I never played the original Nier. It released to little fanfare and didn’t look particularly interesting. Now, seven years later, we have Nier Automata, and honestly, when I first heard about it I really wasn’t bothered. I had no interest in the series (either Nier or Drakengard) and the only gameplay I saw was a generic looking boss fight. Over time, however, my interest gradually picked up, and now having played the game, I want to go back and play the original. Nier Automata is among the best games I have ever played and I consider it to be a fantastic example of narrative in games done right, to say nothing of the superb combat.
Humanity has lost control of the Earth. Aliens attacked, utilising advanced machine lifeforms and took control. The last vestiges of the human race now reside on the moon, plotting the counter attack. You play as YoRHa androids 2B and 9S, sent to Earth by the humans to fight the machines that now cover the landscape. The premise is intriguing and the story itself is coherent and paced very nicely, something that some of the Japanese games I’ve played recently have failed to achieve. The writing is incredibly strong. 2B and 9S’s relationship is well fleshed out and develops very nicely, the two gradually becoming more than just professional soldiers. At times the dialogue between them is comedic, at others, it’s a punch to the gut. The story is one of the most genuine and heartfelt I have ever come across. It’s a shining example of what can be done with the medium, handling genuinely complex and sensitive themes with grace and wit, something that a lot of games can only dream of.
The machines themselves very nearly steal the show. They come in all shapes and sizes and range from adorable to utterly terrifying. In the years after the fall of humanity, the machines have taken over. Some have gone feral, some have formed families and some have even tried to institute various forms of government. It’s here that the games real themes begin to emerge. Nier is not afraid to ask what it means to be human and to truly commit to a question of that magnitude. I can’t tell you much for fear spoilers, but safe to say, you will stop and think. A lot.
The machines are also the focus of many of the side quests found throughout the (beautiful) Zelda-esque open world. The side quests here are an absolute joy. The characters that you meet are fun and engaging and the rewards feel genuinely worthwhile. There are perhaps a few too many fetch quests, but they are usually dressed up in such a way that they don’t feel like a slog at all.
One final word on the story, please play through it again. There are twenty-six endings, five of which are required in order to fully understand the what’s going on. The game doesn’t actually do a very good job of telling you this though. This is not a new game+ mode or anything similar. You have not properly played the game if you put it down after playthrough one.
Rage Against The Machine
This time around, Nier was developed by Platinum Games, and it really shows. Combat is fast, fluid and immensely satisfying. It has what many game developers refer to as “juice”. It just feels amazing to play. It could be the responsive controls, the way that enemies erupt when killed, or it could be the awesome looking attacks 2B and 9S have at their disposal. If you’re a hack and slash veteran, this should be a mostly familiar setup. It’s all about timing your dodges and keeping up a flow. Rhythm is all important and when it finally clicks, you’ll feel like a total badass. However, the combat is not simple. Things are kept nicely varied by the addition of the pod, a small flying robot that assists you in combat with machine guns, rockets and a variety of special moves.
The combat simply doesn’t get old. The game is paced beautifully, with new enemies being introduced often enough to keep you engaged. There is always a new challenge somewhere ahead. It should be noted though that genre enthusiasts should probably turn up the difficulty. Things can get a bit easy when playing on normal. Really, the only time the game stumbled was in the boss fights. There are a couple of decent ones but the majority just felt overly long and didn’t display the same imagination that runs through the rest of the experience.
When outside of combat, you can augment your fighting capability by equipping various “chips” which act like perks. They range from simple stat boosts to entirely new abilities, one, for example, slows down time when you perform a perfect dodge, giving you a window in which to counter attack. You can also fuse chips together to create more powerful ones, although the game does a pretty poor job of explaining this.
Playing With Genre
Bullet hell was not something I knew I wanted in my hack and slash. Yes, you read that right. Not only do many of the enemies you encounter use weapons that turn the battlefield into a kind of 3D bullet hell, but on occasion, Nier will drop all pretence and shift into a full on 2D shoot em up. I thought I would hate this, but ended up actually looking forward to the next time it happened. Some of the game biggest and best set pieces occur during these segments, and it works. It really shouldn’t, but it absolutely does. The reason for this is the way it transitions so smoothly, without killing the pace. There’s no mission start screen or similar rubbish, it flows seamlessly into the core, 3D gameplay. There are few games that have tried this, let alone done it successfully.
But the blending of genre runs even deeper. At times later in the story, there are even elements of old school text adventures, something I really wasn’t expecting to see. But again Nier gets away with it, the strength of the writing more than justifying some light reading. There are also moments when the game becomes a 2D platformer, and again they’re so well implemented I ended up loving them. There’s a real finesse here, the like of which I haven’t seen for a long time.
Play this game. There isn’t really much more to say. Great combat, a great world and a great story. I wish that AAA publishers would greenlight this kind of thing more often. I feel like in recent years it has fallen to smaller indie studios to deliver truly great narratives, and that’s great in one sense, but it’s also a real shame. Nier Automata represents a step forward. I want to see more games like it in the future. Viral (9.5/10)
This review of Nier Automata is based on the PS4 version of the game.
I was born in Oxford in 1998 and have been gaming for almost my entire life. I want to see this industry evolve as a storytelling medium and deliver experiences that stay with people. Interactivity is a narrative device that only games can employ, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it can take us.