The early months of 2017 have been among the all-time strongest starts for video games. Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Atlus’ Persona 5 and Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn have raised the bar for the video games as a whole. In a single move, The Legend of Zelda completely rewrote the formula from previous Zelda games. Persona 5 took the successful blueprints from previous titles in the series and added a layer of beautiful animation and personality to every single screen and menu.
With such a strong showing in the early parts of 2017, It’s easy to see how a slightly lesser known game from a well-established studio like NieR: Automata could fly under the radar.
Platinum Games’ new title and sequel to 2010’s NieR tells us a dark and grim tale. In the very far future, humans are on the brink of extinction. Having fled to the moon to avoid being exterminated; humanity sends android proxies to Earth to fight their war for them. These humanoid androids are compelled to fight against the alien machines on Earth. The story follows a pair of these androids, 2B and 9S, as they fight back and try to piece together the mystery of the aliens themselves.
NieR came to me at an interesting time. Like many gamers, I got caught up in the zeitgeist of The Legend of Zelda and the supremely beautiful Horizon. With Persona 5 coming in April, I wanted a small palate cleanser before getting tangled up with an 80 hour Japanese role-playing game.
Enter NieR: Automata.
I was already excited about the game after playing the superb demo late last year. Sadly however, I allowed my excitement for NieR to be tempered by all of the incredible titles coming not long after. With a short window in between my time with Legend of Zelda and the upcoming Persona 5 I wanted to get some time with Platinum’s newest game.
What I found was a game so full of life and character that I found it hard to put down. The main story can easily be completed in around 10 hours for a single play through (although for the full experience there are multiple endings), so it was a breath of fresh air not to be locked into a massive sprawling 40-plus hour adventure. The story takes so many strange yet unexpected and interesting turns throughout its run. I was so engrossed that I finished the game in a single sitting. The bizarre and wonderful story ramps to a pleasing crescendo at the end of its run with tantalizing hints of further secrets to uncover at the end that I couldn’t help but pick it straight back up to learn everything the game had to offer.
Having only briefly played the original NieR I was worried that I would be missing key pieces of information that connect the two stories. However I was pleased that having a deep understanding of the previous game wasn’t necessary. There are mentions of the Gestalt Project and the Replicant Initiative, which is an overt reference to the previous title, but it doesn’t impact the story significantly. NieR finds a way to appeal to so many different audiences that it could appeal to nearly everybody.
The developers have taken the basic third-person action and light RPG mechanics from the previous game and really brought the combat to the forefront of the experience. Platinum has always been known for its fast-paced action titles and it’s that flair that shines through in NieR: Automata.
Every enemy encounter feels fresh. Sometimes the visual perspective in which you fight can change. In the opening scenes of the game you go from a top-down shooter like Capcom’s classic arcade shooter 1942, to a twin stick shoot ‘em up in the style of Lucid Games’ Geometry Wars or Housemarque’s Super Stardust. Quickly after, you find yourself in a traditional third-person action RPG fighting huge enemies, only to immediately follow up with a side-scrolling gameplay section that limits your movement.
What sets NieR: Automata apart from so many others is the story and how it plays with in-game systems. You have full customization of your character. You can go into your in-game inventory to set-up and remove “chips” to customize not only battle powers, but how you perceive the world.
A variety of gameplay and visual elements are tied to these chips. Take out your health meter chip and you can’t see your remaining health. Take out your map chip and your mini map is gone. This system is so in depth that you even have the ability to remove your central operating system chip. When removed it immediately kills your character (you are an android after all) and gives you a game over. NieR: Automata treats the player with respect and fully immerses you in this world and the characters.
One of my favorite surprises in NieR were the secrets it holds right up until the credits. Without treading into spoiler territory, this is a game that demands to be played through multiple times. Not only for the multiple endings that can be unlocked, but because each playthrough gives you different perspectives and new pieces to the plot that keeps you wanting to see where it’s going next, which for me was a sigh of relief as I was not ready to end my time with 9S and 2B.
Musically this game is a true marvel. NieR uses strong, powerful choral sections to enhance the action going on around the player. The score has a tone very reminiscent of the score from the classic anime film Akira. It uses choruses of children or adults harmonizing in a dissonant way. The highs are engaging but the lows are more reminiscent of early era JRPGs, driving tunes that never get overbearing but keep you company in the moments of silence between set pieces.
This is a game that unfortunately released at a time where it has to compete with some of this generation’s finest releases. While that may hinder it in the short term, NieR: Automata is an experience that cannot be missed. Much like it’s predecessor this game has already become a cult hit and it’s easy to see why. During a slightly more dry summer for big releases this is the type of game that you can lose yourself in.