NieR: Automata is a strange game in more ways than one. It’s connected to multiple series of games (Drankeguard and NieR) that never did that well financially or critically. Despite this a cult following was formed and remained vocal enough that a new game was made anyways. The game’s director himself said that “both the previous NieR and current NieR: Automata are games that exist due to the constant support of fans”. NieR: Automata is a game that was made against the odds, but was it worth the trouble?
The full story of the NieR series expands across multiple game series, novels, and even a play. Automata’s story could have easily been a confusing mess, but it’s not. In fact the story holds up really well as a standalone. This is due to the game taking place far into the future and because of how well it handles information from past games. There are plenty of references and talked about characters from past games that long time fans will enjoy. One character in particular,[spoiler] Emil [/spoiler], is talked about extensively, but both new and old fans learn new information as the game tells their backstory. This done often with old information and allows explanation of the old stories without boring fans or alienating new players.
NieR: Automata’s story is strange, emotional, and well done. Every character in the game has something interesting that you’ll want to know more about or at least start to admire. One of the best examples is [spoiler] 9S’ no nonsense operator A210 [/spoiler] who at first shuts down all conversation, but by the end acts more motherly towards [spoiler] 9S [/spoiler]. The process of learning about and seeing the many characters change was by far my favorite part of the story. If there was any negative to the characters it would be 2B’s stoic personality. While I enjoyed her serious nature and the occasional peak past the stoic front, not everyone will. Some may say that her personality is too bland or she is not given enough of a personality. I don’t believe her to be badly written and in fact I think the opposite, but I recognize her type of character isn’t popular.
The overarching plot is excellent, but a bit of a slow burn. The entire story of the game is actually told across multiple playthroughs. The first playthrough is a fairly safe story with an ending that left questions, but answered enough for it to be satisfying. Second playthrough was necessary for what the story was aiming for, but trended the same ground as the first playthrough and felt like the weakest storyline. It came across as just a slightly different perspective with additional cutscenes and new quests. The third playthrough is where the game really stretches its wings and is absolutely worth getting to. I would love to give more detail, but I believe doing so would be a disservice to anyone who plans on playing this game.
Unlike many recent Japanese ports, NieR gives the player a choice between Japanese and English audio. After playing with both Japanese and English audio, I can say that both are pretty much on par with each other. Both have characters that are done better the other, but neither have a voice that is plain terrible. The one problem is that subtitles can be difficult to read in the middle of combat or brightly lit areas. It is especially a problem in the second playthrough because of the great amount of white text on white backgrounds. Beyond this one problem, you can pick either and have an enjoyable experience.
Sidequest are the weakest part of NieR. Most of the sidequest are great from a narrative standpoint. You’ll meet strange characters and situations that make you want to do whatever task NPCs give you. Even the conclusion of many quest stories will have an emotional impact or a surprise twist such as [spoiler]the woman who erases her boyfriends to change his personality[/spoiler]. The problem is that most quests will boil down to fetch quest. So many will have you just collect items from enemies, rooftops or areas across the map. Great writing may hold off the feeling monotony for most, but there will certainly be a group who grows tired of them.
Story quests do not suffer from the same problems as sidequest. Gameplay will consist of mostly combat, but the story, gameplay, and set pieces are varied. Not every story quest will be story changing or have a huge set piece, but many will and they all feel significant even when they don’t.
I won’t mince words, NieR’s gameplay is great and it is hard to find flaws. Combos feel satisfying due to flashy animations, solid sound effects, and great visual feedback. The different pairing of weapons and different orders result in a variety of possible combos. Trying to discover all the combos and weapon pairings is genuinely fun and add good variety. Weapons can also be upgraded which boosts stats and give additional abilities. They start off simple by increasing attack speed, stuns or the like. When weapons reach their last level they gain an ability unique to each set. These abilities are significant enough that you’ll likely choose a weapon for its ability rather than its base stats. On top of weapons, there are Plugin chips that can change stats and give new ability such as slowing down time after perfect dodges or adding projectiles to melee attacks. Chips can also be changed at any time and players are given three sets to customize. Subsequent playthroughs add even more variety by introducing entirely new mechanics that add a unique spin to combat. Players will have a hard time being bored by combat in any playthrough.
Combat is occasionally broken up with bullet hell sections. These taken on two different forms: aerial ship/mech sections and hacking. Ship and mech sections, much like the ground combat, makes the player feel powerful with excellent sound, flashy visuals, and a great number of enemies to destroy. There is a surprising amount of attack options for the few number of bullet sections in the game. Projectiles can be changed by switching Pods, a barrage of missiles can be launched, there are melee attacks and even unique heavy attacks for both the ship and mech. Sadly these options aren’t encouraged to be used and just not necessary to beat most sections. Usually a combination of melee attacks and normal projectiles will be more than enough to deal with whatever comes your way. In turn these sections can feel too easy. Playing on normal mode can compound this to the point where you won’t die unless you are especially bad at these sections. Hard mode did have me dying a few times, but still didn’t have me utilize my many attack options. Despite the flaws, these sections were a nice change of pace and enjoyable for the short time they are around.
Now hacking while very similar to the aerial combat sections had a very different feel. When hacking there is only one attack and there is no dodge instead there is a greater focus on positioning and awareness. Each hacking attempt will have the player on a set stage and with an enemy in the center that shoots many bullets in a set pattern. Some stages will have multiple enemies chasing the player and/or enemies that stay still and fire at the player. While very simple these sections usually felt more challenging than the ship sections because of the lack of an easy dodge and the greater need to be aware of the environment, bullets, and enemies simultaneously. The one potential flaw is the reuse of stages will lead to players finishing hacking section fairly quickly without much thought and just going through the motions. I personally felt this added to the power fantasy that combat usually evokes, but others may become bored by these sections during late game.
Surprisingly enough NieR doesn’t contain many bugs. There are a few moments where frame rate dropped. Usually this happened when there were a lot enemies gather in one place and using Plugin chips to move 20% faster. There was also a single instance where the map did not load and I had to reset the game after waiting 20 minutes. When fishing the indicator would fail to pop up despite there being a fish on the line. Other than these few instances the game ran smoothly and there were no bugs that brought me out of the game or hindered progress.
The Bottom line
NieR: Automata is an excellent game with great gameplay and a compelling story with its one major flaw being too many fetch quest, albeit with great side stories.