For the longest time, RPGs followed a very similar, safely structured template.
You start with a lone hero who’s unaware they’re a hero, sleeping peacefully in a small, remote village only to stumble across a bigger problem.
You meet some familiar faces, build up a party, fall head over heels in love with a member of the opposite sex, kill monsters to earn experience, and skip through lots of dialogue.
It’s a tried and tested formula that has worked time and again. And while NieR: Automata still follows those conventions to the letter, it also manages to rewrite the book of expectation in ways we didn’t expect.
For starters, you’re not just traipsing the known lands with your party of two, engaging in real-time combat with swords and guns, you also enter mech units and actually earn experience in side-scrolling shooters reminiscent of shmups like Ikaruga. Jade Empire played with this idea many years back, but NieR: Automata has not only evolved it, it’s actually made it one of the most enticing, enriching parts of the experience.
You’ll find yourself swooping between buildings, blasting machines using a full 360 aiming system, and kitting out your weapon of destruction for desired effect. Oh, and you guessed it, there’s boss battles in this style too. Which will genuinely blow you away.
On top of that, the camera perspective constantly shifts, ensuring the director has a clear influence over what you see and how you see it. There’s platforming sections as you jump between decaying structures of all types, character customisation is done using a chip-system which only allows a very limited number to be installed at a time, and you can harvest or even revive dead players from all over the world to fight by your side.
The result is a hybrid of many games we already love, brought together in a mostly seamless way which will forever alter our perspective of the genre.
For NieR: Automata to even exist is something of a miracle. Sequel to a much-loved but oft-forgotten Xbox 360/PS3 title, it started life as a spin-off from the Drakengard series and barely sold enough to break even. Now set thousands of years later, you assume the guise of a combat android called 2B. The android – part of a specialist team known as YoRHa – was sent down to Earth by humanity – who fled to the moon – and finds herself in the midst of a war against an army of mechanical invaders from another world. The YoRHa are given instructions from The Bunker, their main HQ which is in orbit above Earth, and must fight to make the planet habitable again.
2B is seen as something of a leader due to how calm and composed she is during battle and is often accompanied by 9S who has surprising emotional depth. The two work together as part of the resistance, and with each battle, start to uncover the root of the problem that’s afflicting Earth in ways neither of them could have anticipated.
It’s almost become cliche to say, but NieR: Automata is one of my favourite games this year. We have, unquestionably, been spoilt with riches – particularly on PS4 – and this is an expertly designed, lovingly crafted title that tackles some incredibly intelligent themes with the harrowing narrative.
Filled with tons of side quests and multiple endings, the game is also incredibly ripe for multiple playthroughs. Which is astonishing because each playthrough can easily take you between 15 – 30 hours at a time.
The real-time action of the combat also works wonderfully with the player able to alternate between light and strong attacks, as well as use their floating pod to gun down enemies from range. The game does a good job of making you feel confident enough to take on fights – even if you’re much lower than your opponent – but has a steady enough difficulty curve that you know when you’re between a rock and a hard place. But it’s always so immensely satisfying and clearly a product of Platinum Games.
Likewise, the interface is tailored into mechanics brilliantly to really suit the tone of the game. This also really enables you to customise 2B in a fashion that suits both your playstyle, but also to make each of those playthroughs different every time.
Truly, as far as RPGs go, this is one of the best I’ve ever played. It’s fast-paced, creative, vibrant, and fulfilling, there’s a lot to love, but it doesn’t quite get some things right. For instance, unlike a Zelda or a Horizon, the open-world does sometimes feel a bit filler’ish. In BOTW, turning every corner feels like adventure. You don’t quite know where you’re going to end up, whereas NieR separates itself into larger hubs that are connected by longer tunnels or corridors. Before you have access to fast travel, you can traipse around a bit aimlessly and retreading your steps quite often. The missions accompanying it also
Before you have access to fast travel, you can traipse around a bit aimlessly, retreading your steps quite often. The camera angle can also make things a bit confusing -deciding where you need to go and how you need to get there – with the objective markers not always necessarily making it obvious what your mission is or how you accomplish it.
The missions also sometimes fall a bit flat with regular repetition as well as some frustrating back and forth over long-reaching areas.
There’s also some poor graphical performance on the base PS4 unit and I’m beginning to wonder if this might start to become a trend on non-pro machines going forward. Particularly in heavy action scenes, Automata does splutter its way over the finishing line at times. Once again, making this game a great advert for the PS4 Pro
However, the game makes for an unforgettable experience. The hub areas are so unique and refreshing, each offering something different in terms of gameplay and narrative development. Then there’s the exotic soundtrack which not only lingers in your head, it’s actually one of those rare times you could consider it spoilerfic if you’ve not played the game. Each piece says so much about the environment you’re in, the path you took to get there and where the story is heading next.
Smart, witty and genuinely refreshing. With NieR: Automata, it feels like Sony are stamping the final nail down in the Xbox coffin. The beginning of this year has just been filled with exclusive content for Playstation and this is, arguably, the best yet. Automata is a unique experience that needs to be encouraged and supported because it only comes around once every so often. With so many games in the industry being accused of playing it safe, Automata changes the conversation
Automata is a unique experience that must be encouraged and supported because it only comes around once every so often. Maybe even once a generation. And with several games being accused of playing it safe, this meaningfully changes the RPG conversation in various thoughtful, beautiful ways that it will leave its mark for many years to come.
+ Intricate story
+ Unique interface and mechanics
+ Combat is sublime
+ Soundtrack is glorious
– Some graphical hiccups on base PS4 unit
– Missions sometimes feel flat and repetitive
9 out of 10
Version Tested: Playstation 4