NieR: Automata — A Game That’s More Than Just a Game
This article is sort of a trial run as part of an experiment where I write articles reviewing various video games I have played. As a disclaimer, I am not a professional reviewer, and I am doing this for purely recreational reasons.
The first game to be covered is NieR: Automata on the PC platform, from the studio PlatinumGames and publisher Square Enix, directed by Yoko Taro. This is a single-player, narrative-driven game with kind of an open-world feel to it, though its “open-world-ness” is not nearly on the same scale as other famous open-world games are. The premise is that Earth has been invaded by aliens with a machine army, and humanity got its ass kicked and had to retreat to the Moon. To defeat the aliens and re-claim Earth, a program that consists of designing sexy battle androids to fight the machines called Yorha was started. You control 2B, an android from this Yorha program, and you are sent down to Earth to fight the machines along with your sidekick 9S.
Without getting too much into spoilers, this game is unique in the sense that the campaign is not the whole game, but merely a part. Most single-player games have the story/campaign, and usually offer an NG+ mode to allow players to replay the story/campaign with all their gear and levels intact, but N:A handles the replay system a little differently. For example, you play through the first “route” as 2B, but the second play-through has you playing the same route, but from the perspective of 9S instead. Each finished play-through in N:A gives you a different “ending,” so it is strongly encouraged to run through the game more than once to get all the endings. There are a total of 26 endings, which seems excessive, but there are only five “important” endings that require only three play-throughs (and doing something via chapter select that gets unlocked after you fully beat the game’s 3 run-throughs but that’s spoiler territory). If you enjoyed the game enough to beat the game the first time around, then I strongly recommend playing the other runs to really get the most from this game.
Going into the game’s strengths, and the first aspect is the game-play. N:A is at core a hack-and-slash game, and a very fun one at that. You can chain combos, dodge enemy attacks with sick animations, and be creative with the different weapon types the game offers. The skill floor is pretty low, so you do not have to be a combat genius to beat down the enemies they throw at you, but it does give a lot of room for some really crazy maneuvers. 2B can wield two weapons at once, so part of the game’s combat lies in what you can accomplish using those two weapons, and depending on what your primary and secondary weapons are, you have access to different weapon move-sets. 9S only has one weapon so he lacks the physical combat diversity 2B has, but he has the ability to hack enemies, in which you damage the enemy via completing the hacking mini-game. N:A also has several parts where you switch from the hack-and-slash mode to an arcade-style, Galaga-esque shooter where you have to shoot down all the enemies, which offers a nice change of pace from the standard hack-and-slash fights if you ever get bored by it. One interesting game-play mechanic to make note of is N:A’s adoption of the Dark Souls death system; dying results in you losing all your chips and you need to retrieve your corpse from your death location to get everything back. You can also see the corpses of other players throughout the game, and you have the option to either absorb their corpses for materials or repair them to summon them as a temporary fighting ally. That feature is especially nice when fighting a tough boss.
Narrative and themes are also extremely important to a lot of story-driven single-player games, and N:A definitely does not fail to deliver. The story is solid, though once again, to fully experience it you need to play the game to completion (unlock the five main endings) to really appreciate it. However, as a word of warning, this game gets pretty dark and tragic despite its rather innocent appearance, so be prepared for a rollercoaster of emotions especially as you progress through the later parts. What I personally enjoyed the most about this game’s writing were its characters and the themes it tries to convey. The characters are well-designed (you can tell by how popular 2B is from all the fanart and cosplays on the Internet) and well-written, and I found them relatable and three-dimensional; very “human” characters despite them not actually being humans. Even the machines, despite what the game tries to tell you, have a lot of personality, which really makes you wonder why you are trying so hard to kill them in the first place. Thematically, this game addresses its share of philosophical concepts, with existentialism and nihilism being central themes, and I honestly think it does it pretty well without shoving it in your face (N:A’s thematic elements can honestly go into its own essay). That, combined with the tragic narrative twists, makes N:A a game that is not afraid to delve into the more serious aspects of human life while still remaining fun as a video game. It is not completely depressing though, and there are a lot of funny and light-hearted moments that help offset the times where the game gets really dark. The strongest part of the story for me was its “true” ending (won’t get too much into this due to spoilers), and that entire sequence may be one of the most memorable moments I have had the fortune to ever experience in the video gaming medium.
While the game-play’s a blast and the writing is incredible, in my opinion, this game’s biggest accomplishment by far is its soundtrack. Great music is not uncommon in video games today, but there are a few games where the soundtrack is absolutely integral to the experience such that the game would not be the same experience without it. N:A is one of them. The game’s soundtrack features a blend of classical music instruments, vocals, and various modern-sounding electronic elements to create a truly unique listening experience. It’s great to listen to on its own, though its even better when you listen to the tracks in context of the game. Each piece really sets the tone and atmosphere of the different areas you wander into, from the combat theme that plays in the “tutorial” mission to the background music that plays when you’re wandering through the city ruins in the game’s main area. Frankly, words cannot do the OST justice, so just look it up on YouTube and listen to some of the tracks (some of my favorites include City Ruins, Alien Manifestation, Voice of No Return, and Weight of the World). Kudos to Keiichi Okabe and his studio for creating something so beautiful and amazing, and props to Emi Evans and J’Nique Nicole for providing great vocals to accompany the instrumentals.
Like any good review, it would be unfair to only cover the strengths and ignore the weaknesses. For all its incredible accomplishments, N:A is not a perfect game. I played the PC version of this game, and the port is terrible and half-assed. The keyboard/mouse controls leave a lot to be desired if you do not happen to own a controller, and the native resolution is messed up and only runs at 720p. That said, it is fixable with some tweaks that are not too difficult to install (this mod fixes the resolution and this mod makes the keyboard/mouse controls more tolerable if you install AutoHotKey). It’s a lot better after those mods, but one should not have to install mods just to make a game playable. Another gripe with this game mainly has to deal with the second play-through in this game (minor spoilers, but it’s pretty much the same as the first play-through but you play from 9S’s perspective instead of 2B’s). 9S arguably is not as fun to play as 2B as he lacks the weapon move-set diversity 2B has, and while hacking is pretty fun at first, it becomes a chore later on and some hacking parts in later parts of the game become outright tedious. It’s not bad per se, but I’d rather slash machines than be hackerman. The customization menu is also not the most user-friendly and it took a little while to get used to the UI for managing your weapons and chips. Aside from the port issues, most of these are only minor gripes for me that do not take away too much from the core experience.
Overall, despite its flaws, NieR: Automata is a masterpiece, and a unique experience that many other games will not provide you. Not saying that most other games are not as good, but this game is just a completely different beast. It’s a game that requires you to take it seriously to really get the full experience, though you are immensely rewarded for doing so. If you had to make an argument for video games being art and needed to provide an example, use this game; that’s how good it is.
Rating: Definitely worth it at retail price.