NieR: Automata Review
March brought a very important innovation to the video game industry: the Nintendo Switch. After months doubting Nintendo’s idea of a portable home console, their strategy to release it with a revolutionary Zelda title (revolutionary for that franchise anyway) blew everyone’s minds. That and the fact the Switch works as intended. March also brought Horizon Zeron Dawn if you live in Europe—and in case you’ve been living under a rock, this is largely considered one of 2017’s best releases—and NieR: Automata if you live in the West. Though it was praised by critics and players alike, NieR: Automata is to the general public what most of us are to our relatives whenever our drug-abusing and party-goer cousin is the talk of the family dinner just because they’re about to start a Ph.D. in Switzerland. Automata not only sounds like a typically Japanese title that has us Westerns wondering the purpose of the capital R, but it also counts with elements and design choices that turn out to be impressive exactly because they’re typically Japanese.
Written and directed by Yoko Taro—who’s also primarily responsible for Drakengard and its prequel—NieR: Automata is the unattached sequel to 2010’s Nier, a game so oddly intriguing that despite not being a commercial success, it gained a cult following. This following, as Yoko and Square Enix mention, is the reason why Automata came to be in the first place. Were it not for the passion of fans, Nier would’ve remained as a footnote a few lines underneath Deadly Premonition. Thank God for cult followings and their blood rituals, because despite having its lows and a concerning focus on women, NieR: Automata is one of 2017’s best releases even if the general public refuses to mention it when talking about the best of the best.
NieR: Automata tells the stories of 2B, 9S, and A2, all of which are androids created to defend humanity from invading aliens. These aliens have weapons of their own, often referred to simply as “machines” due to their rusty shape-inspired bodies and a consensus that they don’t think or feel—they just kill. While the remnants of humanity are having chill mimosas on the moon, YoRHa (that’s the android army) is running missions on the surface of the Earth to wipe the land from the alien infestation. 2B and A2 are both combat models equipped with cool-looking fighting skills and gigantic swords while 9S, besides being a unit from the only male model YoRHa seems to deploy, is a side-kick hacker and NieR’s equivalent to Final Fantasy XIII‘s Hope Estheim. The setting is actually quite easy to make sense of even when things start getting complicated, which is an achievement for a Japanese developer. Instead of relying on a convoluted plot with more twists than Linda Blair’s head at a Christmas party, NieR: Automata poses philosophical questions about existentialism and builds up on that. It isn’t difficult to understand if a) you’re not a sociopath who never thought about the concept of reality and b) you pay attention to what’s going on.
As much as the philosophical argument helps an otherwise uninteresting story (because if we’re being honest, this game would be bland without it), Automata could be a trigger alert for social justice warriors, feminists, and anyone who thinks every female character should be as respectful as granny. As mentioned, 9S is a unit from the only male-modeled android YoRHa seems to deploy and to make matters worse, he’s not very likable if you can’t stand a man whining. We get to see other male androids throughout this profound journey and one of the two male protagonists is an eye candy (if you’re into that), but for the most part, women are front and center. That would be great if this was developed by Westerns, most of whom have to meet a demand for equality; alas, it was developed by a Japanese middle-aged man who not only said he loves women but also that he’s not fond of his male protagonist. 2B’s design, which closely resembles a French maid, raises eyebrows due to her poorly concealed cleavage, a short dress that nearly makes her bum visible—while reminding everyone that stockings are primarily used as lingerie—, and a breach on the front of the same dress that nearly reveals her soul. If that’s not enough, the camera follows the character in a way that the ground covers half the screen in favor of a hint of 2B’s cheeks. Yoko probably forgot that 9S was playable at a certain point since this camera angle is still enforced while we’re controlling him, which is funny since his attire is the complete opposite of 2B’s. A2 isn’t too far off in the objectification scale since her clothes were mostly ripped apart, making her Beyoncé-esque behind hard to miss. There also seems to be some woman-on-woman action up in the Bunker—YoRHa’s headquarters up in space—considering an unnecessary conversation with 2B’s operator (who is also a woman because all Operator models are), which is plausible because yuri is an unspoken rule of anything that resembles a great anime.
The sexualization of women makes sense in one moment, however, when we’re reminded that YoRHa units have feelings even though they’re prohibited to express them. If we stop thinking about Yoko Taro’s desire to have women playing with each other with big swords and either tight or short attires—or both—, one has to wonder why humans designed the female androids specifically to kill the alien army and arouse everyone around them at the same time. Unfortunately, that question is never answered because 2B’s proportions and how flattering her dress is are only relevant to the plot for one or two lines towards the end of the second act. If you can put these aspects aside, even if you’re a woman with strong ideas, then NieR: Automata has very deep questions that you can get you thinking even if you don’t know who Socrates is.
Yoko Taro has a somewhat unique form of storytelling where his standalone short stories amount to a unique piece that even though it has to be tackled linearly due to continuation, it could be explored in any order after the credits. Upon taking control of the sexy warrior, we’re introduced to some of PlatinumGames’ finest work through a dynamic combat system that is as stylish as it’s easy to master. Following the introduction, we’re dropped in a seamless open-world that’s perhaps too barren for its own good (but then again, that might just be the point) and a linear story with important chunks of its concept scattered around side quests, conversation, and world-building scenarios. The events progress at a satisfying pace until the climactic final boss battle, which turns out to be one of the game’s many endings. Shortly after we’re encouraged to begin a new game plus which sets off unlike the previous playthrough. This time we’re reliving the story through 9S’s perspective, a sensitive move that makes him far less unlikable. His story arch carries some of Automata’s most compelling questions and leads to yet another story arch involving the elusive A2, who carries the torch in a direct continuation of the previous arch up to the ultimate climax. Among sexy androids, gameplay with diverging genres, and a dull open world with little to see, this structure is the title’s unspoken selling point. If not for how surprising it is and how well it plays with the philosophical aspect, NieR: Automata would’ve received the sort of praise we give to Assassin’s Creed for trying as hard as Ubisoft’s design policy allows. Sadly, focusing the first two thirds on 2B and 9S means we get to see little of A2 (especially since you also play as 9S during the final act). We know little to nothing of her background and her motives since her story is hidden behind a play produced online in Japan.
When it comes to gameplay, NieR: Automata shines just as much as necessary. Those with some background in hack-and-slash will feel right at home with the game’s fast pace and the regular attack and dodge buttons. While the mechanics are simple, the animations make for stylish battles which easily overshadow how much combat struggles to deliver impact. Since the protagonists are dealing with rusty machine lifeforms that barely resemble human forms, every hit is accompanied by a metallic sound, some knockback, and sparkles. Though a select number of enemies have breakable parts, relieving them from the weight isn’t as satisfying as much as it is comforting since tackling their cylindrical bodies becomes less of a hassle. Otherwise, enemies barely look like they’re receiving damage aside from a decaying health bar. That’s not to say fighting groups of robots isn’t fun, especially when the bigger ones fall to their knees and explode.
Each character also possesses a different fighting style, with 2B and A2 being the most capable, A2 having a berserk mode that’s rather fun to manage, and 9S being the weakest link with slower attacks and larger vulnerability windows. However, the little man is the only one capable of hacking, an ability that either deals damage to enemies, allows the player to control them, or opens special locks. And speaking of variety, the gameplay has as many flavors as that high school party where everyone notices the goth and the awkward nerd no one invited as well as the hotties. While it’s more easily described as an action RPG, the title often shifts perspective to become a 2D platformer, a bullet-hell shooter, or even a linear visual novel. The transitions are seamless, fitting the plot like a glove, but aren’t as gimmicky as they sound. It’s understandable why this constant shift would turn people away, but Automata doesn’t put on a new suit every five minutes in an attempt to be called the David Bowie of video games—instead, it knows what it is and what it means to achieve.
Unfortunately, those excited to play such a unique title on PC better keep their expectations low. Not only did the PC port feel like an afterthought during the game’s promotional campaign (so much so that it came out a full week after the PS4 release), but it remains a classic case of Square Enix abandoning their titles after their Steam releases. The game is a power-hungry beast that requires at least a GTX 770 for an OK performance at 720p. While my 1050 Ti has few problems running demanding games such as The Witcher 3 and No Man’s Sky at 1080p and 30 FPS (after all, I’m not using it to fry eggs just yet), NieR: Automata struggles to maintain a decent pace even with Kaldaien’s FAR mod, which addresses some of the game’s performance issues by targeting the features causing them. Though the developers claimed to be looking into these problems, a few fixes came through AMD and NVIDIA updates that, sadly, didn’t make the game any less demanding. Official patches might have been vaguely promised at some point and in true Square Enix fashion, were never delivered. Those looking to research 2B’s assets in HD better have an eldritch horror of a computer; otherwise, it might be necessary to settle for rough edges and dodgy lighting effects for a satisfactory performance.