Nier: Automata (PS4) Review
THE SHORT VERSION
Comparisons between Nier Automata and Horizon Zero Dawn may be inevitable, but not wholly accurate. Though the two games emerged at roughly the same time, the former is a tightly-focused and coherent single character journey across a well-paced and thoughtfully written plot.
Nier: Automata is...a little different.
THE SLIGHTLY LONGER VERSION
To call the story of Nier: Automata absolutely loopy is to call the Grand Canyon a little wide. There's an underlying thread of the standard post-apocalyptic "reclaim the Earth" plot that a lot of games - including, yes, Horizon Zero Dawn - have capitalised on recently. But woven around that thread are philosophical themes of obsolescence, legacy, rebirth, evolution, identity, purpose and (most aptly) repetition, the latter of which is borne out through the multiple playthroughs needed to complete the game. The overlapping narrative and thematic strands can be thrilling and thoughtful, with a lot of them converging as the plot barrels towards its endgame. For vast tracts before the game gets going, though, it comes across as somewhat alienating, both for its inherent weirdness and the number of plates it's attempting to keep spinning simultaneously. On top of that, in the tradition of similar mind-screw games like Undertale and Pony Island, one of Nier: Automata's hallmarks is its ability to disrupt player expectations. I'd be remiss to detail most of the ways the game manages to mess with the player - including one which feels like a subtle shout-out to Journey - but ultimately, you should expect that there will be times that the fourth wall will not protect you. If nothing else, Nier: Automata dares to dream when it comes to subverting player assumptions and the use of the video game medium.
For the majority of the game, 2B is one of the most uninteresting protagonists I've ever inhabited. Her muted, somewhat soulless android nature makes her almost impossible to relate to, with the bulk of the initial emotional weight carried by her companion 9S. A game doesn't have to have a main character who fits us like an emotional glove for it to excel - others, such as Half-Life, work well in having almost no inherent characterisation for the protagonist - but in a story which relies on cathartic payoff at several key moments, it's rare for me to feel the kind of emotional reaction that the game obviously intends me to have due to how disassociative 2B feels. The game's latter half handles this player-character connection much better, but for a lot of the early going I felt more sympathy for my sidekick 9S and the somewhat better-defined robots we were fighting, rather than for the protagonist I was piloting. 2B's blatant oversexualisation also doesn't help. There is literally an achievement for looking up her insultingly short hemline ten times (though she pushes the player camera away when you try, for what it's worth). There is also an action you can take, which I won't spoil, that allows you to do every mission in the game with your dress ripped off, leaving 2B in the top half of a black leotard and a skin-tight white mankini which shows off her (as heralded by the game's director himself) lovingly rendered buttocks. When this issue was brought up in pre-release, Yoko Taro's justification that the game is artistic and "niche" rang quite hollow. Even when taking the game as being strongly influenced by anime - something also brought up frequently to defend some of the game's stylistic choices - I still felt uncomfortable playing with that aspect.
But as much as I don't count 2B as one of gaming's most gripping or progressive protagonists, I have to admit that Nier: Automata has some of the most effective worldbuilding in recent memory. The game does its best through minimal infodumps to orient the player to the YoRHa's mission, sparingly using cutscenes and character dialogue without becoming didactic. The conflict between the androids and robots is setup quite well, even the locales they do battle in are largely unmemorable. The sole exception is an amusement park discovered early on, whose novelty is enough to salvage the previous few hours of trudging around a dull, bombed-out city. The inherent narrative mechanics of how 2B and the androids carry out their missions - such as the gravity-based sword holsters which make weapons hover behind her back, or the body-storing machines which act as save points - are similarly intriguing and well-designed.
Going hand in hand with the above, the literal gameplay mechanics are as smooth as planed wood. Combat is swift and simple to enter, with 2B making use of a sword (with two kinds of attack), a secondary weapon and her floating Pod robot, which is capable of firing charge lasers and bullet-hell-style streams of projectiles at enemies. 2B's armament is customised by chipsets which determine the passive and active abilities she can use, as well as the elements that will appear on your HUD. Don't want to see the ammo counter or your health meter? Yank the chips out to your heart's content. Do be careful, though, since there's an Operating System chip you can remove which will literally kill you where you stand. As I mentioned above, the game screws with the player a bit.
At its core, Nier: Automata is an intelligent, robot-slashing, innovative and, at times, pulpy meditation on the post-apocalypse, the use of machines as human substitutes, and the necessity of purpose. Its weirdness is matched only by its tenacity, its frustrating elements balanced by engrossing ones, and its missteps topped by its bold strides.
Nier: Automata is available now for Playstation 4 and PC.
Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Square Enix Australia.