Nier Automata is hands-down my favourite game of the last year, and we can't talk about it at all
Nier Automata is the uncrowned king of Q1 2017. The real beauty - and frustration - is that we can't tell you why without spoilers.
Nier Automata released at a really bad time and we haven’t had the bandwidth to cover it here the way we would have liked to.
That goes for me especially. Nier Automata is my game of the year so far and eyeing off the release calendar I simply cannot imagine what might take its place. It should be getting a great deal more attention than it has had, million shipments notwithstanding.
Where other developers get lost in the bombast of their own Hollywood dramas or give themselves over to painfully inauthentic attempts at emotion, Nier Automata seems to know it is a game.
While it’s been disappointing not to be able to heap Nier Automata with the praise it so richly deserves, I’m really glad I didn’t have to review it. It’s a really hard game to talk about without potentially ruining it for others. The twists and turns of its story are worth experiencing firsthand, but like the first Nier, Automata also regularly does amazing things with gameplay, and with conventions of gameplay, which likewise lose their impact if you explain them.
Here’s a minor spoiler, I guess, and hopefully the only one this article will contain: after you reach a particular milestone in Nier Automata where many players might reasonably be expected to check out, you get an on-screen message from Square Enix’s PR team asking you to keep playing, but refusing to say why – even at that stage. The people selling the game had no idea how to talk around this stuff either, so they elected … not to. That’s a very bold decision, from their perspective; to hold the player experience above potential sales.
The game is better for it. Even going in knowing a little of what to expect, with a couple of spoilers and intimate knowledge of the previous Nier as guidance, Automata startled, delighted and confronted me dozens of times. I don’t want to ruin that for you, but I do want you to know how special this game is – so let’s try and talk around it.
Let’s start with the action. It shouldn’t spoil anyone’s experience if I tell you it is magnificent: fast-paced, full of variety and very beautiful. Platinum Games really know how to make action games, and as usual, there’s an impressive accessibility curve where you can plonk the game down on easy and make it literally play itself, or turn it right up to one hit death mode and get into cancels and chains and complicated character builds. You can switch freely at any time, too, which is a nice touch when you find yourself over or under-levelled, or stuck in one of the damned ha- whoops! No spoilers.
Again, as usual for Platinum, Nier Automata only bothers to teach you the basic moves, so that it’s up to you to figure out how to put them together – or even find some of them. Since the UI never even mentions the double jump or glide, you can just bet it won’t explain the mid-air catapult, let alone how to string them all together with dashes, sprints and heavy and light attacks to reach those super secret treasure areas.
Traversal and movement are an absolute joy. All the animations in Nier Automata are terrific, because Platinum embraced its android characters and was therefore able to do things that would be weird or uncomfortable in other games.
Apart from staring across impossible chasms at taunting treasure chests while you Google the correct button combo to get across, traversal and movement are an absolute joy. All the animations in Nier Automata are terrific, because Platinum embraced its android characters and was therefore able to do things that would be weird or uncomfortable in other games. With a maxed-out movement chip 2B moves across the world with a sped-up running motion that would be terrifying on a human character, and when faced with a ladder, the run button sends her up in a series of graceful hops that will make any game with a slow, awkward climbing animation tread mournfully off to the bin, where it belongs.
I love that Nier Automata is so playful like that. Platinum Games and Taro’s Square Enix team are not afraid to play with the “rules” of gaming, to do things that defy expectations and the player’s comfort. Most games are carefully polished to avoid anything that might inconvenience or frustrate the player; Nier Automata just does those things, and asks you to endure it, because it makes the overall context so much richer.
For example: there’s no autosave, and you can only save in specific areas. But saving, loading and the related retrieval system are also tied up in the plot, justifying in-game mechanics rather than inserting an immersion-breaking barrier between the game world and the real world. Dark Souls and Bioshock are the only games I can think of right now that attempt something similar. Later in the game the manual save points become very thin on the ground, and each death is a minor tragedy – and again, this makes perfect sense in the lore and works so, so well to add to the almost crushing tension of the story at that point.
These mechanical aspects and many others I won’t describe set Nier Automata apart. Where other developers get lost in the bombast of their own Hollywood dramas or give themselves over to painfully inauthentic attempts at emotion, Nier Automata seems to know it is a game and it leverages the medium in surprising, amusing and challenging ways. It reminds me of the first Metal Gear Solid in that respect.
The story is also unlike any other game. It’s not that it’s hugely groundbreaking, but it’s laid out in a way that only works in this format – and it also asks the player’s patience as it starts off simple and very, very slowly layers on small mysteries.
The story circles around itself so beautifully, unfolding and unpacking the characters, that by the time you’re 60 hours in revisiting an innocent bit of dialogue from earlier in the game is almost enough to make you scream.
This slow build pays off fantastically at around the 40 hour point, when you're so invested in the world and characters that an event other developers might have put at the start of a game slam into your chest with the impact of thrown bricks - but that’s not to say it’s not pretty good the whole way. Nier Automata has its share of lighthearted moments as you get to know 2B, 9S, their Operators and Pods, but the scenario boasts plenty of Taro’s trademark fucked-up-ness as well, growing in frequency and impact the further in you go.
Stick with it, and it circles around itself so beautifully, unfolding and unpacking the characters, that by the time you’re 60 hours in revisiting an innocent bit of dialogue from earlier in the game is almost enough to make you scream. You find yourself saying things like, he knew, and he still and she’s doing it deliberately, because and just generally wishing you had someone to debrief with.
But of course you can’t and shouldn’t. You’ll just have to deal with your feelings on your own, until you can convince one of your friends to play without ever actually telling them why. Welcome to my nightmare. Nothing has fucked me up this badly since Life is Strange; I am having dreams about Nier Automata.
If you have not yet played Nier Automata, please put it on your list. Please set aside 80 hours for it. Please play it through at least three times, and only then Google how to get all the endings and trophies (it'll be fine). Please don’t look up any more information about it. Please don’t worry about the spoilers you may already have experienced. Please play Nier Automata. And then, if you are a friend of mine, text me oh my gosssssssh if we don't talk about this I will burst.
Please do not post any Nier Automata spoilers in the comments.