This is the review of NieR: Automata. You can read our impressions here, which contains description of the game proper and its creative mastermind, Yoko Taro, both of which are relevant to this review.
NieR: Automata’s greatest strength are the questions it asks about the body, consciousness, life and death.
Questions fundamental to the human condition, that have been poked at and prodded since whatever point in our timeline humans “became” sentient: the great mystery of being able to look down at your body and say “this is my body” and think a thought and then say to yourself “I just thought something”. Literature, art, and film, have tackled these questions since the inception of their respective mediums, not as a means to discover an answer, but to meditate on their existence. NieR: Automata decided to join that party.
That’s not a light task for any form of art. It’s easy for any work to come across as overly sentimental, pedantic, or ham-fisted when it looks at these topics but fails to strike at a new vein. This is doubly, or triply true of video games. Say what you will about the current maturity of our industry’s landscape, but looking towards the lofty has never been a strong suit for the medium. Perhaps it’s due to its roots as pure entertainment – that the word “game” is built into the medium’s name. And that’s totally fine. Entertainment and adrenaline are a core piece of the human narrative as well.
Unfortunately for this review, describing how NieR: Automata discusses what it does would cut away the experience of playing it, to spoil everything. It’s the sort of game that must be played to understand and I don’t say that lightly. What I can describe is the vernacular it uses to bring its points home.
NieR’s setting, the 12th millenia A.D. sheds the narrative constraints of human beings – our problems, responsibilities, bodies, and the need to “feel”. We’re only fed story through artifice: characters that are either android or machine – two distinctly different “species” made by humans and aliens respectively to act as their surrogate. And act as surrogate they do, both literally, in terms of plot, but more importantly, as a canvas to describe the sensation of being human.
Example: all android consciousness is linked to a greater network (in human terms, Carl Jung’s collective unconscious). Remember the final conflict in Ghost in the Shell? When Motoko Kusanagi tries to rip open the hatch of a quadrupedal tank, and in doing so tears her own cybernetic body apart, only to later upload her consciousness to the network, saving herself? NieR: Automata is that moment writ large. By stripping out the limitations of the human body, NieR is able to allegorically discuss that very thing, the human body, and the mind inside of it.
Platinum, the developer of NieR: Automata has a bit of checkered pedigree.
Bayonetta 1 and 2: widely lauded as the pinnacle of third-person character-action games — brilliant. Vanquish and Transforms: Devastation: competent but critically middling, despite their cult following. Avatar: The Last Airbender and TMNT: Mutants in Manhattan. Critically panned and pretty darn bad. Scalebound: canceled.
While NieR doesn’t quite reach the heights and complexity of both Bayonettas, it’s combat is equally feverish and acrobatic. Beautiful to say the least. What NieR gains from its inclusion of the bullet hell genre’s trappings, which is a lot, it loses in terms of martial complexity. To me, that’s a worthy trade. As somebody who has never found a fighting game they’ve felt comfortable playing, (save for hundreds of drunken/stoned matches of Guilty Gear 2 in college) losing the dependence on combo memorization saves NieR’s combat from feeling overwhelming. That cuts both ways though. By the thirtieth hour of NieR, it becomes something of an unwanted obligation. Due to its simplicity you never feel that there is more to learn or perfect — it becomes perfunctory, and in long stretches can feel like padding in between NieR’s stomach clenching story moments.
Thirty hours you say? That’s to complete the several core endings of NieR: Automata, of which there are 26 total, one for each letter of the alphabet, and they are titled as such. Five of those endings are pretty much obligatory to see the story in full. Unlike most games that beg for multiple playthroughs, though, NieR’s A-E story routes are all radically different from one another. Some are a re-telling of the first playthrough but through a different character’s perspective, which not only re-frames the story in a fascinating way but changes the mechanics of gameplay just enough to keep things fresh. Other endings are a new story entirely, following the events of the first playthrough. All in all, reaching the first ending after twelve hours is really only the first chapter in a much larger novel.
And though the combat only changes marginally and does begin to wear out its welcome, what remains consistently strong is the environment in which NieR is set.
NieR’s play space is relatively small, broken up into different zones that are tonally and aesthetically quite different from one another. While NieR: Automata’s graphics and textures are often akin to a late Playstation 3 game in terms of raw fidelity, the art direction is remarkable. It often evokes Journey, sometimes Jet Set Radio Future or The Last of Us. Each “zone” is beautifully constructed and distinct in character, and some rival the most creative play spaces I’ve seen in video games. These zones don’t expand or change that much between each playthrough and you are constantly hopping across the map, much like the mansion in Resident Evil 7. This allows for an incredible sense of emotional familiarity with each of them. Because they’re so narrow in scope the scenery often feels like the set of a stage play, with different actors and plot devices moving through them.
The aesthetic ingenuity of each zone is coupled by a stunning score — mostly with vocals sung in an invented language, amplifying the otherworldly nature of everything else in the game.
The only issue with those stages is that pathfinding is messy — while they’re “open world”, the manner with which they are traversed is linear. Normally that’s fine, but their layout is serpentine, full of switchbacks and roadblocks. For the life of me I will never remember which path leads out of Pascal’s Village, which is frustrating because you’re moving in and out of it frequently. This is compounded by NieR’s clunky world map.
That sense of familiarity of place is heightened by the large amount of side content in the game. For such a physically small space, it’s packed with things to do and people to help. Usually those sidequests are reward-heavy, both in terms of resources received in reciprocation from your NPC quest giver, and the narrative threads that fill out the universe. Some of the most bizarre and touching moments in the game are found through these questlines which makes it doubly unfortunate that they’re usually dull to actually perform.
Generally it’s the same video game side quest you’ve done a thousand times. Find this. Kill that. Escort this NPC. They’re never flat enough to feel offensive to my taste though – you can reach them on the map and complete them rather quickly. They’re more than worth it for the the lore additions. That being said, as I usually feel about open world games, I would have preferred a more lean game strucutre because the discrete story beats in NieR are so goddamn strong.
As an RPG, NieR is surprisingly competent in some regards, broken in others.
The highlight of its RPG mechanics is the “chip” system. You come across and buy all sorts of “programs” your character can plug in and run. These range from pretty standard: “Melee Attack +30%”, to unique: “You now have an XP meter.” Each chip takes up a certain amount of “system memory” in your android, so the choice must be made as to what is valuable. To top that, even the most basic system level functions of your android can be removed for space, like say, having an HP meter. While the chip system is in practice akin to something like the Materia system in Final Fantasy 7, it’s diegetic wrapping makes it feel cool.
These chips are lost upon death and can only be retrieved by scooping up your body a la Dark Souls. This is never much of a hassle because on normal difficulty the game is never terribly challenging, and I say this as somebody who isn’t great at video games. This is primarily because the items you use to recover HP are infinitely available from vendors and extremely inexpensive. Stocking up on 99 Medium Recoveries will not destroy your wallet, and when coupled with the immediately available “Auto-Item” plugin, which automatically uses restorative items when your health drops below a certain value, means that you never really have an excuse to die. This also means that leveling to meet enemies is sort of irrelevant – you can just grind it out against an ultra tough opponent. Essentially, the game’s economy is broken.
All said, NieR is tough to recommend while simultaneously being one of the most thoughtful, beautiful, bizarre, melancholic, and philosophically lofty games I have ever played. That NieR can broach the topics that it does, and doesn’t come across as up-it’s-own-ass is nothing short of of remarkable.
Despite its mechanical flaws, I feel that the game is almost mandatory for any adult that plays video games, much like the “required reading list” from your elementary school. It might not make you a better person, but it will help you realize if you’re at least a decent one.