As South Africa enters its 21-day lockdown in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus, it has left many civilians in the isolation of their homes. Many see this as a great opportunity to spend quality time with some family and loved ones, while others cherish diving into forms of entertainment to occupy their time and pass the weeks (when not working remotely, in that case). To cushion some of the tedium, Nexus has decided to create a daily feature in which we recommend games of varying lengths and content that could pass the time. Our fourth recommendation in Lockdown Gaming asks the question, "2B or not 2B?" with NieR: Automata.
As much as that's a running joke in the PlatinumGames community, it's actually a very fitting theme that permeates throughout NieR: Automata. This idea of existentialism, what it means to be human, and coming to terms with the notion of mortality is something embedded into the core of the game's story - mostly seen through the eyes of our main protagonist, an android named 2B, caught in the middle of a post-apocalyptic proxy war between human-made androids and machines from another world. These otherworldly invaders have taken up residence on Earth, driving humanity to space or seeking refuge in isolated places in ruined cities.
What makes NieR: Automata so unique is its story. We'll get to the gameplay in a bit, but Automata's story is something that I've noticed is surprisingly glossed over when praising the game. This naturally boils down to how phenomenal the gameplay and world design is that it mostly overshadows the narrative. However, in giving the story its fair due, it really has a lot to say. We've seen this kind of plot fleshed out in films like The Matrix or Ghost in the Shell, but NieR: Automata presents it in a way that feels fresh, while retaining its gut-punching impact once the story takes several twists and turns.
The genius of the game's longevity comes in its multiple (and I mean multiple) endings. After completing the story for the first time, you might be taken aback by how short it was - after all, taking into account that 2B's initial main story is no longer than 4 hours, give or take. However, this only signals the beginning of the game. Repeated playthroughs (even though they're not technically repeats) change around puzzle pieces in the plot, shift character motivations, and give us fresh perspectives on each unfolding event by putting us in the shoes of two other androids; 2B's sidekick male android, 9S, and the rogue female android, A2.
Initially, 2B and 9S are sent to Earth sporadically to take care of the otherworldly machine invaders, but slowly start to unravel something within themselves about their purposes and what constitutes as "life". There are moments in the game where we're presented with situations that seem to suggest that the machines are adopting human traits in an attempt to feel life. A few instances sees the machines trying to, well, have sexual intercourse, while another has a machine hoarding various materials and trinkets in an attempt to understand humanity. Maybe the key to unlocking the purpose of life... is a toaster.
Surprisingly, NieR: Automata handles this in a very mature way. Yes, it's easy to poke fun at some of its more ludicrous elements, but thanks to 2B and her own exploration of existence, we feel a lot of sympathy for her plights that really anchors the game in a more "human" way than most games featuring actual humans.
Moving onto the gameplay, there's an argument to be made about which game is PlatinumGames' best. I still veer slightly to the side of Bayonetta, but NieR: Automata makes an extremely strong case for itself. For the most part, it's an action-RPG with plenty of the stylish hack and slash elements that you've come to expect from Platinum. However, in a lot of ways, it bolsters the combat by having ridiculous, high-flying acrobatics and an assortment of really cool weapons to destroy machines with. It's not just a straight-forward third-person ARPG, though, as the camera tends to switch perspectives from behind the characters to a top-down view in order to give some encounters a very arcade-ish feel. This is further proven by some of the flying sections (hello, 1942!).
The gameplay loop is also pretty simple. You're deployed from a space station down to Earth on missions that typically involve taking out machine enemies, or completing some delivery or fetch objective. It's easy to grasp the structure of each mission as none are overly complex, bringing a balance to its often complicated story. You'll also occasionally have run-ins with some magnificent, grand-scaled boss fights (one in particular left my jaw on the floor, with its hulking corpse towering on the horizon long after the battle is over). That's something that NieR: Automata does exceptionally well: scale. It knows how to make you feel small, but not helpless or powerless. In fact, quite the opposite is applied to 2B as she confronts every encounter - no matter how large - with a commanding confidence that makes her an incredible protagonist.
So why play NieR: Automata during the lockdown? First and foremost, it's a pretty long game with a lot of endings to unlock, and plenty of playthroughs to go through from different character's perspectives before you can get the bulk of the story - you'll be able to complete it in around 22-24 hours, but even that's just the tip of the iceberg. Not many people know of the first title, NieR Replicant (which has just been announced for PS4, Xbox One and PC as a remaster), but you don't actually need knowledge of that game to enjoy this. Automata is set several hundreds of years after the first game, and features a mostly standalone story not tethered to its predecessor. The best reason for playing it? The soundtrack. I kid you not, it's glorious and some of the best music ever composed for any form of entertainment.
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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