NieR: Automata

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NieR: Automata
NieR: Automata

Nier: Automata is the videogame twin of those tabletop games that demand players disfigure and destroy its pieces. In Automata's case, PlatinumGames' house-brand of action sustains engagement and empowers director Yoko Taro's disarming unorthodoxy, positioning Automata as cordial agreement between boundary-obliterating determination and boisterous violence. As a videogame designed to experience the paradox of poignant optimism, Automata isn't the most efficient mechanism, but it's easily the most effective.

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Nier was a demanding and ambitious game undermined by the reality that it wasn’t much fun to sit down and play.

Seven years later, Nier: Automata seeks not to sterilize Nier’s affable idiosyncrasies, but rather recast them in a mold forged to withstand the torrent of institutional mischief delivered through director Yoko Toro’s unorthodox approach to game design. Translating Toro’s blueprints into livable space requires a (theoretically) unattainable level of patience and professionalism, which, somehow, lead Square-Enix to contract PlatinumGames—architects of the last decade’s most respected action titles—into handling Automata’s development duties. This fortuitous pairing allows Toro, and by extension Automata, to bend and break rules without simultaneously breaking the player.

Automata’s story operates best through theme and atmosphere, but also isn’t shy about imaginative exposition. What remains of humanity lives in solitude on the moon, having left Earth after a machine + alien invasion in the far-off future. Android surrogates of humanity have been deployed to eliminate the machine threat and restore Earth’s habitat. The most skilled of these androids, YoRHa units, are issued exclusively for combat. Connections to 2010’s Nier (and, by extension, Toro’s work with the Drakengard and Drakengard 3) are present, but rarely surface in a way that directly impacts Automata. They’re there without feeling disruptive for new players.

This is Platinum’s first open-world game. Bayonetta was essentially a controlled progression to different arenas, and the same goes for Anarchy Reigns and their more recent slew of licensed titles. Vanquish, Metal Gear Rising, and The Wonderful 101 approached exploration but were still constrained to linear progression. Forgetting Star Fox Zero (and you should), Automata presents the most significant addition to Platinum’s otherwise reliable formula. The actions remains in focus, but it’s presented through a wider lens.

Automata’s construction and operation stays on open-world model. Primary quests will push the narrative forward while optional tasks become available at specific points in the story. Many of these sidequests boil down to  tracking down an item or killing a specific menace, but most do well to benefit Automata’s attempts at world-building. The beating heart of Automata pulses around the world humanity left behind and the curious behavior of its current inhabitants. Drawing on those ideas, and exploring the motivations behind specific quest-givers, exposes monstrous truth and profound weirdness, typically in equal parts. You’re as likely to break down the door of a childish machine who refuses to leave his room as you are to witness a terrifying interpretation of Shakespeare.

The actual world of Automata is composed from the refuse of mankind. The main hub is a bombed-out concrete jungle and crumbled highway overpasses. It breaks off into desert, forest, and amusement park(!) biomes, each ripe with opportunity to explore the burgeoning culture of Automata’s present inhabitants. Movement is fairly quick; your character runs fast, though save-point-hopping fast travel is available about a third of the way through the game. Automata’s world is a character, but it’s not the star of the show.

That honor is left to the andriods. Automata opens with control of YoRHa Unit 2 Type B, “2B,” and with Ai support from Unit 9 Type S, “9S.” 2B’s design mirrors a gothic Lolita/maid who could easily be found wandering around Harajuku while 9S’s short pants and awesome coat project him as capable but unassuming. Both are wearing blindfolds, mostly because it creates a unique affectation but also because androids don’t require literal eyes to see. In terms of raw animation, both 2B and 9S operate with fluid efficiency, seamlessly transitioning to incredible feats of athleticism and collected, high-heel strutting. Whether or not this is your style is up to personal taste, but there’s no denying Automata’s characters are consumed by both form and function.

Combat picks and borrows from Platinum’s vault while creating space for Nier’s explicit fascination with shoot ’em ups. 2B and her array of weapons—small and large swords, spears, and fist bracers—can be assigned to either a light attack or a heavy attack. Each of Automata’s considerable supply of weapons comes loaded with their own set of combos, each ready to transition between light and heavy. Dodging attacks is paramount, as is acute awareness of your surroundings. In the latter fourth of the game, when both your character and your weapons feel over-leveled, Automata comes dangerously close to transitioning to a musou-ready horde annihilator, but combat, otherwise, remains competent and poised.

New players may be wondering why in the hell Automata opens as a vertical shoot ’em up against writhing arrangements of machine aircraft. On the ground, too, both Automata and its predecessor delight in large projectile fire, often forcing the player to weave in and out of giant magenta spheres of fire. Occasionally 2B dons a mecha suit and returns to the sky, briefly imitating a bullet hell game before transitioning to a twin-stick shooter. Automata doesn’t stay in these modes long, and shoot ’em up veterans will pass through these sequences with ease, but it never feels uncomfortable inside of its genre blending duality.

2B also has breathless access to a Pod Unit hovering nearby. This is Automata’s pretext for ranged combat. Pods can be used to unload a constant (and possibly too effective) hail of bullets. Better, different programs—like melee-friendly blades, an active decoy, AOE modifiers, and shields—that obey cool-down timers can complement the Pod’s basic fire. Like your weapons, Pods can be assigned to different slots and switched on the fly. Playing on normal and easy allows your pod to lock-on and fire at an opponent from any angle, while hard removes this option entirely. I found the latter to be more satisfying, especially in light of how easy and unbalanced normal felt toward the end of Automata.

Normal progression upgrades are in place, albeit with one imaginative and thematically relevant twist. Materials gleaned from slaughtered machines, bought from vendors, or found in the field can upgrade weapons and Pods. More interesting, however, is the myriad of data chips that can be collected and inserted into different load-outs. A limited amount of physical space can house different modifiers for attack, defense, support, and other surprises. You can, for example, increase your critical hit rate as easily as you can adjust various healing options. Crazier, you can even employ mechanic-shifting oddballs like Bayonetta’s beloved Dodging Slows Down Time mechanic, which, at this point, is a Platinum staple.

Plug-in chips exceed their presence as simple buffs based on their intrinsic nature. You have a limited amount of space for different sized chips, and, if you choose, you can even remove ostensibly critical HUD elements to open up more space. Feel like you don’t need a life bar, an objective list, or a mini-map? Toss them and finally add that anti-chain damage plug-in. This option is wonderfully cool and acts as an invitation to the weirder world of Automata that’s boiling below its more approachable surface.

Like its predecessor, which at one point saw its cast tour a mock-up of the Resident Evil mansion, Automata is comfortable expressing itself in different genres. 2D platforming sections and twin-stick shooting segments are in great supply, with light Metroidvania, a text adventure, and a few other surprises making an appearance. It’s hard to tell whether these are the product of Toro’s manic sense of identity or controlled experiments, but, if nothing else, they do well to separate Automata’s pacing from constant, merciless machine slaughter.

A contemporary game wouldn’t be complete without adapting something from Dark Souls. Dying in Automata leaves your body where it fell, and, if you’re able to recover it in your next life, you won’t lose all of the items and chips you had installed before your last save. Interestingly, the bodies of other players, scattered throughout the world, are also visible. Interacting with one prompts the player to either absorb some of their loot and power, or briefly reanimate them as a sentient companion. You also get to learn the player’s name. This is neat, and feeds into the wider, weirder world that Automata pokes and prods in the player’s ribcage.

While pedestrian as a raw material, there’s something alien and alarming about Automata’s forests, deserts, castles, and decaying factories. This sentiment is fostered by Automata’s music, an orchestrated, powerful mix from Keiichi Okabe that manages a complex relationship between tension and ecstasy. Each piece is wonderfully dynamic, either mixing in vocals or instruments depending on the player’s position or the narrative’s guidelines. This was true of the original Nier as well, but Automata blows out the aesthetic and spreads it across the entire game. The language may be fictional, but that’s a palpable and relatable outpouring of emotion highlighting every application.

Take, for example, the soothing track that underlines Pascal’s Village.  A small, circular retreat in the forest centered around a giant tree, it’s rife with friendly machines exhibiting a guileless fascination with the world. The music paired with this sequence shifts away from (or manipulates) Emi Evan’s normal vocals and processes them into childlike chants. This broadcasts the innocence of a village free from the corruption and violence of the surrounding world, and it stands in contrast to the other pockets of machines imitating other aspects of humanity. This music of Automata projects a similar mood for every area, even when those areas (or their occupants) are drastically altered.

Music is only part of Automata’s unyielding commitment to maintaining its android aesthetic. A basic mechanic as simple as the game’s map expresses a similar sentiment, layering depth and location across a monochromatic swell of structure. There’s a staggering amount of wild shit the player kind find and apply (go fishing, catch a mackerel and eat it but please god save your game first) that simulates the alien artifices of androids coming to terms with human culture. Games rarely go all-in with a principled, game-spanning style, but Automata’s relentless commitment to normalizing its universe exceeds the expectations of a gimmick or novelty. It’s all here, and you’re strapped in for the ride.

A debatable caveat: Automata needs to be “finished” multiple times to properly enjoy it. The first time you, in the traditional definition, beat it, a message from Square-Enix appears and strongly suggests you load your completion save data and begin anew. This isn’t entirely accurate, however, as successive play-throughs present new points of view from characters other than 2B. After the credits roll there are still new bosses to fight, new characters to meet, and entirely separate facets of the Automata’s story to experience. Side quest completion, item inventory, plug-in chips, weapons — everything earned remains in place, all in service of fostering progression. Automata handles its definition of an ending smarter than the original Nier, and rarely tasks the player with doing the same thing over again on a successive run.

Automata’s endings are better thought of as volumes or chapters, rather than logical points of finality. I have this lingering anxiety that players will watch credits roll and assume the story is complete. In Automata, after 10-20 hours based on your interest in sidequests, it’s far from over. Quitting after one “ending” is akin to turning off a football game at the end of the first quarter. Anything could happen, regardless of the current score or how your confidence in where you see it all heading.

When Automata seems obvious, it’s actually misleading. When characters conform to basic stereotypes, Taro is setting you up for a counter punch down the line. Automata’s crux—the evolution of humanity in non-human vessels—is about as old as science fiction itself, but Automata’s spin and its sly way of forcing the player into direct participation is novel, persuasive, and a little frightening. There were times when I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, especially when Automata did an about-face on beliefs I thought it held sacred.

Part of this feeling comes from Taro’s maddening and celebratory lack of reverence for boundaries. Automata tests and flat-out exceeds the limits of interactive storytelling, tapping into the player’s personal morality and philosophy to handle complex narrative situations. Sometimes this produces hilarious and shocking results—there are more than a dozen “endings” you can achieve by going against the grain—and each one comes as a riotous surprise. Games don’t do this, games aren’t supposed to do this, especially when it comes to adjusting elements of the PlayStation 4 User Experience that I previously considered untouchable.

Hideo Kojima’s work with Metal Gear Solid is the obvious point of comparison. His meta level tricks—looking at the back of the game box for Meryl’s radio frequency, switching controller ports to fight Psycho Mantis, concealing Raiden as MGS 2’s protagonist—are comparatively insane and regularly memorable. Toro doesn’t repeat any of Kojima’s performances, but he’s drawing from an updated version of the same playbook.

There isn’t a visible measure morality within Automata’s systems. The last generation of games indulged in allowing the player to travel down either good or evil paths, but Automata functions as a sound rejection of this binary point of view. Videogame world should be complicated, not in a simple measure of right and wrong but as an expression of philosophy stretched across time and consciousness. Automata, ostensibly a game about stylishly killing robots with swords, has more to say about responsibility, emotion, and perception than many of its story-focused or perhaps “interactive drama” espousing peers.

What Automata eventually does with its narrative, along with the choices it leaves in the hands of the player, is unprecedented. When I received my final ending I was convinced it was the most uplifting, weird, and celebratory thing I had ever played. This is surely hyperbole colored by an immediate recency bias, but that feeling inside of that moment seemed designed to stand the test of time. It will also literally get better with time. If you can make it there and persist through Toro and Platinum’s funhouse, an understated but emotionally powerful reward is waiting at the last exit.

Automata’s closet analog may be those tabletop games that demand players disfigure and destroy its pieces. In Automata’s case, PlatinumGames’ house-brand of action sustains engagement and empowers director Taro’s disarming unorthodoxy, positioning Automata as cordial agreement between boundary-obliterating determination and boisterous violence. As a videogame designed to experience the paradox of poignant optimism, Automata isn’t the most efficient mechanism, but it’s easily the most effective.

9.5

Amazing

Eric Layman is available to resolve all perceived conflicts by 1v1'ing in Virtual On through the Sega Saturn's state-of-the-art NetLink modem.