How to define life makes for one of the great discussions of our species. There are certainly stringent lists that would answer the question on a biological level: but what it is to be truly alive isn't so black and white when coming from a more philosophical standpoint. As the medium of gaming matures so too does its capacity to take on more powerful topics and concepts. Like books, film and art: gaming is just as capable in these regards and then some due to the player's direct input into how events unfold. Games like SOMA show that how we view consciousness, or at least what it means to us, can be used to make us consider own very real mortality.
So what is Nier: Automata? Well, not having played the previous game I am coming at this review with fresh eyes and open expectations. Please note while this is a spoiler free review I may cover some aspects of the game you will wish to discover for yourself. The game takes place on an earth many thousands of years in the future. Our celestial cradle has been invaded by alien machines and humanity has fled to the sanctuary of the moon. In an attempt to defeat the machines, humans have developed a race of androids to fight on their behalf. You play as one such android, referred to a simply 2B.
Nier is a very accomplished hack and slash game from PlatinumGames: with arcade shooter elements and some basic RPG notes. Obviously coming from the creators of games like Bayonetta you already know the combat will be razor sharp. As is standard fare these days you have a light and heavy attack which will do different things depending on the context and weapon. You can also dodge attacks which becomes more important for higher difficulties. If you pull off a perfect dodge you can then launch a devastating counter attack.
While there are not as many moves as in Bayonetta, there is still a fantastic array of options when it comes to dishing out the hurt. As you play you will either find or buy new weapons that fall under various melee categories. Each weapon, in turn, has its own set of moves, can be levelled up with gathered materials and even has a story that unlocks over time. You also have a pod assisting you and this nifty little thing covers a whole range of functions which can be upgraded or added to. There are a range of powerful abilities for the pod which you acquire while playing the game as well as its basic attack. You can also find new pods in the world which have their own types of attack and can also hold a special ability. I personally had two set up for attack and then one which could give me a handy shield. It will even light up dark areas or act as a lure for a spot of fishing if that's an activity that takes your fancy. I have to say that while there are some unexpected features in the game some feel like they haven't been fully realised. One of these is the ability to place bait in order to mount and ride various animals roaming the city. There just doesn't seem to be any point to this option due to the fact you run pretty fast anyway and can fight far better when on foot.
Right from the beginning of the game, you have access to the inner workings of 2B's core systems. These chips cover everything from the UI of the game to new abilities and statistical improvements. This system is so open you can actually pull out your central CPU which doesn't end well for 2B. There are only so many chips you can place into your body: so finding the right set up and hunting for the best chips (that need less space) becomes part of the metagame. There is a very helpful favourites system so say you need more healing and or more running speed you can flip to this new preset on the fly. Death in Nier can be a real killer depending on your point of view. On death you must make it back to your old body if you wish to recover the unsaved experience and chips: if you fail to make it they are gone forever. It is also interesting that while playing you can see the corpses of other players games. These can be absorbed or even reanimated to fight by your side. This is very cool and indicative of the kind of awesome gameplay touches Nier has throughout.
I wouldn't go as far as to say Nier was a fully fledged RPG because while you do have extensive gear options: there is not really any character building or dialogue branching options as you play. However, there are twenty-six different endings to Nier: Automata which is pretty incredible. Granted, twenty-three of these are 'novelty' endings which can be found by performing certain actions. I found some of these by accident and some I had to look up: but all these clever additions build a feeling of intrigue.
The idea of playing through any game five times (no matter how good) is a daunting idea and so I really want to emphasise that each time you play there are significant changes. I am not going to reveal what these changes are of course but each one pulls back another layer of content which with hindsight is a vital part of the bigger picture. One of the best things about this system is that you get to see the same events from different viewpoints and this drives the notion that not everything we experience can be taken at face value. If one of the goals of Yoko was to make the player question their actions and choices then he has accomplished this in spades. The game also likes to prod the fourth wall in some very interesting ways. For example after you have completed the games dazzling introduction you are then asked to tweak your brightness and sound levels: these are all done within the games actual menu. At a later stage in the game for reasons I won't divulge, you actually see yourself going through this setup period: very clever stuff.
Paint me pretty
I have found the overall visual quality of Nier to be stunning, which is strange because there are certain parts of the game that look washed out and barren of detail. Often when you examine characters faces up close they look like throwbacks from the PS3 era. I've thought about this a lot and I think the reason why I find this title so visually pleasing is the elegance in design that is presented throughout. In actual fact, the menu design and overall look of the game really reminded me of Metal Gear Solid 5. Earth has been abandoned by humans and so now nature is starting to reclaim the many cities. While you can often get a feeling of emptiness, this compliments the lonely atmosphere already in place. It helps tremendously that while 2B and 9S wander the ruins of your creators they engage in thoughtful conversation about what they are seeing and what came before. The main characters are very well animated and this makes combat absolutely sing. Another interesting aspect of the games aesthetic is how colour is used to amplify certain areas, dangers or world objects. When on the android space station orbiting Earth, for instance, there is no colour visible at all. This of course really emphasises the fact you are in the cold vacuum of space. Even when in the lush forest area there is almost a wash of haze over the greens and admittedly this style will not be to everyone's taste.
The games main adversaries are the machines and these range from the small ones that look like killer dustbins to the colossus sized that show us what a pissed off oil rig would look like if one ever came to life. I like the design of these enemies very much and think they are made all the better by the way they engage with the player. It is even more impresive that you are still coming across new variants on the fifth play through.
As you play Nier the view will constantly shift to new perspectives and while on paper this didn't sound like something I would like - it works so well. Even in the opening sequence, the game does a very good job of demonstrating what is to come. One second you will have a top down view of your flight unit in a twin-stick shooter style scrolling game and then the next you will shift to a sideways scroller when on foot. If this doesn't sound like something you will get on with I absolutely implore you to give it a chance because it works, it really does. The controls that you have spent time learning switch to the new viewpoint effortlessly and while this could have been a nightmare it's actually seamless.
Life imitating life
It has occurred to me as I played Nier that the developers wanted to make you feel almost guilty for smashing these droids into pieces. Indeed, there are some sequences in this game that will make you question the way you play games and how we assume attacking is always the way to progress. There are a few scenes that made me feel a whole range of emotions from pity, empathy and guilt: not bad considering that on the face of it they are talking tin cans. These machines often act like, and indeed believe, they are alive. I often forgot that the androids we play the game as are also actually not human because for the most part they look and act very much so. Why would an android blush, cry and display sexual urges? I'm not going to pretend I know the answer to these questions but I do know the startlingly direct way in which Yoko melds these ideas into the narrative is exquisite.
I must also give the soundtrack to Nier a special mention as it is sublime. I don't think I've seen a single person criticise it and rightly so. Not only is each track a joy to listen to but the game seems to know exactly which track should go where. I think it is a telling that even after playing Nier for seventy plus hours, I am still listening to its music while editing this review. My only negative is that some tracks feel a little overused including one in particular with distinct piano notes: but this is a minor problem for what should be soundtrack of the year.
Man behind the mask
This isn't part of the review per se but I just wanted to mention the man who is behind this incredible game. It's very easy to assume that the games you have played are the most important ones and yet often (and humblingly so) I uncover a whole series of titles I'd never heard of. Looking back over all the games Yoko Taro has worked on this is certainly the case. I spent time reading about Yoko because I wanted to understand some of the design choices within Nier. Why does 2B wear clothes which look elegant and even sexual? Why is her skirt so short showing off her knickers every five seconds? Why do androids designed to fight need sexuality at all? It's interesting that if you do attempt to look up 2Bs minimalist skirt she will spin away disapprovingly: there's even an achievement for such blatant voyeurism (so I've read).
When asking my readers and gaming friends they all concede that Japanese game designers are known for these sexual overtones: the most recent and well publicised being the character Quiet in Metal Gear Solid 5. Yet when asked about this in a rare interview Yoko simply stated that he 'really like girls'. I can respect his blunt honesty and this kind of uninhibited flavour of storytelling can really be seen throughout Niers many twists and turns. If the player-art and cosplay of 2B are anything to go off: the fans approve.
Is it PC?
So while I have been reviewing Nier I have also been keeping a keen eye on the various PC gaming sites out there and it's clear the PC port has not arrived problem free. For a start, there are issues with the resolution when running in full-screen mode. This can leave the visuals looking a little squashed. Cut scenes have been rendered in a very low resolution and even with the wonderful design they still suffer because of this. There is also a horrible micro-stuttering that happens to pretty much every cutscene in the game: while not game breaking it does detract from what should be some of the game's most epic crescendos. Overall I was happy with how the game ran on my rig (4.2GHZ, 16GB DDR3 and a 980GTX) and I didn't see any of the major framerate issues that have plagued the PS4 and PS4 Pro. With that said I do think the game is still very unoptimised and this seems to lie within the engine itself. I played the game on my SSD and found load times to be almost instant so no problem there.
As for controls, you can play Nier with either mouse/keyboard or a controller. I personally opted for the original Xbox controller on this occasion as it seems to work very well with the shooting sections of the game. One little problem that I did keep seeing was that the mouse pointer would appear mid screen and I'd have to occasionally drag it down out of view: I'm sure there is a fix for this somewhere but for now I thought I'd mention it. So overall not a perfect port but it does the job.
There are some minor problems with the PC version but these are small blemishes and should not put PC gamers off owning Nier because it is here that you will find the definitive version. I think it's safe to say that before playing Nier I didn't know who Yoko Taro was, however, I am now a lifelong fan and will follow his future work very carefully.
Nier Automata has been out on PC for a few weeks and while many reviews have already been published I wanted to let the dust settle before casting my final opinions. All too often you can emerge from the last scene of a game still hyped up to hell. However, after a few days to reflect and think about what this title has to offer, I have no problem in calling Nier a masterpiece of our time and should be played by everyone.
Thank you for taking the time to read my review for Nier Automata on PC. If you don't already please follow me on Twitter @riggedforepic where you can see links to all my content. I will be playing/reviewing the DLC which is out on the 2nd of May: so check back soon for an update.