For the past several years, I have had a love-hate relationship with “NieR: Automata.” Anyone who knows me or has read a few of my articles can attest that I’m a sucker for anything underrated or outside-the-box, and frankly kind of pretentious because of it.
“NieR: Automata” has haunted me since its release. It single-handedly turned its director, Taro Yoko, from a cult figure into a force to be reckoned with in the games industry. It was almost universally lauded for its audacious creative decisions, unique identity, and bizarre yet compelling substance. It turned “NieR” into an extremely viable IP, a new nerd obsession of the rare kind that springs out of nowhere and takes hold in the popular games culture. Its rather on-the-nose philosophical and Shakespearean references (2B, 9S, A2 and a host of NPCs with namesakes) were also a popular cause for praise, a detail I found disconcerting as it became a popular example of how “games aren’t just for kids/fun anymore.”
Yet I, who took such pride in knowing of and playing cult games, had never heard of Yoko before its release, and had three other, rather lengthy games to play through before “Automata.”
“NieR: Automata” can be summed up as a narrative-heavy action-RPG. Its combat is essentially a polished form of the original NieR’s combination of bullet-hell shooter and hack-and-slash, requiring that the player steadily chop away at their foes while dodging the occasional projectile or melee attack. Gameplay is varied, but primarily consists of the aforementioned combat system, exploration of the open world, and several segments where the game switches over to bullet-hell entirely, with a fairly low level of difficulty all around.
There are also a few diversions into other genres, but these take up much less of the runtime. A well-documented point of note is that the irregular progression of the earlier “Drakengard” and “NieR” titles is present here in a different form — instead of unlocking alternate timelines and reaching different endings, players experience the same events multiple times through the perspective of different characters, falling into the video game equivalent of Rashomon’s narrative style.
While there are many references to the previous installments in the franchise, little is gained — and in fact, much is lost — from having played them prior. The pastoral environments lose some of their mystique once you understand the many offhand and sometimes cheap carryovers from NieR. The soundtrack, while a significant achievement, is mostly a retread of that of the original — ditto for the gameplay and its many tangents. The story, while heart-wrenching for most, will not have the same emotional effect on those who have been through the trials and tragedies of Yoko’s earlier work.
While “NieR: Automata” isn’t much less compelling than its predecessors, it’s best played first, as its connections to them are tenuous at best save some sidequests and I find it builds up better to them than they do to it. The sprawling, merciless “Drakengard”/“NieR” continuity, while linked to “Automata,” doesn’t have all that much bearing on it. “Automata” requires far less patience of its audience than the other games in its series, and it’s far more available, making it an ideal starting point.
Having beaten “NieR: Automata,” I’m almost as broken up as before. It certainly deserves its hype, it was far better written and more engaging for me than most other games, and there’s nothing in it really worth objecting to, but after the life-changing experiences that were “Drakengard” and “NieR,” I find it difficult not to be a bit petty and say I was disappointed nonetheless. There’s a lot to “NieR: Automata,” and it’s a milestone in the development of games as an expressive medium, but “NieR” did most of the same things much earlier and made me cry multiple times as well.
I feel like I’ll remember Yoko’s other games much longer than I will “Automata,” because they’re far more unorthodox and got to me first, but I can’t deny Automata’s importance, even if mostly because it popularized the series and delivered an amazing ending. The space in this review is simply not enough to both give a critique and express just what makes these games so special to me.
Gaget is a student in Fairbanks public schools, and has developed a number of free games. He is a neutral game reviewer.
If You Play
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Internet Usage (accounts for download size): 50 GB plus a 3.5 GB update
ESRB Rating: M
Release Date: March 23, 2017
Genre (if applicable): Hack-and-Slash/Action-RPG
Developer: PlatinumGames/Square Enix