While an improbably slight ingenue dressed in fetish gear and wielding a massive sword isn’t exactly pioneering territory for a Japanese video game, there is still something compelling about 2B, the warrior android you play as in NieR: Automata. Why did the humans who created you dress you up like a little Victorian doll? Have they been removed from conflict for so long that the endless war you’re a part of has become a form of play for them? Why are the androids blindfolded? Does restricting vision unlock Zatoichi-levels of blade mastery? Is it so you don’t have to witness the violence you perpetrate? Even her designation—an alpha-numeric abstraction on the first two words of Hamlet’s soliloquy on the burden of living—hints at something deeper. But at a recent PAX East panel, NieR: Automata’s creative director Yoko Taro was asked about the decisions informing his protagonist’s look. He spoke a bit about what it means to design for something so far in the future we have no conception of it, and then explained that ultimately “the biggest reason is that I just really like girls.”
That kind of summarizes the underlying philosophy behind all of NieR: Automata. There may not be one beyond what you feel invested enough to provide. After all, PlatinumGames, the developer responsible for this iteration, made its reputation by delivering bizarre aesthetics with inscrutable meaning, which could be a letdown, except at some point in the game you’ll stumble into a nest of machines that have broken free from their rigid programming and begun pantomiming human behavior. One robot frantically rocks an empty crib, while nearby, two others vainly attempt to have sex by slamming their smooth metal torsos together. NieR: Automata demonstrates that it may not be saying anything profound or possibly anything at all, but its absurdity is so entertaining and confidently delivered it ultimately doesn’t matter.
NieR: Automata is a sort-of sequel to NieR; taking place in a timeline that follows from one possible ending of the previous game. Earth has been invaded by an alien species whose massive robot army has driven humans from the planet and into exile on the moon. Humans have returned in kind by creating a fighting force of taciturn goth strippers stationed in a satellite called The Bunker. From there, they descend to Earth in an attempt to drive off the invaders. This commute offers the game’s first surprise, as the introductory mission begins with you piloting an aircraft in a sequence that plays like a traditional top-down shooter. Your ship hugs the bottom of the screen as enemies drift in from the sides, blanketing the screen in projectiles you need to either destroy or dodge.
Even after you land and ground-based combat begins, Automata continues to play around with these game styles and not just through a regular switch-up of air-based and ground-based missions. You may be running along on foot, with full freedom of movement, only to have the camera pivot downward into a fixed position, forcing your character to fight off waves of enemy bullets as if you were back in your aircraft. It can be disorienting and occasionally frustrating as you futilely attempt to adjust a camera that you just recently had total control over, but switching between planes to create different combat environments is a neat use of 3-D. The allusion to other game genres and series don’t end there. Other times your path will narrow, restricting your movement to a straight line, emulating a 2-D side-scroller. A reoccurring shifty snake-like opponent that bounces across your path in an irregular pattern will awaken long-dormant Castlevania muscles.
Ground combat is based on a balance between paired melee weapons and long-range support from your “pod” (basically a death-dealing iPhone). You have a selection of swords and spears that can be purchased and upgraded. Along with better attack stats and bonuses, each upgrade tier unlocks a new detail of your weapon’s story. Why? Absolutely no reason. You’re either going to enjoy knowing the twin blades of your battle ax are in love or you won’t. The narrative flourish has zero effect on your ability to decapitate dopey-looking robots.
And they are delightfully dopey looking. In contrast to your sleek android self, Earth’s occupying army looks like Fisher Price Little People. It renders them essentially blank templates, the most basic application of Pareidolia. The robots have lost communication with the alien overlords and, in the absence of orders, have splintered off to create their own cultures and identities. Like Alice in Wonderland, you are an interloper stumbling into each new area of the map to find a self-contained community of robots governed by a different obsessive principle. Some have decided to pursue pleasure in the ruins of an abandoned theme park, while others commit instead to medieval chivalry in fealty to an unseen forest king. They’re a delight to uncover and only a little undernourished by the game’s flat visual design.
Most of the environments in NieR: Automata are drenched in the enveloping bloom and soft focus of an overzealous boudoir photographer. Each area is restricted to a limited color palette that does less to highlight individual biomes as it does leach away their personality. There are a few genuinely wonderful locales, like a city along the coast that is slowly sinking into the ocean, the distant horizon dominated by the hulking corpse of a robot exiled for being too destructive. In this instance, you are dwarfed against the forces of nature and calamity that have led up to your incursion on this broken planet. It’s NieR’s greatest visual strength. What the game lacks in detail it makes up for in sheer scale. Like Alice, every visit to Earth is a sip of the “drink me” liquor. You leave the stuffy monochrome confines of your satellite bunker and enter a place so massive it threatens to engulf you. In a dead city, tilted derelict buildings loom over you like rotten teeth, threatening to topple down onto your negligent presence. The desert is so massive it is actually anxiety inducing to navigate.
The people who populate this world manage to stand out despite the scale and absurdity of the surroundings. The supporting characters are well realized with a minimum of writing and the dialog is refreshingly simple and straightforward. Your companion and the catalyst for your burgeoning humanity is 9S, who—despite his Little Lord Fauntleroy peacoat and short pants—is both modest and curious. He endearingly mentions to 2B that his friends all call him “Nines” and invites her to do so as well. You’ll encounter the leader of a village of pacifist robots who conveys a real sense of empathy and desire to break away from the ageless cycle of violence that consumed the Earth. A fellow resistance member named Jackass excitedly tries to goad you into the android equivalent of bum fights under the dubious aegis of “collecting data,” but given her simple enjoyment of explosions, that reasoning seems suspect.
NieR: Automata is a great, teetering game tilting from possible profundity to surreal spectacle on a delightful lurch. Is it a Lewis Carroll fable absent of reason? Well, it is pretty zany. Is it a statement about the futility of war, where a planet is destroyed and the originators of the conflict are dead or absent and yet we fight on? My, that’s deep. Go for it. Is it an allusion to gnosticism and how two separate species of flawed creations have to scramble for purpose in the absence of their equally flawed creators? Sure, that sounds cool. Why not? Is it a chance, despite 6-inch heels, to leap confidently off the side of a sparkling waterfall and slam your great sword into the ground with force enough to knock the gathered enemies into ruins? Oh. Most definitely.
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4