Like the Fate series, Drakengard/NieR is a franchise that has an obvious appeal when viewed from a distance but enough history and complexity that it’s difficult to find a point to jump in. Having personally joined in the mass fan confusion upon achieving the bad ending in Drakengard and given up in despair when faced when the frustratingly difficult rhythm game for the ultimate ending of Drakengard 3, I would say I had more experience with the franchise than most, but I couldn’t honestly say how even those two titles were connected, much less with the cult favorite of NieR. The reveal of NieR: Automata developed by PlatinumGames and the immense fan response seemed was either a stunning moment or a long time in coming depending upon who you asked, but something about NieR: Automata definitely seemed different right from the demo.
Even the early looks of Automata had a glossy smooth finish that stands out even aganinst the AAA competitors released in close proximity. Not only were the designs excellent and beautifully rendered, but the title had a sleek minimalism that seemed confident where most developers would throw on all the bells and whistles. Automata feels like a wholistic production, from it’s tight combat with elaborate character animations, tightly-controlled narrative, offbeat aesthetic, or one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard since Halo: Combat Evolved. Yoko Taro was unquestionably out to tell a story first and foremost with Automata and some moments feel cinematic in ways I haven’t seen in a game since Metal Gear Solid 4. Stylistic choices like the paper-cut storytelling introduced in 9S’s storyline and the lifeless black and white palette of the Bunker stand seem immensely daring for a game with the budget for pre-rendered cinematics.
Yoko Taro’s narrative approach can be unironically described as avant garde, continuing the franchise’s exploration of human essentialism through very inhuman machine life. Breaking free of their overruling AI control, machines have begun to adopt archetypical social roles of humans in an attempt to determine distinct identities. Although you can sense the logical absurdity, even the intentional tongue-in-cheek humor of a robot “mom” asking you to find her “son”, you don’t even for a moment question the authenticity of their distress. By far the most emotive creatures on Earth are these wind-up machines with featureless spheres for heads while the human-appearing resistance are more like wraiths, their asides often revealing a fundamental uncertainty about their own experiences and your quests with them more of a brief interlude into their personal nightmare than any sort of meaningful assistance.
Speaking as someone who dislikes multi-thread story lines, approaching a game with 26 different endings seems like an immense chore with the unsatisfying payoff of knowing you explored many avenues of which only one will be chosen as “canon”. Each end of Automata, however, is not necessarily mutually exclusive, with the first two approaching the same conclusion from the different perspectives of 2B and 9S before the story expands almost like a second chapter to introduce more of A2’s narrative. Each new ending feels more like peeling another layer off an onion as you approach some sort of essential truth, hidden from the characters by centuries of lost history and YoRHa’s propaganda. You get an early sense that everything is not as it was explained to you by your leaders but it takes a while before you begin unearthing clues.
While Yoko Taro’s reputation and a storyteller was one of the primary draws for Automata, the original NieR received heavy criticism for its gameplay. Bringing in the powerhouse of PlatinumGames was the perfect thing to maintaining the spell dodging identity of NeiR while giving it an immensely satisfying combat and last-second evasions from the makers of Bayonetta. In an era of gaming where it feels ludicrous that we still have to complain about fighting the camera, NeiR effortlessly transitions between 3rd person, top-down, and a side scrolling gameplay styles as if camera issues were are a long-ago “solved” issue. This allows Automata to shift easily between open-world brawler to bullet hell to 2D boss fights or side-scrolling platforming which, in turns, feel entirely unique or a intentional homages to classics like Castlevania.
Coming off several amazing titles with a shared weakness for inventory management, it was a pleasure to play Automata almost entirely free of extended menu navigation. The only equipment in the game are a finite set of weapons at predetermined locations, each with four upgrades. Upgrade chips are the RNG elements but possess only two stats and can be fused into progressively larger values. It feels simple, clean, and works within the game’s internal logic. Yoko Taro has even worked his indirect storytelling into the inventory by providing a story for each weapon that progresses as you unlock each of its levels, often poems or parables which pose questions or carry emotional themes that resonate with the story. One of the ending even requires collecting and maxing out each weapon to access all of their smaller narratives.
The experience of Automata hits only a few rare hitches. The introduction of 9S’s hacking minigame ability turned his storyline of the less combat-able android from a chore into a novel experience, but having to reinitiate a hack on enemies rather than simply playing longer or more difficult arcade-like course. Automata also continues the industry trend of including the indirect multiplayer elements and corpse retrieval of Dark Souls. You can encounter other players bodies and either harvest them for parts or repair them for a short-term NPC ally. Similarly, you have to travel to your body to collect your upgrade chips (but not your weapons?) after dying. These aren’t bad gameplay elements per se, I could even see finding more interesting uses when paired with 9S’s hacking ability, but they otherwise feel frivolous in an otherwise tightly designed title.
NieR: Automata is one of the most unique gaming experiences I’ve had in years. It tells its tale through indirect means and thematic tools that you’d expect from an anime auteur or indie game production with nothing to lose. Yoko Taro and PlatinumGames are the perfect pair of eccentrics to pull this off, each bringing their unconventional and lauded styles to create a weird, wonderful experience. Depsite replaying several segments of the story the experience never gets old with new information, gameplay elements, and unique storytelling styles emerging from each characters perspective. NieR: Automata‘s release date put it up against some stiff competition but it absolutely shines.
+ Excellent multi-threaded plot
+ Smooth, finished combat
+ Epic soundtrack
+ Daring storytelling and design
+/– Hacking is a mixed bag
– Out of place Dark Souls features