NieR: Automata was a recommendation and loan from a friend. It was a game I was curious about, but hadn’t bothered to pickup because it looked like yet-another-square-enix-action-jrpg, but I was reassured that it was worth a play.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Gameplay

Mechanically this game is flawless. I expected it to be flawless (granted, I also expected graphics/gameplay to be the only good things about this game).

I was still pleasantly surprised. The controls are so snappy and responsive it became a joy to control your character. Moving, attacking, evading, changing direction and everything else in the movement vocabulary is rapid and responsive, but the easing in of the animations and controls are very smooth as well. It gives an incredible sensation of control and flow. The game does a fantastic job of making you feel like you are a heavy but agile android.

Attacking is fantastic as well, combining the primeval satisfaction of dispatching enemies with deft sword movements from glistening katanas, but with the apropos and exaggerated aspect of controlling them telekinetically with some sort of digital glyph for impossible and satisfying combos.

I am not a SHMUP fan, and starting off the game in a SHMUP was an slow hook for me. The SHMUP sections further were never satisfying for me, but they were never horrible difficult, and I do appreciate changing things up to keep a good momentum without causing burnout on a single mechanic. It did feel a bit orthogonal and out of place though.

In true RPG fashion I was treated to levels, equipment, and upgrade systems. As I grow older I am growing weary of level systems–“if you can’t beat a hard boss, just grind!” works for accessibility, but makes a game tedious and repetitive. The chip system for upgrades on the other hand was a fantastic addition to the game. Between upgrades to increase stats/decrease detriments, or add new abilities there was enough variety here to not only customize your gameplay, but also adapt to situations. Having 3 configurations also helps for switching between situations. I would have much preferred to have the chip system without a level system on top of it though.

“Open World” and Environment

The “open world” was not quite so open. Early story missions unlock a handful of areas in order, and the rest of the game is spent doing missions that take you all around the area’s you’ve already accessed. This makes the world start feeling very small, but at the same time familiar due to the diversity of areas. The mission format gets tedious if you’re a completionist, but it is also clear what the main objective is when you lose patience. It’s also possible later in the game to replay chapters for missed missions as well, which is a nice player-friendly touch.

In all honesty I had no desire for a large open world, and the conciseness of the world they did create really helped support a narrative which kept me engaged. The small area was familiar, but it also kept changing at certain story events. The small area causes you to very often run into the various factions in the game, and to stumble upon and see their narrative play out before your eyes.

The gorgeous detail does expose a glaring fault: invisible barriers. The game is full of barriers and they are not applied consistently nor are attempts always made to graphically convey there is a barrier. This leads to situations such as not knowing if you can jump off a ledge or not. Is it a pit? Is it a secret area? …is it the end of the level? You just have to keep trying, and more often than not it’s a barrier of some kind, so you just keep running into them over and over again. Where this really annoyed me was in the dilapidated buildings present in the central area. All of them are the skeletons of large windowed skyscrapers, but all the glass is gone–destroyed over the course of centuries of decay. This means nearly every building has large android-sized openings all around them, but a majority of these openings are in fact …invisible barriers… The most frustrating part is that some are openings! Some have secrets as well! But, you can’t visually determine which ones are so you are constantly trying openings. Some of these openings that were previously windows have been caved in with rubble and are visually impassible. And that’s the key point–rubble is a fantastic visual indicator of the barrier present.

I can imagine an argument that filling in all the openings would make the world not feel as empty or desolate, which is an important aspect of the environment to contribute to the ambiance, and making them a passable opening puts excessive pressure on level design and QA teams in order to make all those inner areas navigable. But, this became very frustrating and made the game feel rushed and unpolished. Other areas of the game have better compromises with things like grates or fences or vines: objects that are visually not as obscuring, but intuitively a barrier as well. The team has some very amazing artistic and creative talent and it surprises me that there are some situations such as these.

Despite that, and despite the small map, the world does indeed feel empty and abandoned. You are always navigating the decaying ruins of a [previously] modern human civilization, and the ambiance weighs heavily on their absence and the reclamation of nature. The ambiance is very important to the feel of the game, and given a choice I will favor with the compromises made over decreasing the effectiveness of the environment.

Desert Zone and Music

In short: the soundtrack and music in this game is phenomenal.

Where this first started to impress on me was the desert area towards the start of the game. Sitar music and high-pitched chanted singing gave an unmistakable desert ambiance while also invoking memories of Ghost in the Shell.

I’ve tried listening to the soundtrack on its own, and while I enjoyed it there was something missing. I think what I’m experiencing is the lack of exceptional synchronization of the different tracks in the music as well as the fantastic transitioning. The presence of those two results in music that is thematic but expertly responsive to the situation and makes the gameplay experience that much more immersive and a pleasure to play.

Exiting a cave to find an abandoned housing complex reclaimed by desert, just to hear the vocals and instrumentals pick up in volume and tempo as you begin dashing towards them bubbles the association of humanity and civilization that once inhabited them and raises questions about what is now occupying them, but the tone of the music reminds one of their nature as an empty shell of humanity.

Amusement Park and Cinematics

The end of Desert Zone left me with a very big “what?…” moment that was causing me to think about what may be lying beneath the surface in this game. From here I set off towards the next zone for a story mission–find a missing android who was exploring an area of the map–they’ve since boarded up this area for fear of what it may contain. I head towards that point on the map and find that getting there involves traversing a sewer section.

The sewer was dark and twisted with every sound echoing. I’m on edge as you navigate it, but it turns out to be straightforward and short. I emerge from the sewer into a quiet and serene, but narrow, forest area. I round a corner and see an Epcot style castle in the distance as a carnivalesque soundtrack is slowly picking up in the background. You can hear bangs in the distance (possibly gunfire?). As I approach the castle, the saccharin-turned-horror-movie amusement park music comes into full swing, and the narrow path causes me to pan your camera angle up to take in the full view. At this point the game took over the camera and slowly moves up to show the amusement park castle illuminated against the falling night sky, with robots dressed as clowns fire volleys of balloons into the sky and confetti cannons blast in the distance. Slowly text appeared across the screen, “Amusement Park”.

While not fully in control the entire time, the build up and unexpected nature of this area was wonderfully executed, and it was this moment that made me feel I was playing something worthwhile. Taking a cue from horror movies, the intro to this zone builds suspense in cycles and then releases an unexpected climax for the intro. While it moves to a cutscene, the punch for me occurred entirely in my control and made me feel present and immersed in this world.

While this would be my favorite and most memorable moment, most of the game plays out like this. Cinematic (or kinematic?) techniques employed expertly to evoke an emotion from the player.

Robot Village: Empathy and Philosophy

In this game, Robots are the enemy. Emotionless machines created for the purpose of genocide. This has been established via dialog and reinforced as every robot you’ve encountered has been hostile and aggressive–actively involved in your destruction and unequivocally your enemy. In the Amusement Park area, I approached the robots in this area and discovered they are dressed as grotesque caricatures of clowns and other carnival folk. This put me on edge right away and I attacked preemptively to prevent a distressing situation. But then I began to notice… these enemies were not aggressive. In fact, if I approached these enemies without previously making an aggressive move, I could…talk to them? They acted like NPCs, not mobs.

But hey, they are creepy and this is a game and I need materials to upgrade my weapons. So… I slaughter every single enemy in the area as I went further into the amusement park towards the boss.

After an epic fight against a haunting and sadistic boss, I emerged from this carnival of horrors and in an abandoned alley outside the area I was approached by a low-level enemy …waving a white flag.

This enemy lead me to Pascal’s village, which is situated in an arboreal paradise for robots. I soon discovered this is a group of robots who have rejected the commands of their alien overlords in order to lead a pacifist existence, and that they wish to establish peace with the androids so they can live out their lives… and explore their humanity.

This appeared to be the culmination of what I have witnessed so far as “odd” robot behavior–imitating humans. It appears to be that the robots aren’t just imitating human behavior, but may just be evolving and developing traits and individuality. I’ve heard this game referred to as “the most philosophical game” (mostly via tongue-in-cheek for all the blatant references to famous philosopher’s and their works), but this is the point in the game that made me want to dig deeper and explore what the game is trying to convey and explore.

Wrapping up

This game is also lined with so many things that just astounded me. There’s 2B’s boot sequence in the opening scene that is rapid fire voice going through the initialization of her systems. There’s the chip equipping screen that functions almost like a heap (requiring you to “defrag” it if you remove a chip), along with chips that are required to be equipped [or make the game nearly unplayable without] such as the OS chip and the UI chip–removal of the latter will remove most of the UI, while the former will give you a gameover.

The costumes are fantastic, the art style is fantastic, and the color palettes are subtle but not browned out or boring.

The design of the robots is consistent but with enough variety, with robots in different regions differentiated by the leaking in of different human traits and outfits.

These are some of the many things that made this game intriguing and a pleasure to play, with the implication of a profound experience hidden underneath propelling me further and further along. This game gave me an experience I have not had in a long while, especially from a AAA title, and will stick with me for quite a while.

… Ending A?

Oh, and there are multiple endings and multiple play-throughs. I will have to cover that in a followup…