Patience is a virtue…
Very few games manage to transcend its predictable structure into a peculiarly constructed being that constantly shape-shifts both narratively and gameplay-wise. Those that attempt to embody this bizarrely delicious concept tend to fail, with the story layering multiple convoluted pieces that simply don’t make sense or bleed pretention, and/or its genre hopping implementation is rendered to a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Nier: Automata is the beloved exception to the rule. It is a robust experience that executes an impeccable variance of the new game plus system, a well paced and mechanically sound example of the seamless transition between different game genres, and incorporates a gripping narrative that is equally provocative as it is convoluted. While a plethora of technical issues and its underdeveloped open-world hold Nier: Automata back from being the underrated masterpiece that everyone claims it to be, it is still an exuberant experience that has the foundation for a masterpiece, simply lacking the required polish and design to reach such meteoric heights. Nier: Automata is a peculiar experience to critique as it’s constantly changing and evolving, with each new playthrough providing a sliver of reflection; my impressions of trepidation upon viewing the ending of Route A were completely different compared to my unanimous praise of Route C and its subsequent endings. It’s a fluctuating experience to say the least, but one that constantly propels the importance of the ride as opposed to the destination. It’s an arduous journey, not in terms of mechanical difficulty, but in perseverance and tenacity; the hunt for truth is a riveting force of propulsion, one that emitted a rewarding sense of satisfaction, despite my personal qualms with Automata’s certain limitations and design choices.
Nier: Automata’s inauguration is relatively standard, even tame, for traditional Japanese idiosyncratic conventions. Automata tells the tale of humanity’s last ditch effort of retaliation after Earth is invaded by alien lifeforms. With humanity’s final remnants taking refuge on the moon, Androids are sent in their stead to eradicate the machine lifeform threat left by the aliens. Here you take the control of combat unit YoRHA No.2 Type B, or 2B, a rather calculated and objective-oriented android, and scanner model YoRHA No. 9 Type S, or 9S, who showcases signs of emotion and curiosity, peculiar traits for androids that arise questions of existentialism and purpose. Things take a turn for the weird when machine lifeforms begin to display signs of human behaviour and emotion – machines pleading for their life out of fear as you slash them to bits or watching them mimic the act of making love is as disturbing as it sounds. While 2B and 9S may appear relatively stiff and naive, respectively, for narrative purposes, Nier: Automata’s cast of side characters – most notable candidates are machine lifeforms Pascal and Emil- are fundamentally interesting, with each struggling to find their own purpose in this demented world. In my eyes, the narrative is split into two forms, the moment to moment battle against the machine lifeforms and the existential search for the truth behind the origins of androids and machines; every now and then these two threads overlap creating some excellent and disturbing highlights, but for the most part the latter element is stronger than the former. This statement is particularly true when taking Automata’s greatest strength into account, its multiple playthroughs and endings. The inaugural playthrough, Route A, focuses on the moment to moment conflict between 2B/9S and the machine lifeforms, with its ending feeling rather anticlimactic and unsatisfactory. However with each subsequent playthrough, PlatinumGames brilliantly fills in a piece of the puzzle, providing an improved sense of understanding behind convoluted instances in the narrative. Each playthrough provides relative narrative and gameplay variance, so no two routes feel the same or tell the exact identical tale, creating possibly the best incentive for longevity. The third playthrough, Route C, is the undoubtable highlight of Nier Automata, showcasing the most demented and brilliant moments Automata has to offer, while providing satisfactory answers to some of its greatest questions but leaving considerable room for interpretation and provocative discussion. However, herein lies the problem with Automata’s playthrough structure. Route A is not particularly good, nor is it inherently bad, it’s just not a good representation of what Automata has to offer. Route B bears more similarities to A than any other route, while implementing new gameplay elements and providing exposition that fills in many gaps that Route A intentionally left vacant. In simpler means, Route A is decent, Route B is good, and Route C is excellent – this means you have to complete the game twice, which clocks in at about 30 hours, for the game to reach its full potential and become something truly amazing. It also doesn’t help that Route C is arguably the shortest route. The mentality that a game doesn’t get “good” or reach its full potential until X number of hours is completely inexcusable – I’m talking about you too Final Fantasy XIII – which is why it is difficult to recommend Nier: Automata or begin to consider it as a masterpiece.
Arguably the biggest misstep that plagues Automata is its graphical fidelity. It is by no means a pretty game, with its visuals bearing a technical resemblance to that of a PlayStation 3 title. On top of its graphical inferiority, its environmental diversity is rather lacklustre and banal – the post-apocalyptic universe is derivative beyond belief, but Automata could’ve left some form of creative footprint on the formulaic setting, but alas it does not. Instead of incorporating elements of environmental storytelling – showing humanity’s last imprint on their forsaken world or the relevant consequences based on the actions of either humanity, androids, and/or the machine lifeforms – the world essentially feels empty, and not in the intentionally literal sense. Environments bear aesthetic variances, but provide nothing novel in terms of gameplay or narrative. It’s just a different coat of paint with no meaning. Nier: Automata’s performance is also notably poor, as it’s plagued with constant frame drops and slowdown, not to mention the abundance of texture pop-in. However, Automata’s audio counterpart is vastly different as it’s exceptionally good, bearing the same impeccable quality in terms of presentation as its narrative. The exquisitely crafted musical score is hauntingly beautiful – with the ending theme “The Weight of the World” evoking pure audio bliss. Aside from Automata’s excellent musical work, the localized voice-acting is relatively well done. While some character performances are better than others, 9S being a particular highlight, the majority is undoubtedly efficient and get the job done nonetheless.
Nier: Automata, at its core, is an open-world Role-Playing Game – given the involvement of PlatinumGames, the heavy focus on combat was a given, and while it doesn’t reach the meteoric heights of Bayonetta in terms of gameplay, it’s still extremely enjoyable and fluid for RPG standards. You are given an exotic slew of different weapons to equip, ranging from the traditional likes of small and long swords to the exquisitely swift combat bracers, choosing one to be tailored to your light attack and another to your heavy attack, providing an excellent incentive for experimentation, as different non-restrictive weapon combinations provide different animations and combos. Combat is fast, frantic, and extremely fluid, and definitely lives up to PlatinumGames’ iconic staple of gameplay – bearing heavy similarities to the masterful Bayonetta, with Automata’s evading system mirroring Bayonetta’s ingenious Witch Time mechanic. Automata’s great combat is surprisingly a mere fragment of Automata’s gameplay minutia as a multi-genre experience. Just like its narrative counterpart, the gameplay is constantly shifting, with new elements introduced through subsequent playthroughs. One moment you will be partaking in traditional hack n’ slash glory, the next you’re playing a side scrolling shooter, or a top-down space shooter, or a text-based adventure. It’s brilliantly distributed and well paced, and while certain gameplay elements are stronger and receive more dedication than others, they’re all surprisingly engaging and never feel enforced. As I previously mentioned, subsequent playthroughs introduce new gameplay elements every now and then. Without spoiling anything, let’s simply say that a shift in perspective drastically changes preconceived notions of familiar paths, adding a considerable layer of depth in both terms of character development and narrative, while further cementing its impeccable gameplay variance. Automata’s RPG elements are interestingly nuanced as skills are primarily attained through its Plug-in Chip system. You can find Plug-in Chips as loot or purchasing them from vendors; from here, you can add the Chips to your android’s system, attaining its respective ability. Each chip takes up a certain amount of storage space and has its own level – you can fuse two identical chips of the same level to upgrade its efficiency level, but it will also take up more storage space as a result. Elements of the HUD, such as the HP gauge, mini-map, and objective marker, are Plug-in Chips themselves, and can be removed to increase your storage space, which will expectedly removed each aforementioned element of the HUD. This intrinsic management system is notably obtuse but also strangely intuitive as it fundamentally just works and is admittedly fun.
While Nier: Automata’s core gameplay is notably strong and arguably the highlight of the experience – you can make the argument that its existentialism story is the true dominating factor – its level design and mission structure leaves much to be desired. Nier: Automata feels like an experience that had the open-world structure thrown into its framework as an afterthought, as opposed to it being an intrinsic part of its actual DNA. Mission design is extremely repetitive, being rendered to mindless fetch quests in a worst case scenario. Side missions tackle the quest giver’s existential issues extremely well in purely thematic instances, but its gameplay counterpart is not nearly well-versed and feels slightly disconnected from the interesting story that’s taking place – it’s genuinely interesting thematic values and character development that are shackled down by poor game design. Due to its open-world nature, many missions require you to travel from location to location in order to retrieve an item or unravel pieces of a mystery; while these missions may serve an integral part to the overarching lore, fast travelling from point A to point B doesn’t spark the same level of excitement and is quickly rendered to a simple chore for the exchange of interesting exposition. Automata would’ve benefited greatly as a more focused linear title, similar to that of Platinum’s Bayonetta. The opening of Route C is exceptionally well done, as its design is far more focused and linear in comparison to the rest of Automata; it’s a testament to the quality Automata could have achieved if it took this more calculated approach. Another reason as to why Nier: Automata’s open world is heavily flawed is its poor level design. Automata’s apocalyptic Earth is plagued with a questionable amount of invisible walls – countless areas are inaccessible due to this restrictive nature. This very nature, however, is the level design’s main inconsistency. Plenty of other areas that are visually and structurally similar to these inaccessible areas, can be accessed via a simple jump or glide. So what makes these areas particularly different? Nothing. PlatinumGames simply wants you to be able to access them, but little to no effort was put into differentiating these circumstances. If you can clearly jump over a giant root of a tree, then you should be able to do so in every instance, not just when one specific area is tailored towards the story. That’s simply bad design. It breaks its own rule. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild truly ruined the open-world genre for me as its level of restriction is simply non-existent; the rules that it constructed are adhered to on all accounts with no exception.
Nier: Automata is not the underrated masterpiece that its cult following claims it to be; there are too many notable inconsistencies and problems that simply cannot be overlooked. Automata has the framework for an undeniable masterpiece, with bits and pieces here and there reflecting this potential, but unfortunately its technical limitations and questionable game design hold it back from achieving an impeccable level of greatness. However, despite my personal qualms with its shortcomings, Nier: Automata’s idiosyncratic nature and exquisite gameplay overshadow any notable nitpicking. Nier: Automata in actuality is a great game that conveys a provocative narrative, ripe with thematic elements of existentialism and incorporates a multitude of varying gameplay genres in an innovative manner. Its highlights are unbelievably exhilarating, with specific gameplay and narrative moments that evoke a sensation of existential horror and hope that will undoubtedly stick with me for the years to come. As an RPG, you’d be hard pressed to find one with a better combat system, and with its innovative new game plus system topped off with multiple routes and endings, Nier: Automata is an undeniable treat for those who appreciate a dense experience worthy of a full retail price. Nier: Automata is an engrossing testament that first impressions are not the be-all and end-all of an experience – patience with this one is truly a virtue.