As I finish the last of the three main campaigns of Nier Automata and chapter-select my way to the other conclusions (there are about 26 endings to the game but only a handful of them are “proper” endings) I was left with so many thoughts and feelings. The true ending wraps things up perfectly and is sublime from a gameplay, narrative, and emotional standpoint. When I realised what was going on, and the implications of what was going on, I was left speechless. And it almost makes up for the varying quality of the gameplay.
Nier Automata is a truer follow-up to the 2010 game than we could have ever hoped for; the gameplay is tightened, the combat is slick, but it hasn’t been streamlined into a character action game and instead retains the RPG tenets of the original. You’ll do fetch quests, gather materials, go from A to B and quick-travel across several unique regions. More notably, you’ll level up through play and face enemies that are at a much higher level than you; enemies that will decimate your health bar in one hit if you try your luck. Through levelling and player customisation, the typical skill barrier associated with character action now has a number of RPG elements to support you. Take plug-in chips for instance – they offer various buffs and effects but take up a certain amount of “storage” depending on how good they are. Certain chips offer typical buffs like increased damage, better healing effects etc, but other chips can turn it into a completely new game – there’s one that grants health after every enemy kill (think rally in Bloodborne) and another that slows down time whilst retaining character speed after a successful dodge (hello Bayonetta). It’s one of Platinum’s most rewarding systems yet, and it means that a bit of levelling or chip tweaking can turn defeat into victory.
Nier Automata – split personality
Plug-in chips and levelling aren’t the only deviations from the character-action formula; Nier Automata has more of the classic shoot ‘em up action seen in the demo as well as a new gameplay feature introduced after the first playthrough that adds an interesting new dynamic to much of the rest of the game. (This isn’t the only time this happens as you go through the three campaigns, but I found that it was the biggest gameplay shift.) And even though the world and town may feel small-scale compared to other RPGs you play, there’s still enough going on to prevent you from feeling like you can’t progress. Enemy levels are displayed as you fight them (this may be optional based on interface plug-in chips; I’m not sure) and so you instantly know if you’re going into an area that will be too challenging, encouraging you to level up and do sidequests until you’re ready.
There’s also a lot of variety in the environments you’ll explore – the 2010 game had the likes of Façade, Seafront and the Aerie peppered around its central hub, and Automata has its own desert in addition to an amusement park, a forest and more abstract areas later on. Even though the shifts feel a bit disjointed as you speed from place to place, each one feels distinct in its culture and identity. And remember that a lot of time spent in the areas will involve a finely-tuned combat system that is satisfying in itself but transformative when plug-in chips are involved.
Nier Automata – rough moments
It is, however, a Nier game. Even with Platinum at the helm there’s always the risk of some dodgy moments when Nier is involved, and Automata isn’t without its problems. Some platforming can be fiddly, camera shifts can come at the worst possible time, you can end up underlevelled if you hurry through things, and the 3D map – as good as it is – can still be hard to wrap your head around at first. At the same time, just like in the original Nier, you’ll forgive these blemishes just to see where the story takes you, and the underlevelling only happens if you try and treat it like a straight character-action game rather than embracing the RPG roots of the series. (On a personal note I’d also recommend rotating your saves and/or backing up saves to the cloud, just in case you over-use the manual saves and wind up in an impossible situation. Ahem.)
There is a risk that with all the genre-bending Nier Automata shows you all of its tricks too soon, and that certainly begins to ring true in the third playthrough. That said, even when you think it’s running out of ideas the gameplay is so satisfying that you’ll want to keep going anyway. Finish the three main routes and a chapter select opens up, allowing you to see alternate conclusions for the third route and, ultimately, one of the most majestic ways a game has been wrapped up in some time. In that moment, it’s easy to gloss over the flaws you noticed along the way – it’s easy to let emotion drown out cold analysis. At the same time, don’t we spend evenings with videogames for moments just like the gameplay and narrative highs of Nier: Automata? So yes, this is a recommendation. If you enjoyed the original Nier, you shouldn’t let the Platinum logo put you off. If you want to see character action in a more fleshed-out world, this is worthy of your attention. And I can only hope that this gains enough attention to make up for the first game’s niche status.
Nier Automata is out now for PS4 and will be released on PC on March 17th