I can’t start writing about NieR: Automata without first giving you the brief rundown on what the game is because holy damn, does NieR have a weird backstory. The game is made by an interesting dude by the name of Yoko Taro. You ready for a picture of him? Here you go!
Yoko Taro isn’t a fan of photography or being photographed. While there are pictures of him out there, he prefers to present his games wearing this mask. Just keep that in mind as we walk through his games.
He gathered a niche following after working on the PS2 game Drakengard and its sequels. It’s not the most obscure game series in the world but you’d be forgiven for never having played it, or even heard of it. For the sake of brevity, we’ll skip the full story of the series and just stick to Drakengard 1, the game most relevant to NieR: Automata.
Drakengard follows a knight named Caim who meets a dragon and they form a pact due to mutual necessity. A pact allows the human to ride the dragon but they must sacrifice something. For Caim, it’s his voice. Devs would save more money on voice actors with plots like that! Caim and his dragon have to save the world from a mind-controlled evil empire hellbent on worshiping evil demon babies. Oh wait, there’s more.
Drakengard has five different endings involving various levels of misery and despair from all the characters but the fifth is the one we are interested in. See, the fifth ending has Caim, his dragon and the evil demon baby queen go through a portal to modern day Tokyo. Caim has to defeat the queen while she’s giving continuous birth to demon babies by playing what amounts to magical Dance Dance Revolution against her. Upon victory, the queen dissolves into ash and Caim/Dragon are shot down by fighter jets.
In case you don’t believe me, here’s a link to the video showing this entire sequence:
For Drakengard, this was just a weird, goofy ending and the series went on with a different canonical ending. However, this is the ending that begins the series of NieR. The story of NieR goes that this event created a virus that has all but wiped out humanity. 1,000 years after that ending, the main character, Nier, searches for a cure in order to save his infected daughter.
Finally getting back to NieR: Automata, you don’t actually need to know ANY of this story to enjoy NieR: Automata but playing a Yoko Taro game is a bit like watching a Quentin Tarantino movie in that you should know what you’re getting into before starting.
NieR: Automata starts you off 9,000 years after the events of NieR. The last vestiges of humanity are hanging out on the moon while androids have been duking it out with machines made by aliens down on Earth. The ultimate goal: to allow humans to return to Earth and rebuild.
You play as the combat android, 2B, along with her faithful sidekick, 9S. Gameplay in NieR: Automata is a bit more complicated to describe than most games. While it is an action RPG at its core, the game is at its best when its flinging you between various gameplay elements at a breakneck pace. The opening sequence has you flying a jet shooting machines in front of you, a la Galaga, before quickly flinging you into a twin-stick shooter and then into an arcade hack-n-slash. This is all in the first hour of the game and there are plenty more gameplay styles to discover.
Unfortunately, these moments aren’t frequent enough and the open-world action-RPG elements are too weak to carry the game alone. While combat during these sections has all the flair of other games made by Platinum, there is very little depth beyond out-of-battle customization, especially early in the game. At any given time, you have access to melee attacks and ranged attacks. Melee attacks are comprised of light and heavy attacks. Ranged attacks consist of a couple basic firing modes and a customizable special attack. While it sounds like you have plenty of options, early in the game, I found melee to be almost impossible due to zero stun frames on enemies and a low amount of health on your main character. Heavy attacks never became useful to me at any point during the entire game as the increased damage isn’t even close to worth the lowered speed and risk of being attacked. Comboing several light damage hits is infinitely more effective.
Ranged combat becomes your go-to as it keeps you safe from harm but this mode makes combat feel like little more than chipping enemies to death. Machines don’t react to your ranged attacks until they die and this just makes combat unsatisfying. This all gets better as you gain access to more special attacks, better weapons and increased health that give you more flexibility in combat but even by the end, when I was linking ranged, specials and melee attacks frequently, it never felt fun to play.
The world is also just extremely bland. The color palate used throughout the game is heavily muted and while there are distinct areas with different terrain types, they feel too contrived to be interesting. For example, going from the City area to the Desert simply has you walk through a small canyon in about 3 minutes. On the other side of the City is a large forest. The world doesn’t make any sense and it makes it all feel too game-y. The ambient music helps and is actually one of the strongest elements of the game but it just can’t carry the world on its own.
It may have helped the game if the quests and plot helped make you feel connected to this bland world but if anything, they just feel muddied and confused. Side quests are exclusively fetch quests that will occasionally offer up a nice tid-bit of world building but not often. Usually, you’ll just get flooded with an over-abundance of crafting materials and another tick up on your completion percent. Very few of these quests offer any tangible results like changes to the world or new areas to explore. Rather, they just feel like padding that only serve to kill the pace of the game.
The main storyline isn’t much better. Like most of Yoko Taro’s games, NieR: Automata expects you to play through it multiple times in order to get the whole story. However, unlike my time with the Drakengard series, the first playthrough of NieR: Automata never felt like it resolved anything. The majority of the 15 hour run, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing or why. The characters didn’t seem appealing to me and after fighting a few boss fights at the end, I was done, without any sense of accomplishment at all.
The later playthroughs help to clarify what is going on but ultimately, the plot was too nihilistic for me to really care. When everything boils down to “everything is pointless, we may as well all just die”, it’s hard to care about the plight of anyone. In fact, throughout the entire game, I only grew to like one character and of course, their plot resolution was about the most miserable thing Taro could imagine.
This isn’t to say NieR: Automata is a terrible game, it isn’t, and I respect a lot of things that they tried to do, whether or not I felt it was successful. Flashing between different gameplay systems was a blast and some of the later enemies that required additional strategies to defeat were clever and broke up the monotony. The game also does some interesting things with game design including a particularly interesting element at the very end of the last canon ending. It’s just unfortunate that they felt they had to pad out the interesting bits with a bunch of mundane fetch quests.
If you enjoy experimental game design and are good with an intensely philosophical storyline, NieR: Automata may be for you. I’d also recommend a hearty love for anime stylings prior to picking it up. If this doesn’t sound like you, I can’t recommend getting on board with this. After spending 43 hours getting through all of the main endings, I never felt the game hit the highs I needed it to hit and spent too much time floundering.