When people think of notorious game developers, a few names come to mind, Yoko Taro is one of them. Yoko Taro is quite possibly one of the most interesting gaming personalities of all time, a man who dares to present himself in an unorthodox manner and escape the confines of formal corporate etiquette. If you ask me, Yoko Taro is essentially what I would consider to be the perfect videogame producer.
However, looking at Yoko Taro as a game developer requires us to take a look at the many games he has developed. Now my personal knowledge on Yoko Taro’s games is limited but I have seen a pretty clear pattern in his design philosophy. It appears that Yoko Taro gives zero fucks about any of the potential repercussions that his crazy ideas may cause and rather than solving problems, many of Yoko Taro’s design choices often end up creating them.
When you look at Yoko Taro’s games on the surface, his games are crazy and over the top. I believe this to be the main draw to Yoko Taro’s games. His carefree attitude is certainly appealing, especially in the current climate where most gaming companies prefer to play it safe. Yoko Taro appears to believe that by doing the opposite of what other game developers try to do, he will succeed. He is partially right but at the same time this is a flawed mindset.
While it is important to experiment with new ideas, it is equally as important to prioritize certain ideas over others and cut away anything that isn’t congruent with the gameplay. Sadly Nier Automata prioritizes its narrative and illustration over its gameplay and tries to meld them into one in order to create an unusual experience, an experience in which I personally feel mixed on.
If Nier Automata has taught me anything it’s that ideas and concepts alone do not make a game. If we look at Nier Automata on the surface we see a massively ambitious project that blows our minds, so much so that this game is admittedly very difficult to critique but at the same time it’s very easy when you look closely at what the game actually is. Nier Automata is the equivalent of a dish that hadn’t been tasted, that’s not to say that the QA department were to blame, rather Yoko Taro’s dumped a lot of random ingredients into a blender expecting it to turn out great.
Now the good news is that Nier Automata is a game that manages to tickle everyone’s taste buds, hence why it became so popular. Methinks this was Yoko Taro’s plan from the start, create something so ridiculously absurd that people get blown away in amazement by how unorthodox the game is and with a plethora of ideas at his disposal, he was able to make a game that grabs the attention of the masses for it offers something for everyone. It worked, sure but that’s not to say that the game is a masterpiece, far from it actually.
As this is a review I am obligated to paint an accurate picture of the experience and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. In doing so I’m going to tear this game apart. Yeah you heard me, I’m not going to pretend that this game is a special snowflake because it’s not. Nier Automata is far from being a masterpiece like many make it out to be and this is due to one simple issue that plagues the entire game, it lacks a solid foundation.
Videogames requires a similar structure to that of a tree’s anatomy. You have the roots, the trunk and the branches. The roots are essentially what keeps the tree alive, without the roots there is no tree. As such the roots are the base of the foundation, they provide the tree with nutrients and water. Considering the fact that Nier Automata appears to be primarily a 3d beat-em-up I will use Devil May Cry 3 as an example. Devil May Cry 3’s foundation is not the attacks, nor is it the style gauge, the base of Devil May Cry 3’s foundation is the movement and the camera. You see, the entirety of Devil May Cry 3 is built with camera and movement in mind. Devil May Cry mainly uses a static camera angle and the gameplay is built with this in mind.
Many animals were harmed in the making of this review
Later on, many 3d beat-em-ups opted for a manually controlled camera so that players have control over the camera rather than feeling unable to feel in control. This came with a cost as it can be difficult to manage both the game and the camera simultaneously. Some games such as Chaos Legion made camera management easier, others such as God Hand opted to remove the camera entirely, this caused both games to differentiate from one another dramatically giving each game a completely different feel. As you can see, the camera plays a big part in these games as it is the focal point in which each game is built around. In other words, the camera acts as the foundation that governs the rules and systems built to accommodate it.
Why am I bringing this up? Because one of the biggest issues that plagues Nier Automata is the very thing that governs the foundation of all 3d beat-em-ups, the camera. The very first thing you are introduced to in Nier Automata is a shoot-em- up section. Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a 3d beat-em-up you ask? That’s the thing, Nier Automata doesn’t focus on being one specific genre exclusively, rather it tries to meld different styles of gameplay into one expecting to impress a huge audience with its diverse gameplay.
When you first begin, the game starts with a vertical camera with your flight unit able to move forward, back, left and right as enemies appear from the top of the screen for you to shoot down, sounds simple doesn’t it? Well don’t get too used to this as the next section presents you with a top down camera which plays more like a twin stick shooter. This introduces the use of the right analogue stick which was previously unusable in the previous section. In other words, the game has just changed its rules without warning and you now have to adapt to a completely different set of rules.
This can be disorientating as players need time to adapt to a set of rules before they are introduced to a new set of rules. Only through practice can players experience educated empowerment, the problem is that rather than having players feel like they are coming to grips with a system, Nier Automata changes the rules and forces players to come to grips with an entirely new system, thus the element of mastery is neglected for the sake of diversifying gameplay which can be infuriating to people who enjoy mastery in videogames and can be equally as frustrating to people who struggle to pick up on gameplay mechanics.
“If Nier Automata has taught me anything it’s that ideas and concepts alone do not make a game”
In Devil May Cry 3, aside from the occasional puzzle, the game consists of mostly beating the living shit out of bad guys with mostly close quarters combat, it focuses primarily on this close quarters combat and the very first mission involves primarily close quarters combat. Why? Because that is the core of Devil May Cry 3’s gameplay and the game wants to introduce the player to the game by giving them a fairly simple and straightforward training ground allowing players to experiment with Dante’s move set in order to learn the basics of the game’s combat. At first, it is natural that players are going to suck and as such you need to present the player with more of the same gameplay sections, occasionally adding something new to the mix in order for them to become better acquainted with the game’s mechanics which is the first step towards mastering the game.
If you transition to a completely different ruleset, you essentially compromise the entire process of mastery, this is the biggest issue with Nier Automata’s gameplay and it only gets worse from here on out. Nier Automata loves to experiment with a lot of different ideas… the problem is that Nier Automata is a commercial product designed to be a recreational activity. Such experimental ideas do not belong in the game, rather they belong in a note pad… or in a completely different game entirely.
Of course this also applies to the sections where you are grounded and engaged in close quarters combat. Most of the time you will have access to manual camera control but this is not always the case, some sections will have a static side view camera or a static top view camera. The game seamlessly transitions between each camera angle so this can often happen without warning, changing the way the controls work every single time.
The top down sections are by far the worst of the bunch as the camera is usually zoomed out way too far. Of course this isn’t the only time this happens as the side view camera angle can also be zoomed out way too far at times but I find this to be a lot more common with the top down sections. This can be quite irritating as it can be difficult to read the enemy’s moves when the camera is zoomed out too far. The game tries to make up for this by giving many of the enemies a red aura when they are attacking but it only happens for a split second and when there’s so many enemies on-screen at once it can be difficult to figure out which one was attacking you, let alone what their attack is going to be as it can be difficult to see which enemy you’re fighting.
Now I get what the game is trying to do, I really do. It’s trying to harken back to the old school style of gameplay, back when side scrolling and top down camera angles were common. The problem is that the gameplay of Nier Automata is not built with these camera angles in mind. The entire game is built with manual camera controls in mind and as such having multiple camera angles is kinda pointless as it doesn’t enhance the gameplay experience whatsoever, rather it hinders it.
If you want to make a side scrolling beat-em-up, that’s perfectly fine, look at what Odin Sphere Leifthrasir did, that game was built with a side view camera angle in mind. As such, rather than removing certain functions from the game, it incorporates functions that simply wouldn’t work in a game that uses manual camera controls such as the ability to hold down square and press up on the left analogue stick to perform aerial attacks. You can’t do this in Nier Automata as pressing up on the left analogue stick is used to move your character forward, granted games like Devil May Cry 3 added a directional input using its lock on system, something Nier Automata is sorely lacking.
This is where I want to get into the game’s combat system, specifically the 3d beat-em-up sections. Nier Automata’s combat system feels somewhat archaic, at least when compared to other 3d beat em ups like Devil May Cry 3. You are limited to one string of attacks per weapon and can equip 2 weapons at a time. You are also given a pod that shoots bullets and other ranged weapons. In addition to all this you are also able to dodge enemy attacks and counter them which is pretty satisfying to pull off.
One thing that bugs me however is that the short sword counter attack launches enemies into the air, this is cool until you encounter enemies that don’t stagger as instead of launching them into the air, you flail your sword around like an idiot, it gets really irritating how some enemies can be staggered while others can’t. In addition to all this, I encountered several hit point sponge enemies over the course of the game, the game gave me no indication as to which enemies were hp sponges and which weren’t which was annoying.
It appears that these enemies are monikered “gold enemies” and they’re really annoying to fight as they take way too long to kill them unless you hack them but doing so requires you to have a hacking skill which you don’t have access to when you first encounter them and you don’t have access to them for ages. In which case why spawn these enemies there? They’re not even challenging, they’re just annoying and tedious, I killed one of them but I didn’t get anything special for doing so, perhaps there’s more to them but I don’t really care, the fact that they show up in a section of the game you need to pass through to progress through the main story is absolutely fucking ridiculous as you clearly aren’t supposed to kill them at that point… yet you can, the funny thing is, these enemies aren’t a higher level than any of the other enemies, so why do they have so much goddamn hit points!?
It was at this point where I realized just how limited the combat feels, yes the combat is really fun and satisfying at the start but it stagnates later on, particularly when you find out that shooting enemies at long-range with the pod is usually the best strategy for dealing with most enemies making melee combat kinda useless. In a way, Nier Automata feels a lot like Devil May Cry 2 but with faster, less janky combat as it gives you an automatic weapon right from the get go meaning you can hold it down and kill most enemies surprisingly quickly. Why waste time with the melee combat when ranged combat is safer and easier, sure it might not be the most efficient method in terms of damage dealing but after weighing everything up I’d say the game encourages you to use ranged weapons over melee weapons.
Now you could argue that Devil May Cry 3 gives you handguns and that you can shoot enemies to death. Though this may be true, it clearly isn’t encouraged as shooting requires you to rapidly tap the square button and they deal very little damage per shot, it’s so much easier to hit things with a sword as not only does it deal considerably more damage but it also helps build the style gauge which gives you access to more red orbs letting you learn more moves faster. It puzzles me how a 12-year-old game manages to have more flexibility in its combat system than Nier Automata. It’s as if the developers were desperate to release the game ASAP with a passable combat system. To the developer’s credit, the combat is easy to pick up and play, dodging feels very responsive and the overall combat feels smooth, so much so that it makes a mockery out of Yoko Taro’s previous game’s in this department which is nothing to write home about but commendable nonetheless.
Going by Yoko Taro’s track record, I’d say that this game’s combat system would have been a train wreck if it wasn’t for Platinum games which just goes to show how little confidence I have in Yoko Taro’s games. Drakengard 2 and 3’s combat systems were painfully slow and janky, I could never finish either of them for this reason, granted I never played the first Nier though I heard a lot of complaints about the game and based on my experiences with Drakengard 2 and 3, this doesn’t surprise me. If you ask me, Platinum games saved this game from being yet another janky mess.
Of course this is only the first layer of the game’s combat system as it is technically two games in one, well sort of. The shoot-em-up segments make up the second layer of the game’s combat system, much like in Odin Sphere, I really wasn’t too keen on having them in this game either. To the game’s credit these sections aren’t particularly all that bad but they just seem to be thrown in there for the sake of it. Unlike most shoot-em-ups where enemies drop power ups and you improve your ship, Nier Automata doesn’t do this which kinda makes these sections feel tacked on and thus an ordeal to get through.
I can’t exactly complain about these sections though, much like the beat-em-up sections you have more-or-less the same abilities, dodging is still great, you can melee attack to deflect projectiles and shoot powerful lasers at enemies. If I was to summarize my overall experience with these sections, I’d say that they’re the top down low-budget equivalent Zone Of The Enders. In other words I think these sections are ok but not particularly rewarding or enjoyable to get through, at least in my opinion. I would have rather they focused on enhancing the beat-em-up style gameplay than shove this in there because I bought this game to hack n slash robots on the ground, not shoot things in the air.
Then we get into the hacking minigame. To be honest while these sections are simplistic, the fact that they keep the camera static the whole time makes these sections the best part of the gameplay hands down. Much like the standard shoot-em-up sections however, these sections also feel like a needless ordeal to get through most of the time and you will want to get back in the action ASAP. Still I cannot complain about these sections, it’s like a budget indie title some amateur made in game maker, how can you possibly fuck it up? All you need to do is shoot cylinders, circles and arrows, you can’t possibly fuck this up. Do you want a fucking medal game?
Combat aside, Nier Automata offers a reasonable amount of character growth and personalization through the use of plug in chips. Over the course of the game you will acquire plug in chips which can be added to your pod. Each plug in chip has different effects that can be applied to all elements of gameplay. They can also be enhanced by combining multiple chips together in order to improve them. I honestly found this to be a nice addition to the game and sort of makes up for the lack of options in combat. As such you could argue that Nier Automata is actually an Action RPG and to be honest you wouldn’t be completely wrong as the game does have a leveling system and RNG… but after the last blog I made, I’m going to treat this game as a 3d beat-em-up. I do think the character management is good enough to give this game some credit as an ARPG but with only a single controllable character, it’s expected that the game can do more than most ARPGs and as such it feels unfair to compare it with other games in the genre.
Still, I think what Nier Automata lacks in the gameplay department is flavor. The framework is there… mainly because that’s all they had time to do by the end because they didn’t bother to focus on one particular element. This means the game feels sterile as a result, you get a playable, yet empty experience which could have been so much more had the developers focused on one element of gameplay rather than trying to do everything at once. As such, the lack of focus is the core of the problem. The potential is there but the material on offer feels archaic, dull and boring which is extremely disappointing coming from Platinum games. If you ask me, I’d say that Yoko Taro’s involvement is the main reason why the gameplay never reached its full potential, he demanded too much from the game and Platinum did their best to make it work.
By now you can probably see a trend in this review. So far I have only touched on the gameplay and for good reason, it’s all over the fucking place! That means I have to review every single combat section separately because they’re all different even though my opinion on every single one of them is the same, they all feel half-assed. Now I’m not saying that the gameplay is terrible, it definitely isn’t, heck the game can actually be quite fun to play for quite a while, the gameplay is definitely not a major issue, if I said it was then I’d be a hypocrite for giving other games the pass and not this. I’m just disappointed that they didn’t go all the way with this game considering the amount of hype that was built up for it.
The sad thing is, Nier Automata clearly had the budget, it just lacked common sense in its direction and I know that this might sound like I hate Yoko Taro but the truth is I don’t, I really want to like his games, I really do. I support everything he stands for in gaming, he’s one of the few people involved with Square-Enix that is genuine and for that I cannot bring myself to hate the guy. I feel his games however seem to follow a clear pattern. Yes they’re all weird and wacky, nothing wrong with that, I get it, heck I can even appreciate it. However there are certain things about his games that rub me the wrong way, particularly in the gameplay department. As such if gameplay is the only thing you’re interested in, Yoko Taro’s games definitely aren’t for you, you are wasting your time and money playing them as there are better games out there for people like you, go play them instead.
So as a game, Nier Automata could have been so much better but is it a good experience nonetheless? That’s a tough question. You see Nier Automata is one of those games that’s either going to click with you or it isn’t. The premise of Nier Automata is pretty complicated. The world has been taken over by machines and mankind has deployed androids known as Yorha to deal with them. It sounds simple on paper but mark my words it isn’t.
Such an ambitious premise is going to require a lot of creativity in the narrative department as androids are artificial lifeforms that use artificial intelligence. There are only two ways to approach such a concept, either make the android characters completely devoid of emotion and focus primarily on building a strong, interesting world with plenty of abstract storytelling or find a way to encourage players to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to establish strong connectivity with the characters. Nier Automata focuses mostly on the latter.
The problem is that the characters in Nier Automata are pretty bland. This is usually expected with such a premise as it is normal for androids to lack emotion but when you clearly focus your game’s story on connectivity with characters, you need your characters to have strong emotions in order for them to be interesting enough to connect to. The main character 2B has a cardboard personality. She’s a serious, duty-bound Android who is stoic and blunt. Then you have 9S who joins 2B on her mission who is kinda laid back but does develop later on in the game.
When a game feels the need to be literal when describing the personality of a character, you know the writing’s fucked.
Unfortunately the character development in Nier Automata feels forced. This is mainly due to the game’s lackluster dialogue. The build up is there but it feels very shallow. Once again, this all comes down to a lack of focus. A lot of the game’s narrative is focused on the game’s premise and its themes rather than the characters. If the game was going for a more abstract style of narrative it could probably get away with this but sadly this is not the case as Nier Automata clearly focuses on connectivity. For a game focused on connectivity to work it needs strong characters to act as a foundation for the rest of the story. If the characters are weak, the pillars holding the story together begin to crack and if the pillars crumble, the rest of the story goes down with it and thus is the unfortunate fate of Nier Automata’s story.
To enjoy Nier Automata’s story to its fullest, you not only have to willingly suspend your disbelief but you also have to read a lot of the game’s texts and engage in many of the game’s sidequests. While this does not save the main story from being a complete let down, it at least allows you to appreciate the world a little bit more. I can honestly say that I had way more fun doing sidequests in this game than I did playing through the main story as the sidequests are pretty well designed. Sure there are plenty of fetch quests but they each come with their own little side story. Some missions are more interesting than others but I can definitely say that these are some of the best sidequests I’ve seen in a game hands down.
Where Nier Automata truly shines is in its exploration. If you’re looking for a true adventure game, this is it. The world of Nier Automata doesn’t feel empty and barren like most open world games nor does it feel strictly linear, instead the game gives you freedom to explore within limits. Personally I’d argue that this is by far the best approach to open exploration. If you see it you can most likely reach it and the game makes it easy to move around the world for the most part making exploration simple and fun. Of course there are plenty of treasure chests and items laid about for players to scavenge to reward players for exploring the game’s world.
Visually I’d say that the game is kinda a mixed bag for me personally. I’m not personally fond of the post apocalyptic urban setting as there is a lot of dull grays. The vast majority of the game takes place in these areas which is a bit of a downer for me but outside of these areas, there are some gorgeous looking areas to explore. I do think the developers overdid it with the lighting at some parts but I don’t think it’s a major issue. For this reason, I found the best parts of the game were the early sections before acquiring the first ending. Those of you unfamiliar with Yoko Taro’s games probably don’t know what I mean by this but Drakengard and Nier both have multiple endings. As you play through the game you will eventually reach an ending where the credits play but the game isn’t over and you are told to keep playing on for more content.
After the first ending, I started to lose interest in the game as I had already explored the majority of the game’s map and the value of exploration was no longer present in the game. To be honest, despite the fact that the first ending left me with lots of questions, I felt that it was the best possible time to end the game. You could argue that the game is worth purchasing for the first section alone but considering the full package, I’d say that Nier Automata overstays its welcome much like everything post disk 1 in Legend Of Dragoon.
One thing that didn’t disappoint me was the soundtrack. While I’m not usually fond of vocals, I found that they accompanied many of the tracks pretty well. The music helps encourage the exploration, something a lot of open world games fail to do because they tend to shuffle the music randomly rather than keep the same track for each area. I really like how a semi-open world is accompanied with a soundtrack that perfectly fits each section. Not only that but the music changes depending on whether or not you are in battle to get you pumped up for the action. I think a lot of games can learn a lot from Nier Automata for this reason. In terms of open exploration, I’d argue it’s one of the best if not the best game I have ever played.
Though Nier Automata does have some redeeming qualities, I’d argue that the overall experience of the game is hit-or-miss. When this game was first released I had to pay £44.99 which is an absolutely outrageous price for such a game. I definitely didn’t get my money’s worth out of it but I probably would have if I spent £39.99. This is why I come across as somewhat harsh and bitter in this review because not only am I having to pay more for videogames these days but I feel that many of the games released this generation (and the previous) fail to meet the standards set by games that were released 10 years ago and Nier Automata is one of them.
As such I cannot say that I was as impressed or as blown away by this game like the masses were but can I recommend this game? Well I’d say if the price is right, pick it up, just don’t spend £44.99 on this game, it just isn’t worth it. I base my entire judgement on value for money and time as when a game has the audacity to charge more, I expect more. I don’t give a shit about inflation, I expect games to improve as time goes by, sadly this clearly isn’t the case.
Lifespan: Decent length
Would You Replay? No
Purchase Nier Automata (PS4)