NieR: Automata is all about flash and bombast. Within just an hour of starting, you’re pitted against a gargantuan skyscraper of a sentient oil rig with only your trusty flight suit and an overly emotional boy bot companion at your side. It’s like a crazy anime adaptation of Pacific Rim meets Transformers but you’re way cooler looking than Shia Leboeuf and you’re a total badass. NieR: Automata starts at this level of spectacle and gets bigger and better over the course of its runtime.
Set far in the post-apocalyptic future in an unknown year, you fill the role of 2B, a YoRHa class combat android designed to bring glory to mankind and stave off the alien machine onslaught that’s taken over Earth. Most of humanity has retreated to the Moon, but some humans have remained behind to resist the invaders alongside 2B and her fellow combat androids. 2B’s story starts once she reaches the resistance camp, opening the world to a number of main missions and side quests to pursue as your choose.
There are no other games like NieR: Automata. It generously takes from other genres, but there is no video game experience that attempts to meld together so many of them into one and definitely nothing that does it nearly as well. In the first minutes of NieR: Automata, you’re playing a top down bullet hell shooter. Within seconds, it becomes a side scrolling space fighter, only to morph into a hack and slash combo based action RPG minutes later. Even the third person action RPG element, which makes up the core of the game, is broken up into segments where you’re playing a 2D platformer or a top down shooter. Add to all of this hacking mini games that are super fun, seconds-long bullet hell shooters with a nice minimal art aesthetic, and you’ve got yourself a game that’s trying to be everything that it can be and succeeding beautifully.
NieR: Automata’s strongest trait is how flawlessly it is able to switch between its different play styles and perspectives with no interruption to gameplay. It’s often just a change of the camera, but the transitions happen naturally and quickly. This makes the game feel fresh and constantly energized.
This dynamic pairs well with the game’s combat due to its fast pace and fluidity. Few games play as nicely as the combat in NieR: Automata. You’ll often string together a series of melee hits while dodging a never-ending stream of baddie bullets before quickly moving in for a finishing strike. Or you can use a gun to play crowd control around you while doing aerial acrobatics to avoid damage. The fight system is combo based, alternating between light and heavy attacks, as well as using the shoulder buttons to control your pod (a flying weaponized robot companion), allowing you to shoot a strong laser or conjure a giant hammer at a moment’s notice.
The game is flexible with how you approach combat, though the real beauty is in the melee. Chopping machines to pieces with your sword often feels like watching a beautifully choreographed ballet piece (of course with tons of violence and Japanese bravado). It’s everything you can expect from the team responsible for the Bayonetta series, but better.
There is also a fair amount of character customization. You can add chips to your android, which do a variety of things from adding a shock wave to your attacks, raising your max health, and even an auto combat option in case you feel like breezing through the game. You can also upgrade your weapons for more damage, and add programs to your pod to give it new abilities.
The amount of things NieR: Automata attempts to accomplish sadly also happens to be its downfall. The game’s environment is gorgeous and sprawling, placing you in a ruined city surrounded by sky scrapers and the remains of Goliath robots, but the game isn’t able to keep up. Even on a PS4 Pro, there’s constant texture pop-in, to the extent that the cloudy atmosphere feels like a cover up for poor tree renders. The amount of objects you can’t interact with is also incredibly frustrating. Many of the buildings are filled with open doors and crevices to explore, almost none of which your character can actually enter no thanks to invisible walls.
The limited scope of the environment definitely works to make the game less of an ‘open world’. The game is very contained into specific spaces you can’t explore beyond, making them more levels with hubs as opposed to a large cohesive whole. The forest area quickly becomes the desert area, both of which feel small and constrained. The Flooded City and the Copied City only serve as platforms for boss battles.
Even putting the spatial limitations aside, there are a lot of frustrations that come from the game trying to do too much. One in particular is that the game totally drops the ball on introducing you to mechanics for things like your pod or your weapons. It’s possible to play through the game without ever upgrading your gear or your abilities, or even better, knowing that those things can be upgraded. Even something as simple as where to go to upgrade certain items is a mystery. Moments like this results in a lot of paused game time while you Google how to use the hundreds of chips you picked up through the course of the game or figure out how to upgrade a sword to level 4.
The storyline is pretty flimsy too, but what you can expect from the sort of mysterious and kooky individual who constantly wears a giant smiling robot head in all interviews and appearances. It’s weird for the sake of being weird. You are androids sent to earth to fight for human kind against the machines. Yes, you’re a machine as well. But you’re a machine with blood in you. Now it’s time for you to explore your body and your feelings while you do a bunch of things and fight some half naked dudes named Adam and Eve.
While the game definitely warrants complaints, its high points are well worth your time. The environments, while limited in scope, are stunning. The scale of the buildings makes you feel tiny and awestruck, and the feel of the world growing back from its destruction is captivating. Each area has a distinct feel and manages to leave a lasting impression. Two areas in particular, a carnival themed level and a castle themed level, are absolutely breathtaking and two of the few times I’ve stopped during a video game to take snapshots. These smaller, concentrated zones work best with the game’s limitations and really allow NieR: Automata to shine as they capture the brilliance and nostalgia of more traditionally linear action platformers.
Craziness is not necessarily a bad thing either. While the story and characters themselves may not be wholly gripping, Yoko Taro’s mind is a weird and often delightful thing, conjuring up everything from tiny moments to whole levels that feel truly unique, the kind that would not have gotten green lit anywhere else. This insanity adds to the grandiosity that gives NieR: Automata its confident swagger ultimately drives the heart of the game.
All of this is paired with a gorgeous soundtrack from composer Keiichi Okabe that hits all the right notes of moody-anime-epic-awesomeness. The arrangements run from orchestral to chilled out electronics, yet always with a choir in the mix, which works well to accentuate the feel of the landscapes and battles. It’s seriously one of the best video game soundtracks out there and plays a huge role in the driving aesthetic that helps the game be so charming in its brightest moments.
NieR: Automata is not perfect but there is a lot to enjoy. You’ll be hard pressed to find something as flashy or just precise as the combat system. The story, while gloriously gonzo, is capable of hitting some very emotional notes. Even the non-boss fights in this game can be absurdly epic, and the boss fights themselves put most games to shame in terms of sheer awesomeness.
It’s a game that strives to be a lot of things and delivers on most, while falling flat on a handful of others. It’s a super stylish action RPG with one of the most satisfying combat systems I’ve played on the PS4, and it largely accomplishes what it sets out to be. The shortcomings don’t ruin the game, but they do a consistent job of reminding you that they’re there, taking away from the overall experience at times. Ultimately, if you’re looking for flashy, fast paced fights and epic robot action in a beautifully designed world and atmosphere, NieR: Automata is a must play.