Everybody gets older. So does Yoko Taro, an eccentric game designer known for his fantastic but strange stories and characters in games which have sadly suffered from some poor execution. Nearing his fifties, Taro-san has traded some of his trademark fantastical whims for a better game experience. The story for NieR: Automata may be more conventional and unambiguous than in his work before but everything else about the game is pure platinum.
When action RPG NieR: Automata was announced at E3 back in 2015, everyone agreed it was probably the most unlikely sequel imaginable. After all, the original NieR seven years ago was mauled by the critics and it sold only moderately. However, the players knew how to look past bland visuals and stiff combat and embrace its bizarre but beautiful characters and story. A true cult classic, then. Both NieR and NieR: Automata are parts of Yoko Taro's Drakengard series, the latest game of which appeared on Playstation 3 in 2014. Less surprisingly Drakengard 3 was also met with a bad press. Sure, the game featured Taro's madcap antics but once again the gameplay suffered from severe technical problems.
Actually NieR: Automata owes much of its essence to Drakengard 3. Overall characteristics, battle mechanics and the ability to upgrade different weapons and switch between them on the fly are straight out of it. But whereas Drakengard 3 was pretty much linear hack'n slash fare, NieR: Automata is a pureblood action RPG, a pretty trivial affair for Japanese games but a genuine first for Taro's new partner, PlatinumGames. Osaka-based studio has a mostly pristine track record of solid and acclaimed action titles, like Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, so that part is covered better than ever for a Yoko Taro game.
Perhaps better than ever in any action game, for that matter. A millennia-lasting war between humankind and machines has taken a man-made android soldier 2B and her companion, a scanner unit 9S, to the remnants of the earth while the few last men allegedly hide in the moon. If Metal Gear Rising's moniker was "lightning-bolt action", how on earth to describe 2B in her full flight, zooming and cartwheeling around her mechanical prey, swinging her dual-swords in a unison of fast and smooth 60fps motion, strikingly beautiful animation and instant control response? The answer is short: it's a bliss!
The controls can be fully customized and I switched evade from R2 to a circle button to keep my index finger constantly pressed on R1 in fights, releasing a barrage of ranged attacks from a player-assisting hovering pod. I felt this freed my offensive and mobility to the fullest, utilizing my playstyle of kiting enemies (especially bosses) and stinging fast melee attacks in between. Someone else could have an entirely different playstyle. Unlike in the Japanese action games usually, NieR: Automata doesn't keep a combo meter or rate player's efficiency in any way. The game doesn't tell you how to play it, you decide it by yourself.
The fact the player-controlled characters are androids has opened up some nifty gameplay tricks. Upgrading abilities feels plausible for once as you plug new chips to your expandable chipset to further accommodate an individual playstyle. All kinds of tinkering are available, from the basic HUD components to enhance attack, defense and support abilities. If you happen to die, a new copy of the character is made available in the nearest access point which also serve as save stations and teleports. A corpse run is recommended though as you will lose all your precious installed chips if they're not recovered from the previous body.
Yoko Taro doesn't obsess over technicalities of his androids (I bet the likes of Hideo Kojima would be happy to explain every function in detail, down to the mole in 2B's chin), instead they allow him to study emotions from a new angle. In the very distant future world of NieR: Automata humans are a myth, a series of faceless orders through an anonymous server. The sentient robots who has severed them off the bulk of the enemy, a network of alien-created machines, mimic human formalities and rites, forming families and even pretending having sex. It's much to take for an android duo of 2B and 9S. Although they acknowledge they were made in their creators' image, normal human customs are nothing less than alien to them. It should be noted NieR: Automata is a spiritual sequel so no prior knowledge of Taro's games is required. It just helps to spot numerous cameos and references.
I have seen NieR: Automata called as an open world game but it really is not one. It's built like any typical Japanese action RPG. A certain number of pretty tightly woven areas are unlocked by progressing in the game and you run between them doing story missions and side quests. NieR: Automata doesn't exactly re-invent its genre but how the different aspects of it all work together is remarkable. It's like a synergistic organism with everything in sync, thus creating a game experience which is not a laborious effort (like I unfortunately find some other JRPGs to be) but a joy to play.
NieR: Automata is foremost a video game and not ashamed of it. The game is at ease with its medium and plays with it, changing perspective on a fly from the main 3rd person action to a side-scrolling Castlevania type or to a bullet-hell shoot 'em-up when it feels like it to, helping to keep things interesting. Just when you think you're about to get a bit bored, the game throws something unexpected at you. Like how I felt in the forest kingdom. Not the most exciting place to venture into, I thought, and there's even a castle in the end of it. Oh, that will be a pain to explore, I sighed. Instead I found myself within a 2D platforming maze, with an intriguing character to make an appearance at the end.
The visual presentation of NieR: Automata goes beyond the need for a technical show-off chronically plaguing too many western games. The artistic value is more important than high-detailed textures or a massive polygon count. The art design paints impressive vistas in their bleakness and pale light. Some compositions are just too beautiful in their motion for a single screen capture to do justice to them. When the blindfolds fall off, the androids themselves are exposed pure and attractive, like innocent childs in the world of rust-ridden and bulky, naive-looking robots. The haunting soundtrack by Keiichi Okabe is inseparably married to the image and also brings back the amazing vocals by Emi Evans whose ethereal singing enchanted the original NieR.
The initial play-through took me 27 hours with most of the side quests completed. That might not be that much for a Japanese action RPG but wait, that's not all! NieR: Automata wouldn't be a Yoko Taro experience if the first play-through was all there is to the game. The consecutive plays take form as alternative campaigns from different perspectives. That's bit of a two-sided coin. Especially the second play-through with 9S as the playable character is quite a chore. It basically re-tells the first campaign, cutting some corners and replacing a few scenes. 9S is boring and clumsy to play when compared to 2B's acrobatic ballet of death. Also switching the heavy attack to a hacking mini-game might sound like fun but you get bored with it already in the shmup part kicking off his scenario.
Only the third play-through, which picks up pretty much where the previous endings left, shakes the things up and presents a new setting in the familiar surroundings with a multiple androids to play. As fun (or depressing, giving the story circumstances) as its furious and frenzied hack'n slash can be, it can only be viewed as a "what if..." scenario. At the end of the day all the extra endings are nothing more than just alternative futures as the game itself labels them in a hurried voice-over. It's up to the player if he or she wants to experience them all or be happy with the first and the most beautiful time. As they aren't entirely satisfying, I would have gladly exchanged the consecutive play-throughs for a longer main campaign.
While I strongly feel it was a crime both NieR and Drakengard 3 were grossly overlooked by the media and blatantly judged only by their flaws, it was about time Yoko Taro's genius got the deserving attention and praise in the form of NieR: Automata. One shouldn't underrate the part PlatinumGames have played in the process though. The game might be Taro's baby but PlatinumGames has fostered it to a fine specimen of a Japanese action RPG. Not as brash and mad as Taro's previous offerings but more bold and proud. Much like the protagonist 2B herself.
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.