I missed my chance to play NieR: Automata when the iron was hot because of the most common first world problem a gamer can experience: too many games to play. In the year that Automata was released, I was tantalized and seduced by Cuphead, Resident Evil VII, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Assassin’s Creed: Origins, all of which pushed Nier Automata further and further down the playlist. This is one of the reasons why I dig Game of the Year editions. Can’t play it now? Wait a year or so for a re-release that has all the extra content already packed in! The NieR: Automata Game of the YoRHa edition is another in a long line of valuable re-releases that offers the complete experience at a price that can’t be beat.
With that pitch out of the way, it’s hard to even know where to begin. NieR: Automata isn’t an average third-person, hack and slash action game. For a Platinum Games release, it’s radically subdued and leans heavily on telling a story that’s rich with philosophical thought on the nature of robots and the legacy that humans leave behind. Some quick research shows that Automata is a sequel to NieR (which I never played), itself a spin-off of the PlayStation 2 game Drakengard - the only thing I remember about that game was how often the protagonist would stick his tongue out at people to show some sort of branding he’d obtained. Don’t let that pedigree intimidate you. Despite the criss-cross connections, no previous experience is necessary to take control of android 2B and lead her through a series of missions on an Earth that’s been ravaged and abandoned by humans after an alien race unleashes a force of robots onto the surface.
With the planet unsafe, humans have moved to the moon and built a satellite inhabited by androids that make up YoRHa, a lauded special ops band of soldiers charged with running dangerous missions to end the ongoing stalemate between humans and the alien robots. Initially, you play as the stoic, no-nonsense 2B, an android with the most quintessential anime heroine look - she wears a black gothic lolita-style dress, has pure white hair, can carry giant swords, and wears mask that impractically covers her eyes. It does make her look cool, though! 2B is supported by 9S, a “scanner” who acts as 2B’s logistical partner and combat ally. Together, they attempt to advance the war effort in the human’s favor by coordinating with a resistance group on Earth who were placed there to maintain a beachhead. As higher functioning and more capable machines, 2B and 9S engage the enemy in missions that quickly give way to a shocking revelation: the alien robots are developing emotions, independent thought, societies, and even belief systems. Whether this is a natural evolution of the machines or a result of what little remains of human civilization rubbing off on them is left for the player to interpret.
NieR: Automata is a third-person, open world hack and slash action game with RPG elements. Primary missions and side quests are spread across a portion of the planet made of up with different environments mere yards from each other, including a debris strewn commercial district, scorching desert, an abandoned urban city, a crumbling industrial plant, and even a lush, vibrant forest. You’ll travel to and from these areas to complete missions, chasing down objective markers that lead to critical targets, characters to talk to, and other Macguffins. Fighting your way through legions of robots gains experience points that increase your character level, making it easy to tackle some of the game’s harder enemies and bosses. You’re assisted by a Pod, a small floating robot that runs on programming chips that modify its behavior during combat. Pods can be upgraded to trigger special attacks, like a giant power laser or swing a blade around in a circle but also influence how 2B performs in combat. Chips can provide health and attack bonuses as well as other boons. When played in Easy Mode, equipping the Auto-Evade, Auto-Fire, and Auto-Attack chips essentially make the game play for you which is great for those who worry about not being able to keep up with the combat, especially in light of Platinum’s stylish but combat heavy outings like Bayonetta. NieR: Automata features all the hallmarks of a conventional third-person action game. Dig deep, though, and you’ll find that it is anything but.
NieR: Automata is largely defined by and lauded for its unorthodox storytelling. Playing through 2B’s story will take you about eleven or so hours to complete (more if you do all the side quests), the conclusion of which leaves the player with a modicum of closure even unanswered questions linger. Instead of a traditional New Game+ mode where you’d play the story over with character level and gear intact, the second playthrough shifts the perspective to 9S, beginning with what he was doing while waiting for 2B to arrive from the moon. Play it a third time and you’ll see the story from the eyes of A2, a YoRHa deserter 2B and 9S met in their travels. These playthroughs are nearly different games altogether because they introduce new gameplay mechanics and fill in the story blanks, like those moments where 9S ran off to take care of something to help 2B during a major battle. Honestly, it’s all pretty wild and often unexpected! And it’s all in service of telling a story that is far more complex and deep than initially believed. An alphabet’s worth of secret endings also exist, triggering when you behave a certain way during noteworthy encounters. Many of these endings can be triggered by simply walking away from different objects. There’s even an ending reserved for manually removing 2B’s OS Chip.
But it’s not Yoko Taro’s fighting against established norms and gaming conventions that makes NieR: Automata a fascinating video game. It’s the story, a surprisingly deep and multifaceted plot that wrings out a lot of emotional drama for its robotic cast. It’s easy to forget that 2B and 9S are androids, especially given 9S’ freewheeling, jovial attitude and independent streak. 2B and 9S experience a lot of hardship over the course of the game and their human-like appearance makes it easy to sympathize with their plights because, well, they look like human beings. What took me by surprise was just how deeply I connected with the alien robots. These junky machines with their goofy round heads, stocky bodies, poor vocalizers, and claw-like hands are endearing and consistently fought against the notion that they were developed by an advanced alien race. After spending a short time on Earth, 2B and 9S discover that the robots have begun to exhibit signs of independence, creating their own societies and belief systems. This new evolution of machine comes to a head in a late game encounter that I found to be really upsetting. I don’t want to spoil it but it left behind a heavy impression that had me questioning my role and the violence committed against these metallic creatures.
Nier: Automata is a really compelling piece of science fiction. It builds on the thematic foundation of sentient robots and takes into a bold and heart-wrenching direction. The emotionally rich saga is further bolstered by an intensely memorable soundtrack that add so much flavor and extra dimension to the multiform narrative. The Game of the YoRHa edition is a pretty great value and for $40 you get the game and all of the skins made for 2B, 9S, A2, and the pods and the 3C3C1D119440927 DLC which contains more skins and colosseum fights. I’ve said a lot for NieR Automata and it still feels like I’ve just scratched the surface of what this game is all about. It’s a truly captivating and cerebral game that’s so unlike the more boisterous titles Platinum Games is known for.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.