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Don’t worry, I’m not going to yell at you for not playing Nier: Automata. You’re safe here. But I’d appreciate the chance to pitch this one to the lucky gamers who still get to experience it for the first time. And it’ll be a nice victory lap for those of you who already have. While there’s no need to play any previous games, as they are almost completely unrelated, this is the latest installment from the perfectly deranged mind of director Yoko Taro. I want whatever’s wrong with that guy. He might have a real-life Persona palace. Jokes aside, players walk away from Nier: Automata with more thoughts about life than the average philosophy or ethics class is able to inspire.
The most common descriptions you hear associated with this game include profound, powerful and thought provoking. Usually, games like that resemble independent titles like 2016’s Inside with minimalistic gameplay. Bigger budget games that earn these same compliments usually go the way of BioShock or The Last of Us, incorporating simple shooting mechanics throughout a more captivating story that carries the experience. Yet Nier: Automata, despite diving even deeper into the morally and emotionally complex, is still a gameplay-driven experience. This gameplay doesn’t just kill time between story moments. It’s given a starring role in the production. Those profound themes may be the game’s top priority, but the equally clever and blistering action would still make a great game if there were a decreased focus on story. I’m pretty sure that’s called Bayonetta, and it is great. But this time, Platinum Games leaves fans wondering which aspect of their game to praise most.
We can’t just throw around words like powerful without ever specifying what’s so compelling about this thing. Nier: Automata examines humanity from a distance, observing what kind of legacy our species will leave behind. From the neutral perspective of scientific curiosity, you see just how absurd we are in so many ways. From war or vanity to any variety of petty flaws, humans might be a mystery to whatever roams the Earth after us. But the game doesn’t seize the low-hanging fruit of a straightforward satire. After all, bashing humanity is pretty played out at this point. Automata’s human history also presents the equally bewildering concepts of love, loyalty and family that these same scientific beings find a tremendous value in over time.
On more than one occasion, we humans are referred to as “remarkable creatures” after certain discoveries. We’re also described as outright stupid from time to time. I’d say that balance is about as fair a portrayal of our species as any available fiction out there. The artificial life on Earth begins to mimic these human behaviors, both good and bad, regardless of whether or not they fully understand the concepts. This story element lays out what it means to be human, but in such a way that is eerily callous and otherworldly. Usually, entertainment aims to push viewers towards a certain opinion, whether it be blind praise or hyper-cynical resentment. Nier: Automata simply wants you to experience their game’s study of mankind and think for yourself.
Not into all of this artsy, existential nonsense like I am? Don’t worry, Automata is still nonstop robot and android slaughter with some of the most satisfying combat I’ve ever experienced. Fighting comes with endless combinations and possibilities, all of which are equally soothing to the violent soul. Maybe Oscar movies that try to be as deep as possible aren’t your thing. But what if Manchester by the Sea or Moonlight’s messages were presented through 40 hours of the Captain America: Civil War airport fight? Maybe depth is your thing. You just needed a few more backflips. Automata’s experience, and an experience is what this is, does technically require you to play through the game’s story multiple times. Three times, to be specific. The second is essentially the first from a different perspective, but the gameplay is completely changed as if you’ve bought a new game. Certain story elements are also fleshed out to thank you for enduring more than a few repeated scenes. The third and final “required” storyline is a direct continuation of everything you’ve seen, at which point the whole thing gets way heavier than you could’ve expected. Although, after that much time with Automata, it might be exactly what you expect.
On top of depth and action, Nier: Automata brings a surplus of bizarre and often dark humor to the gaming table. More than any other available title, you’ll frequently experience Nier’s patented “Did they seriously just do that?” moment. Whether the intention is to pursue humor, heart or tension, Automata understands that gaming has no rules. Conventional storytelling, down to something as simple as the credits, is viewed by this game as an opportunity to do something different that fans will remember. You can get a game over because you decided to go fishing instead of heading straight to a mission. And I don’t mean a game over as in you died and have to restart the mission. I mean there’s a gimmicky piece of text explaining how this non-canon story ended, credits roll, and the game is over. Don’t worry, these “bad endings” are actually encouraged, you can then reload and resume, and perfectionists will likely work to unlock endings A through Z. Instead of having me spew out a few of the endless examples, just trust that you have not seen this game’s ideas before. Be ready to explain where babies come from to a robot that’s just run away from home.
As far as the Game of the Year race goes, my preference towards odd-numbered years is back in a big way. With only one third of 2017 down, there are already three or four games that would’ve been worthy winners last year. While the highly competitive landscape may just go to waste if Breath of the Wild runs away with it, Horizon: Zero Dawn was my own early pick as 2017’s best. That meaningless accolade has now been forcefully ripped away by the game that excelled in the very few areas that Horizon lacked. While my Horizon review was pretty glowing, I mentioned how everything beyond the world’s basic concepts felt very safe. The game felt that taking itself seriously from start to finish was the most effective way to tell a mostly dramatic story. Tribal huntress pursues robot dinosaurs. I get it; that’s genuinely ballsy. But the layers beneath that surface were more conventional than the premise would suggest. Nier: Automata understands that even the heaviest material contains more than enough room for every emotion. Every decision this game makes is a risk, and every single one of them sticks the landing. I also knocked Horizon’s mid-credits sequence. Let’s just say Nier: Automata’s mid-credits sequence during the true ending warrants a very opposite reaction.
I really can’t think up many negative things to say about this game. Let’s try. There’s an abundance of backtracking until you unlock fast travel, which probably takes too long. The second playthrough’s gameplay style isn’t as pitch-perfect a display of never-ending fun as the original one. The game’s color palette can be a little too grey and would’ve benefitted from more visually diverse landscapes. I would’ve appreciated more enemy types. Oh, and get rid of that constant letterboxing. That’s me making a very concentrated effort to find reasons against buying a game that deserves a lot more attention than it currently has, even if the existing buzz is Nier-perfect (sprints away from laptop in shame). No finished product with this level of gameplay should have a story and characters that are this good. 2B is the perfect lead for this story, and is one of my favorite gaming protagonists to take control of. 9S has to settle for being, by far, the best overall character in gaming this year. And there’s no decline in storytelling effort throughout the supporting cast.
I almost forgot to mention the soundtrack! We nearly had to scrap this entire review. Nier’s music is another example of this game refusing to miss an opportunity. The action is a character, the world is a character, and the soundtrack is most definitely a character. While most games dedicate entire playlists to generate one intended mood, Automata hits you with one after another thanks to a wide variety of seriously fantastic songs. Like everything else in this game, they’re different yet somehow perfect.
As far as accomplishments in the PS4 library are concerned, there’s Witcher 3, and then there’s Nier: Automata. That’s the 1 and 2 of this generation. Or should I say 1…and 2B (leaves the country and changes name). Of course it’s too early to finalize Game of the Year preferences but, in 2017, it’s never too early to start the conversation. By all means, do yourself a favor and give this game a chance. It obviously won’t be for everyone, as weird beyond weird is an understatement. But the very fact that Nier: Automata exists is a great line item in the gaming industry’s history, one that we can only hope developers are paying close attention to.
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