NieR: Automata Review (Spoiler-Free)
Back in 2016, I continually caught myself saying “games haven’t had a year this strong for a very, very long time.” I’m thankful to be eating these words a bit, because so far, 2017 has provided us with an even greater bounty of amazing experiences - some of which I now consider among my all-time favourites. We have games like Persona 5, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Resident Evil: 7, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Night in the Woods, PUBG, among many more - and we're only halfway through the year! I think the most noteworthy trend among these great games which has stolen my heart has been the resurgence of fantastic, weird Japanese developers. There is no question in my mind that NieR: Automata is not only the weirdest, but also the most fantastic. Please, let me share with you just some of the reasons why NieR: Automata has taken its place as my favourite all-time game.
Developer PlatinumGames have a reputation which can be best described as "mixed." They have games like Bayonetta, Vanquish, and Metal Gear Rising which showcase their unique blend of intense action crossed with over-the-top enemies and insane stories; but you also have utter disappointments like TMNT: Mutants In Manhattan, Star Fox: Zero, and the profoundly dreadful Legend of Korra. Thankfully, N:A was brought to us the better side of Platinum, complete with everything you could ever want from this seasoned studio. Giant set pieces with insane enemies? Yep. A deep, engaging combo-based combat system? Check. A story full of quirky, well-developed characters? It’s got that one in spades. Good Platinum is back, and they have hit the peak of their stride with this game.
The combat system is simple, but fun, and engaging. Your character is adorned with a light attack, heavy attack, and a “pod” - your little robot buddy who can fire missiles/shoot bullets/pew-pew lasers at enemies, as well as provide other special moves. You have a massive selection of upgradeable weapons, and can upgrade those pods of yours too! Another interesting mechanic is the “chip” system, wherein you can upgrade your character’s hidden stats. You can add healing chips, so that you heal a percentage of your health back over time. Want a more active heal? Then you can get lifesteal stats. Want more critical hits? There’s a plugin for that. How about a sensor that reveals the location of all the hidden items onto your minimap? It has that too. There are far too many plugins to list here, but there are so many that - no matter your playstyle - you’ll find a combination which sits well with you.
Gameplay doesn’t just take place in the typical 3D character action game mold, however. There are sections which split into 2D platforming, top-down bullet hells, and a hacking minigame which ends up proving both difficult and a little frustrating down the line. Overall, the game’s willingness to change itself time and time again is one of the reasons I like it so much. Often you’ll find games that try to do something drastically different from its main style of play crash and burn because of it (think The Walking Dead season 1’s shooting sequences), but one of N:A’s strengths is that all of these systems work together to create a cohesive, engaging experience.
The world in which you spend your time is also a wonderful part of the experience. You spend 95% of the game in a large open world, wherein there are numerous sidequests, hidden areas, and easter eggs to be found. You will end up spending a significant amount of time in every corner of this world, so you get to know it intimately. If you have played the game, you know exactly what path to take if I say “hey, you should go from the factory to the desert.” Each area feels unique, and has its own charms. It should also be noted that each area has its own soundtrack, and boy… This soundtrack is something else.
MONACA studio, as well as Keiichi Okabe knocked it twenty times beyond the park with their music. There are over 40 pieces of original music, each of which has alternate versions depending on the scenario you’re engaged with. (If you want to dive deeper into how this works, look up ‘layered soundtracks’) Not only are each of these pieces of music unique, strong as standalone music, and stylistically diverse; they each carry weight. They are emotional, and they perfectly convey what director Yoko Taro is conveying with his story. I feel that this game would not be half of the experience that it turned out to be were it not for such a spectacular soundtrack.
All of these positives being said, I’m not going to say N:A is perfect. There are several things that I felt mixed about. For example, the performance/framerate on my OG PS4 was often middling (sometimes downright bad, if there is lots of vegetation). I was also not in love with the format of a number of sidequests (a few too many fetch quests for my liking). I also ended up having difficulties due to the lack of autosave on a few occasions (though, to be fair, that is more on me than the game). Truth be told, when contrasted against all of the amazing parts of N:A, these criticisms barely detract from my overall feelings on the game. I was never pushed away from the game because of any of these issues.
This is the part where I should be gushing about NieR’s story, and its characters; but frankly, I’d be doing a disservice by simply running down a list of why I feel it is great. Let me put what little credibility I may have on the line by issuing a declarative statement: NieR: Automata is the most important video game I have ever played - a masterpiece. I had strong, emotional reactions to multiple parts of this game. Its storytelling flawlessly accomplishes what games like Spec Ops: The Line tried their best to do, and subverts every one of your expectations. It actively made me question my own ethics, morality, and perspectives. Not only did I feel emotional about the main plot and characters; there were also seemingly minor side characters who, when their full story was concluded, left me holding back tears. By the end of my 50-hour playthrough, I was so emotionally drained that I literally had to take a hot bath to calm my mind.
As I reflect upon my time with NieR: Automata, I have an enveloping sensation of nostalgia for my first time - longing to have all of those “first experiences” again. When I reached the end of my playthrough, I was presented with a scenario where - to experience everything - I would have to replay the entire game from the very start. From 00:00:00. I did it, and I now have my first platinum trophy on PSN. I have no regrets for the time I invested, and frankly, I will gladly come back and experience it again in a few years. Another really cool thing that Yoko Taro did with the lore of this game is to not have all of it in the game. If you want the canonical ending, it is actually written into the script of their concert(s)! There is little more I would like to do than sit and talk with other people who have played N:A about their experiences, so please, if you have played N:A, send me a message - I would love to talk about this game with you.
When we find ourselves looking back and talking about which game was the “game of the generation” after our current consoles fade away, NieR: Automata will sit atop my short list. I could sit here and gush for hours about why you should play this game; but, instead, I will boil this review down to one last thought: This is the game which will cement Yoko Taro’s name among the gaming greats including Hideo Kojima, and Shigeru Miyamoto. Not only that, I hold it among my favourite pieces of works across any medium - including film, television, and novels. It is the greatest showcase of the medium I can think of, and does things that only games could possibly do. I don't think it matters if you care about anime, or Japanese games in general - I feel strongly that everyone should experience NieR: Automata.