DISCLAIMER: I have finished all endings, and anything you say I’ve missed from later branches is probably just me covering up spoilers for people yet to play the game.
The original Nier (which I have written about here in the past) is a game I hold as one of the best examples of the medium in spite of itself. It is a game with a poorly balanced, shallow combat system, graphics many would describe as pig-ugly and a poorly placed quest marker in an early-game mission that caused a number of prominent game reviewers to stop playing right then and there. You may be wondering why I place this game alongside greats like Metal Gear Solid 3 and Super Mario Galaxy. It managed to claw out from its own mediocrity with a storyline and soundtrack somewhat unparalleled in its art form. Despite being cut to pieces (and those cuts really showing) it manages to tell a story that does things only a game could get away with (and even then it didn’t get away with it in the eyes of many), while also managing to have one of the most endearing casts of characters this side of Persona 4. So then, why have I been talking about a different game for nearly 200 words at the start of this review? I simply can’t separate Automata from its predecessor.
Nier Automata is the unexpected sequel to 2010’s Nier, though rather than being made by Cavia (Drakengard, Ace Combat) it’s being made by PlatinumGames (Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising, Vanquish) so some somewhat deserved reservations about gameplay are thrown to wind. Yoko Taro keeps his masked madness in the director’s chair and he definitely retains some of the narrative madness of Nier that made me love it so, though I’m not entirely sure he goes far enough. Keiichi Okabe also returns for yet another fantastic soundtrack with new vocalist J’Nique Nicole, though I do wish it had a bit more Emi Evans. A new addition to the team is Bravely Default character designer Akihiko Yoshida, with some art that has really caught some certain peoples’ eyes… Now let’s get a little more in depth on those things.
A good note to start off on is the game’s art, Nier was a game I found fairly aesthetically pleasing but it has nothing on Automata in that respect. The original Nier attempted to conceal its post apocalyptic setting, but Automata does no such thing. You are firmly, smack dab in the middle of the wrecks of the old world and it works for the feeling of an aftermath that glazes over the entire game ever so slightly. The character design speaks for itself, the use of blindfolds on YoRHa units is instantly memorable and certain characters seem to have gained a….less than wholesome following leading up to the release of the game and it seems to have certainly spurred up a lot more interest for the game within some specific circles of the internet and you know what? I don’t care if it’s whatever the Rule34 equivalent of blood money is, it was worth it to get more people to play this game right here. Zip folders and photoshops aside, the character designs all gel with each other. 2B is usually the newest, fanciest android in the room and it shows in her exquisitely detailed dress compared to the leader of the centuries old resistance, who is wearing modern clothes essentially. A2 is a former high ranking YoRHa unit who deserted and you can still see the tatters of what I assume was a dress not unlike 2B’s to show this. Those are just a few examples, but Automata uses character design to back up the characters in a lot of great subtle ways throughout.
I would not be surprised if you had told me that the OST of the original Nier was more popular than the actual game. I think Automata lives up to its predecessor in this regard, but I’m not quite confident that it surpasses it. I think Automata definitely has the more technically impressive score, I think I still prefer Nier’s. While the Automata soundtrack has some truly fantastic pieces on it, I can’t help but notice that a great portion of the times I consciously thought about how great the music was (which happens a LOT), the soundtrack was calling back to the original. I’m not quite sure if this is a strength or a weakness, and it’ll depend on the person. Some will feel it is stronger for having the ability to incorporate those motifs, while others will see them as a crutch to keep them from giving us new songs just as memorable as Kaine Salvation, Emil Karma, Song of the Ancients or Wretched Automatons. Though, as I say that there are a few ones in there. The main theme, Weight of the World, is quite lovely, though I’m not quite sure it lives up to Song of the Ancients or Ashes of Dreams. The new vocalist J’Nique Nicole is pleasant, though I do still prefer a bit of the classic Emi Evans. Overall I feel a little conflicted on this OST, even if I do feel it is undoubtedly excellent and would no doubt be soundtrack of the year in any year without Persona, Mario and Zelda games in it.
Now, after talking about art direction, music and following up Nier for about 850 words, it’s finally time to set this apart from a Drakengard 3 review. Gameplay. Nier Automata has the best core gameplay of any game Yoko Taro has ever made. It’s not a horrible Dynasty Warriors clone, your attacks actually feel somewhat balanced and the game runs at more that 8FPS in a crowded room. This doesn’t mean it’s without flaw however. While the combat essentially feels like Nier refined to a platinum sheen, I’m not a fan of how Automata moves from Nier’s more dungeon based design to setpieces but you know what? I get it. You get Platinum to make your game, it’s going to have a bunch of setpieces. It’s what they do. One thing carried over from Nier is that side quests do essentially amount to item fetching, though the smooth-as-butter combat system makes them feel less like the (quite literal, since Nier made his money doing odd jobs) chores they were in the original. I think these side-quests are pretty worthwhile, as it seems that some of them actually have relatively happy endings, unlike the original. Nier already had some poorly executed character action DNA in it, so it’s really good to see those expanded upon and brought to their full potential by the kings of the genre. The game is, of course, still an RPG however and as a result has the wonderful chip system (which feels like a bit of an evolution of the word edit system in Nier) that gives you a limited number of slots to add buffs and other effects to your character, even being able to get rid of HUD elements such as the health bar and the mini-map to free up more points for Witch Time and Parries. This RPGness is a double edged sword, however as there is a point in the game where you are stuck fighting some enemies almost double your level provided you’ve been taking a beeline through the story. These fights are a pain, and made worse by the (sigh) Dark Souls-esque android corpse, system meaning you lose all of your chips should you not retrieve your body. Thankfully this system disappears about 20 hours in, though unfortunately it takes autosaving with it. Let me tell you that it is damn hard to get into the habit of saving after 20 hours of autosaves, so that’s a fair warning to those of you out there yet to play the game. Get into the habit early. It helps.
So, a big part of any Yoko Taro game is the story, which I will try to stay away from any major details of, though if you’re really, deathly worried about any and all minor spoilers then skip this paragraph. Nier Automata is about a war between androids (created by humans) and machines (created by alien invaders to Earth) that has bee raging on for many a millenia, about 8000 years after the original Nier. Humans (who are currently on the moon) set up an elite unit of android soldiers called YoRHa, you control YoRHa unit 2B as she takes the fight to a new breed of machine with her companion 9S. I think this story is not as strong as the original Nier. I think the thing that makes it work less for me is two things. Character and motivation. The original Nier had a cast of fun, unique characters who played off each other well. Automata is a little more cliche, with cold and mission-focused 2B being confronted with jokester 9S as her partner. I think 2B is a rather flat character by Yoko Taro standards, and I think 9S is an awful lot better but there still isn’t that feeling of comradery there was in the original. I get that they’re going for something different, I’m just not sure I like that thing as much. The other thing is motivation. Nier has a solid motivation for what he is doing from the very start. He’s a desperate man who wants to save his daughter from her illness. From moment one you feel invested in what you are doing. Automata doesn’t have that feeling in quite the same way. For most of the first 10 hours I felt like I was doing things out of obligation rather than motivation and I understand that they’re androids but that doesn’t fix the problem. Spending hours fighting for no real reason beyond “Curse these machines!” just doesn’t get me invested in the same way that Nier does.
Overall I think you should play Nier Automata. Definitely. Disregard most of those criticisms I have of it because the majority are just me holding the original up on a pedestal. Nier Automata is fantastic, as much as I’ve just ragged on the “motivations” I think that story has some unreal moments that I really want everyone to experience. Nier Automata is absolutely essential.