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