There’s always a question when a new game in an established franchise comes out if it’s accessible to new players. Usually this is less to do with grasping the mechanics & more to do with understanding the story. Obviously, this all depends on the game in question. Arguably starting a story in the middle isn’t ideal. But not all sequels are directly related to the previous plot. One could more easily pick up the story of a new Castlevania game versus staring with Metal Gear Solid 4.
But that gets a little tricky when discussing NieR: Automata, which is a kinda sequel to NieR, which was a spin-off to the Drakengard series, which itself is known for having multiple endings & diverging timelines. To put it into proper context, NieR follows the fifth ending of the first Drakengard that involves the PC & his dragon following a giant humanoid monster coming into our world, spreading a plague to mankind upon its death. And then in NieR we learn that to save itself mankind split their souls & body to wait out the plague, but then the bodies began to think they were their own entities & began killing the “shades”. So, yeah, it’s kinda confusing.
NieR: Automata picks up after the final ending of the original NieR an unspecified time later, following mankind having to flee to the moon when aliens used robots to invade, creating replaceable androids to fight the war for them. Through several routes, we follow three of these androids, designated 2B, 9S & later A2, as they continue to wage an endless war against the machines.
Unlike the previous NieR, Automata was developed by PlatinumGames, & matches with the style of their previous games, most noticeably the likes of Bayonetta. It’s very combat-heavy, with bombastic hack-&-slash action. I’ve heard it described as a “spectacle fighter”, & that’s an apt description. But it still maintains the feel of the previous entry by having a smaller open-world setting where you can travel around collecting sidequests that grant material to improve your weapons & combat abilities.
On a sidenote, can people please stop pronouncing it as “auto-ma-tah”, like a car. It’s “a-tom-uh-tuh”, the same way you’d pronounce automaton, as it is the plural version, or autonomy, if you’re unfamiliar with the term.
Narrative: To answer the question posed previously, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary that you’ve played the previous games in order to understand Automata’s story. It certainly helps, but the events from the previous game don’t really have a direct impact on the current storyline outside of world-building. It provides some extra context in term of historical events & maybe even some characters, but you should find enough flavor text along the way to get a general grasp. The game really is more about the androids’ struggle.
That being said, I don’t feel Automata explains its own story as well as it could, at least toward the end. In the beginning, everything was good. I could follow the plot, & things that didn’t make sense weren’t supposed to make sense, hinting at things not being what they seemed until later in the story. But it wasn’t until the tower, the final mission in the game, that it kinda fell through somewhat. Who was I fighting? What was going on? Where did these AI come from? It made a bit more sense after reading some of the unit text that’s updated, but I feel if the player has to read it in a separate text blurb, it’s not good storytelling.
Other than that, I did enjoy the story for Automata. It ask a lot of philosophical questions without being too postmodern about it, instead focusing on how those questions impact the characters. It’s not navel-gazing, which I abhor, but instead shows how each person emotional deals with heavy questions with no clear answer. To that end, I liked the characters, & how they evolve over time. I liked that you don’t know everything going in, & discover along with them. I also enjoyed the overall structure of the storytelling. I knew going in how NieR made the player go through the story three times, revealing more with each playthrough. And Automata followed that same pattern. There are three “routes”. Routes A & B are the same story, but told from 2B & 9S’s perspectives respectively. Initially the plot is the same, but towards the end the characters are separated, so it’s nice to fill in the blanks between routes. And Route C picks up after those routes, switching back & forth between characters to the finale. Given that each playthrough isn’t unreasonably long, it’s a good way to tell the story, especially given the themes of history repeating itself & the utter futility of the androids’ war. And I have to admit, I didn’t see that final revelation coming.
Overall, NieR: Automata has an intriguing story that mixes humor & melodrama as well as enjoyable characters, but can be a bit confusing at times.
Mechanics: If you’ve played PlatinumGames’ games before, you know to expect fast, visceral combat, & Automata certainly delivers on that. There are a plethora of melee weapons to find & upgrade, & I liked that fully upgrading them adds special benefits, ranging from improved health to making your enemies fight for you. Combat is very enjoyable, with a familiar flow for those who’ve played PlatinumGames’ games before. Furious slashes, dodges & long-range attacks. While I wasn’t as crazy about 9S’ hacking abilities replacing 2B’s combat options, it was nice that both characters have different styles that suit them. 9S is a “scanner” unit after all, versus 2B’s “battle” unit designation, so it makes sense, & prevent things from going stale on multiple routes. The scanning mini-game is usually pretty fun & short, suddenly switching to a bullet-hell shooter type.
I also thought that idea of adding chips to your androids for various benefits was a nice idea that fit with the characters. Being living computers, basically, it makes sense that they can swap in and & different upgrade programs for various benefits. Some are more passive, like increasing your health or damage output, but others let you slow time if dodging correctly, reflect damage back, or make robots “scream” when they die (for whatever reason). You have limited space, but you can set up three different sets of chips, so you can have one that focuses on improving combat whereas another focuses on exploration benefits.
My only complaint with the combat is the lock-on system. While it mostly works fine, I found that it can be hard to target a specific enemy when there are multiple on-screen. It auto-targets the closest enemy, meaning when you run around (as you should in such a fast-paced game) it’ll switch targets even if you don’t want it to. This is a major pain as you’re usually facing groups of enemies & trying to whittle down one specific one. It also doesn’t automatically switch targets if the enemy you were targeting dies, so you have to release & then hold the trigger again. Given that you’ll probably also be holding down the ranged button while switching between attacks and dodges, your hands will start cramping up pretty quickly. I did find I could mitigate this by using the auto-fire chip, which will automatically start ranged attacks when in range & keeps you locked on, but you can only use that on Easy mode.
On the flipside, I did enjoy that once you complete a sidequest during a specific route, it’s gone forever, so each route essentially has its own sidequests. But if you don’t finish them within a that playthrough, they will show up again in the next, so if you’re underlevel you can come back later. This is an entirely personal opinion, as I’ve seen some people complain about this feature. Personally, I like not having to redo the same sidequest, as most of them are pretty basic. You talk to a character to get the quest, then go & kill a certain enemy or collect a certain thing, then turn the quest in for a reward. Although none of them felt pointless, & do contribute to your understanding of the world you’re in, they’d hardly exciting. Some are even escort quests, so I’m personally very happy not to have to repeat them. It might suck if you do, though, because that means you’ll have to delete your save data & start all over, losing all your level progress. But for me, I liked it.
Overall, NieR: Automata has fast-paced, enjoyable combat that varies depending on the character you play as & a nice upgrade system, but the lock-on system could be improved, & some people might not like the more linear structure.
Aesthetics: Like its combat, Automata is a very stylized game that takes liberties with its presentation, matching that of its predecessor. It likes to switch camera angles on you, mostly being from a regular over-the-shoulder angle, but sometimes going top-down, or even side-scrolling, usually based on the environment. While this can be jarring, the changes do make sense & you can learn to read what you’re going to encounter. If you’re fighting in a narrow corridor, it’ll go side-scroller, & you’ll be swamped from both sides. If it’s top-down, you’ll probably have to navigate a space. It’s both a mechanical & stylistic choice, & while somewhat frustrating does highlight the scenery brilliantly.
If you know anything about the Drakengard & NieR games, you’ll know they have amazing music, & Automata is no exception. It’s one of those soundtracks I can definitely see people downloading. It always seems to fit the moment, & even varies in subtle ways depending on the character you’re playing as. I thought it was a nice touch that the music goes all 8-bit when you’re in the hacking mini-game. Though the tracks do sometimes get stuck in a certain song until you leave a scene. This isn’t usually a problem unless it got stuck on the one track I didn’t like, which was the “kiddy” song, as I called it. The English voiceacting is also okay. A bit melodramatic, but that fits with moment.
Replay Value: Very high. As I mentioned above, the game has three routes you have to play through to get to the actual end of the game. After completing the third route, you unlock chapter select, where you can pick a specific starting point, which is very helpful when trying to get all the other endings. Did I mention this game has 26 endings? Because I does, A-Z. Most of them are “fail” endings that you can sometimes get on your own, either by not going directly to an important objective & “running” away or by pure stupidity (like taking out your OS chip). They are pretty funny though, so it’s not a problem booting up a chapter & quickly getting them. The game gets very snarky about it. But there are 5 “real” endings. And, as I said before, sidequests you’ve completed don’t respawn so it’s not a problem mainlining another playthrough to grind for supplies or trophies.
Overall Score: 4
Final Word: Despite some minor complaints, NieR: Automata is an fun, fast-paced action that doesn’t take itself too seriously while also touching on existential issues. There’s a lot to love for gamers who enjoy action games.
Title: NieR: Automata
Console: PS4, PC, XB1
Release Date: March 7, 2017