NieR: Automata is a difficult game to love. Indeed, for the first fifteen or so hours of your first playthrough, you may be a little nonplussed by its disparate elements. Yet once the credits roll, and you realise that the game is far from over, you will begin to understand that Taro Yoko has actually created something quite special indeed.
Trying to categorise a game like this is tricky. For the most part, it’s an action-RPG, set on an abandoned Earth in the year 11495. Androids are fighting to reclaim control of our home planet from an alien uprising, whilst humans have taken cover on the moon. Into the fray step the female android 2B and her male companion 9S, two specialists working alongside a resistance faction on the planet. But right from the beginning, NieR: Automata refuses to bow to traditional genre convention and throws you into a bullet-hell shmup before you’ve even touched down.
Like many JRPGs, there is an overwhelming sense of aloofness to begin with. As with similar games such as the Xenosaga trilogy, the sterility and often emptiness of the environments can present a world that feels detached and hard to penetrate in order to find that kernel of emotion to drive you forward. But this is a story about androids, machines, and the evolution of AI. When you look back on it - and you will - you’ll realise that this detachment is crucial to the game’s narrative. Without that benchmark to compare its late-game story to, the exercise would fail completely.
Not that it’s a flawless experience, or even an enjoyable one at times. As 2B travels the game hub - a modest world map compared to some of the more recent releases we’ve seen - you’ll encounter invisible walls, repetitive buildings and the same groups of enemies, especially in the city itself. Stubby machines, which appear to have been based on the Android logo, are the game’s meat. Through a combination of light and heavy attacks, dodging, and support from your invincible over-the-shoulder Pod, they can be dispatched with relative ease and in Platinum Games’ trademark style. Combat is never on a par with the likes of Bayonetta or Vanquish, but then NieR: Automata isn’t an all-out action game.
Variations on these enemies will be revealed as you progress, but the boss fights are where the game truly excels, both in creativity and sheer scope. Whether you’re battling a gargantuan living oil rig, a crazed sphere four times your height, or a metal snake composed of the bodies of dead robots, these encounters make you forget the more torpid parts of the game that you had to push through to reach them. 2B carries two weapons - one for each of her attacks - and these can be switched out for different items that you’ll discover or purchase. The combos you can create by mixing and matching your armoury is impressive, and the thrill of executing a perfect dodge before unleashing a ferocious volley of hits on your opponent never becomes stale.
Additionally, 2B is able to equip different plug-in chips which offer boosts to attack, defense, health, and more. You are able to fuse these with similar chips in order to make more powerful versions, but are limited by the amount of available slots you have. These can also be upgraded, along with your Pod’s capabilities to unleash a powerful laser, a brief defensive shield or more interesting energy attacks. There are trade-offs given the lack of space you have, so the game offers a number of different load-outs which you can customise and switch between, depending on how you’re planning on tackling a particular fight.
Some of the plug-in chips you equip may make you feel a little overpowered at times, such as the constant health regeneration or the bonus to health you get for killing or hitting opponents. In fact, switching to Easy mode will let you equip auto chips which take care of pretty much everything for you - dodging, firing your pod’s weapon, the works. In certain scenarios, such as during many of the Asteroids-style hacking games, it’s perfectly possible on this setting to put the controller down and let the game play for you.
Yet even on Normal difficulty, whenever you start becoming complacent another boss appears to smack you down. Death isn’t the end though, since you can return to the spot of your defeat and recover your body à la Dark Souls in order to reclaim your chips and experience. If you fail to do so before you die, you’ll lose what you gathered since your last save. It’s worth noting that there is no autosave in the game - you’ll need to locate a specific hub in order to quick save, but they are fortunately copious enough not to make this feel like too much of a chore. The exception is the first hour and a half, where dying before discovering the first save point will leave you gnashing your teeth in anger.
Visually, outside of the aforementioned drab, repetitive city environment, NieR: Automata offers a variety of locales for you to traverse. They may be given names like Forest Zone and Desert Zone, but that mundanity belies the design work that has gone into them, and the camera does its best to showcase this as it switches perspective from side-on to top-down as you race through their sprawling rooms. When you move to the inevitable bullet-hell sequences (this is a NieR game, after all), they also offer up some stunning set-pieces which do well to mask the rather rote twin-stick combat. However, if the graphics impress, it’s the soundtrack that truly shines. A breadth of tracks ranges from soaring apocalyptic choruses to mournful violins and chiptune hacking ditties, and each feels perfectly at home in its respective environment.
But ultimately, it’s the story that deserves the most credit. While other games like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter have experimented with the idea of replaying a game to reveal more of its story on each playthrough, here it’s an essential part of the experience. You’ll need to complete the game three times - at least - to understand exactly what is going on, but the rewards for doing so are far greater than the potential repetition you’ll encounter - and even so, that repetition probably makes up only two-thirds of the second playthrough and as for the third, well, that’s best left to be discovered. Beats in the narrative which seem commonplace on your first go will be given an explanation through fresh eyes, and the bizarre behaviour of the machines you battle starts to make sense as you uncover their real motivation.
There are twenty-six endings in total. Five of them make up the core, with the others providing interesting and often amusing asides for you to discover (one such example is death by fish. No, really.) 2B and 9S are excellent protagonists with differing viewpoints, and though the game occasionally muddles their goals and agendas, it is their discovery of what is actually happening which continues to propel them - and you - forward. There are deep themes explored here, some subtle, some overly on-the-nose. But the underlying sadness ramps up on your second playthrough before ultimately hitting a magnificent crescendo of pathos and empathy by the end of the fifth. Characters which are barely touched upon first time around become far more important, and the side quests reflect the narrative’s broader strokes with more focused, poignant mini-tales. They may involve simple RPG staples such as collecting items from defeated foes or searching for people to talk to, and if you didn’t want to tackle any of them it wouldn’t detract from the main experience. But they serve the purpose of enhancing, elaborating on, and generally solidifying a tragic theme.
It was a brave move to craft NieR: Automata in this way, and if you don’t have the patience to see through the forty hours needed to fully appreciate what it offers, you may well shrug your shoulders and ask what the fuss is about. It’s far from perfect, and some of the clunkier aspects of the menu system, the repetitive areas and the grunt enemies can occasionally make you drift into boredom. But set aside your expectations and commit to seeing it through, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most unique and considered takes on existentialism to ever come out of Japan.