Buy NieR: Automata
Created by eccentric director Yoko Taro, Drakengard and its spinoff Nier are greater than the sum of their parts. The strange world and characters carry gameplay that varies from bad to average. Perhaps that is why Nier: Automata works as well as it does. For the first time, Taro's eccentricities are bolstered by the expert combat gameplay of cult favorite Platinum Games, and this is a match made in heaven. The result is easily the best of Taro's games and, perhaps most importantly, the first one that is fun to play rather than experience.
Nier: Automata is set in the distant future. While there are some references to the previous games, the only thing you need to know is that the world is in ruins. A combination of multiple apocalypse scenarios has left the Earth a ravaged hellhole. The few surviving humans live on a base on the moon and send combat androids to counter the alien threats. The story starts by following 2B, one of the androids, on what seems like a routine mission. Before long, things go south, and 2B is forced to confront the dark truth behind the androids and machines.
A thing about Automata is that it's difficult to discuss the plot without ruining the experience. The story is weird but engaging, and the twists and turns are intense. Surprises aplenty do a lot to keep you guessing, and even if you can figure out the plot, the execution is enough to carry it. Even minor spoilers can seriously impact certain scenes, so I'd recommend you go in as spoiler-free as possible. My only complaint is minor and doesn't detract much from the game: After Drakengard and Nier, the setting feels almost predictably grim.
Automata is an action RPG. It's not quite open-world, but it's set in large, open environments you can explore, complete with side-quests and hidden items aplenty. On the surface, the combat system is pretty basic. You equip two weapons of a variety of types (fists, long sword, short sword and spear) and can use them together in variety of ways. One weapon is set to fast attack, and the other to heavy, and your combos depend on the selected weapon set. It's closer to Metal Gear Rising than Bayonetta in that regard. You also have access to a pod that allows you to fire streams of bullets and use special attacks, such as giant hammers or powerful laser blasts. The pod can be upgraded for more powerful abilities. The combat has complexity, including canceling, dodging and fancy combos, though it's not as complex as Platinum's most involved games. It's heavier on the RPG than the action at times.
Automata is part action game and part bullet hell. Every so often, the perspectives switch to send swarms of enemy bullets at you while you must dodge, attack or shoot. The perspective shifting occurs frequently and constantly changes how battles feel. It's a little awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, combat takes on a very distinctive style. You're constantly on the move, dodging and avoiding screen-filling attacks with pinpoint precision. Boss battles also feel dynamic, as you constantly shift between attacking and avoiding attacks. This makes them fun to play, and it's also beautiful to see your character duck and weave through storms of bullets and then unleash a brutal combo.
Automata's combat is not quite Bayonetta, but it shares a lot of similarities. If you expect something as mechanically in-depth as some of Platinum's other offerings, you're only setting yourself up for disappointment. Taken on its own merits, the combat in Automata is fast, frantic and fun. The combos are simple but bolstered by enjoyable twitch gameplay and clever set pieces. As I mentioned earlier, it's more RPG than action, and on the lower difficulty levels, you can push through with a single combo and competent dodging.
Automata shines in the fact that every fight is basically a constantly moving, shifting dance. If you're fighting well, you'll weave in and out between aggressive attacks and long-range bullet spamming while you dodge, jump and slide around oncoming attacks. The boss fights are visual spectacles and a treat to play. The third boss, an opera-singing robot whose attack pattern matches the music, is one of the best video game bosses I've encountered, and the other bosses in the game are no slouches, either.
It's fair to say that Automata can be punishing. Your characters are not overly durable, and if you're not careful, it's easy to lose huge chunks of health to simple attacks. Death isn't the end of the game, though. You respawn from a previous save point in a new body, and your memories are uploaded. Your corpse, including the important upgrade chips that improved your strength, remains where it was. You need to recover it without dying to regain your old power, as in Dark Souls. You can also find the corpses of other players and either sacrifice them for a temporary stat boost or revive them to serve as AI partners for a limited time. The game may be punishing, but it's accessible. There's an easy mode that allows you to automate much of the gameplay if you only want to play the story. On the other hand, if you enjoy punishment, there is a very hard mode, which is basically a one-hit kill mode.
At the end of the day, the combat is worth the price of admission on its own. It's a delight to play, though there could be more enemy variety. After a while, I'd seen the regular enemies so often that the minor variations didn't have enough of an impact. The core gameplay is so fun that the lack of variety in the day-to-day foes is forgivable, especially since many of them aren't required fights. The game allows you to walk past many foes who don't aggro you until you bother them first. The boss battles alone make up for any of the game's shortcomings.
There's quite a bit to do in Automata. As with Drakengard and the original Nier, it plays around with the idea of multiple endings and multiple routes in some neat ways, including ones that drastically change up the gameplay. There are bonus hidden endings aplenty, most of which are comical or interesting. Finishing the game once doesn't get you the full Automata experience, and players must see the game's primary endings before it can be considered finished. Fortunately, the game doesn't overstay its welcome. You end up repeating content, but there are usually enough fresh mechanics to keep pushing you toward the main plot endings. You'll want to see everything the game has to offer because it's fun, not out of obligation.
The title features a good number of side-quests. Some are engaging, and others are tedious busywork. If you want to obtain and upgrade every weapon, you'll need to do quite a bit of grinding, but it's worth it. As you upgrade each weapon, you unlock an associated story, so you get some context into the (almost universally grim) history of whatever you're currently wielding. Some side-quests lead to bonus items, hidden endings, or amusing dialogue. I wouldn't recommend anyone go for the Platinum trophy without lots of patience, though.
Automata is a nice-looking game when it's running well, but it doesn't do that as often as it should. There are noticeable hitches and slowdowns and a ton of pop-in, especially when you're exploring large areas. To the game's credit, this only occurs during unimportant moments, and the boss battles and most of the large fights are buttery smooth. It's disappointing but doesn't ruin the game. Fortunately, the game excels everywhere else. The art design is wonderful, though the costumes for some characters are odd. Automata has one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard in a game, and it's a constant delight that does a ton to set the mood. The voice acting is also quite good, and together, they make up for any ground lost to jerky visuals.
Sometimes, you get the ultimate pairing of both chocolate and peanut butter, and in the case of Nier: Automata, that's Yoko Taro and Platinum. Automata is an amazing game even by the high standards of this year. Its flaws don't detract much from the experience, and the combat is fast, stylish and fun. The story is engaging, and the music is phenomenal. Some poor graphics performance and a slight repetitiveness to the combat drag things down. If you're a fan of Taro's games, Automata is by far his best on a gameplay level. If you're not already a fan, Automata is a bizarrely distinct game that's absolutely worth experiencing.
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