When people use the word unique, most of the time they just mean that something is unusual or not the norm. This time, though, I’m using the word unique in its proper context. I really do believe that in a lot of ways, NieR: Automata is one of a kind.
From the very first moments of the game, you can tell that it’s very unconventional. You begin in a vertically scrolling shooter section, then with twin-stick controls, then onto the ground into the traditional fast-paced third-person combat that makes up the bulk of the game, then into 2D side-scrolling and then into top-down action. If all of that sounds very hectic, it is a little bit. But that’s the tutorial stage and the rest of the game isn’t quite so crazy.
That kind of insanity epitomises why I love this game. There’s absolutely no way you’d get that kind of mish-mash of styles from your standard focus-tested-to-death Western-developed game. And that’s not to say that all Japanese games are inherently more creative or superior, but there is a different feel to them that is very obvious and tangible. If I can very unfairly generalise for a moment, I would say that big, Western developers are very good at making games that would be considered 7’s or 8’s whereas Japanese games are either going to be 1’s or 10’s.
Put simply: I could never see a game like NieR: Automata coming out of a studio like Ubisoft or EA. It’s got just enough Japanese wackiness to set it apart but still manages to tell an incredibly compelling story. And what a story it is. Set on Earth thousands of years in the future, you play as an android named 2B trying to take back Earth from the machines that drove humanity to the moon. That may sound like a load of bollocks, and it kind of is, but damn if director Yoko Taro didn’t find a way to make me care about absolutely everything that happened in this game.
Which brings me to possibly the best thing about this game: 99% of the sidequests are actually interesting and add either lore and/or cool character moments. In most open-world rpg’s, sidequests are almost always nothing more than a way to pad out the runtime of the game and give you something to do while you’re ignoring the main story and exploring the world. Not so in NieR: Automata. The actual tasks of the quests may, for the most part, be the usual “go here, kill/find this” fare that you would find in other games, but the story surrounding the quests are, in the vast majority of cases, very interesting and have a huge influence on your understanding of the world and the beings that inhabit it.
Aside from the extra bits of story that you get from doing sidequests, the material rewards are actually worthwhile as well. Not only do they sometimes net you a new weapon to add to your ever-growing arsenal, they also give you the much needed materials used to upgrade those weapons to give you increased damage and a myriad of weapon-specific unique bonuses.
To finally get away from the minutiae of sidequest rewards, the world of NieR: Automata offers potential screenshots at every turn. Much like The Last of Us, the post-apocalyptic Earth of NieR offers its own brand of natural beauty. Coupled with an absolutely stunning soundtrack, playing the game I am often struck with an almost physical wave of melancholy simply walking around. And I mean that in the best possible way.
The music of the game probably deserves its own two-page review, but I am far too under qualified to try something like that. All I’ll say is that even if you don’t care about this game at all, you should at least give some of the music a listen. Even though most of the music from the game that I’ve been humming to myself for the past week is the normal ambient music, my favourite music-related moment in the whole game was a jaw-dropping transition form game audio into boss theme. Like, my jaw literally dropped. I’m getting chills just writing about it.
If it seems like I’m gushing too much then it’s only because I think this game deserves far more attention than what it has been getting. Not to say that it’s been totally overlooked but I feel like it’s gotten lost in the shuffle a bit since, Zelda, Horizon and the meme machine Mass Effect have all released in close proximity to it. I think NieR: Automata comfortably sits in the top five PS4 games of all time and may climb even higher on my own personal list once I’ve had more time to mull it all over. Poor Gravity Rush 2 only just got up there, too.
Disregarding all the artsy fartsy stuff I’ve spent this whole review talking about, at its core NieR: Automata is an open-world RPG with incredibly fun and satisfying combat with that trademark Platinum Games feel. More impressively though, it’s a story with no human characters that manages to successfully explore what it means to be human and, even simpler, what it means to “be” at all.