How does blowing up a armada of giant robots with a black box, using a self destructing wrist watch straight out of the first Predator movie sound?
Our introduction to our female protagonist, 2B, and sidekick, 9S, takes place in the first 30 minutes of Square Enix’s latest action RPG NieR Automata and with an epic opening like this, it becomes plain as day that NieR Automata’s presentation and experience is certainly worth the trouble.
30 hours later, every fibre of my being still remains convinced that every single second in NieR Automata is time well spent.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
NieR Automata’s story revolves around the aforementioned characters 2B and 9S, who are androids tasked with destroying the robot menace that’s residing in the already-ravaged and empty Earth. The rest of the humans are on the moon and on space stations waiting until the whole Earth is cleansed. By a lot of robot ass-kicking, of course, but we’ll get to that.
The story is, to put it vaguely, special. What initially is a simple recon and elimination job ends up becoming a tale that touches upon the nature of androids, robots, and humans. Do automatons have souls? Are robots/androids capable of feeling pain and emotion? Is emotion really a burden? NieR Automata’s multilayered story gets peeled off bit by bit, with each ending and playthrough, and you will be enamored by its unraveling.
The game’s philosophy hovers around the messages subtly woven by films like Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg/Kubrick’s A.I., and if those directors gave their leads a black miniskirt and a pair of space katanas. Keep in mind that this is all coming from Cavia game director Yoko Taro, a man who conceals his public identity with a charmingly creepy moon-with-eyes mask. This is the same man who was in charge of Drakengard 3’s batshit-insane story, and the same man who made you wipe out your game save to see the true ending of the first NieR, back in 2010. You won’t be getting a unique experience like NieR Automata’s tale again anytime soon.
It also helps that 2B and 9S are fun main characters to follow. The former is cool and calm, but lets down her emotional guard as the story unfolds, while the latter is inquisitive and snarky, yet endearing. Both of them have great chemistry with each other; the very first mission and the bits where they explore the Forest Kingdom, and later sections of 9S’ story are highlights of their evolving relationship from comrades-in-arms to possible romance leads. Always make sure to pay attention to their banter with each other and their monologues.
Even the supporting cast, like the robot villagers and the Resistance Base rebels, have quirks and side stories that flesh them out and add more soul to the game. You get to escort a friendly robot in a scorching desert, while it asks you questions about the desert and “the birds & the bees”, take photographs to help out a Resistance soldier deal with loss, and even eat a fish for the sake of science.
Seriously, don’t do that last bit unless you saved.
NieR Automata’s combat and fighting is spot-on, flashy, fluid, and full of finesse, and certainly a good complement to the strong narrative. Part hyper melee action game, part side-scrolling shmup, and part top-down twin stick-esque shooter, the game’s action transitions seamlessly from one section to another in its main stages.
This is no doubt due to the involvement of Platinum Games, the folks behind several wondrous-yet-underrated action games, including Bayonetta, Vanquish, and The Wonderful 101. Every dodge you perform emanates a satisfactory multiple image feedback, and every hit and combo chain you land with your equipped weapons gives out an equally-gratifying impact and slash.
Both 2B and 9S also play differently: 2B is combat-focused, so she’s basically Bayonetta sans the hair magic. 9S relies on more ranged attacks and his hacking skills: hacking an enemy and winning a short top-down shooter game (complete with a remixed 8-bit musical transition) can either make the target explode or temporarily turn it over to your side. Both come equipped with pods which shoots out bullets, so you have ranged combat options as well. Their pods can also pull off Pod special attacks which are one-time power moves with cooldown. Players are able to shoot a laser beam, summon a giant hammer, have spears pop up from the ground, and even have a temporary physical/ranged weapon shield.
Both 2B and 9S can also have their stats altered and changed up with the plug chip system; you’re given a good amount of chip space to plug in as many stats and powerups as possible like shockwave attacks from your melee swings, health regeneration when you kill robots, and even increased drop rates. You also have to buy chips to display HUD info like your lifebar, item and save-spot locations, and even fishing spots. Yes, you can take a break from all the fighting to command your Pod to fish, which you can sell for extra in-game currency called Gs.
Dying does not come easy, but if you do, you’ll have to retrieve your corpse at the last place you died to get back your lost chips and experience points. Dying again will make you lose all of that, which is reminiscent of the Dark Souls method of handling death and soul-collection. This is NieR Automata’s way of telling you to improve, and use your combat options to the fullest. But if you’re playing through the open world bits long enough, you’ll amass enough Gs to replace them easy.
With great controls and real-time combat comes a hearty challenge: your robot enemies come in droves, and can also overwhelm you with size. Whether it’s a bunch of robots in tribal masks suicide bombing your face or it’s a giant ballerina robot who fires tons of projectiles to make a bullet hell shooter fan go “holy crap”. There’s even a fight against the lovechild of GLADOS and a brown spider. NieR Automata has no shortage of epic fighting set pieces, enemy mobs to mow through, and giant robots to destroy. If I have one complaint, it’s that your dodge has little to no recovery time. Unless you’re playing the highest difficulty setting where one hit means instant death, you can exploit this to the point that you won’t even take a single scratch in multiple fights.
Having said all this, we should mention that the game has a few glitches here and there that aren’t intentional. During the open world sections, the screen flickers for a bit. There were some sections I had to start over because the quest givers weren’t responding and thus impeding our progress. We hope that the latest NieR Automata update fixes all this.
The first NieR was a flawed game with a fantabulous meta story and a mesmerizing soundtrack. This sequel retains those elements but ups the gameplay phenomenally. Despite the long hours and post-first ending deja vu scenarios, I was rarely bored killing robots and giants with either characters. Cavia and Platinum Games did a goshdarn good job in making combat engaging and slick.
It’s hard to say how meta the story is compared to the first, but it is memorable and chock full of surprises at the very least. You just have to be patient with how it delivers its story and peel off its many contextual layers.