You won’t get to play another game quite like Nier: Automata this year. It’s a rare gift that’s different from what you would expect both in its wrapping and in its substance.
Nier: Automata will frustrate many, that’s for sure, myself included. It’s like being punched in the face by a well-dressed person with nicely manicured fingernails, and it’s a really good punch. Sure, it will upset you, but you got to hand it to them.
Glory to Mankind
Nier is back! Sort of! But Automata’s loose connection with the original Nier is much less tenuous than that with Drakengard, acting much more as a spiritual successor to the latter. Man had to flee to the moon after an alien invasion sent deadly machines to wipe us out. Many years later, a force of androids known as the YoRHa has been sent back to Earth to rendezvous with the resistance on the ground and destabilize the machine forces.
I’m on board. This also allows Platinum Games to go outside the box. Rather than a simple cutscene or even an abrupt shift in space and time to get to Earth, you get to play as the YoRHa forces entering Earth’s atmosphere and fighting off enemies in a spaceship segment that’s equal parts Asteroid and Starfox. These segments are repeated throughout Automata and they underscore a theme of shaking up the core gameplay. While it could be a straight-forward hack-and-slash, we’ll soon find out that Nier: Automata is anything but straight forward.
Even before you get to what you would call “the game,” you have to get through the prologue, which, especially if you play on hard, can feel like the world’s highest-budget roguelike ever created. Not only that, you’ll also play what feel like 3-5 different games in this half-hour segment, with Automata pulling influence from sidescrollers and bullet hell games in addition to the two mentioned above. Once you get to Nier: Automata Proper, we’ll call it, it will be almost unrecognizable, with tight corridors replaced with vast expanses with bases and quest givers and traders and crafters and (the most welcome addition) save points.
I am of a rare breed of gamers who love traditional save points, as opposed to frequent auto-saving checkpoints. The latter makes dying feel like a minor inconvenience more than anything else, which means I don’t have to put much effort into avoiding it. If death sends me back to the last time I saved, and I don’t get to save whenever I want, you best believe I’m going to get better at not dying.
Such is certainly the case with Nier: Automata, especially because the game takes the Dark Souls (and many other games) approach to death. When you die, not only do you revert back to the last place you saved, but you lose some of your items and experience. In order to get that back, you have to retrieve your body. Fair warning, you are still vulnerable when doing this, so make sure to clear out your enemies beforehand.
There are enough of these save points scattered throughout the environment to make this never a big issue. Seeing a save point as you’re approaching a quest objective is usually a dead giveaway, no pun intended, that there is danger ahead, so Nier: Automata never feels too punishing in this respect.
Spiral Of Life
HOWEVER: Although I’m the type of gamer who wants to play games on hard, opting for a challenging experience over a purely cinematic one, Hard mode in Nier: Automata is busted. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not because I couldn’t do it. I did. It’s because the gap between Hard and Normal is enormous enough to make it borderline unenjoyable for gamers like me.
On Hard Mode, enemy attacks can deal four times the damage, and sometimes much more. In the prologue, a missile from the Goliath boss would one-shot me on Hard, where as I took a little more than 100 damage on normal, making up maybe one-tenth of my health at the time. With this disparity, it will be easy to get trapped at one location or another fighting your heart out only to slightly mistime a dodge and be killed in one hit as a punishment. That’s a little harsh. Even bosses in Dark Souls games usually take two or three hits before you die, and they have the courtesy to screw off for a few seconds will you sip Estus.
And I wouldn’t harp on difficulty scaling too much if the next lowest difficulty, normal, wasn’t so easy. Enemies seem to be made of Paper Mache, as are the weapons with which they hit you. So, I’m forced to either breeze through the game on Normal, mindlessly button mashing, or grit my teeth on Hard, hitting R2 every two seconds because every enemy is capable of killing me in one or two hits.
Now, it appears Platinum Games didn’t build Nier: Automata with a steep challenge in mind, but that’s certainly a shame given both their pedigree (Bayonetta and Bayonette 2) and the pedigree of the series (Nier, Drakengard) that are both chalk full of challenging games.
2B Or Not 2B
At the end of the day, difficulty will only create a minor issue for most gamers, as many people play on Normal anyhow, and it doesn’t keep me from recognizing and appreciating the work Platinum Games put in to creating a deep and interesting world with surprisingly in-depth combat.
I wouldn’t think that a game that boasts light attack and heavy attack as their two main combat moves would have a lot to offer in terms of depth, but boy would I be wrong with Nier: Automata. A lot of this has to do with weapon variety, dodge timings and the unwritten combinations you can come up with, but it also has to do with who you are at a given time.
Throughout Automata, you get to play as three different characters – either 2B (the main character, so to speak), 9s or A2, all of whom play differently than the other. It’s a testament to the creativity of Platinum Games that they can do so much with seemingly so little.
Tumbling Down The Robot Hole
The same can be said of their worldbuilding. You would think the post-apocalypse river has long dried up, but Nier: Automata finds many ways to make it fresh. Admittedly the Desert Zone felt a little stale, especially now that Mad Max is back in the public consciousness, but it’s about finding the nuggets in between those areas, and Automata has those in spades.
Even the next main area you get to, Machine Village, will feel like it was created by a different team, but its surrounding areas somehow weave in the feel of the sinister human-killing machines just as effectively as the arid cityscape.
In each of these areas, it’s so easy to tumble down the rabbit hole of one questline that, once you finish, the sheer mass of the remaining areas you didn’t explore will feel overwhelming at best. This isn’t a bad thing, though. If there’s one thing I want to overwhelm me, it’s opportunity.
Despite some questionable (and that’s being friendly) difficulty scaling, Nier: Automata is largely a success. It’s the most unique game I’ve played in 2017, one that will assuredly be in our thoughts when it comes time to consider the best game of the year.
You'll have so much to do and so many ways to do it, with a series of endings as vast as a game like Torment: Tides of Numenera (which was mostly text-based). Nier: Automata begs to be replayed, even as it's punishing you for doing so.