I think it’s safe to say that the original Nier is a game that flew way below a lot of people’s radars. Although it came from the prestigious studios of Square Enix, it just didn’t become the next big thing, and was left to mature into its cult classic status. It was an action RPG that didn’t tow the line, and didn’t stick to the usual formula that most other games of its ilk clung rigidly to.
Nier was a game that played with the medium, and the player. It was a third person action RPG that often, and for no apparent reason, switched to 2.5D platformer, top down shooter, and even a text adventure. It’s story was bleak, yet full of hope and quirkiness, and its characters ran the gamut from stoic and devoid of emotion, to ridiculous, profanity-spewing, barely-dressed female warriors, again, with no real context. It was unapologetically odd, and you know what, it was great. Oh, and did I mention one of the main characters was a talking, floating book? Yeah.
It’s been some time, and for a period, it looked like it may never happen, but here we have the next game in the Nier world, Nier: Automata, this time developed by Bayonetta studio, Platinum Games instead of the original team at Cavia. Director Yoko Taro, and Producer, Yosuke Saito are still behind the sequel, however, and this is clearly evident from the opening title screen, and into the game proper. This is a very different story and world to the one we saw in the original Nier, but at the same time, it’s also very familiar.
Set thousands of years after the original, Automata is totally removed from the first game, and so missing out on the first really won’t affect your understanding or enjoyment here. There are some nods to the fist game, of course, but these are minor and won’t get in the way. Fans will get a kick out of them, though.
The story here revolves around the invasion of an alien race that’s driven mankind off the planet with its mechanical army. Humanity now lives on the moon, and fights the robotic threat using an army of androids based in various orbiting satellites. These androids descend to the planet’s surface and fight the good fight in order to rid the world of the alien threat so mankind can return home. You enter the fray as 2B, a female combat model of android, who soon teams up with her partner, the young 9S, a scanner model who speciality is, erm, scanning. From here, the tale unfolds throughout various missions with a story that can end in multiple ways depending on your actions.
Primarily a third person hack and slash, Nier Automata is a Platinum game through-and-through, with smooth, fast-paced combat that relies on quick dodges, combos and a smattering of special moves and ranged attacks. It feels similar to games like Bayonetta when in the midst of battle, but with a more grounded style. It’s great, and when it comes to pure combat, I’d even say it’s better than the game many are already comparing it to, Final Fantasy XV. Here you have much more control during combat, and it flows far better than in Noctis’ adventure. It’s not as grandiose, but In terms of gameplay and control, Automata takes it, and if nothing else, it’s a major improvement over the original game’s combat system.
Speaking of the original game, Automata retains the mixture of melee and ranged combat, and at all times you have both melee weapons and a floating companion called a Pod. This has many functions, the primary of which is to function as your ranged weapon and special move dispenser. You can change loadouts, configuring different moves and abilities, and it’s always there to lend a hand. Also like the first game, there’s heavy lean towards mixing up your styles, and simply mashing the button won’t work. Here you have to use the right moves for the right job, and this is no more apparent than in some of the impressive boss fights, some of which can be truly epic in scale.
The inclusion of “bullet hell” enemies also returns. These are foes that, much like the retro shooters it takes inspiration from, spew hundreds of bullets, often in complex patterns that you have to avoid or destroy. These kinds of encounter happen in many situations, from standard melee battles to the returning mixture of 2.5D platforming, top down shooting, and the new shooter sections in which 2B and 9S don flying power armour to do battle. Yes, Nier: Automata is never dull, and changes up the gameplay more than you change your underwear.
In lesser games, this mixture of styles would make for a messy, often uncontrollable mess, and despite a couple of slips ups at times, notably the shooter sections where the camera angle can often skew the controls uncomfortably, the game gets everything spot on, and you’re always in total control with a setup that always feels buttery. It’s truly impressive how easily and effortlessly the game switches between game styles.
The role playing elements are solid too, and like the theme of the game are just as unique. Being an android, 2B doesn’t level up and earn skills in the same way as most protagonists. Instead, you an equip her with ‘plug-in chips’. These chips, which can hold abilities like giving 2B more health, attack power, or more specific skills like auto-using healing items, faster evasion, and enhancements to her HUD are slotted in to a simple grid. This can hold only so many chips, the required space of which varies depending on the rank and type of chip. You can also increase her storage to allow for more, and chips can be fused together to create more powerful versions. You do level up too with exp, and this makes you stronger overall, but the real flexibility comes from the plug-in chips.
It’s a good system, and this comes with the expected weapon upgrades and ability to upgrade your Pod. There’s a lot to do here, with some options that aren’t even accessible until further playthroughs. It’s a big game, and you’ll need to play it through more than once or twice to get the full experience. During this time, you’ll inevitably die – a lot.
You see, Nier isn’t an easy game, in fact, on the harder difficulties, it’s one of the most difficult I’ve played in a long time, much like a certain action RPG series that prides itself on difficulty I could mention. In fact, Nier blatantly takes some inspiration from that soulful series of games. Specifically, here there’s a life and death system that echoes this perfectly.
If you die in the game, you’ll be restored at the last save point you used (and which have to be activated in an area so you can save in the first place). You’ll lose the experience you had at the time of death, as well as any plug-in chips you had installed. You have one chance to get back to your body and get it all back. Fail, and it’s gone, along with all those lovely plug-in chips.
As well as this, you have the option to reanimate your corpse so it can fight along side you for a time, and this can be a big help, although the AI of the reanimated ‘droid leaves a lot to be desired. What’s more, if you use the online functions of the game, you can see other people’s corpses, and you can reanimate them too, for some jolly cooperation. You can even pray for others, bestowing them with buffs in their game, and the favour can be returned to you by others. Nice.
This system is going to be of use as there are more than a few one hit deaths, again, if you play on higher difficulty, and you can easily bite the bullet at any point if you’re not careful. Death will also reset the world most of the time (unless a boss has checkpoints, which isn’t always the case), so you’ll have to fight to and beat a boss all over again if you fall.
The world the game takes place in is undoubtedly going to be a love or hate it feature though. It’s very drab for the most part, with ruined cities and generic deserts, forests and other locales. It’s not a patch on the incredible vista we’ve seen in the likes of Final Fantasy XV and Horizon: Zero Dawn, and I feel many players won’t warm to it. As a fan of the first game, however, I found the world style to reproduce that of the first very well, albeit in a different theme. It’s fairly basic, and visually the game is far less impressive than many other recent releases, but the atmosphere and use of colour and styles is just superb. From the monochromatic space station base of the androids, to the ruined city overrun by nature, and even the barren desert, everything fits and looks the part, conveying a world where humans are long gone, and both robots and nature have taken the throne. Robots, after all, are emotionless machines, so why would they craft anything other than a wasteland? Of course, this is a topic the game eventually focuses on, but you’ll have to witness this for yourself.
As good as the use of style in the visuals may be, the real prize in terms of presentation here goes to the music. The sound direction and score are just fantastic. Nier‘s soudtrack has always been one of my favourite, and Nier: Automata manages to be just as good, if not better. The musical score is just brilliant, with a mixture of styles and orchestral tracks that perfectly recreate the feel of the first game, and have that totally unique feel that only Nier has. Keiichi Okabe and Keigo Hoashi have done sterling work here, and deserve to be applauded.
As attractive as the game is in looks and sound, there are some elements that do detract from the whole, chief of which has to be the overuse of invisible walls. Automata bills itself as an open world RPG, and it’s not lying. It does have an open world, but this is a world that’s firmly split into sections and zones. There are many areas where you’d think you can go, or places that look like secrets for you to uncover, but almost always you’ll hit ugly invisible walls and barriers. Therese really do hurt the feel of the game as you’re running and fighting through the wasteland, and although not a game breaker, I couldn’t help but notice them. It’s a blemish on what is otherwise a fairly spotless game world.
The resurrection system of dead bodies, whilst really interesting and unique needs some work. For one, as I mentioned, the AI of the ally is just plain terrible, and in a boss fight you’ll be lucky if any allies stay alive for a few seconds. What’s more, actually raising a body, be it your own or someone else’s, stops the battle with annoying menu prompts instead of flowing commands that don’t pause the action. The action does continue when you select your answer though, locking you in an animation that can, more often than not, get you killed again quickly. I realise this is part of the challenge, and timing this ability is the goal, but stopping the action with a menu screen (more than one), and then dying as the animation plays out only serves to annoy, especially if you’re sent back to the last save point and have to slog your way back again.
Despite some flaws, many of which come from the game’s intended design to be difficult and unforgiving at times, I thoroughly enjoyed Nier: Automata, and I really wasn’t expecting a game as good as it was. Like the original, I fear it may struggle to attract the audience it deserves as it’s very unique in both gameplay and style, but I urge any RPG fan to give this a go anyway