It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen in love with a game: far too many games I’ve played of late have had the spectre of flaws too annoying for the virtues of the game to shine through and obviate them; far too many games I’ve played of late have felt without heart, without something that makes them more than a new skin on overexplored mechanics. Nier: Automata easily soars above the classifications of ‘heartless’ or the backhanded compliment that is ‘flawed gem’: Nier: Automata is an unqualified gem, a wonderful, soulful exploration of the human condition backed up by one of Platinum’s most involved suite of game systems.
“What is it to be human?” is a question that most can relate to, whether it’s through the tedious lens of a metaphysics class or through the catastrophic lens of a personal crisis of confidence in one’s abilities (perhaps I’m projecting a little here) and sets up the core premise of the game’s narrative: the player characters are androids fighting a proxy war against machines, the servants of an alien race who have displaced humanity from Earth. Yes, the premise is something that on first listen may appear ‘a little too anime’ to be taken seriously in any way; yes, there is a certain silliness to it all, but the way that characters are realised makes such cynicism just disappear from one’s mind if one just allows oneself to be carried away. The player characters and their allies are a diverse cast of flawed individuals trying to fulfil their objectives while also trying to navigate certain aspects of what it is to be autonomous that confuse them. In short, they are human; they are products of their environment while also shaping it.
The world-building does not stop merely at providing a likeable cast of characters: in spite of Earth being abandoned by humanity and the large scale of the open world environments, there is something incredibly ‘lived-in’ about Nier: Automata‘s world. Perhaps this isn’t a traditional sort of ‘lived-in’, more a plethora of visual and audio cues that life has just gone on on Earth without human presence, whether this be for animals or nascent machine intelligence. While the march of time may be cruel for a given species in this world, progress is shown to be inexorable and somehow beautiful in the idempotence of that process.
The game’s systems are without parallel in either of the RPG or action genres across which it makes its imposing stride. From a combat point of view, the game has the hallmark of a good Platinum action game: the Bayonetta dodge and attendant facilitation of counter attacks of enemies. While the inclusion of this mechanic in a number of Platinum’s releases may seem like it would increase the risk of such a good-feeling and rewarding mechanic beginning to feel stale, the combination of it with the ‘Chip’ system – the conceit of which is modifying the android body of the player character to provide a number of ‘loadouts’ to support a number of playstyles across both the combat and non-combat aspects of the game – provides a great depth to play and to exploration of different ways to play the game.
The true triumph of the Chip system is that it allows players to tailor the game to make it rewarding across a breadth of skill levels. While there is an old-fashioned difficulty select when one starts the game, the player can customise their build to make their lives easier or more difficult; the combat more in-depth or more simple. Aspects of the HUD can be removed by removing Chips – eliminating enemy health bars so that visual cues from movement must be taken into account to assess enemy damage, for example – and new combat verb modifiers added with the addition of new chips – such as a shockwave that deals damage in an area emanating from sword slashes.
Reward structures in the game vary from the traditional – though ultimately meaningless in Nier: Automata – leveling up after a certain amount of experience has been gained from quest completion or combat events to loot drops from enemies or chests, but the true reward of progress and completion in this game is more narrative. As the player completes sidequests in the story, small nuggets of information are revealed, the impact of which isn’t resolved until further playthroughs of the game – assuming that the player works to have them make sense in the wider context of the game’s story. As much as the ‘hows’ available to the player increase through further play, the ‘whats’, ‘wheres’ and ‘whys’ are the true reward and they truly do pay off. Perhaps that is somewhat of a nebulous statement, but to say any more would be to detract away from the enjoyment to be gained from going into the game relatively unscathed by context.
Nier: Automata is nothing short of a triumph. At this point, heaping praise on the game runs the risk of seeming disingenous but it would simply be unfair to do anything else. This is a game that rekindled a dormant love of video games; a game that tells its story in a smart way, pulling the curtain back just a little more with each reveal, rewarding observance; this is a game with frenetic combat, with a style somewhere between the original Nier and any of Platinum’s best. It’s a game that deserves love; a perfectly formed little weirdo that simply anyone should play.