Platforms: PS4 (tested), PC
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Out now (17 March for PC)
Nier Automata isn't the typical action RPG I was expecting it to be. Blending a quasi-open world with blisteringly-paced combat and heavy doses of surrealism, it's one of the most refreshing games to come out of Japan in a long while.
In the same way that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has me constantly yearning to return to Hyrule, Nier Automata's bizarre existential narrative often has me mulling over Automata's strange and unique world.
For the uninitiated, Nier Automata is a stand-alone sequel to 2010's flawed cult classic, Nier. While ambitious and weird, the ill-fated original failed to find a large audience thanks to its clunky combat and barebone visuals, quickly finding its way into bargain bins everywhere. It was with some surprise then, that of all franchises for Square Enix to resurrect for the PlayStation 4 it chose Nier. Enlisting the help of Bayonetta developer Platinum Games, director Yoko Taro aimed to combine his unique brand of weirdness with snappier combat and a more ambitious setting.
Thankfully, together they managed to pull it off.
It becomes immediately clear that this is a far more polished and action-packed ride than its predecessor. Soaring through the skies in a Gundam-esque 'flight suit', players are immediately plunged into an intense aerial battle.
Initially, the story seems like typical post-apocalyptic fare. Set thousands of years in the future, Earth has been invaded by a mechanical army created by a mysterious alien race. With mankind fleeing to the moon, they create their own robotic resistance to combat the threat. As part of the android army, you play combat unit 2B as she's dispatched to help clear Earth's war-torn surface.
After you've finished unloading laser fire into flying enemies during Automata's opening level, 2B's mech crashes straight through the wall of an abandoned weapons facility. Instantly the old-school bullet hell style shooter section segues straight into traditional third-person action.
As you'd expect from a game made by the folks behind Metal Gear Rising, the game's combat controls perfectly. Running at a silky-smooth 60 frames per second, the fast-paced action sees you dispatching foes using a combination of two main weapons, mapped to both square and triangle. Using a dodge mechanic inspired by Bayonetta's Witch Time, a squeeze of R2 sees players leaping backwards to avoid enemy attacks, with busier battles seeing you backflip all over the place like an enthusiastic Judo-instructor.
In a bid to mix things up, close quarters combat incorporates some old-school shooter elements. Accompanied by your very own portable POD bot, holding down R1 sees the floating companion rain down a stream of fire on advancing enemies. It's a small touch, but the inclusion of shoot-em-up-style projectile attacks in an action game results in refreshingly unique feeling combat.
After a pretty spectacular boss fight at the end of the factory, Nier takes off the training wheels and finally lets players loose on its world. Tasked with investigating some troubling reports on the surface, 2B and her android partner 9S are free to roam around Earth, going everywhere from abandoned city ruins to vast expanses of desert. Without wanting to spoil anything, it's here that the story takes a turn from the anime melodrama I expected into something far more unsettling.
As you wander around the planet you encounter bands of human resistance soldiers, taking on side quests and finding settlements that let you trade with merchants and upgrade your gear, which is handled in a suitably meta way. As an android, each upgrade takes the form of a plug-in chip, allowing you to customise 2B's motherboard directly. While this allows you to add in chips that increase speed, attack and add other perks, interestingly, it also lets you sacrifice things like your HUD and even the ability to save, allowing players to experiment with eccentric playstyles. You can even remove your core processing unit, instantly killing you.
As you'd probably expect from an action game, there are a fair few different weapons to play around with. With 15 individual killing devices available, the game allows you to equip two weapons per set and two sets simultaneously, offering the chance to create an interesting combo. This is all well and good, but Nier doesn't really encourage it. While I discovered several different types of weapons throughout the game, after several hours of making the effort to try them out, I largely just found myself sticking with whatever worked well early on.
While the combat is fairly simplistic, Nier's brilliant animations and masterfully crafted difficulty curve keep the action feeling fresh and challenging. Tying everything together is the game's brilliant soundtrack. Where most open world soundtracks opt for subtle strings, Nier Automata's haunting vocal led melodies lend a tense and ethereal edge to your exploits, recalling the atmospheric strangeness of 1988 anime classic Akira.
Yet, although it gets a lot right, that isn't to say that playing Nier is a perfect experience. While visually it is a drastic improvement over its predecessor, this certainly isn't a fantastic game by anyone's standards. Unique character and world design means the art direction stands on its own two feet, but some questionable textures and the game's stingy 900p resolution often make this look like it's half a console generation behind.
During my 30 hours with the game, Nier's map often became another source of vein-popping frustration. While it works perfectly well when outside, its block-shaped design completely fails to take in multi-levelled buildings, resulting in many wasted hours spent furiously running around the wrong floors looking for an objective. The camera too can also make things unnecessarily difficult. Falling victim to the game's own ambition, the clever switching to top-down hack and slash combat feels cool initially but, after the novelty wears off, it soon becomes a hindrance during busier battles.
Thankfully, these issues don't take away too much from the overall experience. Where many Western franchises are all too guilty of attempting to emulate Hollywood, Nier uses the medium's interactive nature to challenge the perception of how games can tell a story. Offering a branching and surprisingly touching narrative, this game rewards players with new cutscenes and different perspectives on each playthrough. With a jaw-dropping 25 different endings to experience, Square and Platinum have combined a clever delivery mechanism with some of the strongest storytelling to come out of Japan in recent years.
Before playing it, I had Nier pegged as a fun hack-and-slash game. What I didn't bargain for was an existential RPG that would soon have me questioning almost everything I saw. Featuring a gripping plot that tackles surprisingly hefty themes, its brilliant writing not only makes you think twice about your role in the game's world but occasionally even about your place in our world too. It's certainly not without its flaws, but regardless of your typical gaming preferences, you owe it to yourself to check this wonderfully weird experience out.