NieR: Automata Review – Beauty of Automation

Taro Yoko, beloved game director to a passionate fanbase, has not had the same reception from critics and general audiences. While his games have been praised for strong narratives, they’ve always suffered from lackluster gameplay and in NieR’s case, lackluster sales. When people first heard that NieR: Automata would be developed by Platinum Games, fans of both his work and of Platinum Games were excited at the prospect of an honest-to-god great Taro game. It’s been years in the making, but Taro Yoko finally got the game that both he and his fans deserve.

NieR: Automata
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Platinum Games, Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: March 7th, 2017
Players: 1
Price: $59.99 (Review Copy Received)

This is a review coupled with a supplemental video review. You can watch the video review above, or read the full review of the game below.

Visually speaking, NieR: Automata is a mixed bag. The open world that it showcases is not terribly impressive from a visual standpoint. While they do look pretty in certain instances, they aren’t particularly interesting to look at, especially the main city center. Even though there are a variety of locales, only a couple of them were interesting to gaze upon.

This is large in part to do with the camera work involved in some of these locations. The Bunker is hands down the stand out location of the game, mostly due to its monochromatic color scheme, as well as its lateral camera movement giving it a distinct identity. It makes up for this with its great camera work, which gives certain locations more flair to them and makes playing through these areas way more memorable.

What the game lacks in environmental design it makes up for in character designs. The main protagonist, YoRHa No.2 Type B (2B for short), is hands down the best designed character of the cast and arguably one of the best designed characters this year so far. The gothic-Lolita design, while not necessarily logical in these circumstances, is definitely striking and memorable while giving unique flair to an already very unique game.

While the game does run at 60FPS on the PlayStation 4, there are several moments where the game drops performance to around 40FPS and stays there for a bit. This is mostly noticeable in certain areas, specifically the forest region where you’ll notice it the most. Sadly this also affects combat, which while far from being unplayable does somewhat damper the experience. Most of the time though, the game will play consistently at 60FPS.

If there’s an action RPG that has more fluid combat then NieR: Automata, then I’ve simply not played it yet. This game has the slickest combat that I’ve had the joy of playing in any action RPG. While not as deep as other Platinum titles, there is still depth to be had with this combat system, and more experienced players will have a fun time dissecting its more subtle nuances.

You’re given two weapons to equip at a time with four varieties of weapons at your disposal: short swords, long swords, spears and bracers. Depending on what weapons you have equipped in your light and heavy attack slots, these will determine what kind of combos you can pull off, as well as slightly change their properties. This makes weapon experimentation tons of fun, and you’ll most definitely work towards a preferred weapon combination.

You’re also given a Pod, which acts in the same manner Grimoire Weiss did in the original NieR. You have your basic projectile attack and a variety of special attacks, from a long ranged laser to a giant hammer. The one difference is that if you’re skilled enough, some of these special attacks can actually be used to extend combos, which adds even more depth to a seemingly simple system.

Finally, combat is held together through a dodging system which, when timing it correctly, will allow you to unleash a counter attack. Timing dodges correctly feels incredibly rewarding, and you’ll be using it constantly, as fights can get pretty hectic.

It wouldn’t be a Taro Yoko game, however, if we didn’t have some genre mashing. NieR: Automata has many elements borrowed from shmups, from the various projectile enemies and their bullet patterns to straight up bullet hell sections in the game. The former adds a bit more challenge to combat, while the latter lacks the depth and challenge to make it truly engaging to play through. They do mix the game up however just enough to keep you interested, and they aren’t used to the point where you’ll become tired of playing through them.

There is also a hacking mini game that you get later in the game, and while it makes sense in the context of the narrative, it makes combat way too easy at times, as it’ll almost always be used against tougher opponents seeing as it is the best way to deal damage fast. It also makes higher level side quests almost trivial in how easy they become with said hacking mini game. The mechanic works way better in purpose to the story rather than the gameplay.

NieR: Automata has an interesting upgrade system in the form of chips. These chips come in three forms: Attack, Defense and Support. These can be equipped to your OS in order to upgrade things like damage, defense, evasion, and many other properties. What makes it interesting is that you have a finite amount of room to equip these chips, and the stronger the chip, the more room it takes. You can upgrade chips to take up less room, but you will have to manage what you want by prioritizing.

There are also three OS sets that you can switch between, so you can customize each set differently and switch between them whenever you see fit. You can also upgrade your weapons via items found in the overworld and through the enemies you defeat. The upgrades themselves aren’t very interesting, with your basic damage increase and some pretty vague buffs, but every time you upgrade you reveal a part of a story that is attached to the weapon, making upgrading weapons provide a small narrative payoff.

The best way to get said items for your weapons is through the games 60 side quests. Gameplay-wise they aren’t very interesting, often times requiring you to collect X amount of items or escorting a VIP somewhere. What in lacks in varied gameplay it makes up for in the stories that each side quest tells.

Some of these side quests go into some very dark places, and since everyone in the game is an android, it can tackle a bunch of different subjects you don’t often see in video games. There are some more laid back and comedic side quests, and even they deal with some very interesting concepts, to the point that some of these quests can be pretty messed up in their own right.

In a year that already has a ton of great soundtracks, NieR: Automata might just have the best one to come out all year. I can’t think of a soundtrack that has so many bone chilling songs, with not a single dud among them. The made up language that’s used for most of their vocal tracks is absolutely gorgeous, with one playing in every unique zone. It’s honestly hard to pick a favorite track, but if you were to twist my arm, I’d probably go with the Machine Village theme with its very distinct choir of children.

The English dub is quite solid throughout, with it actually improving as the story goes. 9S’ performance is the stand out of the bunch, mostly due to the material the character himself is given, as well as the transformation he goes through during the main story. If the English dub isn’t your cup of tea, then the option to listen to the Japanese dub is at your disposal right from the start. You can even turn off voice acting altogether if you can’t be bothered to listen to it.

Discussing the story to NieR: Automata is somewhat tricky, not that it’s tough to understand, but more so a lot of what makes it good is hidden behind spoilers. I will say this much about it – NieR: Automata, more so than any other game Taro Yoko has directed, works as much as it does as story due to the nature it uses. This story will never work in any other medium, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so great.

There’s a permeating discussion regarding how narratives in video games should be approached, and NieR: Automata understands the medium that it’s in and uses it to its full advantage. Even certain gameplay elements are tied to the story, and it makes sense narrative-wise as to why they’re designed that way. The ending to the game is the most compelling argument you can make as to why this story could only work in video game format.

Some of you may be wondering if this game could be played without prior knowledge to NieR, and the answer to that is a little complicated. In theory you could play this game without knowing the plot to the original NieR, since it does a good job at explaining its premise, but several moments in this game won’t have the same impact it would on someone who is familiar with the first game.  There’s also a lot of supplementary material that was written outside of the games detailing more of the backstory of Automata, but in my playthrough there was only one instance where that information came into play.

The game boasts a whopping 26 endings, but luckily only five of them are important, while the rest act as joke endings. It may sound daunting at first trying to get all five endings, but in reality it’s practically a necessity if you want the full story. Getting one ending might seem like a proper place to finish at first glance, but the game kindly encourages you to keep replaying the game and getting its various endings to see the full picture.

Calling them endings isn’t even really accurate, as the first two endings only constitute the first half of the game, with the remaining three making up the second act. Luckily, each new playthrough adds new sidequests and new perspectives to keep them fresh and intriguing. Do yourself a favor and get the main five endings.

NieR: Automata is very much reflective of its creator Taro Yoko. Both are quirky and weird to say the least, but at the same time there’s not really anything else to compare them to, making them one of a kind.

It’s clear that Yoko loves the medium and uses everything that makes video games unique to create something wholly original. Whether or not this is it for the NieR series is yet to be seen, but if it were to end with Automata, then I’d be glad to see if go on such a high note. Despite its minor blemishes, this is a quintessential title to own if you own a PlayStation 4.

NieR: Automata was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review copy provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 9

The Good:

  • The best goddamn soundtrack this year has to offer
  • Fluid and fun combat
  • Story, both the main quest and side quests, are fantastic

The Bad:

  • Overworld design isn’t super interesting
  • Some game mechanics make game a little too easy at times
  • Game has some pretty noticeable performance drops

FEATURED GAME

  • Mr0303

    A small nitpick on the video review – the music was a bit too loud, which was distracting from what Alexis was saying.

  • Mr0303

    Platinum have never been too good with environments – their expertise has always been combat. I’ve tried the demo and I didn’t really like how it played, so I’ll have to skip it.

  • buddyluv324

    I do half agree with the overworld design. Although the overworld isnt too prettiest to look at, I think it does a good job of giving the player a good immersion that they’re in a near dead, apocalyptic world. Other than that, the review pretty much matches up with my entire experience with the game!

  • Zen

    As a counterpoint, this is more a Yoko Taro game than it is a Platinum Games game. The story, narrative and characters are always the focus in his games and the demo doesn’t even come close to scratching the surface of what makes this game great. Not that you should play a game you don’t enjoy playing to get the story, but this is not a standard character action game like other PG entries and should not be treated like one.

  • The game’s story was really disappointing compared to the amazing story of the original NieR. Gameplay-wise the game shines tho.

  • Mr0303

    Yeah, you are correct. I get that the story is the main draw for the game, but I’m not a fan of the series, so this isn’t for me.

  • 2501

    You shouldn’t expect Bayonetta or Revengeance when it comes to the combat, it is more of an evolution of the gameplay in NieR and that’s how Automata should be. It’s not to say there isn’t any depth to the combat though, infact there’s allot of combo potential and experimentation with the pod skills to be discovered.

  • HowlJenkins

    Totally agree. I believe it mostly boils down to the character’s not being as fleshed out/likeable as the quirky ass team you have in NieR. Even so, still the best campaign I’ve played in a while.

  • Mr0303

    I’m not saying that it should be on that level. I simply tried the demo and it didn’t click with me. The focus on projectiles, the lack of proper lock on and the constantly shifting camera weren’t to my liking.

  • Loli que Zerou NieR Automata

    You think? personally I loved the story in this one as much as the original. While I hold in high regard and liked all of the characters, I’ll agree that the main cast of the first one was more likable (though 9S and the Pods really grew on me, specially when 2B’s Pod was with A2).

  • sanic

    “The good: Butt
    the bad: sometimes not butt”

    Aside from this miss I agree with the reviewers points overall.

  • EinMugenTenshin

    To me it’s a 10/10 game.

    – To the negatives I could state that the overworld design fit the overall story and setup. It’d rather have a “small” open world, than tons of stuff on the side that distract you. Also, this way, the side missions became more side stories which fits the main story, rather than simple fetch quests for xp.
    – If you think the game is too easy you could just turn up the difficulty and get slaughtered, as this game is basically Ninja Gaiden on harder difficulties.
    – The performance issues is something I noticed on standard PS4, but which vanished when I got my PS4PRO (I came to upgrade during the periode because the waste amount of games this applies to now, and yes this too is a demanding game). It wasn’t really that bad using standard PS4 either, but yes, I can see it as a drawback where the machine probably can’t go for like 4 hours until you experience frame drops during the most intensive scenes, etc.

    In summary I’d say the first one is subjective, the second one is flat out wrong and the last one is something which applies to some people based on speccs.

  • Stephen Crow

    I still encountered a few moments of slowdown playing on a PS4 Pro particularly in forest area and castle.
    I agree with the reviewer in regards to some of the locations being a tad bland or nondescript, but when looked at as a whole package really enjoyed it visually.
    The map could have been clearer as to where you could travel and where was off limits and i got a bit fed up micro managing my OS chips, but overall Nier Automata will go down as one of my favourite gaming experiences in over 25 years. Even bought some tracks from the soundtrack and get goosebumps listening back. Awesome!

  • Spaceloaf

    The game is way too easy; and its clearly unbalanced as evidenced by how the difficulty scales.

    In normal mode its basically impossible to die, unless you have a completely garbage chip setup.

    In hard mode, its still basically impossible to die unless you get one-shotted. That is, any attack that doesn’t kill you instantly is still basically meaningless since you can easily heal back up through any number of methods/chip setups.

    In very hard, you finally reach a true hard mode because everything is a one-shot. But that difficulty also makes half the chips irrelevant (since any healing, defense, hit-reaction, etc. chips are useless) as well as most items useless.

    If the way you achieve difficulty is by making some game mechanics useless, that is not good game design. Very hard is more like a lazy attempt to add difficulty after realizing how broken a lot of chips are.

    I don’t care about the number scores, but I do think it is fair to criticize the game for the lack of balance. It is definitely not “flat out wrong” that the game is too easy.

  • RichardGristle

    I agree with most of the review, but I disagree on the point about environments.

    While the game doesn’t have the graphical detail of something like Witcher 3, I think that it more than suffices in that regard, especially as a console-oriented title.

    Where the “vibe” and design direction of the environments are concerned, I think that NieR:A excels there. The Ruined City isn’t always eye candy, but it succeeds in giving the player a great sense of “what once was” while mixing that with the eerie beauty of nature reclaiming its domain. The Amusement Park is quirky, melancholic, and a bit magical. The Forest is serene and the castle located there becomes the monolithic centerpiece of the zone once you’ve seen it.

    I do think there are some areas that don’t stand out as unique – the desert, for example – but that’s more to do with them being standard RPG fare than them being designed poorly.

  • EinMugenTenshin

    Actually, when you mention it, the forest area had a couple of frame rate drops even on the PS4Pro.

    Also agree on the map part. You kinda have to mess up a couple of times before you understand how the 3D map works, and by the time you got it down you’d finished the game.

  • gwadahunter2222

    DLC announced, new area the Arena, and orignal Nier costume, 2B wearing Kainé’s outfit confirmed
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6VnY6SJqcg

    Gravity Rush 2 collaboration reveled https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYRdo9HrOTc

  • EinMugenTenshin

    The easy difficulty setting is a decent game mode for handicapped people. This also takes away many gameplay elements, but I’d still say it is a welcoming alternative to people who has to play with 1 hand for whatever reason.
    In normally mode I died from running out of health items (before I discovered chip regen ability). Then I died by getting stun locked. Then I died in Ace combat. A buddy of mine even died on the first “boss” (the 2 saws) and complained the game was “too hardcore” as he had to run back.

    Overall you say yourself that very hard and hard achieve the difficulty result by taking away the regen chip ability. If anything that ability basically should be turned off as the difficulty rises as it’s so powerful. The game mechanics doesn’t become useless, but you need to adapt. That’s like saying item+ drop rate or auto collect chips are useless because you could have just grinned more yourself or that hacking chips are useless because you don’t like playing as 9S (or use his hacking ability). I see the viewpoint.

    However, the end conclusion would be that it IS “flat out wrong” that the game is too easy, but that discussing the balance rates between the different difficulties could be a matter of debate. That is a totally different view of the topic however, and one I could understand and argue pro vs cons on to a greater degree.

  • MusouTensei

    GOTY.

  • Obbliglol

    Absolute masterpiece.

  • ProxyDoug

    In case anyone is interested
    http://na.square-enix.com/us/blog/making-2b-nierautomata
    It’s about the modeling process of 2B

  • Jack Thompson
  • Jack Thompson

    This needs to be said. The balance issues in the game go beyond the simple “it’s too easy or It’s too hard arguments.” On all difficulties the vast majority of enemies dies too easily relative to their damage output. They need a serious health buff, otherwise they die too easily for you to have real incentive to put all your moves to use rather than just picking a setup and button mashing. Besides that, the majority of enemies are trash with bad move sets. Platinum has given us an amazing variety of toys to play with, combat with depth, but no reason to use most of them.

    On another note, this game probably shouldn’t have used a level system in the first place. Over leveling is a serious problem and if you want to fight any old boss without immediately destroying them on all difficulties, you have to start an entirely new game rather than chapter select. I can hardly see any reason or benefit to the character levels. For one, if you want redo the game and skip all side content and avoid as many enemies as possible, just to underlevel yourself as a bandaid on a bullet wound solution to the low enemy health, I’ve heard you can’t stagger or juggle enemies because the ability to do that is for some reason tied to your damage output. What’s the point of juggling and staggering if you can only do it to enemies that will die really quickly?

    There are many balance issues with the game I’m not even going to go into, but good luck getting Plat to do post-launch support. I hear you still need to apply a third party patch to avoid a fatal, early on, white screen glitch affecting many PC players.

    Game is 9/10, but would be a 9.5/10 if they’d nailed the balancing.

  • Fandangle

    2B certainly has some nice plot, but I think her backstory is the main draw of the character.

  • ProxyDoug

    Dat plot

  • Jack Thompson

    Beautifully double entendred.

  • Casey

    “The best way to get said items for your weapons is through the games 60 side quests.”

    This is incorrect! The best way to get these items is to hunt down a mid to late game vendor and using your eventual limitless supply of money to buy it all.