Nier: Automata, right from the start, tells you it’s not going to be a conventional video game. Yoko Taro, the mind behind it, isn’t a conventional developer, and this game is as much a meditation on, and toying with, video game tropes as it is a fun video game, even if sometimes it’s too clever for its own good.
Nier: Automata (PS4, PC)
Understanding Nier: Automata begins with grasping everything about it is, on some level, interrogating what you generally expect out of video games. Taro, in addition to being a post-modernist artist in a medium that doesn’t love art, is also an incorrigible smart-ass; the fact that he’s named our heroine “2B” is supposed to be a wry joke on the cheesy “meaningful names” of video game protagonists and also an eye-rolling example of them. That extends to the whole game; ugly models get loving textures. Generic environments get turned on their heads. The most conventional thing about it is the score, really, which Keiichi Okabe offers a quite listenable example of.
Taro, as I said, is both a post-modernist and smart-ass, so “innovation” is a tricky term here. On a base level, this is the game you expect from Platinum Games; the combat is buttery smooth, the outfits are ridiculous, and so on. In other ways, Taro spends a lot of times turning expected tropes on their heads in way that can be incredibly funny, thought-provoking considerations of how video game design manipulates the player, or, occasionally, just outright annoying.
You’re going to know if you love or hate Nier: Automata in the first mission. The game bluntly informs you when you first boot it up that there is no auto-save, so the first mission you’ll have to fight through, and finish a surprisingly tough boss, before you can find an “access point” and actually make any progress. The level is simultaneously witty, as it goes from bullet hell space shooter to twin-stick shooter to 3D brawler to side-scrolling platformer and back, and annoying because even on normal you’ll replay it a few times before you beat the boss.
It’s a send-up of tutorial missions and flashy demos, and on an abstract level, it’s quite funny. That doesn’t make it any less annoying, though, since it means you’ll spend another half hour playing through the level. Granted, Taro is up to tricks behind the scenes; you’ll notice subtle differences between the playthroughs, even if you’re technically starting from go. You quickly learn that this is a game full of secrets and ideas about what video games are and how to play them. That can sometimes be delightful, and other times be too clever for its own good.
The game’s save system, which is built around “access points,” is a good example. While “access points” are sprinkled liberally throughout the game, and are fairly easy to unlock (kill anything that moves), they’re intentionally user-hostile. You can save in-game by hitting a button, but it’s a quicksave that overwrites your last file. If you want to keep a few different saves handy, and that’s advisable, you’ve got to go in and do it manually. In theory, it’s an amusing discussion of how background processes in software affect a story using that software. In practice, it means if you want to save your game and go to bed you’re stuck doing paperwork because a developer wants to make an abstract point.
Fortunately, it’s a lot of fun to play and these navel-gazing incidents are usually few and far between. As just an action RPG, it’s got wonderful combat, a lot of varied missions, and is a lightning-fast time.
It says something that I can’t really delve into this without spoiling crucial plot points in the game, but suffice to say your first playthrough will be a meaty 10 to 20 hours, depending on your challenge level. And you’ll want to do a second playthrough.
Nier: Automata is that rare beast, a video game with an auteur’s voice. There are points where you wish that auteurism would be dialed back just slightly, but that said, it’s still leaps and bounds above any game this year in its thoughtful approach to design, and the brisk, fun combat just makes it better.