Nier: Automata review impressions
Seven years after its release, the no-longer-obscure last-gen action RPG Nier is remembered more for its philosophical potency than for its action sequences. Nier: Automata, which follows on directly from one of that game’s hardest-to-reach endings, is obsessed with the same questions as the original. It asks what it means to be human, what the true distinction between artificial and natural intelligence is, and even the purpose of living and forming attachment. It’s also, quite explicitly, a game about games – how they function and operate, what it means to control an avatar, the reasons why people pick up a controller.
Nier: Automata is heady, but also very coherent, which is a rare combination. It’s smart, but not pretentious. It has easily the most interesting plot of any game ever developed by Platinum-– still, probably, the world’s best developer of focused action games-– and some of the coolest animation you’re likely to see in a modern game. It has a lot going for it.
Which makes it all-the-more personally upsetting that, somehow, I can’t quite get into Automata. I love it in theory; in practice, I’m fond of it, but always a little distracted, unable to fully commit, with no will to put in the time required to finish it. I read about the ‘true’ ending of Nier: Automata before writing this, figuring I would never make it there myself, and it nearly made me cry… but when I sat down again to have a crack at getting there, I found that I had no strong desire to keep going.
Nier: Automata is set well into the future, long after an alien attack that has seen humanity flee to the moon. You spend the game fighting someone else’s war, as do your enemies – you’re androids, fighting robots, both standing in for humans and aliens respectively. To say too much more about how things pan out would be to spoil Automata’s carefully-balanced, slowly-unfurled plot. Suffice it to say that while the game doesn’t necessarily offer up many big shocks, it’s consistently interesting. It’s all feels very anime, but like one of those thoughtful 90s anime that asked if machines have souls.
This plot is delivered in-between Platinum Games action sequences, which operate by standard action game principles. You’ve got your heavy attack on triangle and your faster, light attack on square, both of which can be augmented depending on which weapons you assign to those buttons. You can fire lasers from your ‘pod’ at a distance, which does more damage and is more effective for crowd control than the guns of the game’s forebears, Devil May Cry’s Dante and Bayonetta. In fact, if you play on Normal difficulty, you can work your way through quite a few fights by holding back and firing from a distance.
Leaping right into the fray is more fun, of course, although Automata’s systems feel simplified compared to Platinum’s other games. Dodging is essential, as always, and gives you an opening to unleash a unique weapon-specific attack, but the window for dodging is pretty wide, meaning that you can get by on spamming the right trigger quite often.
While the game has solid combo potential (complete with some fluid, gorgeous animation), enemy variety is an issue. In fact, you spend a lot of time in Automata running through familiar environments, fighting enemies you’ve already killed over and over before. And it’s fun, because the development team are the absolute best at designing and animating combat systems— but it doesn’t necessarily feel fresh. It doesn’t help that the game has no grading system. You don’t realize how much the validation of a big ‘A’ or ‘S’ on the screen was motivating you until it’s not there.
There are exceptions to this, though, particularly in the game’s boss battles and bullet hell sequences. When Automata goes big, it goes as big as it possibly can. To say that the best bosses tower over you is understating things-– they are, in some cases, actual towers that have become sentient, who will spew bullets at you as the game briefly turns into a twin-stick shooter.
Nier’s habit of suddenly transforming into another game genre isn’t quite as pronounced in Automata as it was in the original, but these sequences can be pretty wonderful, as boss patterns are fun to pick apart and work through. These fights can stretch out and change form as they progress, taking you in unexpected directions that simultaneously challenge the player and comment on the nature of boss fights, the function of the game camera, and the larger themes the game has been working with. Platinum Games has always been at its best when designing boss fights, and that’s still true here.
Some of these big set pieces work better than others, though. Whenever the game moved to a side-scrolling 2D perspective, it lost me. It becomes hard to keep track of where your character is on the screen, and the combat systems don’t translate particularly well. This is the case for a few sequences and boss fights, none of which really click. Some action sequences focus on hurling enemies at you in huge numbers, which is rarely an interesting way to create challenge.
The game is set across a wide open world, and you spend a lot of time sprinting between different locations. I found myself with little inclination to explore or engage in side quests, particularly since most of the loot I collected seemed to have very little impact on my performance. The character customization options are fairly interesting, and you can pick up more equipment from the dead bodies of other players that you find scattered around— but so much of Automata felt light to me, like a few essential components had been removed or were never finished, which would have fleshed the experience out further.
There are performance and aesthetic issues too. On a standard, non-Pro PS4, the game struggles to maintain a consistent framerate. There are frequent noticeable dips in the open environments, and sometimes during combat. This is an issue when battle sequences can already be hard to keep up with, especially since you spend most of your time paired with a secondary character who looks a whole lot like you when the camera zooms out. The world is chock-full of invisible walls that make exploration less interesting, too. At times, it feels like the world is designed purely to function within the framework of the game’s narrative, rather than being a space that’s meant to be interesting in and of itself.
For many people, these issues won’t be deal breakers-– Automata’s plot is genuinely super interesting-– but I don’t feel like I necessarily gained more from playing the game than I could have from reading about it. That’s not to say I got no enjoyment out of it, more that the genuine brilliance of the game’s ideas shine through in many of the pieces that have been written, so far, by people who are more invested in the game and its world than I am. While I have loved seeing other people grapple with the game’s ideas, I’ve found myself curiously uninterested in playing all the way through and dealing with them myself.
Mileage is likely to vary depending on your attachment to the works of auteur game director Yoko Taro. If you’re invested in the man’s previous world-building, the further exploration of ideas that have been seeding in your head for years now is too enticing to miss. I come to the game as a Platinum Games fan, first and foremost, and from that perspective the action sequences don’t quite measure up against the studio’s best work. This may seem unfair – the best action developer can’t make the absolute best action games repeatedly – but I still find myself wishing there was just a bit more to the experience outside of a few tremendous fights. The sheer brilliance of the developer’s earlier work highlights some of Automata’s shortcomings, and ultimately it never felt like the game was being as inventive on the battlefield as I would have liked.
Nier: Automata is, to my mind, a good game with moments of greatness, albeit one of such admirable ambition that it’s almost impossible to dislike. The game that has already amassed a huge fan following, a group devoted enough to make me wonder if I’m missing something, or if playing for another few hours would suddenly unlock something (I did some reading to see what I’m missing out on, so I have some idea of the twists and turns ahead). But after ten hours of play, in a game that reportedly takes about 30 hours to finish, I’ve found myself with no real desire to keep going. As a philosophical treatise, Nier: Automata does a great job of following on from what the original game started, but as a Platinum action game it can’t hold up against the developer’s strongest titles.