entire family or horrible child genocide or something – which you gradually unlock as you level it up. Death functions in a Dark Souls-esque way, in that dying leaves a corpse and a little message behind, and you respawn at your last save point (manual saves only!) shorn of your equipment and any experience you gained since your last save. This actually makes sense in-universe, since you’re an android: “saving” is uploading your consciousness, so when you die, you’re just dumped into a new body. Go pick up your corpse if you want your stuff back.
The skill system, too, is rather neat. You have a certain amount of memory that you can slot skill chips into, which mostly fit into the boring standards of Bonus Weapon Damage or Regenerate Health After Not Taking Damage. These chips can be fused together to upgrade them, but as they all take up a certain amount of memory, you can only have so many equipped at once. Excellently, your HUD is actually part of these skill chips too: you can free up some room for another upgrade by, say, removing your health bar, or taking out the chip that controls how parts of your interface disappear when they’re not needed. It’s a minor touch, but one that neatly plays with the basic concepts of games while making sense for your character, and it’s one of many such touches.
Oh, and you can remove your OS chip if you want to. Don’t be surprised when it instantly kills you and gives you one of the game’s numerous joke endings, though. You kinda need that one in your head.
I’m coming awfully close to divulging minor spoilers here, but one other thing that bears mention is just how much emotion is poured into this game. You’re told that machines are mindless murderbots, constructed solely to kill humans, but this is very quickly shown to be blatantly untrue. Despite many of them being waddling tin cans, they’ve got a wealth of personality, both in terms of individual character and in terms of actually having personalities. Most of the characters you meet might be robotic, but a couple of scenes are nearly guaranteed to bring you to tears. I want to give examples, but my urge to let you experience this for yourself is keeping that in check.
One other thing I’ll note, briefly: I’ve lied by omission in this review. There are new mechanics and adjustments to the existing mechanics that I simply can’t talk about because spoilers. I’m being as cagey about the actual content of the game as possible, because it routinely changes things up, and saying “This bit only happens for this period” or “Also, later on, this happens” would give far too much away.
So, how the bloody hell do I score this? As a game, NieR: Automata is pretty damn okay. It’s quite good. It’s entertaining. It’s worth a play. As an experience, though, it’s something really rather sublime. It’s never overbearingly intellectual; you can follow along with most of the plot without having to look for deeper meanings, so don’t worry about that. Still, it’s a game that’s less about its fighty/explore-y mechanics, and more about the events surrounding the fighty/explore-y bits. If you’re seeking a new Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, this isn’t in-depth enough for that, despite the ludicrous acrobatics of the combat.
And then there’s the PC stuff. This isn’t anywhere near a Dishonored 2 level of “problematic port”, but I can’t ignore that its PC controls have some issues they really shouldn’t have (camera acceleration, those fucking twin-stick controls). Likewise, I can’t complain about the crashes and black screens that some have experienced because I simply didn’t hit them, but while they’re still known to be a problem, you may want to wait for a patch. Or at least keep in mind Steam’s refund window.
Still… I really can’t do much but heartily recommend NieR: Automata. It is a very special, unique game; I don’t think it ever really hits some of the soul-wrenching highs of NieR, but equally, it’s a lot more fun to actually play and it hits its own notes. It’s so weird and singular that I honestly can’t say for sure if you’ll even like it, but it struck such a chord with me that if it sounds at all like a thing that you’d be into, you should give it a try. Despite everything, I’d be surprised if this doesn’t wind up as one of my favourite games of the year, and with a perfect PC port, this’d be awfully close to a perfect score. The flaws, obvious and common though they are, aren’t nearly enough to take away from everything else this superlative action-RPG accomplishes.
In the end, NieR: Automata reflects what’s in your heart, and it’s possibly the most playable introduction to the glorious madness of Yoko Taro there is. Whether that’s worth something to you I couldn’t possibly say, but it’s left quite a mark on me.