Imagine this: you follow echoing footsteps into a dark and gloomy factory. Lined up along the walls are robots - cute little robots - holding torches. The atmosphere is biblical and creepily unpleasant, and in the background, you hear an ominous chorus. Soon you will meet the mechanical leader: Robot Priest. Fast forward a couple of minutes. You are now in the air, the camera angle is positioned right above you, and you sit in a mech-like vehicle.
Suddenly the game goes from Bayonetta-esque action to a mix of Gradius and Galaga. Equipped with machine guns and missiles you have to decimate everything on the screen while avoiding attacks, and towards the end, you can usually expect a boss so huge that half the screen is covered. Does this sound strange? Welcome to Nier: Automata. Platinum Games collaborated with Square Enix and Yoko Taro with the plan being to deliver a package of fast-paced action loosely based on the cult Nier game that hit PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
The game is set a whopping 10,000 years after its predecessor, and we assume the role of 2B, an android that belongs to a YoRHa, a special force sent by the humanity that's currently taking shelter on the moon after a devastating alien invasion. The big threat on Earth consists of various types of machinery and robots. It will be up to us - 2B - and the rest of YoRHa to stop the horror by beating, shooting, running and jumping down anything that gets in the way. The narrative is interesting and covers topics such as consciousness, family ties, and blind obedience. We don't want to spoil anything but the story takes a few interesting twists and turns before reaching a satisfying climax.
The cornerstone of Nier: Automata is action that plays out in the third-person, complete with a clear narrative, an open and dynamic game world, and Platinum Games' patented accessible playability. It's a bit like Zelda meets Bayonetta, if you will. The game world is large, varied and full of dynamic changes, secrets and side missions. As you make progress through the game's main missions, different areas open up and new characters need help with tasks that vary in complexity and scale.
The characters we meet range from rebel fighters to robots that are no longer linked to their superiors any more. One such character is a pacifist named Pascal. He and some robots have decided to live a peaceful life in a forest located a short distance from the city. They have built up a small community and every resident can talk to you and offer insight into their thoughts and lives. In one of the side quests, we escorted a parade of robots dressed as clowns and protected them against evil robots. In another, we recovered intel lost by the rebels, info that could prove important in the ongoing struggle.
Side missions are critical as they reward you with experience points, materials and weapons. The main missions are more straightforward; run to the point A, fight a variety of enemies, listen to an exchange of information. They often end with a boss battle, and they're very well-made and loaded with character. Such an encounter begins early in the game when we encounter a robot who has taken a liking to opera music, on a big stage, with a big giant dress and everything. Other bosses are absolutely gigantic creations that require significantly more firepower to master and a very different kind of strategy.
The move between characters, mainly 2B and another android, 9S, initially impressed. 2B is tough, straightforward and always puts the mission first. 9S, on the other hand, often tries to joke around, for example, he wants to be called "Nines", something 2B initially doesn't want to do at all. The other characters we met often felt well written and interesting, and here and there we found small, subtle references to the last game. However, you needn't have played the first to appreciate its successor, because it's completely independent.
If you've ever played God of War, Devil May Cry, or Dante's Inferno, you will quickly get into this. 2B has access to two different weapons and with her there's a small floating robot called Pod. This little guy can be equipped with various tools. It starts off with a machine gun that you can use freely without having to think of ammunition or overheating. You simply hold down "R1" all the time to shoot constantly; it doesn't do much damage but may well save you in a precarious situation.
We can't help but marvel at the madness that Yoko Taro has dreamt up. Nier: Automata constantly switches between game types, but not for the sake of change, but for variety and to surprise the player, keeping you on your toes the entire time. It often feels like an old, classic shoot 'em up, but one that's in a 3D-world with a different mission structure.
Role-playing elements are implemented nicely, and by getting access to a new computer chip, you can equip 2B with new gear. You have limited space so it's crucial to choose wisely and try to combine chips that fit you and your style of play. Nier: Automata is special in the sense that the game has no automatic saving, instead you have to completely rely on the terminals that you find scattered around the world. If you die, you are transported back to the last terminal, but if you are quick to return to the place you died, you can get back your experience points, something reminiscent of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Similarly, you can also find places where other players have fallen, at which point you're given a couple of options. One of your choices is to perform a repair, thus giving you an ally to fight by your side (if you succeed, that is). Alternatively, you'll find a new enemy to challenge you.
It doesn't take long before the music in the game reveals itself as extraordinary. We're talking about incredibly well-composed pieces that range from grand strings with choral accompaniment, through to calmer piano music. No matter where you are or what you're doing, the music is always perfect for the situation and it's a joy to listen to. The same applies to the voice acting: you can choose from Japanese or English and as you've already guessed, the Japanese is the preferred option. The technical aspect isn't entirely spotless, though. The game runs at 60 frames per second, but it's not stable and that number drops frequently, which is a shame.
Nier: Automata is also way too brown and grey. With extra brown. Lot's of brown. All brown. Brown brown brown. Four thousand different versions of brown. The entire game is permeated by a watered-down look that's just... bland. Even in full sunlight, the game world feels grey and dull (and did we mention brown?), and the designs of the game's chief enemy, the robots, are a bit boring. Sure, they come in different sizes and variations, dressed in different outfits, but the overall style leaves something to be desired.
After a slow start, Nier: Automata grows into an excellent adventure. The battles are nicely animated, and the world is big and packed with content. The story and its characters did an excellent job of keeping us stuck to the screen throughout. It's entertaining and memorable, although it's mainly the technical elements and the game's anonymous design that lowers the rating one notch.
This is Platinum's best game for a long time, what with the total disaster that was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan and the cancellation of Scale Bound. It feels like an important game and proof that the studio has actually mastered the genre, once again. Nier: Automata is one for those who like frantic action accompanied by a heavy story. Along with some experimental camera angles, this is a wonderful package that feels both classic and modern at the same time.
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