In 2010, cult classic NieR released, an RPG that mostly was remembered for its story despite its clunky gameplay. Years later, Square Enix has handed off its sequel, NieR: Automata to action game specialists Platinum Games. Does this change in developers help bring the rest of NieR: Automata up to the same level as the story, or is the game still uneven?
Automata's plot starts out with the explanation that aliens have sent robots to attack Earth, so all the humans have fled to the moon and now send androids down to Earth to fight back. You play as a pair of androids that are sent to Earth: assault android 2B, and recon android 9S. Naturally, the two need to fight robots, stop the invasion, and save humanity. Sound simple, right?
It's not. If you've played the original NieR then you should already know that the game has quite a bit of hidden depth. Each character is extremely well written, even one-off boss characters have entire histories behind them that I found myself really caring about. Watching new events unfold was always interesting, and some of the late-game plot twists even managed to shock me some. The biggest problem is that it takes a while to pick up. It wasn't until the second half of the game that I really started getting into the plot, but you have to play the first half of the game twice to get there for some reason. Still, the payoff is quite worth it.
At first, I was also loving getting to this payoff. As 2B, you're given a nice set of attacks to hack and slash your way through robots. Depending on the weapons you equip and if you put them in light or heavy attacks, you can chain together some fun combos allowing you to run circles around your enemies while smacking them silly. You also get a Pod which allows you to use ranged attacks and specials skills, and you can often combine them to some rather devastating effects.
The game really hits its stride during boss fights. Each boss fight becomes a dramatic event, taking advantage of the game's combat to create challenging and unique fights. It's where Platinum really shines as the developer, and each boss fight had me grinning ear to ear. Whether it be a robotic opera star, a chain of orbs that makes a flying snake, or a corrupt android, every boss fight served as a chance to really put the combat system to the test, dodging and weaving between attacks to smack enemies in that small opening I could.
While the boss fights are the best part of the game, the minute to minute gameplay grew stale after a while. Regular enemies don't really have enough variety, and I felt like I was always fighting very similar enemies in each encounter. I also would always use the same moves against these enemies because 2B never learns anything new. By the end of NieR: Automata I was using the same attacks that I was in the beginning. The closest you get comes in the form of chips, allowing you to customize a large set of passive boosts by inserting chips into your character. It's a simple but competent system, but it doesn't really make up for the repetitiveness.
NieR does attempt to mix it up by changing the game's genre at set points, to things like a side-scroller, a twin-stick shooter, a text-based adventure, or a SHMUP. At first, I was kind of annoyed by the constant changing: I felt like the game was interrupting my excellent RPG and replacing it with average segments. Later in, once I started to feel the repetitiveness kick in with the combat, I was more welcoming to the changes as they gave me something new to do. Ultimately they're not as fleshed out as the RPG stuff, but for the most part, they helped change things up.
Between encounters, you can explore the game's open world. Unfortunately, NieR's open world isn't really one that I wanted to spend time exploring. The world feels dead, and I don't mean because a lot of it takes place in an abandoned desolate city. Rather there's just nothing interesting in the world. There are very few strange areas that are fun to explore, there are no unique random encounters, there are no collectibles, it's just a dead empty world. Furthermore: it's tough to navigate. Getting from location A to B is often tough, as the world is full of strange roadblocks that require you to take awkward routes to get to where you need to be. None of this is assisted by a terrible map that only very vaguely shows an idea of what's where. About the only thing you can really do in NieR is partaken in side quests.
To give an example of one of these side quests, I had to help a robot get medicine for a sick animal. This was a character who plays a minor role, but I found he already had worked his way into my heart simply by being this weird little robot who loves his animals because they're warm and he doesn't understand that since robots aren't warm. When one is sick and he can't simply repair it he needs your help, so you go off to a mall to find the recipe. Upon reaching the mall your Pod informs you that, actually, this whole thing was pointless because he had the cure in his records the entire time. So now you need to trek back to the robot to tell him the cure. It's just... not fun, even if I loved all the characters involved.
Really, no quest is better. A lot of them are some form of going from location A to location B. Sometimes you need to collect things, sometimes you just need to talk to people, sometimes you need to do a bit of killing. Every side quest is boring, repetitive, and feels like it's filler designed to pad out the game for as long as possible. Eventually, I started skipping them all, and I'm sure I missed a few things of value in there somewhere, but I'm not entirely concerned when it was totally buried in a mess with the rest of them.
Once you finish the game as 2B, which took me about 15 hours, you'll be greeted with a notice telling you that you can get a new ending by playing the game again, this time as 2B's companion 9S. He plays slightly differently, the biggest difference being his ability to hack into enemies and engage in a quick twin-stick shooter segment that, if done successfully, can let you either hijack the enemy and play as them for a bit, make them fight along side you, or blow them up for extra damage.
Much like the first campaign, everything started new and exciting and eventually became repetitive. 9S's section of the game really starts to feel like filler, especially considering it's easily another 8-10 hours depending on how many of his unique side quests you feel like doing. Because 9S spent a solid 80% of the game attached to 2B at the hip, it feels less like a second campaign and more like a retread of the first. You'll see the same events in the same places before fighting the same enemies. It's only the very beginning and the very end that the campaign hits its unique notes. Trust me: you want to endure through this roadblock.
Once you finish 9S' third of the game you come to the last part of the game, and it is by far and away the best part. Lasting another 15-ish hours, this part sees numerous unique bosses, interesting situations, and shocking plot developments. This last segment leaves a very strong closing impression and is by far my favorite section of the game. I was even able to ignore the feeling of repetition thanks to just how interesting I was in this last part. It's just a bit of a shame that it took getting through an annoying segment to see it.
Graphically, NieR: Automata looks pretty good. The artistic design is a standout, although on a technical side it doesn't do anything eye-popping. As may be expected by anyone who played the first game, the soundtrack is amazing. Standing out and going well beyond what I would expect, I'd almost say that it's even better than the first NieR's soundtrack, and that's one amazing compliment. Unfortunately, I had a problem with Automata crashing. By the time I was done with the game I had experienced three hard crashes, something especially terrible considering the game's lack of an autosave. This could mean losing quite a bit of progress. I also experienced several unfortunate glitches, including getting stuck in the environment and needing to reset to get out.
At the very end of NieR: Automata I was asked if I wanted to delete my save data in exchange for coming to the rescue of some poor sap who's totally stuck in the game. I took it a step further and deleted NieR: Automata from my hard drive. It was the perfect ending. It's a weird game directed by a crazy man. It has flaws that drove me nuts, twists that surprised me, sections that frustrated me, and moments that had me cheering in excitement and delight. I don't think I'd change a thing.
Equally fantastic and frustrating, NieR: Automata can be compelling and frantic one minute and then drag you down with annoying filler segments and a terrible open world the next. The good ultimately outweighs the bad, but I did wish a bit more was put into some elements.
- Story is Unique, Shocking, and Interesting
- Boss Fights are Some of the Best
- Amazing Soundtrack
- Last 10-ish Hours are Fantastic
- Open World is Terrible, Sidequests are Boring
- 9S' Story Feels Like Filler
- Technical Issues