Video game review… Nier: Automata

Single-player RPG games are having a tough time. Last year I reviewed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Though I felt it was an excellent game, it was not a commercial success and it seems that there will not be a follow-up game in the series in the foreseeable future. More recently, I reviewed Mass Effect: Andromeda. I felt that it was a very solid game, but occasional poor writing and some botched graphical models opened up the game to harsh criticism. Again, it looks like Mass Effect might come to an end because of the poor sales.

I am currently playing another single-player RPG, this time from Japan, Nier: Automata. Sales-wise, it looks to be one of the top-10 games of all time on the PlayStation 4, so it is doing quite well.

The game mechanic itself is very much that of an old-school game. In fact, a fair amount of time is spent playing the game as if it were a two-dimensional shooter. Otherwise, the game plays quite a bit like a typical and classical action RPG “à la Zelda”.

The game looks good, but it is quite simple, even simplistic. There are only so many different enemy types. Most of the map looks the same. The 3D models are crude at times though always effective. The layouts are simplistic. I get the impression that the game engine must be simple. This gives the game an old-school look and feel. I also suspect that this means that the game is a massive success financially for its producers. A game like Mass Effect: Andromeda has a sophisticated design, with finely tuned non-trivial combat mechanics and lots of massive unique environments, so it has to be far more expensive to develop.

You play as an android that has two modes of attack that can be used simultaneously. Firstly, there is a drone that follows you around, and you can order this drone to shot continuously at enemies. Given that most enemies, including bosses, have a hard time damaging you if you stay far away, this drone almost trivializes the game. There are entire boss fights that you can win by jumping up a ledge and just having your drone shoot the enemy down. It helps that you have infinite ammunition. Secondly, you can use melee weapons like swords. That’s where the game gets interesting because though your melee weapons can cause a lot of damage, they also open you up to receiving a lot of damage. There is real skill involved in fighting powerful enemies up close.

Because you are an android, you can reprogram yourself by acquiring new programs. For example, you can make it so that whenever your health levels fall under a threshold, you automatically heal yourself using one of your “healing potions”. You can also make it so that after receiving some damage, you become invincible for a second or two. Combining these two programs is sufficient that, for most purposes, you are invincible… as long as you have enough “healing potions”… but these are cheap and widely available in stores.

When I first starting playing, I paid little to no attention to these programs, nor did I pay much attention to my choice of weapon. However, it ends up making a critical difference, at least on the default difficulty level.

There is no automatic save points, so you can die and have to restart the game from the beginning. You have to think about saving. If you die, your body will remain where you die along with some of your gear. You can retrieve it by playing again and getting back to your body.

Playing the game requires some skill, but on the default difficulty level, I only ever had trouble with one part of the game… there is a crazy boss at some point, “the Opera boss”, it is a giant lady with an armored dress. And I suspect that I had so much trouble because I did not understand the game very well.

Not everything is absolutely smooth. Several times I was left wondering about where I was supposed to go, what I was supposed to do, but I never got stuck long enough to be annoyed.

I have done an entire first playthrough but the game has this weird mechanic whereas you are supposed to beat the game several times, and each time you do so, you get to see a different side of the story. Looking at the Wikipedia entry for the game, it seems that I will need to play at least two more times through the game to really see the bulk of the story.

The music of the game really adds a lot to the experience. To be honest, I suspect that I play just to be immersed in the music and aesthetic of the game. I find it relaxing.

Though I have not played through the entire game, I know enough to appreciate the story and the theme. The game is set in our far future. It is supposedly very, very far in our future but, oddly, city structures are still holding more or less intact. There is no human being anywhere, though you are told that they reside on the Moon, unseen. You are an android that looks like a young human being, but there are cruder robots all over the surface of the Earth. The crude robots are your enemies, sometimes. Supposedly, there is a war going on between the crude robots and the androids, but looks can be deceiving.

It is probably most accurate to depict the story about being about the post-human era on Earth. Human beings are gone, but intelligent machines remain behind. It is very reminiscent of Stross’ Saturn’s Children. Though everybody around is a machine, you get to care for them, very much so.

That’s maybe the surest sign that the game is a success. You care for the characters. Even if they are machines that can be rebooted at will. It is saying a lot because I don’t normally empathize easily with Japanese characters, as I find the Japenese culture a bit too strange. So while the game is simple, it is skillfully made.

If you ever liked playing Zelda, and you don’t mind something a bit more serious where Zelda could die, this is a game for you.

2 thoughts on “Video game review… Nier: Automata”

  1. Check out Transistor and The Witcher 3. Transistor has an interesting story, but it trusts the player to work it out and doesn’t spell out everything. The Witcher 3 is like a detective novel and, it got me as interested in its fantasy world as much as the main story.

  2. I second Sagar’s recommendations, especially The Witcher 3. While The Witcher 3 is a sequel, it tells its own (very well-written) story that does not require you to have played the previous games to appreciate. While you do meet characters from previous games, they are often accompanied by enough backstory provided by natural dialogue that you’re quickly brought up to speed.

    Additionally, unlike many open-world fantasy games, you are stepping into the shoes of an existing character with his own past and motives. Instead of an entirely open-ended experience with a thousand bland and ineffectual choices, you get to experience a depth and richness of character typically reserved for more linear media like books or film (the Witcher game series does happen to be based on a book series).

    It also has an impressive attention to detail in regards to side quests. Each side quest has real story and consequences that feel truly integrated into the game world. Whereas on the surface a particular quest might be to simply kill a wraith terrorizing a nearby village, in The Witcher 3 you’ll solve the mystery of the wraith’s origins as a former villager, caught up in a love triangle that ended in tragedy.

    Still more great reasons to give it a look are the soundtrack, which is not only extensive and impressive (do yourself a favor and look it up on your streaming service of choice), but also largely influenced by the Polish origins of the CDPR development company, as is the fantasy setting itself. Many of the creatures are based on Polish folklore, making for an experience similar enough to Western fantasy folklore to be accessibly familiar yet historically rich and nuanced enough to be new and interesting for long-time fantasy enthusiasts.

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