This March saw the release of NieR Automata, a pseudo-sequel to a cult favourite that I came to rather late, yet absolutely adored. An average-on-the-face-of-it game that was far more than the sum of its parts, Cavia and Yoko Taro’s action RPG immediately became one of my favourite games of its generation.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that I was incredibly excited for Automata. On paper it seemed like a dream project: here was a collaboration between Yoko Taro and Platinum Games, with Keiichi Okabe returning on soundtrack duties and Akihiko Yoshida handling the art. If I was going to assemble a team to make a new NieR game, I couldn’t hope for a better group than that. Basically, I was expecting this to be my game of the year before it was even out.

Unfortunately, I’ve been really struggling to get into it, and that genuinely makes me sad.

It’s important to note that so far I’ve only played through Route A and maybe about two-thirds of Route B, so I’ve by no means seen everything the game has to offer. Like the first, this is a game that needs to be played through a handful of times to really understand what’s going on, so it’s entirely possible that by the time I’m done I’ll adore it like I do the first. So far though, I’m not really feeling it. I’ll explain why, and while I’ll do my best to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, bear in mind some mild plot and character discussion (for both games!) follows.

The first time you play through NieR Automata, you’ll experience the story from the perspective of 2B, the wonderfully designed gothic Lolita android warrior. It’s a good thing that she looks so fantastic (thanks Yoshida!), because she comes across as a little dull in her own campaign, as does boyish sidekick 9S (I’M NEVER GOING TO CALL YOU NINES, GET OVER IT); there’s just no one here that has the impact of Kaine or Weiss, two characters that quickly became two of my favourite jRPG party members. That would be fairly forgivable if the story grabbed me but, the first time through, NieR Automata just feels like a disconnected series of events: you’ll go to a new region, something seemingly quite important will happen, and you’ll have no opportunity to process the event or what it might mean for the world and its characters. You’re simply told to go somewhere else where another apparently-important thing happens. Without any proper reflection on these events I felt like there was no cohesive thread pulling me through the story, almost as if I was playing through a succession of side-quests that didn’t feed back into the core narrative. Why should I care about all this if I’m not given a reason to?

If he’s Nines, does that make her Toobz?

Ok, fair enough, as I said above we’re supposed to play these games a handful of times to get the full picture. The first game was the same, right? Well, yes and no. In NieR‘s Route A, we had no idea what had happened to the world, or why people from 1,300 years ago were seemingly alive in the present with no memory of the past. We had no idea what our enemies, the Shades, were, we knew nothing of the Black Scrawl or the grimoires or the Shadowlord. What we did know, however, was that the protagonist’s daughter was sick and he’d do anything in the world to save her. The mysteries of the world worked because we had that personal bond to focus on, that quest to save Yonah that pulled us through the story. There is no such thing in Automata‘s Route A. There’s just stuff happening. And it’s happening to people you don’t really care about.

So I forced myself through Route A, reminding myself of how transformative the original game’s second playthrough was, and hoping – expecting – for something equally as revelatory here. So far I’ve been disappointed. The second time through, you play as 9S, who has a few extra tricks up his impeccably-tailored sleeves, like the ability to hack enemies to weaken or outright destroy them. Interestingly, this can also be used outside of combat to quite literally peak into the minds of others and find out what makes them tick. Unfortunately, this seems to be used mainly in side-quests while the story of Route B is mostly a re-tread of Route A. This is unsurprising given how much of the game 9S and 2B spend together, and I am looking forward to a later part of the story where they become separated for a time. But, while there are little insights peppered throughout such as learning the motivations of a couple of bosses (think Beepy and Kalil, but nowhere near as awesome/harrowing), it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact that Route B in the first game did, where your entire understanding of the world, your enemies and even your allies was completely turned on its head.

So far, Automata has displayed precious little of what made the original game so special; there’s none of the heart and emotion that made the first game and its characters so magnetic. That’s probably to be expected in a world inhabited solely by androids and machines of course, but it does make it a little difficult to care about. Don’t get me wrong though, I do enjoy the act of playing the game – basic combat is far more enjoyable here, thanks to Platinum’s involvement, and it’s wonderfully animated. I love the balletic movements of the characters in battle, and the perfect dodge is a thing of absolute beauty, reminiscent of Bayonetta at her acrobatic best. And then there’s the bullet hell sections, which manage to feel more distinct than they did in the original thanks to the introduction of flight units that transform the game into an actual, honest-to-god shmup for a few minutes at a time.

However, these segments also drive home how comparatively lacking Automata is in gameplay variety. Whereas the first game delighted in switching things up constantly, feeling like a Zelda clone one moment, taking inspiration from classic Resident Evil the next, and even heading into text adventure territory in a couple of places, NieR Automata is an action RPG with occasional shooter segments. It’s all good stuff, but it does leave the game feeling a touch less inventive than its predecessor. Then there’s the bosses, which are almost all impressively-screen-filling monstrosities, yet end up feeling a bit less imaginative than the original’s bizarre, otherworldy beasts like Hook or Wendy, and the pod program special attacks that just aren’t as cool as Weiss’ sealed verses.

These are all relatively minor issues, to be fair – the main source of my disappointment is with the story, world and characters, and I want to reiterate that I am genuinely saddened by this. I really don’t want to come across as if I’m trying to convince people not to like NieR Automata – I’m absolutely thrilled that more people are discovering Yoko Taro’s work, and I hope this gets him more exposure and the chance to make more weird, heartrending games that crawl under your skin and refuse to leave. Automata has been very well received, so I’m more than prepared to admit that I’m the odd one out here, and I really just want to love it as much as everyone else does.

There seems to be a general consensus that Route C is where it really starts to make an impact, and I’ve been advised by some to just rush through to that. That feels like it’s missing the point somewhat though – I’m disappointed that I’ve spent, so far, around 25 hours with the game and found none of what I loved about the first NieR. But hey, I’m still plugging away, and I’m hopeful that, once I’ve got that far, I’ll love Automata as much as I do the original. I’ll be sure to revisit this and write up some more thoughts once I properly finish the game, at which point I hope NieR Automata sits comfortably alongside the original as one of the most memorable games I’ve ever experienced.

Advertisements