Yoko Taro has a well earned cult following. While the quality of gameplay for the Drakengard and Nier games of the past could be described as mediocre at very best, the quality of his stories is beyond reproach. That’s why Nier: Automata’s pairing of Yoko Taro, genius story writer and director, and Platinum Games, the king of action games, is so beautiful. Peanut butter and jelly could only dream of being half as good a pairing.
Intertwining story and gameplay
Nier: Automata starts fast. The game opens with some light shmup action before giving players control of 2B during the introductory mission, which fans may remember from the playable demo. As 2B continues her hunt for the Goliath class weapon on foot, players are introduced to all of the different perspective transitions the game will feature: While the camera is typically free moving, some rooms will take an overhead view,and some passageways will be seen from a side-scrolling perspective. Between these points of view and the shmup segments, players get a strong feel for how the game will play with their senses.
It’s not until after the introductory mission that players can save their game, which must be done manually. Some may see this as a flaw, but its an ingenious way to insure players acquire the basic skills needed to beat the game. While there’s an extremely valid story reason for the inability to save, there’s a very practical aspect as well: 2B is outfitted with an easy to use pair of weapons, none of the enemies are particularly threatening, healing items are common, and during this course of events 2B is outfitted with a chip that will automatically use healing items when in danger. If players cannot beat this glorified tutorial mission without having to save scum, they clearly haven’t learned the skills necessary to proceed forward in the game, and it’s not going to get easier going forward, especially if these basic aspects of combat are not understood early on.
Speaking of the Plug-in-chip that allows 2B to heal, the chip system of augmentation is my go-to example of how perfectly gameplay and storytelling can be seamlessly integrated together in video games. Since 2B is an android, and can be augmented via chips, this system can be used to alter the game’s UI, upgrade combat abilities, and even to commit suicide. Every aspect of the UI can be customized by altering the chips plugged into 2B.
Augmentation affects combat to a great extent. Platinum Games has done an excellent job of refining their masterful combat system for an Action-RPG instead of their usual character action games. Hardcore fans may initially feel the streamlined combat loses some of the classic Platinum depth, but that’s not the case at all. Many will notice the lack of features like dodge offset, which is the ability to dodge an incoming attack mid-combo and continue the string unbroken after the dodge, but they are in fact still in the game: 2B needs only to find and equip the proper chips to unlock these advanced techniques.
Nier: Automata gradually builds 2B into a full on Platinum Games protagonist, in terms of combat ability. This is done at a pace that’s not too frustrating for long time Platinum fans, but not so fast that new players will be overwhelmed by 2B’s combat options. Weapons have to be discovered out in the world, and further upgraded to increase their move sets, while chips must be purchased and equipped to enable the use of dodge offset and Witch Time.
(Quick aside for those new to Platinum’s mechanics: Witch Time is a period where time will slow down after a perfectly timed dodge, allowing a brief window of opportunity for players to pummel enemies with impunity. It’s called Witch Time because that was the mechanic’s name in Bayonetta, the game that originated the mechanic.)
The story of Nier Automata is told from various perspectives over the course of multiple play-throughs. Just seeing the credits once does not mean players have beaten the game. I would say the first scenario constitutes about a quarter of the game’s total content, and some content is locked away until later play-throughs have been completed. Normally this type of gating, especially with missable quests and story threads, would be annoying, but players eventually unlock a Chapter Select menu. This allows players to resume the game from any point in the story in order to tie up any and all loose ends at will.
I’m trying to avoid any story related spoilers for any of the game’s scenarios in this review, as I feel it’s something a player should experience for themselves. What I will say is that there are many surface level complaints about the game that are not so much flaws as they are highlights of players’ ignorance. For example, there are very few distinct enemy types, but that’s by design: Players are fighting against mass produced machines in a story that tackles the concepts of life, death, legacy, fear, and the concept of the individual self in society. From the low resolution map, to the lack of auto-save, many of these perceived flaws are fully addressed within the confines of the game’s story.
I have struggled to find any glaring faults in Nier: Automata, other than a brief localization issue that spoiled the third act’s big reveal, and has since been patched (to my knowledge). The voice acting, both native Japanese and dubbed English, is positively superb. The soundtrack is one of the best to come out of a Square Enix production in a long time, and that’s saying a lot considering SE’s legacy of superior music. The game’s controls and gameplay are buttery smooth with a slick UI to boot. Every aspect of Nier: Automata’s presentation is next level.
Correction…almost every aspect. My lone complaint about the game is that some of the visuals feel uninspired. I get that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world, where humans no longer walk the earth, mass produced machines are going to war, and nature is slowly reclaiming the cities. That’s fine. I fully appreciate that, but my complaint is more about the geometry of the environments. Edges are too straight, objects are too flat or square. To sum it up in one sentence: The buildings are some video game looking buildings.
Normally, I don’t make a big fuss over visuals, and I’m only making it seem like a big deal here because I have nothing else to complain about, and it irks me. The character and enemy designs are aesthetically pleasing. The lighting and particle effects impart an eerie feel that my brain perceives as a mix of awesome and strange in equal measures. It’s because everything else hits me as visually satisfying, that the perfectly polygonal environments stand out in stark contrast. That’s my biggest complaint, and it’s a very minor issue in the face of a game that redefines how we should look at interactive stories from now on.
CSG Case Summary
- Visuals: 8
- Sound: 10
- Controls: 10
- Gameplay: 10
- X-Factor: 10
Final Judgement: 10/10
Nier: Automata is a perfect introduction to Yoko Taro and Platinum Games. Masterful story telling and silky smooth combat come together to highlight why video games are the superior form of entertainment media. Playing Nier: Automata until the true ending will reveal what it means to be a gamer, and a good human.
I could go on for several pages about Yoko Taro’s work, but if you aren’t familiar with his past works, I recommend you read this article written prior to the game’s release. It has spoilers for the older games, but if you haven’t already played them you weren’t going to play them anyway.