If you are anything like me, seeing Japanese anime featuring spiky-haired young men wielding swords twice as big as they are can cause a sputter of laughter. Phallic symbolism aside (“I see your schwartz is as big as mine…”), it’s an absurdity that would only seem to detract from the integrity of the product. Looking at the cover of Platinum Games’ 2017 Nier: Automata you find not only massive anime swords, but that spiky-haired women in high heels are wielding them!! Nier: Automata is a case, however, where judging the book by the cover would make you miss what may be the best video game created to date…
Nier: Automata is set thousands of years in the future. The only remnants of humanity live on the moon and are guarded by an army of androids orbiting Earth in a bunker station. The Earth a ruined, desolate place, it’s occupied by aggressive machines looking to destroy humanity. The player starts the game as 2B, an android soldier in the fight against the machines who is part of a small force tasked with destroying a machine uprising in the middle of a wasted city. And fight 2B and her partner 9S do, swords flashing and slashing across the dust and concrete. But the more 2B fights, the deeper she delves into machine life on Earth, and the more conflicted her worldview becomes. Some of the machines wanting world peace and others separating themselves into religions and kingdoms, good guy vs. bad guy loses clarity, even as the lines between machine, android, and human get fuzzier and fuzzier.
It should be said right up front that on the surface Nier:Automata is a quirky, quirky game. Like the afore-mentioned cover, there is a sense of goofiness to it that would seem to allow the player to dismiss it as mindless fun. For example, early in the game 2B wanders city ruins, and suddenly, out from among the broken buildings pops a moose. Perhaps I am the only one who finds a realistically rendered moose standing alongside a anime android absurd, but it’s at least a sign of how odd and quirky the game can superficially be. Many other moments of weirdness appearing and re-appearing throws what is otherwise a familiar backdrop (post-apocalyptic world, anime fighting, blah, blah blah) off kilter, the game is a sometimes eccentric, sometimes absurd experience.
But don’t be fooled. Beneath Neir: Automata’s idiosyncratic exterior lies material of meaningful substance. At heart an existential investigation of life, the game does many things beyond anime hack ‘n slash, including question the gray area between intelligent machine and mortal human, the quest for beauty, the futility of war and mass conflict, power structures, the meaning of existence, and many other pertinent topics one does not ordinarily associate with video games. Combined with the afore-mentioned quirky elements, the game is highly reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem’s brilliant Cyberiad. Lem and Platinum Games paint with very different palettes but have produced intelligent mixes by turns baldly humorous and telling of the human condition. (There is no poetry machine in Nier: Automata, but it wouldn’t have been out of place.)
In terms of the story/player experience, the closest thing to Nier: Automata is an onion. (It’s an overused cliché I know, but it is extremely apt in this case.) And there are layers from a couple key perspectives. First is the idea of ‘complete game’. After about 15-20 hours, most players will reach the end of what is called game A. The story to that point told through the eyes of 2B, after the credits roll, players are given the option to end the game outright (i.e. walk away), or start a “new” game. If the player chooses to continue, they are placed into the shoes of another character and replay the game from the second character’s point of view. Rather than a 1:1 replay of the same events, however, the way in which the player participates changes in terms of role, input, and scene. Large chunks of new content are added, even as some of the old content is removed given the relative circumstances of the characters’ places in the story. Where 2B primarily occupied the role of action brawler, the second player/playthrough’s role is a bit more auxiliary. Good ol’ hack n’ slash is still needed, but a new type of gameplay that requires a different style of finesse is used. When the player finishes game B, game C comes available, again taking a new spin on things. (In the case of game C it’s a major, major spin that almost entirely abandons games A and B.) It’s not until ending E that the player achieves the true ending of the game—and it’s entirely worth working through the iterations.
This leads to the second major onion layer of Nier: Automata: games within games. While the player will spend the majority of their time involved in third-person action/fighting (aka mashing the square button), there is a huge portion of content devoted to other game types. Developers allowing players to control the camera only in the open world sections, in other sections gameplay switches between 2D side scrolling action, top-down shooter, side-shooter, even old school Atari-esque pixel arcade games. While this may seem incongruous with the open world action scenes, Platinum Games have, in fact, done a masterful job of making these alternate game types blend seamlessly with the main narrative by ensuring they form a parallel to the main storyline. Unlike some other contemporary games which offer mini-games within the main game simply for the player’s amusement, Nier: Automata’s mini-games are integral to the narrative. Definitively shaping the whole experience, it’s impossible for the non-third person action scenes to not be part of the game’s understanding.
And there are still other layers. More typical to the average action RPG, 2B and the other main characters are able to upgrade weapons, install chips that enhance performance, fuse chips to maintain limited hardware space, find hidden weapons, take on side quests, and unlock new areas of the game through story and experience progression. Also, if the player is interested, there are mini-narratives that provide backdrop to the story through some of the NPC characters’ histories. Layers upon layers—I’ve never played anything like it.
The graphics are the weakest point of the game. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop (i.e. that the game takes place in a simulation, not the real world), but it never did. Not to say the graphics are terrible, only that some high profile games have better. It’s trusting to overall design (aka navigating said layers of gameplay) where Nier: Automata achieves its black belt. And quality design begins with the word ‘go’. Selecting ‘Start Game’, the player is thrown into an hour long prologue that not only prepares them for the mechanics they will need throughout the game, but acts as a litmus test. Once the prologue is completed, the average gamer can make the decision to continue or not. And design greatness continues. Revealing the aforementioned layers of story is very well-done; genuine surprises await players who stick through the different endings, particularly the last, E. The game may not be visually stunning, but the experience certainly is.
And Nier: Automata is at its most fun in the fight sequences. The quirkiness provides a smile, the underlying, guiding intelligence satisfies the intellect (and sometimes causes a smile), but its the hack n’ slash that provides the childish fun that video games can be. Depending on the weapon, there are a number of button combos to be used (and discovered) that allow 2B to attack in different ways—jumping, sliding, dodging, and outright hack and slashing. And every weapon has its own characteristics, and therefore own combos to be discovered. Platinum may not have spent a huge amount of time working on the graphical details of setting, but they certainly ensured their fighting system was diverse and engaging. (A good trade off in my opinion, if one had to be made.) And the music—the music, it’s glorious-glorious. I could gush further, but…
Faults? Well besides the quality of the graphics, the only other glaring problem I had was the character profiles. By this I mean that, after finishing game A and starting game B, the player’s character config is transferred to the new character. And later when switching from B to C, and back to B, etc., the same config is used the whole time. Each of the three characters possess their own role in the game, thus it’s strange to have the same weapon, power-up, and pod setup switching between them. If the player had to build three separate characters, I think the sense of realism (if such a word can be applied) would have been stronger, not to mention the player’s attachment to the individual characters, greater. Given the drama surrounding the various endings, the player would have a stronger sense of belonging to the story.
In the end, Nier Automata is one of the quirkiest games I’ve ever played, but it’s not corny or cheap. An absurd but aware intelligence guiding the game, what can seem like a complete mess when dissected in a review is actually a cohesive, innovative whole that must be experienced to be fully understood. The skeptical, existentialist wit razor sharp, on numerous occasions I found myself laughing out loud, while in others appreciatively retrospective on life and existence. The player may control spiky-haired, giant-sword-wielding anime characters fighting robots, but the world they traverse, situations they encounter, and questions and issues they raise are anything but silly. Pile on top of this the very non-standard story structure (i.e. the multiple but varying playthroughs) and the variety of gameplay modes (third-person action, top-down shooter, 2D side-scroller, etc.), and the conclusion is that games like this prove linear storytelling needn’t be strictly linear. It will now be difficult for me to play games like Witcher 3 and Horizon: Zero Dawn—games which I love—without a little nagging thought in the back of my head: Nier: Automata evolves this formula… Go play this masterpiece.