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NieR: Automata (2017) is not something I would have played a year ago. It was the type of game I considered indulgent trash, and, in the throes of youthful liberalism, swore it off solely due to the oversexualized appearance of its female characters (a feature, I might note, that is present in plenty of other games I’ve played); but who knew the quiet little game about scantily clad androids has more to it than just high heels and impractical (but fashionable!) Lolita dresses?
In NieR: Automata, the spiritual sequel to NieR: Gestalt and NieR RepliCant (2010) (which itself is a spinoff of the fifth ending of the first game in the JRPG series Drakengard), you play as three androids: two combat models, 2B and A2, and a non- combat scanner type, 9S. The world has ended, at least for humanity, who have been driven from Earth to the moon by a race of hostile aliens who are now also suspiciously absent from the planet. The androids, and by extension you, were created to defend humanity from these aliens. The aliens also made their own protectors, the machines, who now occupy Earth and are your sworn enemies. Everything you do is in service to humanity; for the glory of mankind. At least, that’s what you believe.
Despite this strong premise and initially being drawn to this game because of what I heard about its story, I found it to be the weakest aspect of my experience. Few of the plot twists were even mildly surprising and it suffers from some generic anime-esque melodrama that left me wondering when I could get back to the much better gameplay. However, this is not to say that it left me completely cold. Certain individual cut-scenes and scenarios were strong and reeled me into the plot, but never for very long; only at the end stretch of the game was I truly invested. Side quests were also hit or miss experiences, consisting mostly of fetch quests with some interesting subplots scattered here and there, if you’re willing to seek them out.
The world itself seemed drab looking and washed out. While the lighting will draw out a beautiful scene or two and there are a few certain areas that are very highly stylized, for the most part there isn’t much to see that will blow you away. The game presents a sense of scale well, as you fight many colossal enemies, but it is clear that the focus was not with general graphics. This is fine, but for a game made in 2017, some of these graphical errors and discontinuities come off as lazy and make the product as a whole feel unpolished. Even if they are ultimately inconsequential, small details like that can be the difference between liking and loving a game.
Luckily, the game knows it’s at its best when it’s being played. Cut-scenes are short and sweet and you are mostly free to roam and fight as you please; and fight you will, because NieR: Automata boasts one of the finest combat systems to exist in video games. Deceptively simple and addictive, I found myself changing the way I held my controller, just to dodge and shoot more efficiently while I laid into my enemy with my choice of several weapons: small swords, large swords, spears, and bracers. In Automata, the player starts with two weapon sets, each consisting of two weapons: one for a light attack and one for a heavy attack. All weapons can do both, so the emphasis on freedom of combat is prevalent from the beginning, a freedom that enables you to throw an enemy into the air with combat bracers, smack him around with a sword, switch to your alternate weapon set, and slam him back down to earth with a crushing blow from your spear – all the while performing perfectly timed dodges for smooth counter-attacks along with controlling a flying shooter support droid (which can also be outfitted with a custom ability). All of this is accompanied by gorgeous battle animations that show off both the brutality of your arsenal and the skill of your current character.
That’s combat from just one camera angle. The game will silkily transition the camera from a classic 3D RPG perspective to an intense sidescroller to a top-down arcade shooter. Along with enhancing gameplay, this gives the game some uniquely gorgeous vistas as well as challenging the player to think in different ways depending on the environment and goal. Automata is not much for puzzles, but sometimes I found myself going out of the way for an item I could see but not reach. Navigating to and obtaining items like that are always rewarding, even the less significant finds, and this is partly due to the fun ways the camera will shift to present both the goal and the obstacle in a way that most immerses you in your current perspective.
I have, of course, said nothing of the bullet-hell minigame – an alternate form of combat accessible for fighting only when playing as 9S. Referred to as “hacking”, this minigame is extremely powerful and offers some of the most difficult and unique combat encounters in the game. Each hacking attempt will be different depending on the level and complexity of the enemy. You play as a white arrow, and the virtual battleground can range from a simple box cell with a black orb (the enemy) bouncing around and taking potshots at you, to larger stages with walls which damage your health if you touch them, armored turrets, and complete mayhem that only total focus is going to get you out of. Oh yeah, and you can only get hit three times or you get booted out of the minigame and take damage, only to have to start the process again. This is not just a combat ability however, as some quests (including main quests), locked chests, and doors make use of the skill – so you better get good at it.
I will end on the most positive note I possibly could; it is a strong belief of mine that a soundtrack can make or break a game, and NieR: Automata owes much of its brilliance to the magnificent music. Truly unlike any soundtrack I have heard before, the vocals are all in a gibberish language made specifically for the game. The intensity of combat is made glorious by the weight of the music and the story is only augmented by beautiful character and stage themes. It is a triumph of video game music and has inspired me to delve deeper into this series with the older games: NieR: Gestalt and NieR: RepliCant.
So what can I say? Let go of that last bit of hesitation and just play this one, okay? NieR: Automata is a criminally underrated JRPG hybrid with a passable story, unique storytelling structure, excellent gameplay, and an inspired soundtrack. It is unforgiving, irreverent, and most importantly, fun beyond anything some silly online review could tell you.
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Words by: Morgan Gustafson