There are some games which, if not for consistent prodding from my gaming friends, I’d never give any attention to. JRPGs/hack and slash titles are a good example of this as, whilst I don’t mind them at a mechanical level, I’ve never really found anything about the genre that makes me want to come back. Indeed my last foray into this arena was with Bayonetta and, contrary to popular opinion of that particular title, I found the experience so unappealing that I decided it wasn’t worth reviewing. So whilst Nier: Automata took my eye due to its popularity and Souls-like combat I had put it to one side; to be played if I had nothing else. That was until a certain friend of mine wouldn’t stop pestering me about it every time I played a game that wasn’t Nier: Automata. You know who you are.
Set in the distant future Nier: Automata takes place on an Earth that’s been ravaged by a war between mankind and an unknown alien species. The world lays in ruins and the last of humanity has escaped to a base on the moon. The war still rages on however it is now fought between the alien machine race and a highly specialised force of androids. You are model 2B, a combat unit sent in to take out a large hostile force that has been detected. However things aren’t like they used to be, with many of the machines being neutral to your presence and only attacking you if you attack first. This, as you’ll soon find out, is symptomatic of larger changes happening on Earth.
For a game that’s supposedly only been in development since 2014 Nier: Automata’s visuals are decidedly dated. Sure there’s a grand scale about most things with towering enemies and environments that stretch into the horizon, but I’ve seen many current gen games accomplish the same with much better graphical fidelity. I’d hazard a guess that this is most likely an aesthetic choice, fitting in with the current styling of other games in the genre. There were also some weird scaling quirks which seemed reminiscent of previous gen ports with the on-screen text being blurry at certain resolutions. This was fixed by setting it to run in windowed mode and then using Borderless Gaming to upscale it to full screen windowed. Overall Automata’s visuals are average to say the least and the underlying engine could do with some love before Platinum Games’ next release.
Nier: Automata is a smattering of different mechanics all glued around a hack and slash, action RPG core. For the most part you’ll spend your time doing what you’d do in any other action RPG: walking around places, killing enemies, doing quests for people, getting loot and upgrading your character. Slapped onto this are a variety of other mini-games, most of which are variants on the bullet hell theme. The larger than life boss battles debut frequently throughout the game, pitting you against enemies several orders of magnitude larger than yourself. I’d stop short of calling Automata a true open world game as it’s fairly linear in terms of progression but there are certainly elements of the genre to be found here. Finally whilst the game can be played through and “finished” within a relatively modest time frame the game demands multiple play throughs in order to see all the endings, up to 5 at my count if you’re after the “true” finale. Truly it is a game that fits the stereotypes of the JRPG genre to a T.
Combat is equal parts bullet hell and hack and slash, a weird combination that I haven’t come across before myself. Initially the different kinds of combat are divided up neatly: the bullet hell sections taking the form of the old school top down shoot ’em up whilst the hack and slash components taking place when you’re not in a flight suit. After a while though they start to blur together with each of the different sections taking on aspects of the other. As you progress towards the final boss battles you’re essentially taking part in what amounts to a third person, hack and slash bullet hell which is as ludicrous as it sounds. True to the hack and slash genre you’ll quickly become unstoppable when facing anything but the toughest enemies which, honestly, is part of the appeal.
However the combat starts to get stale around the 4 hour mark with the low variety of enemies and lack of compelling weapon choices. Initially I thought this was because I was just missing something as Automata doesn’t hold your hand past the very basics. As it turns out a good chunk of the game’s weapons and other items are locked until future play throughs. This is a theme that’s woven throughout the game, something you’ll quickly become familiar with because the game makes no bars about showing you things that you’re unable to gain access to. For someone like me who does not enjoy being locked out of things which I’ll have to backtrack for (even if it’s within a single play through) I have to say this was probably the most annoying aspect of Nier: Automata.
Whilst I understand that the JRPG genre is famous for putting its players through the wringer with grinds I didn’t envision that having to grind the game itself would be a requirement for seeing everything it has to offer. After my initial completion I made sure to come back to see if the game could hook me back in but, honestly, replaying the exact same game again, down to the same quests and everything, simply failed to appeal to me. I’m sure there are likely parts which differentiate each play through, and maybe that’s enough for fans of the genre, but it wasn’t enough for me. Honestly I felt like the game and its story could have been much better served by collapsing it all into one cohesive arc that spanned 30+ hours, rather than repeating the same dribble 5 times over.
It also doesn’t help that Automata seems to cast aside about a decade’s worth of advancement in game development. Apart from the visuals issues that I mentioned before the game also suffers from horrendous camera controls, hit box detection issues and weird input behaviour when in forced perspective mode. Part of this is due to the fact it’s most certainly developed for the PlayStation first and then a lot of the conventions have then been remapped to the PC. Most notable of this is the lack of a dedicated dodge button on PC, something that will only be available to you if you play the game with a controller. Whilst I’m sure purists will argue that that’s the way Automata is meant to be played the issue is that other similar games, like Dark Souls 3, managed to get these kinds of things right. Perhaps I’m just used to a higher amount of polish these days but Automata definitely felt like it could use a couple more patches before I’d call it a seamless experience.
Now my impression of the story is going to be limited to a single play through but after reading through a plot synopsis I don’t think I’m missing much. There was a lot of potential for investigation into the whole “Machines vs Androids” thing, although the fact that neither 2B nor 9S could see the irony in their position irked me more than it should have. Additionally there is no where near enough development in the various character’s relationships to support the emotional connections they supposedly have, making the game’s climaxes seem hollow and forced. Maybe this is just an artefact of the game’s requirement for multiple play throughs and the story becomes better as more details are revealed to you. I’ll never know as there simply isn’t enough in the core game to keep me coming back 2 times over, let alone 5.
Nier: Automata is a smattering of different ideas, game mechanics and narrative structures that unfortunately doesn’t come together as a cohesive whole. For a game that’s had a relatively short development cycle it seems dated in almost all respects and would not be out of place as a previous generation title. The combination of bullet hell and hack and slash mechanics is novel and, for a time, provides an unique and interesting challenge. However the lack of variety in the combat, enemies and other mechanics starts to wear thin after a time. This then erodes the game’s core intent of getting you to play through it multiple times over to uncover its true nature, something which a better constructed game would have no trouble in accomplishing. My 10 hours or so in it were filled with probably 6 hours of real enjoyment, followed by 4 of tedium. Perhaps I’m missing something here that fans of the genre aren’t but I honestly don’t know what that is.
Nier: Automata is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 34% of the achievements unlocked.