Whoever would have thought that Nier, of all games, would get a sequel? Somebody at Square Enix, apparently.
It’s one in the morning. I’m not sure how this happened to me. I mean, I know Nier. I bought and played it back in 2010, back before it had made the strange journey from reviled to revered, and was among the early crowd singing its praises. I had experienced the nuanced brilliance of what happened after you begin a new game upon completing your initial quest. I experienced it years ago. I knew all about this stuff.
I knew what I was getting myself into.
As it turns, I kind of knew what I was getting myself into. Beside me, my girlfriend is fading in and out of sleep, eager to see how it all ends, but physically and mentally drained; she wasn’t happy with the first couple of endings that she saw. I’m to wake her once I’ve finished Nier: Automata. Again.
It’s taking longer than expected. What truth there was that you didn’t experience Nier properly until you had re-played it a couple of times or more is fully present here. It’s here and then some: amplified, more expanded. It doesn’t take all that long to finish Nier: Automata.
In the scheme of things, it doesn’t take long to finish The Fellowship of The Ring, either.
This time around, The Return of the King was fuller and longer than I had expected.
And to think it all starts off so simply. Or, at least, it does if you’re familiar with the previous title. It’s more grounded; a tighter gameplay experience, perhaps, but also a bit less interesting. And, to be fair, it stays that way for a good while.
Nier: Automata opens as a top down shooter, the player in control of a flying mech that wouldn’t look out of place in Metal Gear. The commands are simple enough: shoot, special attack, dodge. Then the perspective shifts, the challenge alters slightly, but the controls – the central mechanics – remain the same.
By the time the game decides that perhaps the action should take place with both feet on the ground, the player is familiarised with everything that they need to be, including the knowledge that they will be contending with large, patterned waves of spherical projectiles. What follows is a brilliant hack and slash action sequence, a tour de force wherein Platinum flexes its considerable pedigree. Buried in the menus, somewhere, are some more RPG-like options. But don’t worry about those just yet. Just focus on the killing of machines - this game comes from the same team that made Bayonetta. The team that made Vanquish, Metal Gear Rising and Transformers: Devastation.
They know how to make action games. They’re bloody good at it. And Automata is, on these terms alone, a very good one of those.
But Nier: Automata isn’t a Platinum joint, not really. It’s a Yoko Taro joint. It’s a Nier game. It’s going to get weird, it’s going to mix things up, and it’s going to be more than a simple action game. Hell, it’s going to be more than a good action game.
Once all of the theatrics are done with and it’s time to get into the narrative proper, Automata delivers its initial story by way of an exposition dump. It seems simple enough, if a little crude in execution and simplistic in content: it’s the distant future and a robot army under the command of aliens has driven humanity to the moon, from where they instruct androids in an effort to take back their planet.
You won’t be controlling a human in this game, which is perhaps for the best considering Platinum’s bent for eccentric action. Instead, you continue on as android 2B as she is beamed down to Earth on a new mission. From here, the game opens up, and it is a video game arse video game: there are mini maps and markers and multiple themes to this not-quite open world that is positively littered with knick-knacks to pick up, and despite the knowing wink occasionally given, the confusing nature of the map system can irritate, at least during an initial play-through. Doubly so considering that Nier: Automata could not give a firetruck about invisible walls. It’s entirely possible to be standing what the mini-map depicts as mere meters away from an objective marker, only to be unable to reach it because you’re randomly unable to fit between two trees.
It’ll take a while to get to this being a real problem, but it’s apparent from the get-go. The world design here isn’t shy about putting aesthetic ahead of pure functionality, and players will probably want to learn it. Which they will, starting with initial 'go here, kill this and retrieve that' fetch quests. The direct nature of the introduction of the game’s RPG elements is so bare-bones that it hurts.
Mercifully, like a seed, it grows, and the character and weapon upgrade systems play very nicely with Platinum’s combat mechanics. The world might occasionally be barren, but it has no shortage of things to do (including fishing, if you weren’t scarred for life by the compulsory fishing segment in the original game), and it allows the game to get close to a consistent sixty frames per second performance.
A lot seems to be sacrificed for performance, for the fluidity of the action, but the aesthetic does impressive things with minimal visual design built around clean edges and limited colour palates. It does even more impressive things with its sound design, and its soundtrack is a masterclass of fitting your world not just thematically, but in breaking into diegetic spaces.
Amid all this, Automata walks the tightrope between being an out-and-out action game, and being a truly eccentric RPG that demands attention and more than just one play through (to the point where there’s a message from the PR team after the Ending A credit roll). There’s more to it than meets the eye, and some things that might seem a little dull and flavourless – a bit bland to all players, but perhaps criminally so to fans – can easily become stand out, charming inclusions ten or twenty hours later. Of all the pieces, only the Souls-like online component feels jammed in.
In fact, this is a compliment that could be thrown at the game as a whole. Nier: Automata grows with time, in multiple directions. Offhand inclusions can later find more important roles. The possibilities for its combat systems open up, in directions both predictable and not. The scope for exploring its world increases. The story expands in scope and themes of existentialism, identity, loss, and manipulation ring with increasing clarity. Yes, it’s bananas, but it is also spectacularly good at presenting and exploring ideas, which is a hell of a lot more worthwhile than plot for plot’s sake.
Nier was – still is – a strange, eccentric, sensational Frankenstein’s monster of a game, sewn together from pieces and genres that most people, even at their most intoxicated, would never even dream of combining. Somehow, it walked. Walks.
Nier: Automata is much the same, only now instead of merely walking, it dances. With a sword. It’s almost everything that the original was (even though it grows increasingly brave in its experiments once you start moving past twenty hours of play time, it is admittedly less reckless overall than its predecessor), only now in a much tighter package, one that is more enjoyable to interact with.
One that will hopefully find a much larger audience.