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NieR:Automata review


The Pope

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NieR:Automata is a video game.

No shit, huh? And here you thought you were reading an anime review. No, what I mean by that pretentious statement is that NieR:Automata could never work as anything but a video game. I've heard fans requesting it be turned into an anime in the same way that Bayonetta, another PlatinumGames property, was adapted. And while an anime, comic or film adaptation of NieR:Automata could roughly capture its plot and characters, the true core of this piece of art is reliant on the medium of gaming. NieR:Automata is indeed a work of art, and while other games like The Last of Us and Mass Effect are powerfully moving works in their own right that are good examples of video games as an artistic medium, the argument can be made that their stories would work just as well in a film or book. NieR:Automata is one of few games along the likes of Undertale, Spec Ops: The Line and BioShock that, rather than arguing that their medium is just as good as film, television or literature, argue that their medium can surpass those other mediums.

Do you think games are silly little things?

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NieR:Automata is a sequel to the 2010 cult classic NieR. Like most people apparently, I never bothered with the game. I eventually went back and watched through the cutscenes after having played Automata, and the general consensus I got from those as well as contemporary reviews is that it was a great story trapped in a bad game. Mediocre combat and tedious backtracking ate away at a compelling narrative about societal outcasts finding companionship with other "freaks" who love each other for who they are. Thankfully, Automata did not suffer the same fate; while NieR was developed by a small-scale team with so-so gameplay chops not suited for director Yoko Taro's grand ambition, Automata brought on the talented developers from PlatinumGames to fuse their frantic, dance-like combat with Taro's tragic and melancholy artistic vision.

I say Automata is a sequel to NieR, but only in the loosest of terms. It takes place thousands of years after NieR; some characters from the original game make appearances in supporting roles or are referred to in text logs, but Automata is a standalone experience that can be played without having played through NieR. If you so choose to go back and play the original NieR, then by all means do so; however, its lack of 8th generation rerelease or PC release, combined with its cult status, could make tracking down and playing a copy a little difficult. If you do choose to start with Automata, though, rest easy that very little of the game will leave you feeling lost and confused, even if some story and character beats will hit harder had you played the original title.

NieR:Automata takes place thousands of years in the future. At some point in our near future, aliens invaded the Earth and deployed robotic drones, referred to as "Machines" (or "Machine Lifeforms"), as their primary attack force. In response, humanity created human-looking Androids to fight off the Machines as they retreated to the moon to wait out the battle between the two forces. Thousands of years have passed with no end in sight for this war, but the Androids, organized in a military group named YoRHa, still continue to fight to reclaim the Earth.

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The story primarily revolves around three characters: the stoic brawler 2B, the lighthearted hacker 9S, and the rebellious, bitter A2. While you are primarily playing as 2B, the story occasionally shifts in focus between the trio of protagonists.

These three have quite different personalities, but their combat styles are generally similar to each other. Most action plays out as a 3D brawler, not dissimilar to Platinum's own Bayonetta series. Mash light and heavy attacks to take out swarms of enemies, dodge or block at just the right time and deliver devastating counterattacks. 2B can equip two weapons, and can choose between small one-handed swords, large two-handed blades, spears and gauntlets, allowing a variety of different combat styles to suit the player's choice. Weapons are unique and can be upgraded to improve their power (which is generally recommended, as there's a secret boss who can only be accessed once you've acquired and fully upgraded every weapon).

Furthering your customization options is the Chip system, which allows you to tailor your character's powers to your whims. Essentially your "chip" is a bank that can store power-ups based on numeric storage values. For example, you might have 24 points of space; a Weapon Damage Up 2 chip costs 14 points, a Defense Up chip costs 10 points, and a Movement Speed Up 4 chip costs 23 points. How do you choose to improve your character? Chips can be added/removed at any time, and you can save up to three chip presets, so you're encouraged to experiment and maintain different setups for different scenarios. For example, you might want a preset that focuses on movement speed for when you're traversing the overworld, another preset for grinding against weak enemies that focuses on brute power, experience gain and item drops over defense, and a third preset for difficult bosses that boosts your defense and self-healing. Admittedly, some perks such as auto-heal, auto-item use and rendering you invincible/slowing down time after dodges can break the game and make it a little too easy, but the fact that the option is there to make the game as hard or as easy as you wish is a nice touch. If you want to get really creative, you can even take out pre-installed chips like your mini-map, health bar or damage values to make room for more chips if you so choose. Just be careful about removing your OS chip, as you need that baby to live; doing so will hit you with one of the game's multiple endings.

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This is totally canon, you guys.

In an attempt to perhaps be too clever for his own good, Yoko Taro included 26 endings in the game. While that may seem daunting, only five of them are actually critical to the game, while the other 21 are "gag" endings awarded for doing something stupid, such as running off in the wrong direction during a major Machine attack, slaughtering an entire village of friendly Machines, or indeed removing the OS chip required for you to live. While these endings are worth a chuckle, they're not necessary in the grand scheme of things and not required to get the full grasp of the game. Just be sure to save before attempting something silly or stupid, because each of these joke endings will send you back to the title screen, and the joke will seem less funny if you're forced to replay a good 20 minutes of lost progress.

That being said, those other five endings are mandatory. I hesitate to explain too much as I don't wish to give away the game as it were, but if you feel like you've reached the end, you probably haven't. Keep going. Keep playing. You'll know when you've hit the end due to its true and complete sense of finality. You haven't truly played through NieR:Automata until you've seen endings A, B, C, D and E.

Yoko Taro shows more of his quirky idiosyncrasies with the various way gameplay changes as you progress through the game. In addition to your standard button mashing melee combat, holding R1 will let your floating robot Pod buddy fire a barrage of bullets at enemies from afar, while powerful abilities on a timed recharge can be unleashed to deal devastating blows. You can eventually collect multiple Pods, rotating between them while their major abilities, or Pod Programs, are on cooldown to maximize damage output. Most enemies will attack with direct melee attacks, but others will shoot swarms of massive red balls your way, transforming the game into a 3D brawler/bullet hell hybrid. While the majority of combat is spent in a standard 3D battle setting, sometimes you're locked into a 2D segment where enemies approach you from both sides or above. Sometimes the game goes overhead into a classic 2D Zelda-like view. And on multiple occasions you will play in a traditional bullet hell presentation, shooting away at flying enemies from a ship while avoiding projectiles. The game even opens this way, as if to throw you completely off guard as to what genre of game you're playing. Taro's blending of genre is another way through which he wants to mess with your head, and honestly, for the most part it works like a charm. Overall, while I don't find the gameplay quite as engaging as the methodical combat of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or the frantic insanity of Bayonetta 2, there is a charm to the freeflow combat of NieR:Automata that feels less like hacking and slashing and almost like a ballet. Not the most exciting gameplay in the world, but PlatinumGames got the job done.

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From a visual standpoint. the game is an interesting mixed bag. On the one hand, the colors are generally rather muted, making it less visually attractive compared to, say, Breath of the Wild. The actual graphics aren't all too impressive from a raw technical standpoint either; not amazing but not terrible, just sort of middle of the road. Cutscenes run at 30 FPS, which is a little jarring since standard gameplay runs at smooth-as-butter 60 FPS. Also, the lip-syncing is surprisingly poor, especially when looking back at the original NieR and seeing that the lip-syncing there was perfectly fine. However, this is all made up for with its art direction which, as Jim Sterling would say, trumps raw graphical horsepower every single time. The starting area of the city ruins fits the game's mood absolutely perfectly, providing a surreal sense of melancholic beauty, a wondrous sight to behold which is also a relic of a dead, crumbled civilization. Other beautiful vistas include an endless desert, an amusement park hosted by Machines blissfully taking part in joyous celebration, a derelict castle reclaimed by the forest which is home to Machines that fancy themselves knights defending their king, and many more that I dare not spoil. What I will say is that just like Breath of the Wild, there were multiple occasions where I saw something so jaw-dropping and breathtaking that I had to stop for a moment, catch a breath and take it all in.

The soundtrack is...beyond words. I am a total snob for game soundtracks, preferring them over almost all sources of music. I've heard some great scores in my day, but this might just be the single greatest soundtrack for any game I've played in my life. Like the visuals, they perfectly capture the melancholy tone the game is going for, ranging from soft, wistful singing to woeful bales to eerie chanting, all perfectly capturing the tone the game wants at any given time. The best proper comparison I can make is to Ghost in the Shell, which is fitting since tonally and thematically the game echoes a lot of Ghost in the Shell's philosophical notes of what exactly it means to be human.

On that related note, NieR:Automata is probably the most philosophical game of all time. It goes much further than posing the question "what if robots could feel??!" and leaving it at that. Granted, the game's philosophical edge may initially come across as just window dressing as you'll run into plenty of characters named after famous philosophers such as Engels (Friedrich Engels), Immanuel (Immanuel Kant) and Ko-Shi (Confucius). Hell, at one point the friendly Machine patriarch Pascal (Blaise Pascal) digs up some of Nietzsche and uses it as casual reading material. And that's before we get to the pair of human-like Machines who call themselves Adam and Eve. But Taro takes things much further than just rubbing philosophy references in our faces or posing barebone, easy questions. The philosophical questions he brings up are harsh, and they cut deep.

One major recurring theme is the value of truth. Most media tries to reinforce the message that even when the truth is painful, it's better to tell a harsh truth than a sweet lie. And yet, here we see the opposing stance. What if a truth is so terrible, so cruel, that it can completely break a person? One sidequest revolves around an amnesiac Android hoping to recover her memories. The truth of who she is turns out to be horrific, and you have the option to only tell her the basics or to tell her everything. I told her everything, and the revelation of who she truly is drove her mad. Another sidequest involved an Android requesting me to find her missing lover. In my search, I found a dark secret about the missing Android, and feeling that she deserved the truth, I told the quest-giver everything. She coldly laughed, stating that there was no longer any reason to feel attached to anyone. And that's to say nothing of the truths unveiled in the main story.

Another major theme is not only what it means to live, but what the point of living even is. And it's not just shallow "life is meaningless, what are we here for" drivel. We see characters' whole worldviews crumble, everything they've been living for fall apart, leaving them on the brink of utter despair. And when something that important to you falls apart, when you have no pieces left to pick up, is there any value to living if all that's left in store is more pain?

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I'll be honest, at no point in the majority of the story did I cry. Granted, I don't cry too often when playing games, with only the hardest-hitting scenes getting a real emotional reaction out of me. The main cast and the central story are good, but overall not spectacular (with one exception being the storyline of Pascal the friendly Machine chieftan). There were at least a couple of moments I feel the game wished for me to cry my eyes out, and I just didn't, partially because the game had already made a point to give explanations that things could still turn out alright (and they usually did). That being said, there were a plethora of moments, such as those sidequests I mentioned and one hard-hitting main story beat, that just left me feeling hollow inside and letting out a strained and uncomfortable "fuck, man." Where it truly shines is the focus on the central themes, though the plot does pick up in a big way around halfway through. The closest comparison I could make is to BoJack Horseman in how it hits the viewer with some truly dark and depressing material. This game is a tragedy that, at certain points, will make even those with the happiest of worldviews feel a little uncertain with themselves. And that's to speak nothing of any one of us who suffer from depression; being slightly in that camp, this game served as a bullet to the gut when it hit me with some of its darkest material. But like BoJack, it also serves as a form of emotional cleansing, forcing you to confront your darker emotions so they can flow through you rather than repressing and bottling them up inside.

I've often been asked "Why do you enjoy material that makes you feel sad?" And that's a tough question to answer. It's not so I can look at it and say "At least I'm not that guy!" And it's not so I can just wallow in sadness porn. It's easy for art to make you laugh, to get you pumped, and to make you cry shallow tears with cheap melodrama that amounts to nothing. But art that can cut to the root of your soul, that's rare. That's powerful. And coming back from that dark place is an emotional journey worth taking. For me, the best stories are those that have a happy ending, but through which the characters must endure some of the harshest, darkest shit imaginable and barely eke out a positive outcome through the skin of their teeth.

Up until the very end of this game, I was sitting on an 8 or 9 out of 10 score. It's held back by a few weird gameplay issues, such as a good amount of backtracking due to the fast travel system taking a little too long to unlock, as well as some annoying, unintuitive busywork if you want to unlock that secret boss, and normally those little issues would bog down the score, if only a bit. However, my final judgment completely swerved when I reached the game's ending, its true ending that is. These are some of the most frustrating words I'll ever have to write, because I desperately want to impart just how amazing this ending is, and yet I dare not explain why. What I will say is that it is the single greatest ending to a game I've ever played in my life, and it hit me in such a profound way that has stuck with me to this day and will continue to stick with me for a long, long time. After bringing the characters through the wringer, showing them some depressing, horrid shit, and causing most of them to come to the conclusion that life isn't worth living, the game forcefully confronts the player (not the characters, you) with a series of escalating questions, starting simple and eventually going so far as to ask if everything is pointless, if this world is worthless and if there's no point in living. And with each of these piercing questions, the player is encouraged to answer with an emphatic and overwhelming "No." that will echo and reverberate across the world. After bringing me through such a harsh, cruel, dark journey that made me question if life was even worth living, only to provide a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of unexpected and astounding human kindness, and to then directly ask me if video games are meaningless wastes of time and gently demand that I firmly shout back a resounding "No", that was when the tears began to flow.

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'Cause we're gonna shout it loud,
Even if our words seem meaningless,
It's like I'm carrying the weight of the world...

NieR:Automata is a brilliant philosophical meditation on truth, memory, purpose, and above all else, empathy. It proposes that love, companionship and empathy is what makes us human and what makes life worth living. And it doesn't do this in a trite Care Bears "it's great to make friends!" way, but instead truly forces each and every one of us to realize that empathy, true empathy, is being willing to sacrifice everything for someone, not for glory or recognition or anything in return, but just so someone's life will be a little less hard.

It begs so many questions and leaves us to interpret the answers on our own without providing an easy exit. If you could mold someone to be your "perfect" vision of who you want them to be, would you? Is wishing for someone to love you just being selfish? Can there truly be any peace in the world as long as one person wishes to hurt?

Why do we even play games, or consume art for that matter? Is it for the catharsis of finality, so we can sit high and mighty on that 100% completion file with all the trophies and feel good about ourselves, or is it for the little moments, that one fight, that one scene, the moments that are fleeting, beautiful, temporary, and then gone? Are you sure the destination is more important than the journey? If so, why does it matter what happens in our lives if all that matters is the end? Why bother living in the first place? Why are we even alive?

NieR:Automata could not have posed these questions as well as it does if it were not a video game. NieR:Automata is a triumph for the medium that shows us that not only are video games just as capable of being moving works of art as anything else, but that they can be better.

Do you think games are silly little things?

I sure as hell don't. And I hope you don't either.

10/10 - Masterpiece

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Fantastic review man! ❤️ I was already considering playing this along with several other games later this year but after reading this I definitely am going to give this game a go. I definitely agree with some of your points as well, such as shallow story-telling; I HATE that shit in games. I love games that, rather than make you cry generic crocodile tears and offer surface-level melodrama, actually eat at you personally and emotionally. It's why games like Spec Ops and LISA are among my favorites, those games made me feel like SHIT and I love them for it. If this game offers a similar sort of experience then I think I'll love it.

Awesome stuff overall dude!

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EggSoldier

Posted

I'm going to second Zoc's feedback on your review, that was an excellent review! You conveyed the emotional stuff in the game so well it actually made me tear up myself. I definitely need to get Nier Automata as soon as I can.

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WALLMAN

Posted

That was beautiful. I beat NieR:Automata a few months ago, but it's very fresh in my memory and I'm still recommending it to anyone I can. I must admit, I got a little giddy seeing you work your way up to it on your backlog. I was like "Ooooooh, here it comes." I didn't expect it to cut you as deep as it did. Hell, I got a bit choked up just reading your review. It's sure to convert more people to what I call the Automata Broken Hearts Club.

I just wrote off the poor lip-syncing as "Maybe it fits in its native language," but then I looked up Nier's cutscenes and saw that it did have English lip-sync, so I don't know what their excuse is. Still a masterpiece, though.

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MAZZ0Murder

Posted

Well I'm poor and can't afford it, so I did spoil all the story for myself, and I agree with the review's overall theme about truth and such...

Though my favorite gag in the game has to be that...

Spoiler

Apparently the androids can eat fish, but eating a Mackerel kills them... but apparently it's worth it. This gag is even present in 2B's unit as she appears in Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. She has an ability "Fish", which will give her 1 out of 4 possible abilities next turn. Mackerel is one that cost 0 MP... to KO herself.

Since it's a SE title it did a collaberation with two SE mobile games I play, Final Fantasy Brave Exvius and SINoALICE (it's actually being redone in this one right now). I learned about this game through FFBE, and managed to acquire her unit in that game, and she's still one of my top damage dealers, and it looks like her skill set is appropriate to what she does in the game 😛

However, I still find it awkward that you can get an achievement for upskirting 2B with the camera (and after doing it 10 times no less)!

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Great review, mate! I got the game meself and it's absolutely brilliant! Gonna try and get all endings now.

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