When Square Enix and Platinum Games first announced NieR: Automata, a very small but passionate fanbase took note – it was the unexpected sequel to a game in Nier that hadn’t performed particularly well in reviews or financially. Whatever it was, however – and a lot of it can be simplified as Taro Yoko’s combination of brilliant and odd – Nier garnered an unexpected cult following. Despite Nier’s failings, Square Enix evidently believed that the universe was worth exploring once more.
Enter NieR: Automata, a JRPG set in a bleak, post-apocalyptic world where humans have been nearly eradicated by an alien race that let loose an army of destructive machines upon arriving on Earth. NieR: Automata is loosely based on its predecessors, including the Drakengard series, but it is designed to be an enjoyable, engaging experience for players who are entirely new to the NieR universe as well.
If NieR: Automata is going to be most people’s entry point into the franchise, then Square Enix and Platinum Games are going to have a massive cash cow on their hands. Early demonstrations of NieR: Automata generated more hype than either publisher or developer had anticipated, and with the long shadow of the recently released Final Fantasy 15 looming large, Square Enix and Platinum Games have delivered an experience unlike any other. NieR: Automata is something special, and will undoubtedly be one of the best games released in 2017 when all is said and done.
NieR: Automata follows two androids, 2B and 9S, as they navigate the ruins of Earth for YoRHa, an organization run by the last surviving humans that employs androids to try and destroy the aliens who have taken over the planet. It is a complex narrative from the very beginning, and it only gets more complicated as the game goes on, but there is an oddball charm to the way NieR: Automata delivers its story that makes it memorable. Taro Yoko and his team have managed to breathe life into androids and other machines in a way that makes them more compelling than many of the genre’s entirely human protagonists.
Describing NieR: Automata as grim would be doing it a disservice, as 2B and 9S’s journey is filled with moments of hope and happiness too, but there is no doubting the underlying melancholy and darkness that lurks in every corner of the game. That sense of pervasive sadness is underscored by an epic and beautiful musical score that recalls the best auditory moments in I Am Setsuna and Final Fantasy 15, whether it be a soft piano solo or the ominous chanting of robot voices set to a beat. The story, aesthetics, and sound of NieR: Automata are all eclectic and, at times, jarring, but they are representative of the extremely complex world they are fleshing out on screen.
That eccentricity is also present in NieR: Automata’s gameplay, and again, almost inexplicably, it just works. The bulk of players’ experiences with NieR: Automata will be done in the third-person, over the shoulder, action RPG perspective that has become nearly ubiquitous in the genre, and the game does an admirable job of tracking its fast-paced combat while maintaining this view. Yet, at times, NieR: Automata will drift to other perspectives, or completely different game genres, too – 2B might suddenly be side-scrolling through a level while fending off enemies, or might pilot a futuristic battle jet that is reminiscent of a space fighter shoot ‘em up, for instance.
Done too often, these switches in gameplay would be annoying, or would require more depth and variety, but here, too, Yoko has found the perfect balance for each of the game’s stylisms. It’s an incredible piece of design work, and the team at Square Enix and Platinum Games have set a new standard for how ambitious a JRPG can really be in terms of gameplay variation. Even the way NieR: Automata tells its story, which unravels over multiple playthroughs, perspectives, and endings, aims to be grand and unruly rather than concise and neat.
At its core, however, NieR: Automata is still a traditional action JRPG, and it acquits itself nicely in that regard. The game’s combat is reminiscent of Final Fantasy 15, itself a game that was completely revitalized thanks to its breath-taking battles, and the effect is similar for NieR. While its predecessor was criticized for repetitive and drab combat, NieR: Automata is a breath of fresh air. Random enemy mobs are challenging enough that they are interesting, while bosses are a spectacle to behold – equal parts the grandeur and scale of Shadow of the Colossus and the precise technical timing of Dark Souls.
All of the elements that have become the norm in the genre are still present in combat and character progression – 2B can either find or purchase new weapons and then upgrade them to stronger forms, while she accumulates money, experience, and crafting materials by killing enemy mobs and completing side quests. NieR: Automata’s character progression is done chiefly by swapping in new AI programs for 2B, with each one granting passive bonuses to damage or other abilities while also taking up some of 2B’s memory. Amusingly, players can also remove 2B’s core system, resulting in instant death – just one example of the bizarre depth present in Yoko’s vision of the future.
That vision includes less hand-holding than many RPGs provide these days, as side quests take some effort to discover at times and the map is only vaguely helpful, which is explained by a NPC character early as being the result of some atmosphere interference with the mapping satellites. It’s a clever explanation for a system designed to reward exploration and curiosity, and it works magnificently here, even if some of the side quest feel a little cut-and-dry. Those looking for The Witcher 3’s approach to side quests had best look elsewhere.
Ultimately, however, any of the shortcomings present in NieR: Automata are obscured by the haphazard genius of its barely-stitched-together post-apocalyptic world. The presentation, innovation, and unabashed love of the strange all coalesce into something that looks like what would happen if Hideo Kojima attempted to design a Final Fantasy, and as it turns out, it is something that needed to happen. In a year that has already seen huge releases like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, NieR: Automata has established itself as a must-play title worthy of being in the discussion with the other big titles as a contender for game of the year.
NieR: Automata is available now for PS4, with a PC release scheduled for March 17, 2017. Game Rant was provided a PS4 game code for this review.