Nier Automata



Less than an hour in, all our con­cerns are ad­dressed. Un­til then, Automata has borne all the at­tributes of a typ­i­cal Plat­inumGames joint: dy­namic ac­tion, a pro­tag­o­nist who moves and fights with bal­letic grace, and a dodge to die for. Then sud­denly, a com­bi­na­tion of over­con­fi­dence and an un­help­ful camera an­gle (a rar­ity, hap­pily) leads to a pre­ma­ture ar­rival of the dreaded grey screen of death. A cap­tion laments our fail­ure, be­fore an ac­cel­er­ated credit crawl re­veals that we’ve hit an end­ing: one, it turns out, of 26 pos­si­ble con­clu­sions. An­other ar­rives five hours later when we in­ad­ver­tently take the scenic route to a mis­sion ob­jec­tive and are ad­mon­ished for hav­ing aban­doned our post – though at least this time we’re not de­posited back at the start. In other words, any­one won­der­ing whether Yoko Taro would be able to stamp his – let’s be po­lite – idio­syn­cratic per­son­al­ity on the fol­low-up to Cavia’s 2010 cult favourite can rest easy. And be as­sured that there’s much more of this sort of thing to come.

Be­yond a sim­i­larly down­beat tone, there ap­pears to be lit­tle to con­nect Automata to its pre­de­ces­sor at first: Yoko has seem­ingly sev­ered all nar­ra­tive ties by set­ting this se­quel al­most 3,000 years later. In the in­terim, aliens have un­leashed an army of pow­er­ful, in­tel­li­gent ma­chines that have all but an­ni­hi­lated hu­man­ity, forc­ing the last of us to va­cate the Earth and find safe haven on the Moon. Nat­u­rally, we miss the old place, and so we’ve sent down an elite re­sis­tance force of an­droids to bat­tle the ma­chines and re­claim the planet. En­ter com­bat unit 2B, whose cool, de­tached out­look is tested as she finds her­self in­creas­ingly per­turbed by the ma­chines’ hu­man­like be­hav­iours. Her com­pan­ion, 9S – a unit pri­mar­ily de­signed for scan­ning rather than fight­ing – is more im­me­di­ately like­able, with his amus­ing belly­ach­ing and sar­cas­tic re­sponses to or­ders. Yet he’s un­moved by the ma­chines, and trou­blingly keen to keep 2B fo­cused on her ob­jec­tive when she be­gins to waver.

It’s here, as any­one who played be­yond Nier’s cli­max will recog­nise, Automata finds more ob­vi­ous com­mon ground with its pre­de­ces­sor, as Yoko fur­ther probes the idea of what it means to be hu­man. Af­ter the cred­its have rolled on the first proper end­ing, there’s a warn­ing to keep play­ing: no doubt Square Enix is aware too few play­ers saw be­yond Nier’s first con­clu­sion, which left plenty un­said. To any­one with even a pass­ing in­ter­est in Yoko’s work, it’s no spoiler to say the same hap­pens here – if the con­clu­sion feels flat on a first view­ing, it’s lent ad­di­tional tex­ture and meaning with in­sights gained from sub­se­quent playthroughs (see Post Script). While at times the sto­ry­telling seems er­ratic and episodic, it still boasts re­mark­able fo­cus and the­matic con­sis­tency. In­deed, a re­cur­ring idea is that hu­man­ity’s flaws are what make us so elu­sive and fas­ci­nat­ing.

Some wags might sug­gest that’s a handy get-out for Automata’s world, a des­o­late sand­box with a few too many empty spa­ces and in­vis­i­ble bar­ri­ers. It’s rather ugly in places, too. Some­times that’s a con­scious aes­thetic choice, as Plat­inum’s artists at­tempt to evoke the bleak­ness of a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Earth. At oth­ers, how­ever, it’s plain drab, and while some en­vi­ron­men­tal short­com­ings are no doubt a trade-off to en­sure fights run smoothly, some tex­tures will in­duce the odd wince. There are, how­ever, mo­ments of real beauty. A bat­tle within a dar­ingly sparse desert re­gion sees bipedal be­he­moths emerg­ing through a sandy haze, sil­hou­et­ted against a low-hang­ing sun. And a rusted, over­grown theme park con­jures some ar­rest­ing images, in­clud­ing a side-scrolling ride past a Dis­ney-style cas­tle aboard a still-func­tional rollercoaster.

Then the ro­bots ap­proach, 2B read­ies her sword, and the Plat­inum we all know takes over. Com­bat is a lit­tle more straight­for­ward than in the stu­dio’s finest work, but in terms of feel 2B’s fight­ing style is closer to Bay­o­netta than Korra. It’s based around sim­ple, ligh­tand-heavy combo strings that can be ex­tended if you’ve got the right weapon at the right level; a short sword han­dles ap­pre­cia­bly dif­fer­ently from a spear, even if the in­puts are the same. The eyes of your op­po­nents will glow red as they’re about to launch an at­tack, a help­ful sig­nal that it’s time to dodge, and you’re given a gen­er­ous win­dow to re­act. Still, that’s only fair given how of­ten the odds are over­whelm­ingly against you, and the hint of a red flash is es­sen­tial when your lock-on (which is dis­abled on the Hard and Very Hard dif­fi­culty set­tings) spins you to face one en­emy while an­other winds up a pow­er­ful axe slash be­hind you.

You may be grate­ful for the abil­ity to spam dodge when fac­ing a hail of pro­jec­tiles but the per­fect evade is worth mas­ter­ing – though again, the in­put win­dow is for­giv­ing. Pull it off and 2B will ap­pear as a shim­mer­ing out­line, which leaves her in­vul­ner­a­ble through­out the an­i­ma­tion and al­lows you to re­spond with an im­me­di­ate and pow­er­ful counter. With the Square but­ton you can launch an en­emy, au­to­mat­i­cally leap­ing to meet them mid-flight to re­peat­edly slash them, or you can fire an ex­plo­sive close-range blast by tap­ping R1. But then you prob­a­bly al­ready had your right in­dex fin­ger clamped down on the but­ton, since do­ing so means your com­pan­ion pod will pro­duce an un­bro­ken stream of ma­chine-gun fire that pecks away at an op­po­nent’s health bar. With a se­lec­tion of spe­cial at­tacks (none of which quite matches the dev­as­tat­ing force of the de­fault laser) sub­ject to cooldown timers, your float­ing ally can do much of the hard work while you re­main at a safe dis­tance. It’s a coward’s tac­tic, but with the right equip­ment and buffs it’s dis­arm­ingly ef­fec­tive.

The fun­da­men­tals of com­bat change lit­tle from be­gin­ning to end, but the de­gree of con­trol you have over 2B’s load­out al­lows you to tweak your ap­proach as

The eyes of your op­po­nents will glow red as they’re about to launch an at­tack, a help­ful sig­nal that it’s time to dodge

an en­counter de­mands, or to suit your playstyle. This comes via a broad range of plug-in chips: some con­vey per­ma­nent boosts and oth­ers sit­u­a­tional ben­e­fits, but it ex­tends as far as de­ter­min­ing which HUD el­e­ments are vis­i­ble. With lim­ited space in which to slot them, the chip sys­tem en­forces some dif­fi­cult choices, and that’s why your first port of call when re­turn­ing to base af­ter a sor­tie should be the ven­dor of­fer­ing more in­ter­nal stor­age over the weapon seller. If you’re bad at dodg­ing or you’re fac­ing a pow­er­ful boss, you can set up a de­fen­sive build that au­to­mat­i­cally uses heal­ing items when your HP falls be­low a cer­tain level, or pre­vents you from tak­ing ex­tra dam­age for a brief pe­riod af­ter be­ing hit, al­low­ing you to dash out of im­me­di­ate dan­ger. A chip that pulls in nearby items is a god­send when you’re hunt­ing ma­te­ri­als to up­grade weapons and com­plete sid­e­quests; like­wise, one that in­creases the drop rate if you’re chas­ing some­thing spe­cific en­e­mies leave be­hind. If you’re be­ing crowded by a swarm of high-level ma­chines, why not equip one to top up your health with every kill? And if you want the ac­tion to play out more like Bay­o­netta, try the Over­clock chip, which slows ev­ery­thing down for a sec­ond af­ter a per­fect dodge. It’s Witch Time in all but name.

Though these skir­mishes dom­i­nate, Yoko and Plat­inum reg­u­larly look to ad­just the pace, with mixed re­sults. You’ll oc­ca­sion­ally take to the air in flying mech suits, the ac­tion shift­ing styles be­tween a vin­tage ver­ti­cal-scroller and a twin-stick shooter, with the odd into-the-screen in­ter­lude. These are en­ter­tain­ing enough, but even with 2B’s ef­fort­less move­ment, ex­plor­ing the world can be a chore. The en­vi­ron­ment is split into open ar­eas and side-scrolling cor­ri­dors where move­ment is locked to a sin­gle plane: while this makes longer jour­neys more ap­peal­ing vis­ually, it does lit­tle to al­le­vi­ate the bore­dom of back­track­ing. A fast-travel op­tion (cour­tesy of jury-rigged vend­ing ma­chines) ar­rives just as you’re get­ting fed up with these treks, and comes with a bril­liant in-fic­tion ex­cuse: 2B’s con­scious­ness is be­ing trans­ferred dig­i­tally to an­other ves­sel held at each des­ti­na­tion. But it doesn’t en­tirely solve the prob­lem, not least as some­times you’ll find the clos­est stop to your ob­jec­tive has been put out of com­mis­sion, of­ten merely so the game can in­ter­rupt you en route with a cutscene. And though the story packs in plenty of stim­u­lat­ing the­matic ma­te­rial to chew over, RPGs are of­ten de­fined by their cast rather than their plot – and 2B and 9S don’t al­ways make for par­tic­u­larly good com­pany. For all the gloomi­ness and bick­er­ing, Nier’s cast of mis­fits were easy to warm to. Automata, al­beit quite de­lib­er­ately for the most part, is de­cid­edly colder to the touch.

Still, at worst this is an on-form Plat­inum ac­tion game spread too thinly; from an­other per­spec­tive, it’s an ac­tion-RPG with com­bat that embarrasses most of its peers. Away from the bat­tle­field, it’s Yoko’s hat­stand ideas that linger, from a ti­tanic face-off be­tween two ma­chines the size of oil rigs, through a pair of star­tling post-game rev­e­la­tions, to a ro­bot read­ing Ni­et­zsche (and sub­se­quently deem­ing him ‘crazy’) and a ride­able moose. The big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween Automata and its di­rec­tor’s pre­vi­ous work is that those weird ideas fi­nally have a ro­bust me­chan­i­cal shell to house them – one flecked with patches of rust, per­haps, but a fine piece of en­gi­neer­ing all the same.

You can eas­ily end up un­der­lev­elled if you’re not killing every ma­chine in your path. So while there’s rarely much more to sid­e­quests than fetch­ing items and killing en­e­mies, the XP gain alone makes them worth ac­cept­ing

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