There’s no doubt that the relationship between Xbox One and Japanese RPGs is a strained one. Xbox’s player base frequently begs the powers that be to bring more JRPG goodness to the platform, but somehow Sony maintains a death grip on the genre. It came as quite the surprise, then, when Platinum Games and Square Enix announced that their coveted action JRPG, NieR: Automata, would find its way to the Xbox One with the release of an updated BECOME AS GODS edition. With the masses soothed by the impending release the question that plagued us now became “Was NieR worth the wait?”
The short answer to that is most certainly yes. NieR: Automata is delightfully eccentric, and embraces the world created for it in all of its glory. The story is set in the unimaginable futuristic year of 11,000AD on a version of planet Earth that is so far beyond being post-human that nature has taken over and reclaimed the planet. The juxtaposition of the decayed remains of humanity such as apartment buildings and industrial factories alongside the giant trees and overwhelming wildlife is incredibly striking, and truly sets the tone of a planet that has been abandoned by humans after a race of aliens invaded with a mechanized army. In their efforts to reclaim Earth from the aliens and their machines, humans created their own android army in their likeness (aided by floating Pods) to fight on their behalf while they sought safety on the dark side of the moon.
It is as 2B, a combat android model, that players will explore the world of NieR: Automata and uncover the secrets of the androids, the machines and the seemingly god like humans and aliens that created them. 2B is a part of a larger hive of androids that function as a paramilitary through YoRHa. The goal of YoRHa is to eliminate the machine and alien threat on earth so that humans can safely return to their home planet. There are pockets of resistance to the machines on Earth and it is through them and the command chain at the YoRHa bunker in space that 2B and her assigned support unit, 9S, receive their quests. 2B’s relationship with 9S is initially pretty awkward. She’d rather he just not be there at all while he makes a conscionable effort to forge a bond. The dubbed English voice acting, which often times can seem forced or just flat out stale due to translation, is well done. The dialogue feels naturally, and 2B’s sharp shut downs of 9S’s efforts toward friendship actually leave you feeling pity for the guy.
NieR: Automata takes an open world approach, but looks can be deceiving. The majority of the giant rotted out buildings that litter the landscape are inaccessible to players, and even the more vast biomes like the desert or forest are heavily blocked off with invisible walls. This makes the coveted ‘open world’ experience far more linear than one would anticipate. It’s also far more frustrating that even one would think because the invisible walls are coupled with a nearly illegible mini map. The game explains this rudimentary map design away as being the result of limitations in the satellite technology available to the androids. Which is a really weak plot point when you consider that humans created incredibly high tech android combat units to fight wars while they inhabit the moon, but somehow lost any advances made in satellite mapping technology previously mastered by Google Earth. Once fast travel capabilities are unlocked this becomes less problematic as players don’t need to traverse such large areas of the map without any kind of landmarks to help guide them. It does certainly ramp up the difficulty of missions that require searching in an established area, and increase the riskiness of attempting them.
Speaking of risks, death in NieR: Automata comes at a high price. Any experience that has been gained, modifications made to your pod unit, or inventory you’re carrying up until the point of your untimely demise remain with your corpse. Players must recover their own body in order to recover their experience and items but there are finite number of attempts that can be made in an effort to recover the corpse. Failure to reach your body and recollect your items results in them being removed from the world and lost. One interesting aspect of NieR, however, is that if a network connection is allowed, the game includes bodies of random strangers who have failed in their own games. You then have the choice to collect their corpse for a handful of rewards, or to repair their android so that it will follow you around in your own game as an AI teammate. While it was possible to stumble upon a stranger’s corpse pretty much anywhere in the world, they did appear most frequently prior to large boss fights. If you chose to collect them, you could find yourself going into battle with some helpful healing items or upgraded pod chips, or an extra pair of hands for hacking and slashing at enemies if you repaired them instead.
While NieR: Automata is primarily a 3rd person over the shoulder action adventure, Platinum Games clearly felt no reservation about shifting not just the gameplay perspective but even the entire genre of the game on a whim in order to make a point. The opening sequence, for example, jumps into bullet hell/shmup territory as 2B and a team of combat units take on a swarm of enemies in flying mech suits. Later on 9S’s hacking capabilities come into play, illustrated by a twin stick shooter sequence where players guide a small ship around a minimalistic level with cubes and spheres as enemies and objectives. For the 3rd person combat action sequences, Nier: Automata focuses on a hack and slash gameplay loop. The majority of 2B and 9S’s attacks boil down to pressing X and Y for light and heavy assaults, which can then naturally stack up to impressive and lethal combinations. The assisting pods do have the ability to fire at enemies, and can be customized to suit the player’s attack style by adding chips ranging from charged up lasers to defensive shields. Even whether the pods attack aggressively or passively is up to the player, with the ability to turn on or off auto functionality. Even 9S’s attack style can be adjusted from balanced to passive back to aggressive, to suit the style of the player.
The first playthrough of NieR: Automata is impressive in its own right, easily totaling up to 30 or more hours if you’re gung ho enough to complete the side quests, and there are plenty of players who will find themselves completely satisfied with the ending they’ll attain. Others, however, will find themselves with more questions than answers. It is not until the subsequent playthroughs (yes, that’s playthroughs with an S.) that they’ll find what they’re looking for in the story. Some could even argue that the first playthrough of Nier is merely just an appetizer, and that the truly eccentric storytelling doesn’t begin until we experience the world through 9S’s eyes. While some aspects of subsequent playthroughs are stitched over and repetitive of the base storyline, there are enough variations to the overall story to keep things fresh with each replay. Platinum Games were also kind enough to include a chapter select option so that players can choose specific areas they want to replay in order to obtain different endings.
NieR: Automata performs beautifully on Xbox (and for the sake of this review was played on an Xbox One S) with stable frame rates and not a single instance of the game crashing. Unfortunately, though, there are some issues with the HDR implementation. With HDR on, some scenes were horribly washed out with excessive brightness, and areas where there was heavy contrast between foregrounds and backgrounds suffered even more so. This was even noticeable with screenshots taken in game. Hopefully a patch can smooth this out in the future, as the world of Nier is jaw droppingly beautiful and the desire to take screenshots of 2B and 9S on a roller coaster without pants can not be denied.
Oh, did I forget to mention that you can choose to have the characters forgo pants? Xbox live does track how many times you attempt to look up 2B’s skirt, as well as how long your characters are pantless, meaning you may have some explaining to do if your friends go poking around in your NieR: Automata stats.