I’m lost in a sepia cloud of explosions, dust kicked up from the ground, and fragments of broken metal. The sight of me wiping out a unit of ragtag robots as the blindfolded android 2B recalls one of those morning TV cartoon scraps. The ones where you see nothing but flailing limbs in a cloud of combat, before it subsides to reveal the victor. At the same time, I feel well in control, thanks to the tried and tested mechanics that anyone who’s played PlatinumGames’ previous offerings will instantly settle into.
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When the fighting ends, the visuals quickly settle down to reveal the melancholy open world of Nier: Automata - reclaimed by nature, populated by machines, and with a faded aesthetic that’s something of a trademark in Square Enix’s Drakengard universe. But as much as I appreciate its haunting beauty, it feels like a world made up of surfaces, and I struggled to dig any deeper into it during my three hours of hands-on time with the game.
The preview begins by taking me through the demo content that had already been public since December (with some intriguing extras), before chucking me into the open world for a few quests and a storyline boss encounter where things get very interesting (while I’m sworn to secrecy on the details, I can say it’s one of those twists that will leave you triple-taking, questioning whether what you’re seeing could possibly be what you think it is).
You may already be familiar with the demo content, but as this was my first time with it I’ll sum it up quickly. The world has been abandoned by humans after an invasion by extra-terrestrial machines, and (ostensibly) emotionless androids are deployed to combat the threat. You are one of these androids, YoRHa 2B, and you'll spend much of your time fighting alongside fellow droid 9S (whose Japanese-styled teenagerness is emphasised by the fact that he wears above-the-knee schoolboy shorts). In the demo, you’re sent into a factory complex to take out a particularly formidable machine called Goliath.
This section of the game does a great job of showcasing some of that oddball spirit that made the original Nier, if not exactly a great game, certainly an interesting and relentlessly experimental one. Automata bounces between different perspectives and genres freely and flowingly. While at its core this is a third-person PlatinumGames action title, it may glide a to top-down perspective as you’re dodging around enemy projectiles one moment, before indulging in a bit of 2D platforming the next (in one previously unseen segment, the game even does something that will have you flashing back to coin-op arcades in the early 90s). It’s freewheeling yet focused, with longstanding series composer Keiichi Okabe’s cyber-choral music giving plenty of pomp to proceedings.
The open-world section of Nier: Automata contrasts dramatically to this, and to other PlatinumGames games for that matter. In the overgrown derelict city that I explored, and the rolling desert dunes surrounding it, combat is largely avoidable and the pacing is much slower despite 2B and 9S’ impressive running capabilities. The world is a little 'early 3D Zelda’ in its sparseness, though less welcoming. I make my way to the outpost of the axiomatically-named ‘Resistance’, where the Zelda vibes are reinforced by the fact that NPCs communicate mostly via text boxes. I pick up a couple of fetch quests from the weapons dealer and supply trader, and make off into the world.
This is where Nier: Automata shows some cracks. PlatinumGames are masters of combat and action set-pieces (usually embellished by excellent art direction), but these traits are incongruous with an open world that forces you to traverse it with very few distractions and engagements. There are quick-save points guarded by enemies that offer map information and modifications, a couple of resistance members to trade with, and Things to Kill if you so wish, but that’s it - it’s the opposite of the Assassin’s Creed open-world clutter problem.
Even if you just want to explore the scenery a bit more - perhaps check out the inside of an abandoned building for some lore tidbits - you’re likely to run into an invisible wall or pile of rubble blocking your path. It’s an open world only insomuch as it’s not mission-based and it takes time to get from A to B, rather than it really being an engaging world of side-quests, stories and possibilities.
But sprawling worlds never were the forte of PlatinumGames, whose level design in the past revolved around arenas and flashy backgrounds within which glorious combat could take place. Thankfully, there’s plenty of that here too.
Combat in Nier: Automata is a little more subdued than in your Bayonettas and your MadWorlds, which is befitting of the sombre, dreamy tone of the game. But it's not without its moments of playful bombast. You can carry any combination of two weapons you pick up, and each has a unique relationship and set of animations with the next. If you have the chunky Beastlord as your secondary weapon and the gauntlets as your primary, for example, 2B can take off one of her gauntlets and use the sword to baseball-bat it into your enemies. At any point, you can use your hovering robot companion to pepper enemies with bullets, and occasionally use it to perform a bonkers power move like summoning a giant hammer or fusillade of spears. If you find trekking the world a bit tedious, then the combat is a welcome countermeasure.
A formidable amount of customisation is offered by the plug-in chip system, letting you buy various upgrades for 2B and manually allocate each of them a slither of space in her memory bank. You have your standard boosts like increased attack strength or speed, but seemingly basic UI features like the health gauge and map require a slot in 2B’s memory too, offering a nice sense that these conveniences for the player are actually as much a part of the protagonist’s interface as yours. Over at Kotaku, they even noticed that removing the OS chip on 2B instantly kills her, fading the screen to black and sending you back to the main menu; an awesome little meta-touch.
As is becoming de rigeur in the post-Souls world, death isn’t inconsequential in Nier: Automata, and whatever chips you had loaded into 2B’s memory stay on her corpse when she dies. You can, however, stack these chips, and you only lose one of each upon death, but it’s still enough to make you think twice before getting reckless. Die on your way to retrieving your corpse, and you lose those chips forever. A nice twist on this is that instead of collecting your chips, you can resurrect your corpse when you find it and it will fight alongside you and 9S for a limited amount of time.
It’s in these idiosyncrasies that Nier: Automata shines, much like its predecessor. Nier was an endearingly weird game, and PlatinumGames have done well to retain the tone that garnered it a cult following. Along with the plot that got promisingly bizarre right towards the end of the hands-on, the genre-shifting we saw in the demo, and the above, you can also engage in odd little activities like fishing (true to the original), and riding giant animals around (a fact that I swiftly abused by riding a massive boar right off a waterfall).
But Nier: Automata also shows symptoms of the same weakness as its predecessor - an open world that’s lacking in purpose, and seems an unnecessary buffer for the engaging combat and intriguing story. Perhaps my sample of the world wasn’t representative, or perhaps it’ll come down to the game’s undeniably charming quirks and mechanical strengths to forcefully overcome its equally evident weakness.