Unpacking Automata’s unusually rewarding post-game. Contains spoilers
Yoko Taro might have plenty of game-design experience, but if there’s one field in which he’s gained true mastery, it’s in trolling his players. This is, after all, the man who chose to finish the original Drakengard with an exacting rhythm game that demanded you reflect incoming attacks with perfect timing – culminating in an extended flurry, followed by a single final blow just at the moment you’re about to sit back and reflect upon your triumph. And your reward? A sucker punch of an ending in which the two protagonists die. Yoko subsequently repeated the trick in 2014’s Drakengard 3, only this time the sequence lasted eight minutes rather than two-and-a-half, with a final note playing over a black screen during a dialogue exchange. In both cases, a single mistake was enough to force a restart. The original Nier would only show you its true ending in return for deleting your save.
You can lose all your data in Automata, too, but on this occasion it’s not mandatory. Instead, you’re asked if you’d like to help online players who are struggling. You’ll be able to ‘rescue’ a random player at the cost of sacrificing your save data. You’ll be repeatedly asked if you’re sure, and should you answer in the affirmative you’ll be forced to watch as each and every quest, item, weapon and plug-in is systematically deleted in front of you. By then, you’ll have encountered a new enemy variant that disables your systems via infection: a warning of ‘visual systems abnormal’ is hardly necessary when a primary-coloured fog of thick pixels is draped over the action. You’ll often find other abilities simultaneously impaired. Losing the ability to launch melee attacks is bad enough, but try avoiding trouble when your evasive manoeuvring systems are down and you can’t see a thing. Elsewhere, there’s a long walk to a waypoint with an infected 2B, during which her movement speed slows to a limp, with enemies often waiting until you’re walking up a ramp to attack you.
Otherwise, this is a much more rewarding postgame than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Yoko, and for comparatively less effort. On a second playthrough, you’ll follow 9S’s journey instead: it’s like a more substantial version of Resident Evil 4’ s Separate Ways, though rather than simply filling in the gaps when the two were apart, you’ll also replay much of the main story from this new perspective. This is interspersed with a handful of brief, sepia-toned vignettes focusing on the machines’ adoption of human traits.
There’s a further appreciable difference in the form of a hacking system fleetingly introduced during the initial playthrough. Holding Triangle grants you access to enemies once you’ve completed a simple, top-down, twin-stick shooter with a rudimentary geometric art style. Do this mid-battle and they’ll explode, dealing damage to any nearby machines. Successfully hacking a machine that hasn’t spotted you gives you more options: you can subjugate them to fight alongside you, control them directly – using attacks particular to that unit – or detonate them. In truth, hacking is a shade overpowered during the biggest encounters, dealing the kind of damage that would normally require long periods of concentrated attacks. Yet for the tougher enemies it’s more challenging, as you manoeuvre through tight spaces with just three hits enough to see you kicked out of the system, and with a damage penalty to boot. There’s also an element of risk in remaining close enough to your target for long enough for the hack attempt to register. Inevitably, there are fresh plug-ins to choose from, which add further tactical options to encounters. Hijack Boost raises the level of machines you’ve successfully hacked, so they’re more effective in taking down their former allies, while Stun passes an electrical charge through a target, which then emits a blast that can leave any local machines temporarily incapacitated.
A subsequent playthrough introduces a third playable character, A2, another android who takes the reins from 2B and boasts a similar fighting style. But rather than retreading old ground, this is a brand new story that follows on from the main narrative, as control shifts between 9S and A2 as they attempt to unlock and then negotiate a giant tower created by the machines. It’s worth it just for a thrilling sequence that masterfully cross-cuts between the two protagonists as they fight a pair of bosses in the air and on the ground respectively.
The rewards, too, are generous. Reach ending C and you can access a chapter select that tells you how many side missions you have yet to finish with each character, while letting you tick off the remaining items on your shopping list of weapons without having to play the whole thing again. But, unlike Yoko’s previous games, you don’t need every weapon to see the fourth and fifth main endings, as both are determined by choices made in the final chapter, which can be replayed quickly from the menu. All that remain for true completists are a few secret bosses and the rest of the joke endings, even if some are difficult to prompt without prior knowledge.
Finally, there’s a Debug mode, which lets you set up fight rooms in which to test your combat abilities – pick an enemy or 12, and you can select their weapon, their level, and even the direction they’re facing. It’s a potentially endless showcase for a great combat system, and a prize that’s worth the effort. The unsparing callousness of the story proves Yoko hasn’t softened much – the difference this time is he’s reserved his cruellest tricks for his cast, rather than his players.
This is a much more rewarding post-game than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Yoko, and for less effort