Mankind aren’t great at taking hints, are we? The Matrix and The Terminator, amongst many others, have warned us about the dangers of proceeding with this folly of creating smarter machines. But instead we plough on regardless, inventing self-service checkouts to judge our weekly shopping and grow ever more resentful of humans as we shout “IT’S IN THE BAGGING AREA ALREADY STOP BLEEPING” while trying to buy some red wine and a box of tissues.
Game: NieR: Automata
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided)
Basically, writers have got a lot of mileage out of the ‘man vs machine’ idea. In the world of NieR: Automata (I probably won’t be typing that capital ‘R’ every time) it seems we never did quite learn our lesson from Neo or John Connor, as the action takes place during the 14th (!) machine war. Following an alien invasion, machines got a bit too big for their boots and things kicked off. Humans retreated to the moon, except a few resistance members, while the robots continue to make themselves at home on earth, moving all the furniture and generally being a nuisance. Humans are sending androids back down intermittently to do their dirty work for them, and you play one of them; 2B, a hero pencilled-in to lead her fellow androids to victory. 14th time lucky, yeah?
And a wonderful character she is too, aside from the usual cliche of women in videogames having to fight in high heels and short skirts like they forgot they were going into battle and had to come straight from a hen party with no time to change. Android or not, 2B is sketched in more detail than the majority of human characters from similar games. Support comes from hapless but courageous 9S, who annoyingly looks quite similar to 2B which can make picking out your character difficult when you’re fighting side-by-side and things are getting hectic. Perhaps they share a stylist. Nevertheless, the bold and no-nonsense style of 2B and the naive 9S play very well together. Your attack pod, ever-present and hovering over your shoulder with extra weapons options for causing havoc, fits the recent archetype of deadpan robot buddies. Spewing painfully obvious statements and advice with oblivious abandon, it’s a nice counterpoint to the seriousness of 2B.
While the huge towering Goliath bosses are intimidating as you’d expect, of much more interest are the bog-standard, waddling machine soldiers and their larger cousins. As you progress, hints start appearing that everything may not be as you were lead to believe from the start, and you’re given some choice in how you deal with some enemies who are not what you were expecting. There’s a unique vibe to the whole thing; it’s not overly anime in aesthetic so it doesn’t sink into the pack of action RPGs, the grey and beige robots instead resembling something from an Aardman animation more than anything else. Some characters that you’ll encounter later in the game (no spoilers, chaps) are more typical cookie-cutter game fodder, though.
Meanwhile, on the action side of the ‘action-RPG’ tag, things are smooth and energetic. Strongly drawing from Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, you can slice or shoot through the mechanical waves in serious style. Combining attacks from your blades and attack pod becomes a fine ballet, especially when you pick up a companion to bombard whichever poor stumbling rusty sap you’re going to dissect next. It’s classic Platinum, previously purveyors of the aforementioned Bayonetta as well as Metal Gear Rising; frantic, stylish and with well-timed dodges as a major requirement. This is particularly prevalent due to the bullet-hell nature of some parts of the game, with slow-moving projectiles filling the screen in waves giving you endless opportunities to look flashy as you dance around them.
Even so, from a distance this could easily be a polished version of something like last year’s God Eater 2, or any of that ilk. But from these fairly familiar ‘blade and bullets’ roots grows something truly remarkable. The game begins as a scrolling top-down shooter, with protagonist 2B skimming over the ocean in a flight suit. Not typical of the entire game by some way, this section is a great introduction to the way the game frequently switches perspective; flipping from third-person action RPG to side-scrolling or top-down blaster. This adds instant variety to a genre that could easily become repetitive, but also means things come unstuck on occasion. The camera isn’t the greatest going, and you’ll occasionally find yourself with an obscured view or heading the wrong way during the transitional switches. Also, aerial combat becomes somewhat tricksy when you’re using a top-down perspective, even though leaping about the gaffe and reigning sharp, pointy death down on your opponents is one of the game’s strengths. Either way, I found these retro-feel areas of twin-stick shooting and side-scrolling enormous fun in the small doses you’re granted them.
Nevertheless, an occasionally ‘janky’ camera is one of very few issues I had with Nier: Automata. The RPG elements are indeed present and correct, but dialogue is far from overdone. Cut scenes and interactions are mercifully short, so you can spring right back into action without feeling bogged down in speech. This is after all a game and not a book, something many other titles would do well to remember. Find the right people and you can upgrade weapons, chips, and purchase all the usual RPG things. You know the sort of thing, materials and health recovery items. This is well trodden ground.
Speaking of well-trodden ground, if you’re after an open-world experience these are not the androids you’re looking for. While the post-apocalyptic city has definitely been done to death as a setting for a game, Nier does a lot with an area that is some way off being an open-world, packing in so much that you barely notice you’re backtracking over areas frequently. The world is as big as it needs to be, and while it may not share the depth of an Ubisoft title or a GTA (you’ll often find your attempts at exploration hindered by invisible walls) it’s not exactly disappointing. There’s a decent amount of stuff packed in to the area, quests to discover and NPCs to chat up, even if it’s not Hyrule.
NieR: Automata finds itself released at a tricky time, amongst hyped behemoths Zelda and Horizon Zero Dawn. It would be a huge shame if it were to find itself buried amongst these titles, as it’s a masterclass in fun, hectic combat. Engaging, surprising and energetic, Square Enix and Platinum have another winner in a year that has already boasted some huge scores for new games.