Nier: Automata

I've always had a bit of a soft-spot for the Yoko Taro's work in Drakengard and Nier. They're very very flawed games that in many aspects fail to deliver on the sheer ambition behind them, but nevertheless (after slogging through its ugly portions) offered strange, unique stories that were among the most memorable narratives I've experience, rough patches and all. It is therefore with cautious optimism I awaited for the spiritual sequel to Nier after it was announced a couple years ago, this time under Platinum Games (of Bayonetta and Metal Gear Revengeance fame). Will there finally be a Yoko Taro game paired with better than merely serviceable game play? After some 35 hours with the game, I can happily say that it is indeed been worth the wait.
Nier Automata takes place several millenia after the events of the the true ending of the original Nier. In the interim years, aliens have invaded Earth with an army of intelligent robots and the story now takes place centuries into the ensuing proxy war between the alien robots and earth's own android army. In the game, you play through the perspective of a few of said androids as they fight on in a ceaseless war, because it is their purpose. Without spoiling anything, it's a thoroughly engaging and at times touching tale, and a far more consistent experience throughout compared to the Very back heavy narratives of previous titles. 
There is an odd charm to the central narrative here, telling a very human story considering that it is mostly just about two factions of AI, both trying to find meaning in their existence and desiring to be more human despite knowing of its imperfections. The story telegraphs its intent from a light year away, but those story beats hit me all the same and I couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for these strange robots. It's a roller-coaster of a ride all the way to its the game's eventual true ending. To those unfamiliar to Yoko Taro games, the "endings" A to D are essentially all part of a single continuous, linear story till a pretty special ending E, and a suitable sendoff to the Nier storyline. It's quirky in a good way, but some parts like routr B definitely felt cumbersome at times and dragged on longer than I would have liked.
Now all of this does beg one big question. Does not knowing the plot of its prequels affect the game in any way? Nope, not really, as it does successfully tell its own self-contained story-line, while surprisingly staying mostly spoiler-free about the events past. Having played the previous games however, the events in Automata does drive home the poignancy of what happened in those titles, and sprinkled throughout the story and side-quests are many nods and references, hidden in plain sight, small enough that it won't affect the uninitiated, but a nice touch for series veterans. Those curious about the lore can look through this video series for an in depth re-telling of Nier or this one for a quicker overview of the series as a whole. Players who are looking to or have played Automata both might have plenty to enjoy here.
As far as gameplay is concerned, Nier Automata is one big whirlwind of game genres, seamlessly transitioning from third person action RPG into a side-scroller, a bullet-hell scroller, twin-stick shooter and more. What it does great is in using whatever game-mode and perspective that best suites the scene without feeling tacked on, and remarkably keeps a good sense of uniformity throughout by keeping the control layout of every mode always similar. Add on a flexible chip customization, weapon setups and pod skills to better complement your own play-style, it undeniably kept things fresh and interesting through the 25-35 hour game.
The primary game-play mode would be the third person brawler, the forte of Platinum Game studios, and fortunately they delivered. Combat itself is satisfying, with gorgeously stylish animations and great overall flow to the action. It's all great fun, but I do have some nitpicks. There is the occasionally wonky camera and the excessive visual busyness on-screen that can make things hard to see (both also in other Platinum titles). Other more personal issue I have is the curious inability to transition (quickly) from a run into standing combo, the missile pod being quite useless, and the dodge mechanic that is too easily abusable. Perhaps a dodge with less I-frames but covers a greater distance would have felt better, but that's just me. Difficulty wise, I found it a tad too easy on the default difficulty, but the one above it to be just the right balance of challenge and accessibility. 

A small mention goes to the network functionality that you can optionally turn on. It allows you to see the corpses of other players ala Dark Souls, but I mostly found it not all that worth it as it can really clog up areas like boss arenas. But it does serve one pretty special function late in the game, and I recommend turning it on before attempting ending E if only for flavor. Trust me, just do it.
Presentation wise Nier Automata is absolutely top class, with the aforementioned seamless game-play transitions, beautiful animations, and use of color and sound to accentuate mood to great effect in both combat and exploration. Speaking of sound design, Keiichi Okabe and MONACA return once again to handle composition for the game, and I gotta say, it is a real treat to the ears. It takes the original Nier's soundtrack, one of the most beloved in gaming history, and successfully trounces it, becoming yet another one of my personal favorites. 

Graphics wise, while character models and special effects are really good, background assets do suffer a bit with rough textures and some bland designs. Framerate on the PS4 tries to stay at 60fps for the most part, but takes noticeable dips especially in some of the open world areas, though it fortunately is less so during actual combat. In practice, the game does in fact look quite good, it's just not that great.
On more of a personal note, I do wonder if Nier Automata needed that much of an emphasis on an open world as it did. I found the core-engagement of the game was primarily its engaging narrative and solid combat mechanics, and these were accentuated best in the more "linear" sequences that for the most part had more engaging level design and excellent pacing. While the open world does provide some degree of exploration and world-building, I felt that it sometimes dragged down the momentum of the core narrative with more backtracking and menial tasks than were necessary. It may have been a necessary foil for the more hectic moments of the game, but I for one would have very much liked to see a tighter, more focused narrative, especially after Witcher 3 and later Dishonored 2, Horizon Zero Dawn, Mass Effect Andromeda, and Persona 5 (I'll never finish these in 2017 =.=).
Its no secret that the game understandably does not match up to the sheer budget and polish of games like Witcher 3, Dragon Age 3, or the new Zelda. Those who choose to play it will find a very unique, ambitious narrative that is a heck of a lot of fun to play. It has many big ideas and executes most it well, resulting in an amazingly creative and memorable journey that I'll remember for years to come.


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