Nier: Automata Review (PlayStation 4)
"Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment? I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle… and wonder if we'll ever have the chance to kill him."
So opens Nier: Automata, a musing on life, existence, death, intelligence, repetition, and more, all wrapped up in the draping of a kickin' rad action game that's also a twin-stick shoot-’em-up and a 2.5D platformer and role-playing game, and anything else it might need to be at any given moment.
Set 9929 years in the future, Nier: Automata puts players in the high-heeled shoes of 2B, a no-nonsense combat android designed to slay the alien-built machine lifeforms inhabiting the Earth to make the planet safe again for humanity. In the predominantly open world of Earth's wastelands you'll slay machines, complete side-quests, and battle devious bosses while making friends and upgrading your gear in traditional RPG style.
Platinum Games, famous for the Bayonetta series, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Transformers: Devastation, has brought its considerable skills into play here to build a combat engine that flows with a deadly grace. Each encounter is an exhilarating exercise in ass-kicking; there's a lyricism to the way you'll slay foes, moving to the rhythm ever-shifting rhythm of battle as the bloodlust (oil-lust?) sets in. One moment you'll be surrounded by an army of enemies, the next you'll be transported to a digital hacking world, the next you'll be piloting a mech through the skies in a shoot-'em-up/action hybrid. Nier: Automata is a constantly transforming machine, brilliant in its unorthodox execution. It's also incredibly accessible, with tons of elements for fine-tuning the difficulty to your liking. Nubile players slash their way through foes without breaking a sweat on Easy mode, while experienced gamers minmax 2B and fight tooth-and-claw to take down seemingly impossible odds on higher difficulties.
Nier: Automata's world is massive, with many nooks and crannies to explore and countless side-quests to complete. Though the exploration is solid, the side-quests are hit-and-miss. Sometimes they're quick and satisfying --- like the racing mini-games --- or sometimes involved, touching, and/or hilarious --- like the questline which has you teaching a wannabe warrior-monk how to fight by beating him up (which he interprets as him teaching you how to fight). Sometimes though, they're a little obtuse about where to go, and others require a lot of legwork without much actual gameplay. Even with fast travel and 2B's considerable footspeed, hoofing it in circles to find some tiny detail in a huge landscape, or to talk to a single NPC, just isn't that fun.
Fortunately, sharp writing helps propel things along even when the gameplay is dragging. The main storyline is a winding, twisting, mind-bending experience which will incite serious soul-searching in most players as they sift through the many different endings, emphasis on many. Players should go into this experience as blindly as possible; while story spoilers aren't often a big deal for video games, players who insist on obsessing over getting everything their first time through will be doing themselves a massive disservice by not allowing Nier: Automata's story to surprise them.
The characters themselves are a colorful bunch of misfits and machines. Protagonist 2B is a stone-cold badass... though her character design is questionable at best, as her short skirt constantly flashes her underwear in a way that feels juvenile and out-of-place compared to the thoughtful world. This is especially true when you consider that she's a combat model android dressed like she's going to a gothic anime convention. Regardless, she's a great character, one well-worth taking this long journey with, as are the other characters populating Nier: Automata's strange story. 2B's partner, 9S, is contemplative and chatty, often putting him at odds with his by-the-books superior. The philosopher bot Jean-Paul is a jackass who will probably remind you of that one egomaniac professor you hated in college. The soldier Jackass has a sense of humor drier than the desert where she lives. Even the most tertiary of Nier: Automata's characters tend to have some kind of memorable eccentricity to them, making every story, big and small, all the more engaging and heart-rending.
If Nier: Automata is a machine, its soundtrack is a fragile, beautiful layer of clockwork with intricacies which expose themselves to those sharp enough to pay attention. Far from the repetitive or bombastic scores of other, lesser games, Nier: Automata's music swells and shifts to match the gameplay. Different elements, such as sweeping orchestral suites or haunting choral voices, dynamically drop out or drop in to perfectly accentuate what's happening.
Its visuals, though strong, don't fare quite as well. The character models for the main characters are gorgeous and move with fluidity, while most of the NPCs are a bit stiffer and less detailed. The world itself looks good, but not great, and there are occasional framerate stutters which will pull you out of what's happening.
Nier: Automata's story is a rich tale, both tragic and whimsical, told expertly through the medium of video games by melding thrilling combat with a profoundly imaginative world well worth exploring. Director Yoko Taro is a madman with a box, and he's been kind enough to open that box to let us play with it.
This review is based on a digital copy of Nier: Automata provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.