Last year we had a lot of huge releases but no other game was as much of a sleeper hit than Nier: Automata. A spin off from the Drakengard series and follow up to the low selling PS3 title Nier, this game received largely great reviews but its success largely felt down to word of mouth. People who had no interest in the previous titles were sucked in by this bizarre and bleak depiction of earth in the year 11945 AD, where androids fight in a last attempt to save humanity. It felt like a niche Japanese title that somehow was able to breach beyond that and become a worldwide success, also becoming my favourite game that I played in the past year.
Nier: Automata rewards the player with as much depth and replayability as you can ask of a title with multiple endings and a hack and slash combat system. If you’re going to play a game to unlock all the endings, good and bad, usually you’re prepared for a slog. Trying to get all the endings in something like Chrono Trigger means you’re in for the long haul, but Automata gives you something extra each time you play the game again. A new angle, a bit of backstory, new direction and even gameplay mechanics.
You play as android battle unit 2B, alongside her partner 9S as they launch an attack against the alien machines that took over the earth. They fight for the remnants of humanity who have been forced to flee to the Moon. Their android forces, the “YoRHa” fight the invaders in a proxy war from their space bunker which orbits Earth. There is mystery to all of the characters motives and ideologies and the game director, Yoko Taro is known for taking characters down dark paths, but at times there are glimmers of hope and beauty in this dystopian world.
The first time you play the game, you’ll be constantly
pondering things that feel unresolved, trying to figure out a combat style that
suits you, and exploring all the little side missions scattered around the restrictive
open world. You like shooting things? Good, go nuts. Want to go upgrade your
giant ass swords? There’s ways to do that. But you’re still confused by some of
choices and areas in the course of the play through. By the ending, certain
parts still don’t make sense in the context of the game, but it’s still a valid
and satisfying ending. Then comes one of
the best openings to a new game plus I’ve ever seen.
A little machine shakes his lifeless brother and then soon you take control of him, waddling incredibly slowly and trying to get him some oil to revitalise him. Your character is adorable and incompetent all at the same time, spilling the oil and falling over, before the camera pans out and shows that you’re at the start of the game, but not as you know it. You’re playing through the same game again with a new perspective and a whole different way to play.
The gameplay changes often, but in a subtle way that doesn’t invoke ire from the player. From the first mission the game toys with you, landing you right in a fantastic shmup stage blasting enemies in a Mecha, before yanking you out to fight on foot with your aerobatic hack and slash fighting style. Move on a little further and you’re out of the 3 dimensions you were having so much fun with a minute ago, now it’s onto 2.5D and you’re jumping platforms like Mega Man. At it’s heaviest moments the game is all about facing enemies in combat but combining action gameplay with shoot-em-up segments is a stroke of genius. It doesn’t feel tacked on, instead diversifying the ways to interact with the world around you to be able to go into little simulations and pilot a tiny Asteroids ship to go hack some strange machine creatures.
Amongst facing huge philosophical questions about what it means to be human, android and machine, Automata drip feeds you little hints and answers each time you advance, having you complete the game over and over before you reach the true happy ending. It no point though does it feel like a bore, it’s a blessing to explore and take in more of this bleak and cathartic world through the many paths of the Taro’s narrative.