PlatinumGames have been on a bumpy road as of late. The developer originally famed for action masterpieces such as Bayonetta, MadWorld and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance has since worked on the divisive Star Fox Zero with Nintendo and average-at-best licensed games, such as The Legend of Korra, Transformers: Devastation and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan. The deterioration in quality coupled with the cancellation of Scalebound earlier this year put their newest co-production, Square-Enix’s NieR: Automata, in a weird position. I’m happy to report that the Japanese power-house studio is back on top. NieR: Automata is Platinum’s best game since Bayonetta 2 and one of their best games yet.
Set in a dystopian future where humans have been forced to move to the moon, you play as YoRHa No. 2 Model B, also known as 2B, one of many android units sent to Earth to wage war against the machine lifeforms who have claimed the planet. Alongside her companion, 9S, the two soon discover the truth behind the war they are fighting. It’s been far too long since a game has come around with a narrative as smart as NieR: Automata’s. The game takes every chance it gets to respectfully flaunt its philosophy and question what it means to be human. Of course, all this is still underneath its anime-inspired, over-the-top method of storytelling, which fans of director Yoko Taro are accustomed to. It’s almost like a Metal Gear Solid game in its ability to at one moment question murderous impulse and then instantly flash 2B’s butt in front of the screen. It’s its own type of bizarre.
Leading the charge for NieR: Automata’s excellent style of storytelling are its characters. 2B is a calm and collected android who shows nothing more than hardcore dedication to her work, which makes her a hard character to connect with. She shows very little in the way of emotions initially but opens up a little as the story progresses, but it isn’t until too late that the player discovers why this is and gets a chance to resonate with her. Contrastingly, 9S, her companion, is a scouter with the ability to hack into their machine enemies who shows way more emotion than 2B, growing very attached to her as the story progresses. Along their journey, 2B and 9S meet a rogue soldier known as A2, who had previously abandoned her loyalty to YoRHa. The protagonists come off as underwhelming for a majority of the game, and it isn’t until after fully completing it and witnessing a number of plot twists that I really appreciated 2B and 9S. Thankfully, A2 is an incredibly compelling character with some great dialogue through all of her time on-screen. The game’s main villains, despite being the driving force behind NieR: Automata’s moral undertones, also aren’t very interesting either.
Story isn’t what people come to Platinum’s games for though (even though Automata’s is incredible!). Of course not, with that said NieR: Automata’s combat is exactly why Platinum was on top of the action game genre to begin with. Mixing combat most akin to Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance’s with RPG mechanics, taking down machines is as smooth as it is stylish. The combat uses a mix of light and heavy attacks, coupled with the use of the player’s Pod, a small machine that can shoot small projectiles, and a chargeable heavy attack which can be changed, ranging from either a laser blast to a hammer attack. There’s a mix of weapons to equip that the player can switch back and forth between during combat, resulting in both the most rewarding looking and feeling experience in a hack-n’-slash game yet. But NieR: Automata isn’t strictly a hack-n’-slash. The game constantly puts the player through excellently designed twin-stick shooter stages to keep things varied, and the payoff definitely works, even going so far as to make a gameplay mechanic out of these stages later on.
For those new to these type of games, here’s a warning: NieR: Automata is hard. While not as hard as I expected at first, approaching the end of the game the difficulty ramps up majorly, and if you’re not prepared, you may be seeing an extra couple of hours added to your game time that could’ve easily been avoided by equipping certain Chips. These are customisable add-ons that the player can equip to their unit to increase their stats, gain new abilities and even add or remove items from the HUD. Equipping Chips requires a lot of planning ahead as they are broken up into different types, such as certain Chips increasing attack power or adding new skills and others increasing defence power and so on.
Despite having beautiful art direction that matches the maturity of its story and great character designs, the game is marginally let down by its visuals. The character models and environments look great, but on the base PlayStation 4 the game runs at 900p, which can cause it to look rather rough and even sometimes blurry, which is a result of the decision to place the events of NieR: Automata in an open-world. While I do appreciate the game’s ability to reuse practically all of its main areas more than once and still keep them interesting, I can’t say I’m particularly a fan of the game’s open-world as a whole. It seems like an inclusion made purely for the sake of wanting the player to grind, because the only thing to find in it are random enemies scattered around and largely uninspired side-missions. Battles within it also cause the frame-rate to take a hit resulting in a rugged experience as a whole that would’ve been avoided with the inclusion of a more linear story.
The voice acting for the protagonists is quite good, if a bit over-acted at times, but the game has very noticeably bad lip-syncing during cutscenes, with dialogue that barely matches up with any of the characters’ mouth movements. This never became a massive problem for me, mainly because I understand that dubbing games to perfection nowadays can be hard, but I’ve seen a lot better. Should this be a problem though, the game includes dual-audio. One of the game’s strongest aspects also lies with its audio, namely its music. NieR: Automata’s soundtrack is a beautiful blend of frantic orchestral pieces and soft, slow piano pieces that play at all the right moments and sound incredible. It’s also got an incredibly eerie tone to it at times, like something out of the movie Akira, that helps build up the appearance of the machine lifeforms as somewhat disturbing creatures, directly affecting how certain parts of the game are portrayed, like all great soundtracks should.
NieR: Automata crowns PlatinumGames as the kings of the action games genre once again. Combining one of the most deeply philosophical and intelligent stories in a game I’ve ever played with fantastic hack-n-slash, action-RPG gameplay, this incredibly bizarre adventure is just ever so slightly brought down by its underwhelming performance on a regular PS4 and somewhat uninspired open-world. But don’t let that stop you from playing one of the most uniquely designed games of this generation that only gets better the more you play it.
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PS4, PC
Release Date: March 7th 2017 (PS4), March 11th 2017 (PC)