In its first five minutes, Nier: Automata cycles through three different video game styles. It begins as a top-down, Space Invaders-style shooter; then, without warning, it switches to side-scrolling action. And just as you get comfortable, it turns again, having you pilot a flying mech, battling swarms of oblong robots. Eventually Automata establishes its genre — let’s call it an action / open-world / role-playing hybrid — but it never settles on any one description for too long. It’s a grab bag, and those willing to blindly reach in will be rewarded in turn.
Automata’s shapeshifting isn’t limited to its design. A post-apocalyptic story alternates between the three Ms: melancholy, melodrama, and meta-humor. It doesn’t always work — not every part of Automata is as strong as its sense of spectacle — but it makes for an experience that’s wholly unique.
Automata is the sequel to Nier, a cult-hit RPG from 2010, but it takes place thousands of years later. It ostensibly stands on its own; if you didn’t play the original you’ll have no problems getting started with Automata. The story takes place amid a seemingly never-ending proxy war, as the Earth has become a battleground where alien-controlled robots face off against an army of androids fighting for the human race. Humans who have survived live on the Moon, in hopes of one day returning to their planet. You control a combat android named 2B who is on the frontline of their war.
At its core, Automata is an action game. Developed as a collaboration between Square Enix and Platinum Games — the studio behind renowned action titles like Vanquish and Bayonetta — the game regularly pits you against swarms of enemy bots and towering machines. 2B is supported by a comically large sword and a helpful drone, equipped with a machine gun, that shreds through baddies.
Combat is, when performed well, a ballet. You must nimbly leap from attacks while stringing together fluid combinations of attacks. Battles progress quickly, forcing you to rotate between melee, gunplay, healing, and dodging within seconds of each other. I occasionally paused in the midst of lengthy fights to give my fingers a break.
The action is satisfying and stylish in a way that Platinum excels at. 2B swings a sword with a particular kind of grace. Even climbing a ladder, an awkward ordeal for the human body, suddenly looks cool and elegant.
Much of the game takes place from a third-person perspective, but as I mentioned, the camera will sometimes shift, turning Automata into a 2D, side-scrolling action game. 2B’s ship-and-mech suit vehicle allows for a variety of set-pieces: one moment, you’re piloting the ship and clearing waves of enemies, as if you were playing a modern-day take on Gradius. Other times you’re flying a mech suit while trying to hit the glowing weak points on a robot the size of a skyscraper.
And yet, for all of these wild ideas, the game’s missions can feel oddly straightforward and receptive. Quests often boil down to simply going from one play to another to deliver a message or pick up an item, while you fight a few robots in between. It gets monotonous even with such tight, exciting action.
And while Automata’s vision of a post-apocalyptic future is gorgeous — waterfalls running through the remains of a shopping mall, massive trees growing inside ruined office buildings — it’s also empty. Automata takes place in a semi-open world, which connects much smaller towns and other points of interest. But it offers little to do, aside from bash machines and watch moose graze in what were once parking lots. Treasure chests are scattered about, but they hardly inspire exploration. If you play other modern open-world games, Automata can feel restrictive, with lots of invisible barriers and cramped corridors.
Worst of all, Automata doesn’t include an autosave option. Instead, you can only save the game at specific points throughout the world. It’s a needlessly annoying choice that can lead to lost progress if you get caught in a battle you can’t win. The sparse world, the copious fetch quests, and the lacking save features feel archaic, and undermine the otherwise excellent action sequences and tight combat.
Truly, the combat isn’t just good. It’s exceptional. And so the result isn’t so different from a modern summer action film, in which amazing action sequences are connected by threads that feel tepid and out of date.
Then again, Automata has one thing generic action films don’t: character. It may seem like yet another post-apocalyptic game, but Automata’s cast is quirky, sad, and charming. And the piano-laden score makes wandering the ruins of civilization with these fighters feel poignant. I wanted to learn more about the aliens and machine societies and my role in the war.
There’s a soul to Automata that lifts the rest of the experience. When you die, you can retrieve your old android body and raise it from the dead to fight alongside you, like a robotic zombie. And despite being a solider, 2B can also stop whatever she’s doing and fish in any body of water.
In reality, the biggest thing going against Automata is time. It’s releasing during an especially busy period for big new console releases. If you aren’t already wrapped up in Horizon Zero Dawn or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there’s a good chance you’re saving your allotted gaming time for Mass Effect: Andromeda or Persona 5. If you can manage, though, Nier: Automata is a quiet, strange little gem that deserves a chance. It’s not perfect, but it’s ambitious and confident in a way few games are.
Nier: Automata is available on PS4 now, with a Steam version coming March 17th.