Nier Automata Review

I had the opportunity to play the original Nier during October of last year. It was one of many JRPGs that are part of the PS3’s back catalogue, and was one that had a lot of praise from gamers despite mixed reception from critics. While the game was rather unremarkable and bland graphics and gameplay wise, it greatly made up for that with its very powerful story, endearing characters, and amazing music. Unfortunately, its developer, Cavia Inc, was disbanded back in 2010, which meant that a sequel would be unlikely. Even though director Yoko Taro was able to create a third Drakengard game with the same development team under the label Access Games, it still came as a shock when a sequel to Nier was announced in 2015. Even more shocking is that was being developed by Platinum Games, the developer of Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising Revengeance, Madworld, The Wonderful 101, and Vanquish.

This meant that not only was Nier finally getting a follow up, but that it had an actual budget this time. Even with the lukewarm reception of their then recent titles The Legend of Korra, Transformers Devastation, and Star Fox Zero, as well as the notably poor reception of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan, there was still a lot to look forward to with Nier Automata. Nier was being given a sequel that is bound to have much stronger gameplay, yet will also retain the positive story qualities of the original. Normally I would try to incorporate a suspenseful “did it live up to the hype?” stinger at the end to play upon curiosity to get the reader to keep reading, but chances are that one already knows the answer to that question since it’s about as easy to avoid gamers mentioning this game on social media as it is to avoid headlines featuring Donald Trump. It should speak to this game’s strength when it released in the same few weeks as Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild, yet it still has made a serious splash.

I’ll just confirm right away that Nier Automata has not only lived up to my expectations, but it far surpassed them. Keep in mind that this is coming from someone who normally holds a lot of contempt for today’s AAA games. I am fully aware that a lot of the major video game review sites these days are pretty much paid to give positive reviews to whatever game has the highest budget and gets the most press. I am also aware that many gamers are content with a lot of these same games, which is not a problem. I specifically make not of my contrarian views regarding most AAA games just to express how significant Nier Automata is. Nier Automata has the type of passion and brilliance that I thought was not allowed to exist in AAA games any more. Hell even in lesser known niche or indie markets, it is hard to find a game this good. I haven’t felt this strongly about a game since 2015’s Undertale.

Nier Automata takes place in a post apocalyptic future in the year 11,945 AD, where alien invaders have taken over earth and is overrun by machine life forms built by the aliens. The last few remaining humans now live in a colony on the moon where they have created their own series of machine life forms to combat the invaders. Our main character is known as 2B, an android that is part of a special unit called YoRHa; the newest series of combat based androids. She is generally a very stoic type who is always focused on the mission, which is justified since androids are prohibited from experiencing emotions (although that doesn’t stop them from being capable of doing so).

Our second major character is 9S, our game’s obligatory cute bishounen meant to balance out the sexy female lead. Unlike 2B who is intended for battle, 9S is a scanner model who is not built for combat, but is still capable of it. 9S is more open about his emotions in order to provide a contrast to 2B’s stoic nature. The idea that emotions are against the rules is not a concept that is fully taken seriously though as it often only seems to exist for a few offhand gags and is often contradicted. For example, when 9S states that it’s actually kind of fun being able to work with a partner because he usually works alone, 2B simply responds with “emotions are prohibited.” Despite this, when it looks like 9S is going to be killed at the end of the tutorial level, 2B clearly shows strong feelings of anguish and sadness, both of which are emotions. Furthermore, this standard only ever seems to be held to 9S seeing as how most of the androids have very human like personalities.

Initially, I that this was just a plot hole that slipped past the writers, but a late game plot twist reveals something that puts every event involving 2B and 9S into a different perspective and gives a perfect explanation for why this inconsistency occurs. Furthermore, it adds an even greater sense of replay value to the game just to see how different things will seem with the element of hindsight. Nier Automata has constant twists and turns, and the main story never felt weak or like it started to drag. This is a great improvement over the story of the original Nier that started out slow and only started to get strong during the second half.

One does not need to have played the original Nier to understand the plot of Automata. The game takes place almost eight thousand years after the events of the original and there is only one member of the original cast present in this game. Automata does have plenty of references to the original game though, and their inclusion shows an even greater attention to detail as well as invoking nostalgia for the original game. Interestingly enough, the lore added to the series in the Japan only book, Grimoire Nier, also plays a role in the overarching narrative of this game. However, most story material that pertains to the original game is side quest related and there is very little in the main plot. The only complaint I can think of is that the third playable character, A2, is given very little screen time and development, which means that those who haven’t seen the YoRHa stage play set before the events of Automata.

What makes the narrative of Nier Automata even more brilliant is how fully developed and fleshed out the world of this game is. All of the side quests in Automata, even the generic fetch quests, contribute to the game’s world and feel just as significant as the main storyline. This is unlike so many other RPGs that only add these types of quests just to be filler content. Granted these quests do serve a purpose in that they allow the player to feel like they are making progress even if they only play for a short period of time, but one will be much more enthusiastic about doing these quests if there is a decent motivation for it other than in game rewards.

Nier Automata is not content enough to stop at side quests though; it goes to have item lists add even more interesting background info. First of all, every weapon you can collect in the game has a short story that is unlocked the more you upgrade you weapon and concludes after it is maxed out. Additionally, there are items that include information on the “old world” that add more to the backstory of the world and shed light on the events that led up to both Automata and the original game. Even the fish that you can catch in the fishing mini game have interesting backstories since there are mechanical fish that adapted to the earth’s ecosystem and lived alongside regular fish.

Lastly, I would like to touch upon one of the recurring themes of this game’s story.  One of the key themes of this game’s story is the meaning of life, or more so the idea that life has a meaning to begin with. The story of Nier Automata goes far beyond just “Androids are good and machines are bad,” in terms of depth. Of course, fully explaining why would involve a lot of spoilers so I will try to be as bare bones as possible in order to avoid them.  To try and sum it up quickly, both the androids and the machines hold existential crises due to the fact that they exist only for one pre programmed purpose and are boxed into that purpose, thus being alienated from a life that is of any tangible meaning to them.

Anyone who has ever suffered from depression will likely find that to be a familiar concept. Having suffered from depression and having had frequent suicidal thoughts, I can attest that one of the most common things I have thought were along the lines of “why am I here?” and “why do I have to keep doing this?” Whether one is religious or not, there is no positive answer to the question of “why am I forced into this life and why can’t I just end it?” If one is religious, then the answer would be that God has a purpose for your existence and wants you to do something. This is very similar to how the androids and the machines were each created with a specific goal in mind, but possess the sentience to contemplate our own existence and have desires to be more than what we were created for. As a result, this means that if God created everyone in order to fulfill a certain purpose, then we are all slaves and free will either does not exist, or will result in us being sent to hell if we use it. Going with an Atheist belief, meaning that God likely does not exist basically is just an extension of the former.

The Nihilist perspective is different, but is just as depressing if examined. The belief can basically be boiled down to the fact that life has no inherent meaning and that everything was created by accident, and that this makes life all the more valuable to us and is why we should cherish it (Note: Since I know this can be a sensitive topic, I am not going to claim I speak for anyone on the idea of these beliefs and will clarify that these are my own interpretation of what they mean).  The reason why that is even more depressing is that this means that those of us who feel trapped in a life that we feel provides us nothing have no hope of salvation and no reason to go on, and thus that we are suffering for nothing.

As a result, it becomes clear that the key to living a good life is to avoid questioning or asking about the purpose of your existence, and instead find your own reason to exist and to keep living. The main theme of Nier Automata is to break free from the idea that life has a purpose and that you need to do what was assigned to you by a higher power. Both the androids and the machines were created by a higher power, similarly to how humanity may have been created by a higher power. Both the androids and the machines try to imitate human behavior, despite a lack of an understanding of it, because the diversity of human life makes them more appealing than acting as a machine with one single purpose (and more appealing to the machines than imitating their non sentient “plant like” alien creators). The game’s E ending all but confirms that this is the main theme of the game, but I dare not spoil that. I am very tempted to say that Nier Automata has the greatest story out of any video game I have ever played, and that is really saying something. I cannot think of any other game storyline that simultaneously carries as much excitement, emotion, and thematic depth as Nier Automata.

Graphics wise, Nier Automata looks amazing, but that is generally to be expected of a AAA title. The character and level designs all look interesting and unique, and there is a lot of attention to detail involved in the graphics themselves. One thing I noticed early on in the game was that treasure chests found in the desert are buried about halfway up and don’t simply reuse the same model as every other chest. I do not have much else to say simply because I am unfamiliar with what the current technical standards are for AAA graphics, and because I also don’t care. All I can say is that Nier Automata looks amazing artistically.

There are a few problems that I have pertaining to the visuals though. The first of these is the amount of invisible walls that this game has. In order to set boundaries, there are a lot of areas that appear to be open and that the player should be able to enter, but are blocked by invisible walls because a playable area was not actually programmed, yet graphics were. I understand that even AAA titles cannot afford to program an entire in game planet from scratch, but there is a simple solution to this; if the player can’t go somewhere, don’t design a map that makes it look like they can. Additionally, do not add platforms that the player cannot stand on and will slide off of if they try to. This is made even more jarring due to how inconsistent it is. There were points where I was able to pass through two bushes that had about half a foot of distance open, but there were others where I could not enter an area that had no visible barrier.

The other visual issue that this game has is its camera. There have been way too many instances of the camera getting stuck at weird angles or deciding to auto pan in certain directions during boss fights. The most egregious example I can think of is during the battle with Simione. Like many action games, Automata uses a look on system that will allow you to automatically aim towards and target a specific enemy. The problem is that, unlike most games, it is overly annoying to change the target you are locked on to. I could not count the amount of times where I was trying to attack an enemy, but the camera would not lock onto a different enemy even though it was twenty feet away and the one I wanted to attack was right in front of me. Additionally, the camera can often end up getting locked on to harmless moose or boars that soak up damage while I am trying to target the machine that is actively trying to kill me and can be beaten in two hits. This has been proven to be even worse during boss fights since the camera will occasionally auto-pan in directions where you will not be able to see bosses coming.

On normal difficulty the camera is only a minor annoyance, but on hard it will result in a lot of cheap deaths.

The lock on feature is removed on hard so what little guidance you had is gone.  This means the game now requires you to plan out every move like you are playing Dark Souls since enemies that took of a small sliver of health on normal mode and that it is a lot harder to hit the enemy now. I have only briefly tried hard mode before I decided this was ridiculous and went back to normal mode, even though I felt it was not providing enough of a challenge.

Voice acting is pretty solid for the most part. I did not feel there were any issues but it did not seem spectacular to me, but that isn’t saying much since I rarely find that to be the case. Sound effects were well placed and I found no issues with them. The music had a lot to follow up on since the original Nier had what I consider to be one of gaming’s greatest soundtracks. Thankfully, Nier Automata does follow up the original very well with its own combination of remixes and original tracks. In true Nier fashion, most of these song utilize a choir with lyrics based off of what various current languages would sound like thousands of years from now, all of which are sung beautifully.

I do not think I can name a single song from this game that I did not like. It has an excellent blend of soft and majestic tracks for the various in game locations, emotional and touching songs that play during story related events, and imposing, powerful, and intense pieces intended for battles. What makes these songs even more notable is that, depending on certain circumstances, one may hear just the instrumental or the full song. One will even here chiptune renditions of the in game songs during hacking minigames.

Given that Nier Automata is by Platinum Games, one should know what to expect gameplay wise. While the combat is nowhere near as intense as some of Platinum’s straight up character action titles like Bayonetta, the combat in Automata was still very satisfying and a notable improvement over the unremarkable combat of the first Nier. The key problem with the combat of the first Nier was the lack of variety and the simplicity of it. A majority of enemies could just be beat with standard attacks or by using the dark blast to pick them off from an angle.

Automata is an improvement over the original Nier in a few ways, the most noticeable and significant change is that you can no longer guard against enemy attacks. As a result, the game has a much stronger emphasis on dodging and speed. This was a much needed change considering how many enemies in the original Nier filled the screen up with more bullets than a Touhou game, yet you could just hold down the L2 button and block them. In Automata, you cannot simply block those bullets and will actually need to maneuver around or in between them to avoid getting hit.

The evade command is used to instantly teleport a few feet away from one’s current position in order to swiftly dodge an attack. Given the fast pace of the combat, this is a necessary feature. Most damage is done through standard melee attacks, where you have your usual light and heavy hits respectively. Light attacks are quicker but do less damage while heavy attacks take longer but do more damage. There is also the usual stuff about forming combos by starting off with light attacks but ending with a heavy attack that takes less time at the end of a combo, but this is all standard fair for this type of action game.

The pods in this game serve as the replacement of Grimoire Weiss from the first game in that they fire off a constant stream of chip damage (that being individual hits that do tiny amounts of damage but are hitting the enemy multiple times per second) which allows you to more easily pick off weak foes without getting up close and personal, but will not let you kill enemies with a decent amount of HP or defense quickly. This also makes the game similar to a bullet hell shooter in that you are trying to outlast your opponents and dodge their attacks while you have your bullets automatically locked on. Of course, this completely changes on hard mode since you can no longer lock on and need to manually turn the camera to aim it, which is not easy to do in a 3D game. On a side note, I love how this feature is basically an admission that everyone who played the original Nier exclusively used dark blast as their prime spell and ignored everything else.

When playing as 9S, there is also the element of hacking enemies added into the mix. To make up for 9S’s inability to dual wield weapons, he can damage enemies by hacking into their immune systems and destroying them from the inside. This is done by holding in the triangle button while locked on to an enemy until one is put into a 2D shooter minigame segment and needs to destroy every enemy within a limited time span. If the player gets hit too many times or runs out of time, they take a small amount of damage and need to hack them again to try again. If the player succeeds, they will either do a significant amount of damage (to bosses or stronger enemies) or just destroy them outright (if they are weaker enemies). 9S can also either take complete control of an enemy unite or subjugate them into fighting their own brethren if you hack them before they notice you, but these features are pretty much useless and will only be used when needed to advance the plot.

The hacking minigame itself is fine, there is one specific problem I had with its implementation.  That issue was that there were locked chests and doors that could only be opened through hacking, which means you cannot open these chests when playing as 2B or A2. Normally in these types of games, the idea would be that you get the ability to hack later in the game and then backtrack to older areas to collect them. In Nier Automata, you cannot switch out which character you want to play as on the fly, even in situations where both are in the same location plot wise.

The reason for this is that certain battles will play differently with different characters, which is why you have separate playthroughs of the same story as 2B and 9S to begin with. The problem is that even after you have obtained ending E and can load any story chapter in the game with your current levels, equipment, and items as any character that was controllable at that point, you still can’t switch between them freely. This means that, when looking for remaining side quests or missed items, you will always be playing as 9S despite him having less combat capabilities. Granted the downgrade is not THAT noticeable, but it would have been preferable to play as 2B and A2 more during post game.

The meat of the game’s strategy comes in the form of plug-in chips, which are very similar to badges in the first two Paper Mario games or the navicust in Mega Man Battle Network 3. Chips serve a function similar to accessories in most turn RPGs that will have beneficial effects when equipped, but you can only equip what can fit in your storage space. Even when you have bought every storage upgrade available (which one can do fairly quickly), you will still not have close to enough space to equip absolutely everything  you want, so one will need to decide what is more important. Thankfully, Automata allows you to put together three preset chip setups that you can switch between on the fly. That way, you don’t need to spend time repeatedly un-equipping and re-equipping the same chips and can switch between a system that is more combat focused and one that is for faster movement around the overworld. You can even use the same chip in more than one set so you don’t need to get more than one of the same chip. It would have been nice if it wasn’t just limited to three sets though.

One’s chip setup can have a huge effect on how battle turns out, and I found that the game was actually harder in the beginning when there were less chips available. Later In the game, one can get a lot of chips that can allow you to heal yourself very quickly and more easily. There are various auto heal chips that will have your HP start filling up automatically if you go for six seconds without being hit, there are chips that restore HP based on a percentage of damage you deal, whenever you kill an enemy, and ones that use healing items automatically when you HP falls below a certain percent. This naturally means one will only die if they take multiple strong hits in a row (which can still happen if one gets careless, especially against some of the superbosses).

Chips also come in a variety of different levels, where a higher level indicates a stronger effect but takes up more storage space. This is a wise idea since having large amounts of level 6+ attack and defense chips would be even more abusive than they already are. On the other hand, this discourages the use of the ability to fuse weaker chips together to create stronger chips of the same variety, which will result in an inventory cluttered up with weaker chips that one will likely just end up selling.

Some have criticized Nier Automata for becoming way too easy with the right chips, and I feel as though I both agree and disagree with that criticism. One could say it isn’t valid because Nier Automata is an RPG, which tend to be based far more around setup and customization than pure reflexes, so saying that you are making Nier Automata too easy by equipping the right chips would almost be akin to saying that you’re making Super Mario Bros too easy by jumping over all the pits and enemies.

On the other hand, one could argue that Nier Automata is still an action game at heart, and that the above analogy would only justify the belief that it is too easy, and remove the validity of the “it’s not easy if you play it without the chips” defense. This is a common paradox when it comes to action RPGs; how does one balance two gameplay styles that contradict each other? RPGs are traditionally turn based, which is inherently based around methodical planning, while action games are inherently based around quick reflexes and reaction time. Most games that are considered action RPGs, such as Secret of Mana, the Tales of series, and Parasite Eve, tend to have elements of turn based games in them so that you need to do more than just “press A to not die.” Nier Automata; however, is designed as a typical action adventure game, and playing this game the same way you play the previous three will result in one becoming very overpowered.

The irony of this  is that this would not have been a problem if hard mode was just “enemies are stronger and have more HP” and did not completely change the gameplay, but that WAS the case in the original Nier. Unfortunately, combat was slower paced and more simplistic in the first Nier, so it just meant that battles would take longer, yet this is something Automata could have used. I literally beat the final boss of Automata in under a minute, and the game’s ultimate super boss only took a few minutes to beat (although he still was fairly tricky).

The sidequests of Automata are one of its much stronger points. While there still are a decent amount of backtracking and fetch quests in this game, a very good amount of them add a lot to the story and even have unique content such as bosses. Automata is also very convenient with how it handles them. Not only are quest objectives marked on the map, but the locations of where one can start the quests are also marked. This greatly cuts down on a lot of the aimless running around that a lot of RPGs tend to require, and is definitely a huge improvement over the first game’s tedious sidequests.

As previously mentioned, one also has the ability to load any chapter of the game after one obtains ending E, and the chapter select screen also lists how many quests are active in that chapter, as well as which character you need to play as to access them. Unfortunately, the game does not specific what conditions are needed to be able to access each quest aside from the chapter they are available in, so one will still need a guide if they want to achieve 100% completion.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that Nier Automata is a game that will require multiple playthroughs to fully experience, so it’s far from over when you see the credits for the first time. There are four main endings that the player can achieve. A and B are obtained when you complete the game as 2B and 9S respectively (whose paths are mostly the same but there are added plot and gameplay elements to 9S’s path), while endings C and D are each obtained depending on a choice one makes at the end of the third and final campaign. Lastly, there is an ending E which is obtained when the player has gotten endings A, B, C, and D, that concludes everything. There are also endings for the rest of the letters of the alphabet, but they are all joke endings that function more as nonstandard game overs.

So, this is quite a lengthy review isn’t it? If one has only read my content through the site this is on, then they may not know that this isn’t the first time I’ve written a review this long. However, most of my reviews are not this long; length just so happens to be based on how much I have to say about a game. It has been over two months since my last review and I personally bought the copy of the game used for this review with my own money, as opposed to most reviews on this site that are obtained with review codes. I will just say that I rarely buy full priced console games at launch, but I did for Nier Automata due to my enjoyment of the original Nier, and it was even better than I expected.

Yes, I was able to pick out some flaws with it, those mainly being the camera, invisible walls, and the easy difficulty. However, I have long moved past the line of thinking that a perfect score has to be a literal perfect game, because such a thing does not exist. There are always things that one can nitpick with games, and even if there was a game that was absolutely flawless, that does not mean that it is also better than all other games in that area. As such, I have no problems giving Nier Automata a perfect score. I cannot recommend Automata highly enough. Games of this caliber are rare, and even more so in AAA releases.

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