What is life? What does it mean to be alive? Can we atone for our past sins, or are we doomed to repeat history forever? Maybe these weren't the questions you expected from Nier: Automata, a game that - on the surface at least - is about a sexy robot fighting other robots with swords and a talking laser turret. But that sort of philosophical existentialism is exactly what you'll get if you play, along with a healthy dose of awe-inspiring martial acrobatics and swordplay, courtesy of developer Platinum Games.
Platinum may be a developer known for its third-person action games, but make no mistake, this is a small-scale, open-world RPG. You'll find and equip new weapons as you level up by fighting tougher and tougher enemies, explore large biomes ranging from forest to desert to sunken city, complete side quests, and collect crafting materials so you can better your arsenal. All the trappings of an RPG are here, it's just a bit streamlined to make way for dazzling displays of fast-paced combat.
And dazzling it certainly is. The game's three protagonists are all agile, powerful warriors, capable of wielding katanas, broadswords, spears, fist bracers, and more. The solid 60fps framerate keeps combat feeling smooth, and little mid-combo flourishes like kickflips and twirls make each fighter feel capable and just plain fun to watch.
As an android, you have access to a wealth of customization options via plug-in computer chips. These, coupled with your choice of weapons and the aid of a support unit (called Pods), allow you to find the playstyle that suits you. If you prefer to hang back and let your Pod take down enemies in a hail of bullets and lasers, you can equip chips that boost those abilities. If you want to stay on the offensive, equip chips that give you a percentage of damage dealt back as health.
There's even a set of chips that lets the game play for you, so if things get too hard, you can not only bump the difficulty down, but also make it so you automatically evade, switch weapons, fire your ranged attacks, and more. When one particular boss fight was giving me hell, I swapped in an auto-evade chip but kept manual control of the rest of my abilities. It's an incredibly robust system.
Automata effortlessly swings between perspectives and even genres, constantly keeping you on your toes. One minute you're quest-hunting in the ruins of a city, the next you're sprinting down castle hallways as the game becomes a sidescrolling beat-em-up, or dodging a barrage of projectiles as the camera lingers above, turning the game into a top-down bullet hell shooter. It's a testament to Platinum's work that this never comes across as gimmicky or confusing, but instead feels natural and comfortable.
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While there aren't a staggeringly large number of weapons in the game (I came across or purchased 15 and was told I'd picked up 38% of the total available), there's enough to feel like you have options. Unfortunately, there's also little incentive to experiment. Once I'd found a set that worked for me, I almost never switched away from them. Crafting materials and currency can also be slow to acquire, so once I'd upgraded my favorite swords I wasn't feeling inclined to grind for a better spear that I rarely used. Automata absolutely nails the rush of combat, so it would have been nice if some of the RPG elements like inventory management and crafting were a bit more fleshed out.
I cannot stress enough how great the soundtrack is. It's not plagued by synthetic boops and beeps or other superficial trappings to make it sound futuristic or sci-fi; instead, it has soaring strings, intimidating drums, powerful chants, ethereal chimes and mournful piano accentuating and punctuating the action onscreen. You'll hear notes of inspiration from shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Puella Magi Madoka Magica - anime with which it shares a few story beats and themes as well.
The score perfectly captures and sets the mood of any given moment, and I'm not exaggerating when I say I listened to one song on repeat for four hours at my computer, just because I wanted to. It was this one, in case you're curious:
I can't level quite the same amount of praise for the … I hesitate to call it "plot" so much as "a series of things that happen." Even after diving into journal entries, completing a healthy chunk of side quests, and researching fan wikis, there are still moments and motivations that go unexplained or feel half-baked. It should also be said that while you don't need to play the first Nier, doing so may help you understand some of the finer points of Automata.
Thankfully, these stumbles don't detract too much from the times where Automata does succeed in telling its tale. There are many clever twists and fourth wall-breaking moments such as being able to remove your operating system chip, which results in one of the game's many endings, or navigating menus during setup, only to see your movements and selections playback exactly as you performed them in New Game+. After a certain point, you can even buy PSN Trophies (as in the actual game's achievements) from an NPC via in-game currency.
There are also moments of deep emotional resonance; I admit I teared up at the game's "true" ending, captivated by its masterful weaving of morals and themes into gameplay. When the story is on-point, it's one of the most expressive and beautiful parables I've ever seen in a video game, and I suspect those who play through to the true ending will feel a yearning need to discuss its implications.
While it's certainly not perfect, Nier: Automata is nonetheless a breath of fresh air that will challenge your thumbs as well as your thinking - a game with hydrocarbon heart and silicon soul that will stay with you long after you've set the controller down.