NieR: Automata Review - Yoko Taro's Dream Team Delivers an Uniquely Charming JRPG
Yoko Taro, PlatinumGames, Keiichi Okabe, Yosuke Saito and Akihiko Yoshida join forces to deliver a fascinating game that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Review copy provided by the publisher
NieR and Drakengard Director Yoko Taro is well known among his niche and passionate following, but his games have often been difficult to digest for a wider fanbase. This time around, he comes at us with a veritable dream team rallied behind his writing.
Powering-up gameplay is PlatinumGames, with Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance veteran Takahisa Taura at the helm, while the graceful pencil of Akihiko Yoshida gave charm to the main cast. On top of them, old fiends also joined, including Dragon Quest Producer Yosuke Saito pulling the strings, and Keiichi Okabe bringing forth his doubtless talents in the score.
This crack team of developers certainly had the pedigree to deliver a great game, and guess what? They did exactly that with Nier: Automata.
The story is set in the same universe as NieR, but it’s so far in the future that you don’t need to worry about having missed the first game. If you played it, you’ll find references, but if you didn’t, it definitely won’t detract from your enjoyment of the game.
If you played the demo released in December, that is precisely the first mission of the game, and the prologue to the story. It’s honestly hard to tell much about it, as I’m dodging spoilers left and right here. Truth is that almost everything in NieR: Automata is surprising, from the story itself, to the identity of some of its characters, and even how you meet a few of them.
Unfortunately, the game has been out in Japan for about a week (and incidentally, this review is based on a Japanese copy of the game, which is basically identical to the western editions, including English voice acting and text in English, Spanish, French, German and Italian), so it’s very possible that you’ve already encountered stray footage. If you didn’t, I implore you, even more than in other games, try to ignore the temptation to press “play” on those videos. Every little bit of the story of NieR: Automata deserves to be received with an unknowing mind.
The broad strokes about the plot are that aliens invaded Earth a long time before the events of the game. Using machine life forms as their vanguard, they forced the last remnants of humanity to take refuge on the Moon. From there, they built orbital stations from where sentient androids named “YoRHa” descend to the surface to conduct an eternal guerrilla warfare against the mechanical enemies, in order to try and retake control of the planet.
YoRHa 2B, the protagonist of the game, is one of those androids, a battle-type based on the “Bunker” orbital station, capable of defeating armies of enemies on her own. Yet she is sent on a reconnaissance mission alongside scanner-type 9S, to re-establish contacts with members of the android resistance on the surface.
Suffice to say, 2B will soon discover that many things aren’t as they seem, and that’s all I’m able to tell you without delivering major spoilers. The story is complex, interesting, surprising, and ultimately really, really great.
The cast is definitely one of the high points of the game, and even here, I probably shouldn’t tattle-tale, as several of the characters are integral part of the many surprises that await you in this JRPG, so i’ll focus on 2B and 9S.
Both are fantastically designed and extremely likable on their own. 2B is strong, competent and stoic, apparently fully dedicated to her duty. Despite that, her feminine side definitely filters through her artificial nature. You could probably define her a bit “tsundere,” if you’re familiar with the anime trope. Basically, she has a warmer side emerging through the cracks of her armor.
9S is quite different, and fittingly to his adolescent looks, he is much more expansive and enthusiastic, appearing more “human” on the surface from the very beginning.
As you probably noticed from the amount of fan-art that she sparked, 2B deserves an additional word on the fact that she is probably one of the sexiest female characters created in the past few years. While her very visible backside (thanks to a wisely cut skirt with rather naughty physics) has become quite famous among fans, that’s far from being the only element determining this: her whole demeanor enhances her sexy charm, from her dress to her walking animation.
Yet, this doesn’t detract at all from her image as a stern, powerful warrior. As a matter of fact, the delightful contrast created by her sensual side amplifies the way in which she feels like a lethal warmachine, capable to fend off whole armies of enemies with inhuman grace.
Her image isn’t too far from that of Motoko Kusanagi in the original The Ghost in the Shell manga, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Masamune Shirow’s beautiful and razor-sharp ladies served as an inspiration here. 2B is the perfect example of the fact that sexy and strong can definitely go hand-in-hand.
One of the most interesting aspects of both 2B and 9S, is how expressive they can be despite the fact that their eyes are covered for a large percentage of the game. This was achieved with a strong focus on their lips, giving them an unique way to deliver their feelings to the player (and also further enhancing 2B’s allure).
While both characters are great on their own, they are at their best together, with their interaction proving to be one of the best points of the game, from deeply involved and even philosophical conversations, to moment-to-moment banter. Their dialogue ranges from serious to funny in a perfectly balanced and delightfully Yoko Taro-ish way.
This is something that extends to the whole game and cast: NieR: Automata takes itself seriously when needed, but still delivers a lot of lighter moments that will make you smile, or even laugh. On the other hand, there are plenty of times in which the sheer poetry that permeates the story will punch you in the gut. It certainly is an emotional rollercoaster that will play with your feelings, alternating moments of bleak sadness to others that will prove uplifting and inspiring.
This is enhanced and amplified by the game’s many multiple endings. While your first playthrough might noy be super-long (depending on how much you delve into exploration, quests and side-content like fishing), it will only reveal part of the story, leaving a ton yet to discover. Playing the game again will expand not only the narrative, but also the gameplay, delivering a fresh experience under both points of view, with new revelations and new features to spice-up the action.
The story of the androids and of the machines is fascinating, and full of layers for you to uncover. The more you dig, the deeper you want to delve, getting more and more immersed in the charming wold created by Yoko Taro and his team.
NieR: Automata‘s story is massively enhanced by what is very literally one of the best and most fitting soundtracks in recent memory. The original NieR was already well known for its fantastic score, but the music included in the new game goes above and beyond what was already a top-notch audio experience.
The tracks are powerful, emotional, and often poetic and eerie, giving even more oomph to the emotional impact of every scene. Keiichi Okabe did a masterful job, and deserves every recognition for how his score helps creating a deep connection between characters and players.
Voice acting comes in both English and Japanese: the original voice track is absolutely stellar, with lines delivered beautifully by basically every voice actor, including the most improbable (you’ll understand what I mean when you play the game). Yet, even the English voice track is reasonably enjoyable, with most actors doing a pretty good job of portraying their characters. It doesn’t come close to the quality of the Japanese track, probably to no one’s surprise, but it’s certainly a few notches above the usual JRPG fare.
Part of the visuals are the one mixed bag about this game. I can’t stress enough how beautifully designed the main characters are (and I’m sure I stressed it quite a lot), but the visual fidelity of the world suffers from the trade-off to target 60 FPS.
While art direction remains very pleasing, and the overgrown environments do a good job of evoking a sense of nostalgia, especially buildings in the main city tend to be very drab, and could have used more detail to bring to life the derelict world of the past. You definitely should not expect the visual glitz that came with most recent AAA open world games, as PlatinumGames predictably sacrificed it to achieve smoother action combat.
Incidentally, while frame rate is mostly pretty stable on PS4 Pro, there are occasional but visible micro-stutters that appear to happen when you run very fast in a straight line across the map, as the engine possibly struggles a little in streaming the assets between areas. This is also accompanied by noticeable pop-in. 2B can run very fast, even more so when enhanced via chip (more on this later), and this appears to push the game’s tech rather hard. Luckily, this isn’t an issue during combat, even if it’s still a bit disturbing.
While, as mentioned above, some environments are under-detailed, there is plenty of variety, from urban environments to an abandoned and colorful theme park, a scorching desert and more. Some of the locales are actually a lot more charming than others, even visually. The theme park is one example, but among others, there is one specific location I definitely can’t talk about (it would be a big spoiler), but that is absolutely lovely, bringing back a strong nostalgic vibe from JRPGs of old. I’m fairly positive that you’ll immediately tell yourself “oh, this is what Giuseppe was talking about!” as soon as you set foot there.
One of the strongest points of NieR: Automata‘s visual compartment is animation, and this perhaps won’t be a surprise for most, since we’re talking about PlatinumGames. Combat animations aren’t just graceful and smooth as silk, but they have weight and omph at the same time, which is a balance that only true masters can achieve.
Slicing and dicing machine life forms is extremely satisfying, and I often found myself just charging those that I really didn’t need to kill, simply because turning them into scrap metal and seeing 2B in action is so much fun.
Another charming aspect of the game is the camera work, that changes perspective between fixed and player-controlled very often, adding a lot of variety to the action. This sense of variety is also further enhanced thanks multiple sections that are heavily inspired by the Japanese bullet hell shoot ’em up games that Yoko Taro loves so much.
Enemy design definitely deserves a dedicated word: while most rank-and file robots are quite simple in their overall structure, they are absolutely adorable. Mecha designers managed to give them character despite their utilitarian simplicity, and you’ll find some that will definitely hold a place in your memories much after you have slaughtered them.
Much more than in the first NieR, gameplay is truly king in NieR: automata. The action battle compartment of the title is nothing short of superb, carrying along all the positive qualities that made PlatinumGames famous with its most relevant titles (and I mean the ones not published by Activision).
Combat is extremely deep, combining a balanced mix of melee and ranged battle by prompting the player to handle both 2B and her pod at the same time. It takes a bit to get used to keeping track of both long and short range, but it’s extremely satisfying when you finally do.
Your enjoyment of the gameplay will be boosted once more when you master its dodge, making 2B basically invulnerable for a split-second and opening-up for a devastating counterattack.
Boss battles are another relevant highlight, delivering frantic action and great design, tons of bullets flying all over the screen and a whole metric ton of fun and challenge. Some of the encounters in NieR: Automata are really, really memorable.
You can equip two different sets of two weapons, giving you a chance to set up your combos quite freely, and delivering a powerful mix of speed and power as 2B switches dynamically between light and heavy implements of destruction. It also looks really, really good in action, which is always a bonus.
If you play on normal difficulty or above, there is certainly a learning curve involved, and your action skills will definitely be put to the test, intensely so. Yet, of you just want to play a JRPG and don’t care much about action, you can play in easy mode, which will enable you to set actions like dodging and firing in auto-mode.
Basically, auto-chips are a crutch to help players that can’t get used to PlatinumGames’ frantic action. Yet, even if you are a pure JRPG player, I strongly suggest that you give this game a try without resorting to this artificial helping hand. While NieR: Automata remains enjoyable even when it almost plays itself, there is just so much to enjoy in gradually mastering 2B’s overwhelming fighting style.
A nice touch is that you can decide pretty much which actions to set in automatic mode and which ones to still perform manually, letting you tailor your experience specifically to your taste. Yet, again, giving it a try with all manual in normal difficulty is definitely conducive to getting the most out of the game.
NieR: Automta has no auto-save, but it handles preserving your progression in a very interesting way. You will need to unlock terminals across the map, in order to make saving available in their vicinity.
Basically, you’ll see an UI gauge very similar to a smartphone signal widget, telling you… if you have signal. If you do, you are able to save anywhere in that area, as 2B uploads her memory to the Bunker’s server.
When you die, your memories will be downloaded into a new body, and you’ll be able to continue your adventure from your last save. You’ll even be able to find your old body, that you can either retrieve for a temporary buff or repair, causing it to follow you as an automatic ally for a time.
Quite interestingly, if you play online you’ll also be able to find the bodies of other players fallen in battle, providing you with the same options that you have with your own body. On the moment of death players can also set a message for those who will come across their corpse.
While this system is definitely fitting to the story and the artificial nature of the characters, it comes with an initial woe (in addition of the possibility of losing large chunks of progression if you forget to save). The whole first level comes with no chance to save, meaning that if you aren’t very action-savvy, but want to challenge the game with its intended difficulty, you might find yourself repeating it multiple times.
Besides this, the whole system defined “reliquary” is a very clever solution to the immersion-breaking nature of death in video games.
Given the promotion of the game, mostly focused on its action aspects, many fans might have been worried on whether it delivers a satisfying JRPG experience, and I’m pleased to report that it really does.
As a matter of fact, NieR: Automata is a strong departure from the usual PlatinumGames style, exactly due to its solid and deep JRPG nature, that certainly doesn’t conflict with action gameplay, actually complementing and enhancing it.
Alongside the usual level progression, a very deep plug-in chip system allows you to radically customize 2B’s abilities, for instance changing her overall balance between offensive and defensive, giving her melee strikes a ranged shockwave, or even influencing drop and experience rates. As you progress in the game, and your chip storage increases, customization becomes deeper and more flexible, working really well with the other systems of the game.
Gear is another area where you can influence the way 2B fights in a rather radical way, by finding and purchasing a nice variety of weapons that can be arranged in two different loadouts and switched on the fly.
Weapons can also be upgraded at the price of materials, and chips can be fused by traders, implementing a further way of progression. To this, you can add the ability to customize your Pod and its programs and weapons, completing a very relevant set of RPG mechanics.
Yet, the JRPG flavor of the game is far from being limited to mechanics. NieR: Automata is doubtlessly a true blue JRPG in its whole nature and gameplay flow. While battle is a very relevant part of the title, great relevance is placed on exploring the world and its settlements, with a wide variety of side-quests that give better insight on their inhabitants, many of which are surprising, interesting and quirky as you would expect from Yoko Taro.
The emphasis on the exploration of the world is also realized in the many secrets scattered across the game, with plenty of areas that require some platforming skills and environmental awareness to reach. It’s definitely a pleasure to delve into every nook and cranny of the derelict human civilization.
While NieR: Automata is certainly a partial departure from past games by Yoko Taro mostly due to the influence of the other developers involved, it still delivers plenty of the quirky charm that he is known for. Normally this kind of opening to a wider fan base ends up dissatisfying part of the veteran fans, but I feel that this is not the case.
The masked developer and PlatinumGames really managed to merge their skillsets and strengths beautifully, covering each others’ weaknesses at the same time. This is probably one of the rare cases in which a game that is quite different from its predecessors has plenty of potential to both appease most older fans while paving the way to many new ones joining the party.
Ultimately, NieR: Automata isn’t a perfect game, but I think no one will be surprised, considering that it’s directed by a developer who has made of imperfection almost a flag, and who often managed to turn it into an endearing side among his fans.
Yet, it’s a fantastic and well balanced mix between sleek PlatinumGames action and JRPG gameplay, resulting bigger than the sum of its parts. It brings forth an absolutely fascinating setting, and charming, likable and memorable characters that will both make you smile and tug at your heart strings.
2B, 9S and the rest of the cast already cut themselves a well deserved corner in my heart, and I’m positive they will do the same for many of you as well.