Nier Automata Review

Most of my comments about the combat system are pretty similar to what I said in my demo review. It’s a good combat system with fun fights, but it doesn’t really invite technical play the way its contemporaries do. It mostly expects you to pay attention to all the enemies and projectiles around you, and dodge appropriately, makes decent use of space, but not down to the level of micropositioning, just positioning. You can maximize your effectiveness by grouping enemies or lining them up. It makes sense to prioritize some targets over others. Ranged enemies tend to have less health than melee enemies. Combat tends to work as you mashing attack while holding down the fire button and positioning the camera appropriately, then dodging when something threatens you, using one of the dodge followup attacks for bonus damage. Also the hitboxes on attacks, both for the player and enemies, feel slightly larger than what’s visually represented. It’s competently put together, there’s not a lot to say about it.

The weapon equip system and the different possible move configurations is fairly cool and interesting to figure out. Basically, you have a light and heavy attack slot, you can equip a weapon to either of these slots, and you have 2 loadouts you can swap at any time. So you can equip your short sword to both heavy and light, or you can equip a long sword on light and a short sword on heavy. Specific weapon combinations equipped to specific slots will let you do a combination attack when you press light attack then heavy attack, the most basic example being short sword on light and long sword on heavy.

So the move list looks something like:

Light attack
Heavy attack
air light attack
air heavy attack
light into heavy combination attack
hold light attack
hold heavy attack for charge attack
jump + fire for a homing airdash
jump + heavy attack for a rising launcher.
dodge + light/heavy/fire for a unique invincible move depending on the weapon equipped
dodge + heavy in the air for a diving attack

And all of these can be canceled at any time into jump/double jump or dodge/air dodge, except air heavy with a long sword, which will let you cancel it post hit, but you need good timing.

The launcher command on 2B and A2 is terrible. You need to press jump + heavy attack. By default these are bound on opposite sides of the face buttons. 9S has it bound to jump + light attack, which you can press easily with just your thumb. This does nothing on 2B and A2, so I don’t see why they didn’t just double bind the command instead of binding it in such an awkward way by default. One of the premade control configurations has heavy attack assigned to a shoulder button, and you can of course customize your personal control configuration to make this easier, but I’d expect better bindings for the default configuration.

I think a lot of the weapons are redundant, but it’s neat that you have their combo lengths displayed as a stat that can also be upgraded. There isn’t a significant reason to pick any one weapon over any others, apart from combo length and damage spread. There’s more weapon differentiation in Dark Souls, but not really a compelling reason to pick any particular weapon, either as a choice of personal style or for tactical advantage based on the situation. All of them perform the same function as the weapon class and usually there’s one weapon in the class that does better damage with less spread than the rest of the class. Each weapon can be upgraded 4 times, but upgrade materials are rather rare for most weapons, and there’s not really a need to upgrade more than 1 weapon. Most of them have similar damage spreads when upgraded to max level.

Everything cancels into jump and dodge at any time in the animation. Almost everything at least. Pod Programs are uncancellable until the IASA frames at the end. This is pretty neat for combos, though not the most fancy system in the world. Charge attacks deal most of their damage over time, so dodging out of them means forsaking a lot of potential damage. Personally I think the ability to cancel attacks into dodge or block is bad form, means you don’t need to commit to attacking and can defend whenever an enemy attacks, which reduces timing based play, where players need to evaluate when the right time to attack is that they won’t get punished. This can also increase the influence of positional play, because sometimes it’s about finding the right time and the right place. You’re safe to commit to an attack’s animation if you’re in the right position that the attacks will miss you. Fighting games have on-hit cancels for this purpose, so you can’t cheese the system and can only turn one commitment into another commitment without canceling into nothing, and also can’t cancel if you whiff your attack. It’s okay to allow defensive cancels mid-attack, I’m just not the most fond of it. Bayonetta notably also allows this, but not during wicked weaves. Damage also increases as combos continue, so it’s beneficial to keep the combo up rather than dodging, which creates more of a committal style of play. Dodge Offset is a plug-in chip in this game, but it adds a skill element that allows you to dodge and keep doing the same combo if you’re on point. Since combos are one button in this game, it’s sensible that it would be an upgrade competing for your attention rather than a built in feature like in other platinum games. And of course since you can cancel anything into jump or dodge, you can use this to juggle enemies past where you’d normally be forced to stop.

The difficulty modes in Nier appear kind of fucked at first. Normal is really well tuned, you take average amounts of damage, enemies have average amounts of life, etc. On Hard, every single enemy will either two-shot or one-shot you. On Very Hard, you will die in one hit. Thankfully, enemy health does not increase by much on higher difficulties. Hard mode appears to be poorly tuned due to the oneshot-twoshot thing, but once you realize that every time you take a near death blow, time slows and you can pop a heal, hard becomes infinitely more manageable. The healing system is kind of broken. You can heal realtime or from a menu if you choose. Heals are extremely cheap, so you can stock up tens of them at a time, and unless you’re negligent in healing, or get one-shot, you basically can’t die. You can think of your health bar as not just what’s on the screen, but the sum total of all your health items added together as well. The trouble with this healing system is that it kind of teeters between it being literally impossible to die, and instant death. Having more limited healing supplies or real-time heal animations would have allowed them to tune the enemy damage more reasonably. Mostly the health system has the fault of being kind of counter-intuitive to the way you’d expect health and refills to work.

There’s a reasonable amount of willingness to mess with the open world. After 2 dungeon type areas, you have a massive boss battle with goliaths in the middle of the central hub area you normally run around, and at the conclusion of that battle, there’s a huge cave-in that totally reshapes the center of the map. In the 3rd arc, there’s a giant tower placed there. At the end of the first loop they fill the area with a ton of enemies spawning from all directions, arc 3 has the world filled with rogue yorha units. There’s a couple boss battles and quests that make use of the terrain across the world. It’s pretty neat. The world overall isn’t that big, it’s divided into larger areas that have a lot of interconnection within them, but not very strong connection to the other areas, usually just one path.

There are 3 overall arcs to the game, the first two arcs are loops. Each arc has you play as a different character, with slightly different abilities. The first loop, up to ending A, has you play as 2B. The second loop has you play as 9S, who lacks heavy attacks and has a hack attack bound to heavy attack instead. After the second loop, the third arc has all original content and wraps up the story. Most other Drakengard games have like 4-5 endings that you need to replay the game to unlock. Here you only need to replay the game once, and it’s as a different character, with new enemies, and new side-quests as well. I think this is a very strategic re-use of content. It’s kind of lame that a boss fight gets recycled for Emil’s fight, instead of him being an original boss though.

Enemy variety progressively improves as the game progresses, even long past the point you’d expect them to stop. Check the list of all the enemy types on the Nier Automata Wiki. They keep introducing new enemy types in the second loop, and all the way up to the finale. There’s a fair amount of variety among them. Enemies shoot a ton of bullets this time around, especially bosses. The bullet patterns have mixed projectile types, with many being capable of being shot down at a range. Some use waves, some use lasers. Many common enemies will charge at you. Another common feature is bulletproof and electrical shields. Bulletproof shields require you to hit the enemy a few times to get them off, electrical shields need to be shot to be removed. These can even be stacked on top of each other, so you need to shoot them, then hit them to get all their shielding off. Each area has enemies specific to it and most of the more interesting enemies are area specific. Bosses in the previous Nier had phases where they’d have specific weak points that needed to have their health depleted in a certain amount of time or they would undo the damage you did, requiring you to try again, essentially a DPS check for that segment of the fight. I thought this was clever, and I’m kind of sad it didn’t make a return. Unfortunately, enemy variety still isn’t amazing. It has a few stand-out units, like the flying drill worm things, the serious sam suicide screamers, the goliaths, and the quadrupeds, but most enemies just run up to you and do a melee attack, or shoot a steady stream of bullets from afar. It would be nice to have seen more attack variety that attempted to threaten different areas on the battle field, and more variety in movement, as well as vulnerable areas. It would be nice to have more enemies oriented around assisting their allies, either literally, or through attack patterns that increase the effectiveness of the units around them.

The bosses are similarly uninteresting unfortunately. The Adam fights mostly don’t really give you any reason to not just mash attack the whole time. Even his counterattack stance just leads to an attack that can be dodged for a powerful followup. Beauvoir is rather cool, shooting interesting projectile patterns to dodge, having assists from crucified androids that themselves can emanate hacking waves, deploying waves that cut through vertical slices of the air. Eve is kind of boring, just doing massive area attacks that are to be dodged, then some more interesting projectile attacks at a distance. Engels is primarily about shooting its face and walking out of the way of bullets until it does a melee attack, then you dodge that and hit his hands. Grun is a freebie shoot em up stage. A2 is kind of a repeat of the adam fight, except with a rushing attack across the stage and no counter attack. Hegel is kind of cool, but also a clusterfuck as all the orbs sit so close together and are all shooting at the same time, so you can’t really tell when attacks are coming. So-Shi only really attacks in front of itself and is so easy it can be beaten in the dark. Boku-Shi is really cool when combined with eve, shooting lasers and projectiles all over the place. Honestly for most of these bosses I just got into their faces and attacked, dodging as necessary. I think the original Nier had slightly more interesting boss designs frankly.

The first loop’s story is a bit underwhelming. The primary villains, Adam and Eve, didn’t get enough character development to really sell their motivations. Once the twist is revealed at the end of the second loop it starts to get a little more interesting, and even more so as there are more developments into the third arc, but it kind of falls apart at the end. It’s left unclear who the major players are or why a lot of plans were constructed the way they were.

Spoilers across this paragraph.
Like in particular it’s unclear who the aliens were and why they made machine life forms. Beyond that, it’s really unclear who initiated Project Yorha, or why there was a back door implemented to sabotage it. It’s a great twist that Humans are extinct and the whole project is just a way for androids to fulfill their need to protect humanity, however there’s no reason given for why it would sabotage itself. It makes it seem as though the alien attack was faked, but Emil’s storyline seemingly makes it clear that the aliens were real. If the aliens were real then it doesn’t explain why they made machine life forms that were so interested in imitating humanity, and were seemingly pre-conditioned to do so and always predictably make the same decisions time and again. It doesn’t really make sense that the machine’s connected consciousness would want to send an ark of machine lifeform data into the stars. I’m just kinda lost and disappointed there, because there was a huge setup from the premise that we’d get answers and we got some, but not enough for the plot to really make sense, and overall it’s a plot that is dependent on seeking answers. The route A plot could have gotten by as its own thing without being so answer driven if it had better character development for Adam and Eve, instead of kind of incidentally running into them occasionally and killing them as the need arises, but it didn’t really do that either. So the story overall lacks a satisfying catharsis, especially in ending E where the cycle is supposed to restart, but it’s unclear what that even means, or why it’s being restarted, or in accordance with whose plan, or what it’s supposed to accomplish.

That said, I’m glad there was so much content. Just route A alone felt a bit short.

The equipment system of Plug-in chips is fairly cool. The chips themselves have a fairly diverse array of functions, and the bonuses they confer are big enough to have a significant impact on encounters and your play-style. You basically have a certain amount of equip space for chips, each chip takes up a certain amount of space, and you get random chip drops from enemies, which can be of different power levels, or more importantly, take up different amounts of storage space. Then you can fuse these together to get more powerful chip levels, with a max of +6. You can also buy chips from vendors, but these always have the maximum equip size, so it’s in your best interest to fuse in order to get powerful chips with a small equip size.

Pod Programs are kind of disappointing in comparison to the Sealed Verses from the original Nier. Pod programs are balanced better, so there’s reasons to use all of them and they’re equally viable, while still having individual niches, but I think the magic meter was a better resource than the pod program’s cooldown time. The second and third pods are hidden reasonably well, though you’re given two rather clear clues as to where they are very early in the game. I didn’t find the second pod until late in the first loop, which helpfully had a sidequest associated with it. Finding the 3rd pod took me until the second loop, and looking it up online, since you need to go fishing and there’s not really any reason to go fishing normally. You need extra pods to charge the pod programs beyond a single attack, so it’s kind of lame that it takes so long to unlock them. Basically, with sealed verses, you had a magic meter that slowly refilled over time. When charging your sealed verses, you’d consume a certain portion of the meter per-cast. Meter could then be refilled by killing enemies, which were usually provided as extras in boss fights. If you were clever, you could kill an enemy before casting, then start charging the sealed verse such that you’ll absorb the magic from the enemy after you’ve already used up your magic, letting you charge even more. Pod Programs just use a straight-up cooldown timer, which scales to be longer based on the number of pods you use. This is workable, just not quite as interesting or flexible. It’s kind of understandable that they went this route because overcharging would be broken in automata with the old system, because you’re now able to move around and attack while charging the pod programs. Pod programs are one of the few animations you cannot cancel with dodge or jump, so you have a lot of extra commitment to them, which is sensible given how powerful they are. The upgrades for pods require really rare materials, so you’re unlikely to upgrade any of the pods until the second loop. The powerup parts act as a gating mechanism for upgrading the pods, so it’s kind of weird that additional rare materials are also required to upgrade them, most of which you won’t see until the second loop. I ended the game with only one of my pods upgraded to level 2 of 3 upgrade levels.

The hacking minigame is really neat. You have tiny enemies that you need to defeat in order to expose the core, which must be destroyed. There’s a number of subtle touches that make each of these really well considered, from the motion of the core, to the positioning of the enemies, to what types of projectiles they shoot in which patterns. You need to defend yourself by shooting projectiles to counter theirs. Some patterns give you holes through their projectiles that need to be shot out to get through. In some minigames, the core has phases where it will briefly stop firing, or steadily picks up the rate of fire as you destroy more enemies. Some of the enemies and towers have directional shields on them, so you need to get behind them, or move around them. In some later sections there’s longer minigames that have you move into arenas areas to fight enemies, but the way out of the arena is just a wall that you can shoot through, so you can either fight or risk breaking through, leaving the enemies behind, and both options are equally risky. This is a clever solution to this common dilemma of fast player, slow enemies, in 2d topdown or 3d space. It allows you to both run from enemies, and stay and fight them, but makes both options require you to engage at least somewhat with the enemies. There’s an arcade mode at the terminals that lets you replay every hacking minigame you’ve ever encountered.

All the hacking minigames take place in 20 seconds or less, except the story oriented ones. You only have 3 units of health, losing one each time you’re hit, destroying all bullets near you as you do. Actually hacking an enemy requires you to use a ranged attack on them, which depending on the enemy class, they may need to be hit by this ranged attack multiple times for the minigame to start. When you complete it, the enemy will blow up, dealing a large amount of damage to itself and enemies around it, adding a spatial component to choosing the right enemy to hack. This explosion is very large, so you don’t need to worry too much about grouping enemies up before you hack them. If the enemy didn’t detect you, or it’s a special enemy, then you get the option at the end of the hacking minigame to subjugate or remote control them. Subjugate makes them fight with you as an ally, remote control lets you control them directly, 9S disappears, and reappears when the enemy is destroyed or you self destruct. The hacking minigames in of themselves are beautifully designed, and their implementation into the main game is extremely smooth, letting you drop in and drop out of them very quickly, however since it doesn’t really manipulate enemies in the same space as regular combat, it doesn’t really add to the standard gameplay the way heavy weapon attacks do for 2B and A2. Also, you repeat many of the same hacking minigames across the game. The good design of these minigames means they have a fair amount of depth unto themselves, so even replaying the same one can have some variability, but after replaying the same one 10-20 times, it gets old.

Mech form in flight battles can mash and never get hit. Plane form has just barely enough recovery for bullets to get through. It would be cool if there were more free control flight sections like at the start of route B. The air battles are kind of simple. The hacking battles have better shmup gameplay thanks to better enemy design and lacking the broken melee attacks.

I wish some of the checkpoints were slightly more conveniently placed given how much backtracking there is, for sidequests or otherwise. Especially the amusement park checkpoint, which is particularly out of the way of sidequest and main quest objectives. I would also be happy with a faster run speed. It’s damn slow most of the time. There’s chips to upgrade it, and even an item that buffs it, but you max out at a 20% increase when you need like a 200% increase if you ask me. They ask you to run all over the place, and I can see some of it being a good idea, because you get naturally routed through enemy encounters by needing to run across the world, but tons of the quests have you running back and forth all over the place and sitting through long loading animations of the fast travel points. So you need to fast travel, run to a place, do the thing, then run back to the fast travel point, wait through a loading screen, and so on. It becomes really time consuming.

Level Scaling handled tastefully with many scaled and unscaled events. Most enemies in the overworld scale with your level, progressively getting slightly more difficult over time. Enemies for side-quests are always a certain level though, and you can be underleveled or overleveled for them. I’m not sure whether enemies for main story missions are scaled or not. The purpose of levels is to simulate improvement over time, however games also need to have a difficulty curve. Since in an open world you can go anywhere, the enemies placed there might not match your level, being too weak or two powerful. Level scaling is used to remedy this, but if enemies strictly scale upwards relative to you, then you’re not actually gaining any power, you’re steadily losing it over time effectively, so leveling up is actually detrimental. By having enemies that are higher and lower than you in level at certain key points it can help sell the illusion that you’re growing stronger by being more powerful than weak things, and weaker than more powerful things. You can come back to places where you previously got wrecked and wreck them in response. So generally good tuning there. I fought a level 60 enemy at level 40 though and all my attacks were doing like 10 damage to it, and it had maybe a few thousand HP. Plus it could one-shot me. So clearly level disparities can have rather extreme effects. This works to your favor in route B, where you’re overleveled compared to many enemies.

The game has a death system that’s actually rather similar to Dark Souls. It warns you as the game starts that there’s no auto-save, which I think is a poor decision personally, since autosave could have been implemented on top of their checkpointing system rather easily, in much the same way as dark souls. The game sort of half-lies to you about auto-save. On the one hand, it legitimately does not alter your save data unless you save at a terminal, on the other, when you die, your save is not reloaded, instead you are essentially teleported back to the terminal, leaving behind a corpse with all the exp you accumulated since the last save and plug-in chips you had equipped. Dying again will delete your old corpse. Losing experience points isn’t so bad, but losing your plug-in chips can be really brutal, since they drop like MMO drops and getting good ones can be tough, and you gotta fuse them, consolidating your supply into only a few chips, then they can just get up and deleted if you’re careless on a corpse run. Plus, they insist on having a long uncancellable animation for picking up your corpse, which you can get killed during. A general auto-save system could have been implemented as a quality of life backup for the existing checkpoint system without changing anything about how the game plays, and making it much easier to quit out.

Ending E is funny. It takes the “delete all your save data” thing from the original Nier and puts a twist on it that makes it way more effective as a tool. I haven’t seen anyone on youtube yet who has beaten ending E without accepting help. To spoil it, basically, Ending E is an extremely hard shmup battle in the same format as the hacking minigames. Occasionally throughout it, there are invisible checkpoints. When you lose, you’re asked if you want to give up or not, and eventually you’ll be told that another player is offering you help. Also you can see messages left behind from all the players who have beaten it before, cheering you on. If you accept their help, 6 more ships will surround your ship, and all shoot with your ship. If you are hit, then the player who offered you help has their encouraging message deleted, and they will no longer offer anyone else help. As you’re hit more, more and more player’s data is deleted. When you beat the credits, you’re asked if you want to leave behind a message of encouragement, same as those who offered you help, but this comes at the cost of DELETING ALL YOUR DATA. So the people you got help from to beat the ending had to delete their data to offer you help, and by taking damage, you erased the last bit of their sacrifice from the server holding all these messages. And you too can sacrifice to potentially help someone else who is struggling through the credits. If you choose to do this, you’ll see every single entry in every single menu disappear, one by one. I think this is a much more clever twist on the original idea. The actual credits have fairly interesting bullet patterns, with the department name functioning like a boss with more health and emanating more bullets, then individual people’s credits as small enemies. Beating a department name will cause another one to spawn, which also spawns more people’s names, but focusing on the department first is a good strategy earlier on, where focusing on people’s names first is a better strategy at the end. You gotta be on point to beat the whole thing, it turns into something out of a danmaku at the end, more than anything else in the game.

A2’s taunt meanwhile has IASA frames long before it ends and long before it even becomes active. IASA frames that cancel into normal movement, so you need to deliberately not press any directions while using it. Seems like clumsy implementation, doesn’t seem to serve a functional purpose.

The powerup items are really fucking powerful, like holy shit. Double damage. Double Defense. Much better than typical RPG powerup items. The economy for everything except upgrades is kind of broken though, so you can load up on tons of these and never run out. The economy is a bit better on the first game loop up to Ending A, but all buff and healing items are still extremely cheap relative to other items. It’s nice to have buff items that are really effective, however having them in unlimited supply isn’t the best.

So overall, I think it’s a good game, a bit better than the original, but the combat lacks options and doesn’t emphasize positional play quite as much as its contemporaries. It’s competent, but not exceptional in any regards. If I gave the original a 7/10, I’d say this deserves an 8/10.


3 thoughts on “Nier Automata Review

  1. Data March 23, 2017 / 7:10 am

    You can heavy attack as 9S by having a delay before you do your second light attack. Turns the rest of your combo into heavy attacks.


    • Chris Wagar March 23, 2017 / 4:27 pm

      Ah. Also he can do charge heavy attack out of dash.


  2. Brightsuperstition April 6, 2017 / 12:17 pm

    An 8/10 is a fair rating.

    As an action game, NieR: Automata falls somewhat short of its potential. It’s solid but could have been so much more, especially given Platinum Games’s pedigree.

    The RPG balancing can also be bonkers. For example, have you seen speedrunners completely destroying bosses 10 levels higher than them on Hard mode by simply consuming those attack salves that double their melee and ranged attack options? Someone even killed the first Emil boss by equipping the right plug-in chips in like 15 seconds. Jesus fucking Christ, some of the shit in this game is just broken.

    But for me, I’m fine with the shortcomings in the action mechanics and the RPG balancing, because the experience is unlike anything out there in videogames, and the game for me is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

    Even the original NieR for me didn’t reach some of the narrative heights on this game. And the way the game tells its story by integrating gameplay mechanics is something that should be studied by other videogame developers, especially with stuff like the entire Ending E sequence and how its message and gameplay implementation cleverly blends in well with the game’s themes. The soundtrack is also one of my favorites in years.

    I would have given this game a higher score than you did (I would have also given a much higher score to the original NieR than just a 7), but me saying that is admittedly pointless, since you and I most likely different interpretations on what counts as an 8 in a review scoring. You and I weigh different aspects of a game differently, and as such we score things differently.

    Thanks for the write-up.


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