Even as the local release date approaches, the reality of Nier: Automata still feels almost like a
text adventure dream. Nobody could have predicted that the a revered developer such as Platinum Games would be paired with the likes of Taro Yoko’s quirky, unorthodox storytelling and conceptualisation. Especially considering Taro’s cult-like status and influence on the now defunct Cavia’s divisive line-up.
Yet here we are. Nier: Automata is as real as ever, promising to bring out the best of Platinum’s trademark characters action game design, Taro’s unusual perspective and approach to narrative and world building, while staying faithful to the thematic melancholy and genre shifting pacing that elevated Nier to its cult status.
And while Automata is not without dips in design consistency and a handful of technical issues, a product steering closer to Platinum’s middling budget work like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance over Hideka Kamiya’s behemoths, it’s perhaps even more overwhelming that Automata not only exists, but delivers on most of its promises with a startling level of source material faithfulness with little compromise from the named parties involved.
It would be criminal to spoil Nier: Automata‘s narrative beats when, like much of Taro’s work, player perspective of events and the element of surprise is essential to resonate with intentions. Nevertheless, on a surface level Automata draws basic parallels to the original Nier by interweaving two muddled sides in a conflict of misunderstandings and miscommunication. 2B and her entourage are warriors from an android alliance tasked with overthrowing a robot army from Earth to return mankind home, and typical of a Taro game even the nature of “misunderstanding” is not all it seems.
Like any good role playing game, narrative is the driving force behind Automata, granting purpose and meaning to more or less every core objective and tangent quest line. The open-ish world formula ensures a balance between main quests and side content, and while a lot of the side content admittedly regresses to absolute basic game objectives (kill X, collect Y), it’s the charming NPC personalities, quirky twists and turns, and emotional context that makes most of these worthwhile to explore at least once.
Taro’s influence can be felt throughout. His distinct personality and approach to writing imbued in every facet of narrative and concept, unashamedly juggling sexuality and violence that teeter between natural and confronting. His love for exploring the darker, foreboding and conflicting nature of what it means to simply be, and the relationships we share and influence on one another, avoids the risk of melodrama thanks to Taro’s equal trademark tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Familiars to Nier and Drakengard will delight in Taro’s adherence to form, along with the essential replay states to experience every perspective, yet are guaranteed an entirely new set of shocks and surprises as to where his mind wanders.
Nier’s clumsy control scheme and combat design have been obliterated, replaced with Platinum’s own take on character action combat. Automata has benefited from this tremendously. Game systems, combat styles, weapon types and more can be immediately associated to other Platinum titles, which is hardly a criticism given the standard of quality, and Automata effortlessly envelopes these tropes in graceful ballet-like control, freedom to movement and encounter engagement. Character control is a delight; buttery smooth and responsive, with satisfying hit detection, and rarely, if ever, a sense of unfairness.
Thankfully, Platinum’s character action focus has not come at a cost of Nier-like role playing. Delightfully computationally-themed upgrades and modules can be discovered and purchased throughout the adventure, used to upgrade and modulate character functions. These, at times, offer entirely new ways to engage with encounters with new abilities, weapons, and attack powers (many of which are visually based on Nier abilities). Like all of Platinum’s games the intent of replay is made obvious, offering combat connoisseurs a significantly high ceiling of mastery potential. It’s almost shocking to play a Taro game without horrendously clumsy combat, yet Automata delivers on just that.
Unfortunately these accomplishments in control and design consistency are somewhat offset by technical limitations. Despite Platinum’s admirable strides towards consistent performance throughout all their titles, Nier: Automata on a regular PlayStation 4 is home to disappointingly erratic performance. Perhaps Platinum’s in-house engine simply struggled with Automata’s open world data streaming, or maybe it needed additional time in the oven, but by no stretch of the imagination could the framerate be considered consistent. Open environments are kept relatively middling in asset quality, yet still performance bounces around, occasionally to the point of frustration, and quickly moving between complex, open zones sees data streaming hitching. Compared to the technical consistency of the likes of Bayonetta 2, Automata is definitely more closely aligned with Platinum’s rougher productions. Mechanical fingers crossed for a patch or two that irons out the kinks.
Thankfully the remainder of Automata’s production is up to scratch. Though the asset quality varies, aesthetically Automata consistently evokes Nier’s sombre post-apocalyptic landscapes; worn concrete structures overgrown with lush greens, makeshift resistance encampments, and a handful of oddball locations too. Keiichi Okatabe’s return to score Automata is an equal stroke of majesty. Nier’s blueprint compositional style is reinvigorated with a more classical direction, again enveloped in Emi Evans’ soothing vocal work alongside a host of fresh contributors. Automata’s soundtrack digs deep under the skin, frequently in resonant synergy with on-screen events, no matter their intention on the emotional spectrum.
To see, feel, and experience Nier: Automata in your hands nearly seven years after its predecessor…is like a blip from another timeline, crossed over to our own in a moment of bewildering brilliance. At its worst, it’s a Platinum game as you’ve seen before and to no considerable criticism, occasionally dipping into production and budgetary limitations, though holding its own simply based on developer namesake
At its best however, particularly highlighted during the most poignant narrative beats and genre shifting boss encounters, the magic of Taro’s vision alongside Platinum’s design pedigree and the overall production quality unite to formulate truly imaginative and memorable experiences. Nier: Automata is routinely not a just “best of both worlds” as fans had hoped, but the best of all worlds, even when that world is sometimes unsettling, and often because of it.
Sweeping technical and performance inconsistencies