Review: Nier: Automata

This review contains NO SPOILERS except where specifically marked.

For me, Nier: Automata felt like it came completely out of left field, going from complete obscurity to a cult hit seemingly overnight. I put the game on my wishlist, promptly forgot about it, and then recently dug it back out. And I have to say, it’s a gem.

Nier: Automata tells the story of androids 2B, 9S and A2 as they fight a proxy war against a machine invasion force. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the earth has been wrecked by war, and humans have fled to the moon, while androids continue to fight on their behalf on earth.

There are few times when I feel like I get to witness history being made: when I get to live through the day-1 launch of a game that I know is going to be iconic. Dishonored was one of those games (though I didn’t initially realize it): a combination of graphics, gameplay and story that somehow made for a truly compelling combination. Automata, while very different, holds a similar place in my heart. A Japanese RPG that combines a great story, satisfying gameplay mechanics, distinctive (if not hyper realistic) graphics, and a soundtrack that stands on its own, this is a game to be remembered.

What makes this even more strange is that the game is technically a sequel. Story wise, Automata doesn’t really have much of anything to do with the original Nier, despite being set in the same universe. You can jump right in without knowing anything about the previous game (or that there even was another game in the series). To be honest, it’s surprising that the game got made at all, given that the original Nier was not especially successful, and was widely criticized for some of its elements, including graphics. But it would seem that (contrary to what so often happens these days), the producers really learned their lessons with Nier, and were able to successfully address those issues to make a truly stellar sequel.

What is it?

Automata is an open world RPG with a combination of RPG, fighting game, side scrolling, and bullet hell mechanics. In addition to the different mechanics, the game uses multiple perspectives and fluidly switches between these depending on where you are in the game.

One of the defining characteristics of Automata is variety. The game seems to go out of its way to avoid the monotony that is so common in RPGs. Just when you think you know what to expect from, say, a boss battle, the perspective will flip, completely changing the gameplay experience.

This theme plays out at multiple levels in Automata. In the soundtrack, for example, every “song” really consists of multiple tracks with different levels of vocals, instrumentals, etc., and the game again switches between these fluidly as you play.

This can also be seen in the story. Automata is organized into distinct “routes” that each have their own ending. Unlike a typical game where you stop when you reach the end, the expectation in Automata is that you keep playing (restarting after each ending) until you achieve all of the five main endings. Routes feature different characters, have different story (including different side quests), and a variety of world-shaking events occur that cause the different stages of the game to feel qualitatively different.

A Note About the PC Port

One thing that has to be said up front is that this is a console port. If you’re playing on PC, some of the aspects of the game are unfortunately not well done. Which is honestly pretty frustrating, because the console version of the game is very well executed.

The good news is that almost all of this can be fixed via mods. There are two main mods you’ll want, one to fix an issue with resolution (so the game doesn’t look fuzzy), and one that (massively) improves the mouse and keyboard controls.

NAIOM in particular in necessary in order to be able to access healing in a reasonable way. This is basically mandatory, unless you want to be stuck playing the entire game on easy mode, because most/all of the bosses in the game do >50% of your health in damage per hit and you really need the healing items to survive that. (There is an auto-healing upgrade, but it only triggers at <30% health, which makes it much less useful in boss battles.)

A Note About Difficulty Levels

The game has four difficulty levels: easy, normal, hard, and very hard.

I recommend normal or hard. Actually, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter much which one you play. In hard mode, you’ll have to level up a bit more to survive, and you’ll be pushed a bit harder to optimize your equipment. But once you do, things will equalize out and you probably won’t notice much of a difference in overall difficulty. The main thing you lose in hard mode is the ability to lock on, but if you’re playing on a PC with mouse and keyboard (and the input mod above) this is honestly not an issue.

One of the nice things about the game is that you can switch difficulties at any time. So if a boss battle is too hard, you can always switch to normal (or easy) to get through it. I ended up having to do this in the opening sequence because I was still learning the game mechanics and wasn’t able to make it to the first save point. After that I switched back to hard and leveled up enough to make the game playable.

The other nice thing about easy mode is that the game has an “auto” mode where it will basically play itself for you. This is the mode to choose if you only care about the story and don’t want to be bothered by combat.

I don’t recommend very hard. This mode makes you die in one hit. That certainly sounds difficult, but it also makes many of the items in the game pointless (e.g., upgrades for defense, HP, invincibility after being hit). As a result, I think this mode actually robs you of many of the mechanics that make combat satisfying, and I think I would only consider playing it after finishing a first playthrough on normal or hard.

Game Mechanics

The game has three perspectives:

  • Third person (this is the default perspective for most of the game)
  • Side scrolling
  • Top down

You don’t choose the perspective you’re in. Instead the game fluidly transitions from one perspective to another depending on where you are in the game. Most of the time, this is just a way to break the monotony and make the gameplay more interesting. But in some cases, the game seems to intentionally switch perspectives on you as a way to actively make the game more challenging.

The perspective also leads to some emergent behavior, like when you’re constrained to a plane (by either side scrolling or top down perspectives) while enemies are not. In these cases, you either need to wait for the enemies to enter your plane so you can fight them, or else use attacks that lock on so that you can attack outside of your plane.

In addition to perspectives, the game has three major sets of gameplay mechanics:

  • On foot (this is the default for most of the game)
  • Flying (in a flight unit)
  • Hacking

The “on foot” mechanics are what you’d expect from any modern RPG. You’re a soldier, and you have a variety of melee and ranged weapons. This is where you’ll spend most of the time in the game, and where you have access to the open world and main/side quests. While the main quest is mostly linear, there are relatively few constraints on where you can go, and a variety of side quests can be done in parallel to the main quest at any given time.

Occasionally, you’ll board a flight unit, which is when the flying mechanics enter in. Generally speaking these are fixed sequences, so once you’re done with all the enemies you’ll continue along in the story (generally returning to the ground).

Lastly, there is a hacking mechanic. In some cases you can get hacked (in which case you have to defend yourself), but generally speaking this is an ability that you use mostly with one specific character (9S).

The result is that, at least hypothetically, there are nine combinations of perspective and mechanics that you could experience during the game. In practice, I don’t think all of these are used—but probably at least half are.

In addition to all of this, you have the typical RPG mechanics like equipment and weapon upgrades, as well as some more unusual mechanics like “chipsets”, or sets of upgrades that you can install to boost your abilities (things like increased attack, defense, HP, auto-healing, auto-pickup-items, increased duration of invincibility after being hit, etc.). You also have “pods”, which are a bit like robotic animal companions, and can also be upgraded and have their own programs.

Music

Nier: Automata is one of the few games where I listened the soundtrack before I played the game. Look it up, it really is that good.

There are a couple things to keep in mind about the soundtrack. One is that, if you actually buy an official copy, it seems to be missing certain songs. Maybe those songs are exclusive to one platform or another, I’m not sure.

The other thing is that every “song” actually consists of multiple tracks. For example, one track might be instrumental only, one might have soft vocals, one medium vocals, etc. In the game itself, these tracks would seamlessly shift from one to another as you move between zones in the game, and potentially based on what you’re doing. The effect is subtle enough that you won’t necessarily notice it while you’re playing, unless you’re specifically listening for it. (Which is, to be honest, exactly as it should be.) But it’s just important to keep in mind since you can’t really replicate this effect when listening to the soundtrack.

Story (Spoiler Free)

I’ve split this section into two parts, in order to isolate the spoilers as much as possible.

You can go read the premise of the game on the Steam store page, so I won’t bother repeating that here.

What I will say is that the story feels substantial. In some games, you put in a lot of hours but get left with the feeling that you didn’t actually do that much. (I’m looking at you, Torment: Numenera.) Automata is the opposite of this. I spent about 40 hours on my initial playthrough, but it feels like I did way more than a typical 40-hour game. I think part of this is not just the twists and turns in the plot, but also the feeling that there are major, world-changing events going on. Most games would lead up to a world-changing event, and then stop. Automata keeps going.

Story (Spoilers)

WARNING: This section contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t played the game yet, I recommend doing so before you read this section.

When I think about what makes the game feel substantial, the key ingredient is change. The characters and world at the end of the game are not at all like what they were at the beginning of the game. It’s the exact opposite of Star Trek, where it seems like at the end of every episode the Federation goes back to being the way it was before the show started.

Change means consequences. And boy do we have those in this game:

  1. 9S dies three times during the game.
  2. 2B dies twice, the second of which is a mercy kill after she is infected by a virus.
  3. A2 dies once (if you count the ending where 9S kills her).

The game doesn’t allow these deaths to feel easy. This isn’t, “oh yeah, I died again, whatever.” These are emotional, world-ending sorts of deaths. Excluding one set of deaths at the beginning (for 9S/2B), you don’t expect the characters to come back. And in fact, after 2B’s second death, 9S becomes increasingly irrational and goes into a rage where he decides to put an end to all machine life, period. (And this goes on for something like the last 25% of the game.)

The principle of consequences applies not only to the characters, but also to the world. If I were to summarize the set of conceptual states the game goes through, it would look something like:

  1. YoRHa is an android army fighting the machines so that humans can return to Earth.

  2. Huh. The aliens (who originally sent the machine invasion) are dead. The machines killed them??

  3. Oh wait, humans are dead too—they were extinct before the machines ever arrived in the first place. We just made them up to give ourselves something to fight for.

  4. Whatever, let’s just kill the machines anyway. (Insert massive battle.)

  5. Oops, we lost. YoRHa is gone.

  6. YoRHa was intentionally created with a backdoor, set on a timer to cause itself to self-destruct. And the YoRHa androids were intentionally created to be destroyed. What?!?

In comparison, if I were to map out Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. you’d get at most one or two conceptual states. That gives you a sense of how much more “twisty” the Automata plot is with respect to changes at the world level.

The large number of conceptual states—and how different they are—is part of what makes the change feel so deep.

Conclusion

Overall I enjoyed the game and highly recommend it. There are issues, but they are largely fixable with mods, and the mechanics, story and music a breath of fresh air coming from the more typical commercial games these days.

By the Way…

I’m writing an epic science fiction novel set in a distant future universe. Want to know more? Head over to The Exander Project.