Yoko Taro’s action-RPG NieR, released in 2010, can be best described as a cult classic. In other words, it sold poorly and was met with an unfairly bad press. It was up to a select few gamers to embrace this bizarre but beautiful game that didn’t fit into any easily comprehensible mold. Apparently, we weren’t so few in numbers after all. After similarly failed Drakengard 3, another freaky and misunderstood action-RPG by Yoko, Square Enix still sniffed a niche for such an unmarketable thing as a spiritual successor to NieR. For once, Yoko was paired with a competent development team when PlatinumGames was hired to realize his visions. Rave reviews and three million sold copies later, NieR: Automata wasn’t just another of Yoko Taro’s weirdos hanging out in the sidelines but a modern classic with instantly recognizable appearance. It was about time that Square Enix allowed Xbox One players to get their hands on the game in the form of Become as Gods Edition, including DLC Arena and extra costumes for the cast.
It feels weird to say that I was slightly disappointed with NieR: Automata, especially when I awarded its original PS4 version 4.5 stars in my review. It is an awesome game, easily among the top ten last year. It’s just that I would have been content with its sublime action alone. At times, having the game fitted into JRPG frames felt a bit forced, even though it all worked towards greater good. Also, after curious NieR and loony Drakengard 3, I thought that NieR: Automata was a bit too conventional in comparison. It’s a matter of perspective, though, as the game isn’t short of odd and nonsensical happenings during its course.
Several hundred years into the future, aliens invaded Earth with their machines. The remains of mankind escaped to the moon and a few centuries later they launch counterattacks with YoRHa androids. A combat unit 2B and a scanner unit 9S are among them. They are sent to Earth to do recon for the resistance but upon arrival they witness something unexpected. Clumsy, rust buckets for robots left on Earth have begun mimicking human life and customs, like having sex, raising children and forming a monarchy. That’s much to digest for 2B and 9S. Even though they’ve been made into perfect images of their creators, they haven’t actually seen any humans as all orders YoRHA units receive are transmitted from the dark side of moon. This mockery of life put up by machines is completely alien to the android duo but at the same time closest to humanity they’ve ever experienced. Along the way, they also encounter 2B’s obsolete prototype, A2, who will later be a playable character too.
Basically, NieR: Automata functions like any JRPG. As the story progresses, the world is unlocked one area after another and you run between them doing story missions and sub-quests. Things to do and manage are kept within reasonable frames, though, so the game doesn’t get stale at any point. Whatever each quest may dictate, it usually involves combat. It’s there where NieR: Automata shines brighter than, dare I say, any other game. In times when gamers are used to Dark Souls-style slow-paced fighting, NieR: Automata is like from another dimension.
As a combat unit, 2B moves like a greased lightning as she zips, dashes and cartwheels among enemies and slices them with her wakizashi and katana (or with spears, broad swords and fist weapons, whatever hits your fancy). There are no recovery frames in her agile dodge as it’s followed by instant movement, allowing a continuous flow of action. Fighting looks fantastic and if possible, feels even better. The game doesn’t tell you how you should play it as you can carve out your own fighting style and accentuate it with plug-in chips giving abilities like passive auto-heal and damage boosts. Even HUD elements can be decided by androids’ customizable chipsets. If you happen to die (a rare occurrence if you have an auto-use healing item chip installed), a new copy of the character is made to the nearest save station. It’s sure handy to be an android but a corpse run is recommended to recover your precious installed chips. Player assisting POD, providing ranged fire support and character-protective shielding, can also be customized, strengthening the offensive. Given how much of game’s combat mechanics were already present in Drakengard 3, I’d love nothing more than having PlatinumGames remaster it and fix its technical issues.
Unlike its western cousins, NieR: Automata doesn’t suffer from an identity crisis but instead revels in being a video game. It can shed its third-person perspective and throw the camera up for a top-down view or change into a 2D platformer or a bullet-hell shmup on a whim. Some JRPG elements, like NPC settlements and their quests, are so cliché-laden that they can’t be anything but deliberately made so. Yoko makes fun of tropes and expectations associated with the genre but not in an ill way. Instead, he makes them part of a whole where one facet can’t exist without another. It’s as if the same earth that’s so alien to 2B and 9S feels unreal to the players too in all its artificial impossibility constructed from JRPG clichés. The game also teases with revealing DLC outfits. If you think you can just equip them from get-go, think again. The DLC, titled 3C3C1D119440927 and included in Become as Gods Edition, opens several battle coliseums with high level requirements where the outfits are rewarded from. Then again, for a fast eye candy you can always blow off 2B’s skirt via self-destruct and have her running around mooning.
In all its unreality, NieR: Automata is like a dreamlike stage play where a beautiful art design has been more important than finer technicalities. Some scenes can look almost half-arsed while others are stunningly striking in color, form and composition. The animation throughout is amazing. From rusty machines’ jarring motion to the lithe android girls’ deadly combat ballet, the movement flows beautifully, transferring to a simple and effortless gameplay. Keiichi Okabe’s haunting score backed by Emi Evans’ ethereal vocals underlines the game’s surreal ambience. The original Japanese voice cast emphasizes temperate nature of the characters while surprisingly competent English dub conveys more emotion. From a pure technical standpoint, there are slight differences between the PS4 original and the Xbox One conversion. While neither can sustain a steady 60fps, Xbox One version - perhaps surprisingly - has a smoother frame rate overall. Elsewhere, I noticed minor editing in some cutscenes in Become as Gods Edition.
The initial playthrough takes 20-30 hours, depending on willingness to invest time in sub-quests. But that’s not the end of NieR: Automata. To see and experience everything, there’s a second and a third playthrough to do, starring mostly 9S and A2. They aren't exactly the same campaign as the first but partially overlapping and streamlining it, changing previous events and eventually offering new ones. Every playthrough is deliberately contradicting, not so much supplementing the story as offering alternative realities. 9S is a great supporting character but he’s not so fun to play as due to his stiff combat. Also, hacking minigame replacing heavy attack, though essential in boss fights, is a nuisance. Luckily, A2 plays pretty much like 2B and I just love her dirty little face. Still, I would have preferred a long, single campaign instead of having it separated into different perspectives. That wouldn’t have been Yoko Taro’s style, though. Ever-so playful, he has conjured a couple of dozen joke endings too, abruptly ending the game when you do something (obviously) stupid. Or would you think consuming a food item labeled as lethal is a good idea?
I don’t know who’s to thank for more, Yoko Taro or character artist Akihiko Yoshida (of Final Fantasy XII fame), but in a blindfolded and risque 2B they have created a pop culture icon who's recognizable past media boundaries. Even non-gamers can point at her and think her as a cool girl from a Japanese video game. Likewise, NieR: Automata was designed for everyone, not just for diehard action gamers or JRPG fans. Smooth and compact, the game is easily approachable. The same player comes first thinking is evident in endings too. Unlike in NieR and Drakengard 3, the first you’ll get in NieR: Automata (“Flowers for M[a]chines”) is in my opinion the nicest of the main four endings. If you want to leave the game at that and have a good mood, it’s perfectly okay. Of course, completionists and those wanting more ambiguous payoff need to continue on. Either way, you’ll be satisfied with what NieR: Automata has to offer.
The discussion over the game being 50 bucks as too steep for “an old game” is utter nonsense. If anything, in over a year since its initial release, NieR: Automata has gained more relevance as big western games are getting more and more devoid of new ideas and innovations. For this reason and for a better technical performance, I gladly award Become as Gods Edition a perfect score. Beautiful, eccentric and whimsical, Yoko Taro’s one of a kind dream child is something every Xbox One owner should experience – and who knows, maybe in exchange we’ll get more unusual Japanese games appearing on the platform too.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.