Y’know, sometimes things don’t need to be so complicated. Bagels. Pizza. The instruction manual for your new TV. It’s something I thought about as I struggled my way through NieR Automata (PlayStation 4, PC), a third-person, action-oriented, cyberpunk adventure game that was a lot more fun before it got so complicated.
In NieR Automata, it’s 5024, and you’re cast as YoRHa No. 2 Model B, a.k.a 2B, an android who, oddly, looks and acts like a fierce but nihilistic teenage goth girl. Which is scary given that she’s armed with a sword and is accompanied by a floating robot called Pod that has a machine gun, a rechargeable laser cannon, and an endless supply of ammo. But it’s also helpful because the Earth is now infested with killer robots who were sent by aliens to destroy all humans and it’s your job to clean up the planet…or die trying.
NieR Automata starts off promisingly enough as a first-rate action game in the vein of Devil May Cry, Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow, and especially Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (which, like NieR Automata, was made by PlatinumGames). Running and jumping around a long-abandoned robot factory, you get into skirmishes with some enemy ‘bots, including one that used to work construction.
It is during these parts that you experience the best part of NieR Automata: the combat. As a sword wielder, 2B is on par with the heroes of those aforementioned games. Besides light and heavy attacks, she can also double jump up and either smack things in mid-flight like she’s Kratos from God Of War, or she can do a devastating downward strike.
While 2B’s sword skills make her a formidable opponent, it’s Pod and its ranged attacks that make NieR Automata stand out. That’s because you can do both at the same time. While Pod automatically follows you around like a puppy, you control when and at what it fires at. Which means you can either concentrate your ranged and melee attacks on the same target, or you can also attack two enemies at the same time. You can even grab supplies dropped by destroyed enemies while Pod keeps attacking, which is rather convenient.
Not surprisingly, NieR Automata sometimes mixes things up. Not only do you occasionally face robots who are bulletproof, but there are also times when its more prudent to keep your distance and just shoot your enemies from afar.
There are even times when NieR Automata switches up the perspective, which impacts the gameplay in interesting ways. Most of the time, this employs a player-controlled third-person camera. But there are times when it shifts to a fixed perspective. It’s during these moments, especially when the camera employs an aerial or side view, that this feels more like a Galaga-esque arcade game, an Alienation-esque twin-stick shooter, or a Shovel Knight-ish side-scrolling hack & slash game.
NieR Automata even pulls an interesting trick from the playbook of Zombi. When you die, you start back where you last saved. But if you can make it back to where you died without dying again, you can grab your old stuff. Or, if you prefer, you can try and fix your old self. Do so, and your former body will follow you around for a while, smacking enemies with its sword. Screw it up, though, and it will smack you instead.
While the above may make NieR Automata sound like an engaging hack & slash shooter, the game sadly becomes more like a rote role-playing game once you get past the opening level.
After fighting your way through the robot factory, followed by some informative meetings in a space station, you head back to Earth, only to find that without people mowing the grass, nature has overtaken what’s left of the cities. Oh, and if you go even further out, you’ll end up in a desert. It is here, on the remnants of our civilization, that you spend the bulk of the game exploring an open world while completing story quests and running errands for your compatriots.
The problem being that while the combat is still engaging, whether it happens during a mission or just a random run-in, your other objectives aren’t that interesting. The errands are rather pedestrian, lots of “go there and get this” kind of stuff, while the story quests are a bit more involved but are again, in many cases, nothing you haven’t done before in other role-playing games.
There are also problems with the basic RPG mechanics of NieR Automata. Take character customization, which takes the form of chips you can install. While most are helpful, a bunch just add functions that would normally be standard equipment you activate or deactivate in the game’s option menu, like whether to display the level and heath of your enemies. Though it also doesn’t help that the menu you use to install and uninstall these chips doesn’t make it clear if you’ve actually installed the one you want to install.
Similarly, getting around NieR Automata can be frustrating. Doubly so if you’re the exploring type. The map is often inexact, while there a number of spots where you think you can jump up onto something or go somewhere, only to run smack into an invisible wall.
Then there’s the added irritation that quest items and supplies are all colored light yellow, which makes them hard to see from a distance when they’re amid some yellowy-green grass or light tan desert sand. And no, the white arrow that appears when you get close doesn’t help much.
But then, the world you explore in NieR Automata isn’t that interesting to begin with. Especially since we’ve seen more vivid and varied depictions of deserts and over-grown cities in such vastly better games as The Last Of Us and Horizon Zero Dawn. And sure, the story may have promise, but not enough of one to hold my interest among such rote settings and scenarios.
NieR Automata even has parts that make it feel dated (which is ironic given that the aforementioned old school gaming bits rank among the best parts of this game). While most conversations are voiced, some errands are oddly given to you by people who only speak in text. Similarly, the Pod’s targeting reticule so resembles an 8-bit version of parenthesis that it looks like it’s just a placeholder graphic someone forgot to replace.
As a result of these less-than-stellar mechanics, the rote missions, and the far-too-familiar world it all takes place in, I found myself slowly but steadily losing interest in NieR Automata as my adventure continued. And doubly so whenever I thought back to how it all began. Yes, I know you should judge a game on what it’s trying to be, not what you want it to be, and I do: it wants to be a great cyberpunk action-RPG, but it’s not. But, ultimately, seeing what it could’ve been — y’know, if the bulk of the game was an uncomplicated as the beginning — just makes the end result look worse.