We'll probably never write a harder review. NieR: Automata is an enigma: a game with such contempt for convention that we can't even talk about two-thirds of it without spoiling the surprises that await you. This is a game that defies all expectations, flourishing with frequent playthroughs and building to a crescendo that breaks the fourth wall so hard that it'll leave you with permanent structural damage. Simply put it's sublime – but you'll need patience to reap its rewards.
The reality is that the game doesn't really get going until you reach your third playthrough. No, that's not a mistake: you won't even get a proper title card until you've seen the release's credits roll twice. If you're coming into this expecting traditional Platinum Games character action then you'll come away somewhat satisfied, but it's the layers that oddball director Yoko Taro builds upon what initially seems like a pretty threadbare plot that makes it something truly special indeed.
We're not going to lie: we were seriously underwhelmed with the game at first blush. 2B's campaign is competent, but it's marred by genre tropes and an unsatisfying conclusion. Fetch quests and escort missions litter the role-playing portion of the release, while poor performance and unsatisfying navigation drag down the open world aspect. Then you play through it again and, one clumsily implemented mechanic aside, the story kicks up a notch.
And then, with your third playthrough, it begins proper.
We can't delve into specifics because we'd spoil the snowball effect for you, but rest assured the game amps up its excellence the more time that you spend with it. Perhaps it's unreasonable to ask you to grind through over 30 hours of gameplay to get to the best bits; many probably won't even bother and will give up upon seeing its credits roll once. But persistence is one of the themes of this game, as its true ending illustrates. You even get to write a message of encouragement for other players to read. Seriously.
So what can we say? Well, the story's set thousands of years after aliens have invaded Earth, forcing humanity to take up residence on the moon and create its own line of androids to destroy the robotic threat that's commandeered by the extraterrestrials. It sounds silly and it should: the title's not afraid to embrace a bit of black humour. But for as laugh out loud funny as some of the writing can be, it's also capable of seguing into sombreness just as quickly.
Make no mistake, this is a weird game: the imagery is both affecting and downright dumb at times. But it takes some well-trodden themes and spins them out into something impressive: the first playthrough will have you rolling your eyes, the second on the edge of your seat, and the third – well, the third... It's something else! Not only does the spectacle improve and the story with it, but so too does the imagination of its director – it's just wild how creative this title gets.
Of course, with genius comes serious setbacks, and this is far from a perfect game: the combat borders on tedious with one character in particular, and even at its best it never quite occupies the same stable as a Bayonetta or a Devil May Cry. Moreover, the performance is truly poor – even on the PlayStation 4 Pro, where it frequently and aggressively slips from its 60 frames-per-second target. It's particularly disappointing seeing as, outside of some strong character designs, it's a rather ugly game.
But even when criticising its weaker aspects, there are some great ideas that need to be acknowledged. For example, the pod – a levitating companion with long-range fire – not only augments the outing with some genre bending sh'mup-esque action, but it also forms the backbone of a clever skill tree-style system that sees you attaching different ability boosting chips to its motherboard – each requiring differing amounts of space.
And it's in this particular mechanic that the title teases its playfulness: remove your pod's operating system and you'll see one of the game's many gag endings. A lack of autosave can make these jokes unfunny at times, but once you get to grips with the game's expectations of you – save often, basically – it's not so bad. And look, we admit it: the release has the capacity to frustrate and sometimes even grate more than is acceptable. But you simply have to stick with it.
There's something special here: it's relatable, intelligent, and that final act – it's ingenious. The well-trodden anime tropes may test even the most ardent weeaboos, but while it seems for large portions of the game that it's content with simply revisiting them, it blossoms into something so much more. As an action RPG there are some addictive systems and great set-pieces here – but as a piece of fiction, it cleverly leverages the medium in a way that's seldom seen. And that, frankly, deserves to be celebrated.
An oddity that grows in stature the more time that you spend with it, NieR: Automata is so much more than you think it is – and it's all the better for it. Some decent writing aside, its side-quests fall into genre pitfalls and its open world can be annoying to navigate. But if you're able to look beyond its shortcomings as a game then you'll be richly rewarded. And while we can't really elaborate on why that is, you're just going to have to trust us.
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