Nier: Automata is a bit of an oddball. For starters, and aside from just generally being a bit bat-shit (we’ll get onto that much later), it’s a spiritual sequel to a game that was merely a cult hit and that I don’t think many expected to actually be made. It’s a quirky open world RPG made by a company that flourishes at fast paced linear third person action games, and thus have very little experience in the JRPG genre. And it’s a game that insists if you don’t take the time to play through it multiple times, you are missing the genuine experience. Now, the latter is a contentious issue, however the original Nier did this as well, so it’s not a massive surprise. But due to Platinum Games steering the production of the title, it was difficult to see where the whole thing was going to go. How would it compare to the original game, and would Platinum fumble when it came to designing something that was perhaps out of their comfort zone? The first question I can’t answer – even if I fully understood myself (going through my second playthrough) that would be dangerous spoiler territory. But the second question I am glad to say is a big fat resounding “no”, as Nier: Automata is not only a brilliant RPG, but with the added Platinum flair, is actually much better and much more unique than I ever expected it to be.

But let’s rewind a bit. What is Nier: Automata actually about? Well, the game is set in a fantastical post-apocalyptic future, where mankind has been driven from Earth by a mechanical force of aliens. Forced to take refuge on the moon, the earthlings send android soldiers to attempt to destroy the invaders and reclaim the Earth. Our two main protagonists are 2B and 9S. Two of said android soldiers who end up working together to fight the machines. Initially seeming like a black and white fight for earth from evil invaders – as suggested by 2B and 9S’s vocal lack of respect for the machines as intelligent lifeforms – as they explore the ruins of the world, it becomes clear there’s a bit more to these invaders than first thought. Machines that appear to have emotions and independent reasoning abilities, as well as a mysterious foe that could well stand in the way of the reclamation of Earth.

Or at least, this is how it all comes across at face value, and you’ll quickly learn as you get into the game that in order to unlock the narrative’s secrets you will need to explore it beyond a single playthrough. Certain areas and objects remain inaccessible throughout your first playthrough, and even genuine new gameplay and playable characters become available to you after you complete the game the first time – not just being able to play the same game again with a new hat, but seeing things from other character perspectives and unlocking entirely new mechanics.

The whole ‘true ending’ trope was one that concerned me, as usually it feels like a cop-out to artificially inject replayability, however – and this is coming from someone who virtually never replays games – I actually felt compelled to continue playing after the credits rolled, and there’s a definite value to doing so. But none of this would have particularly mattered if the gameplay itself wasn’t compelling. And as I mentioned at the beginning, Platinum have hit the nail on the head.

Combat is fast, fluid and fancy in typical Platinum style, managing to feel like a combination of Metal Gear: Rising and Bayonetta. The way 2B sprints and glides around the environments like a ballerina with rocket boots creates such a fast paced and satisfying feeling to, not only evading enemies during combat, but exploring the world – never has running from point A to point B in an open world been quite so easy and enjoyable.

The combat itself encourages dashing, dodging and quick combos, and you’ll soon find yourself juggling enemies and delivering powerful counter attacks. The game has a whole host of upgradeable weapons, some of which you might recognise if you played the original Nier, and all have their quirks and unique animations. Some are heavier, so provide powerful but cumbersome strikes, whereas others can be used to pepper foes with slashes (there’re even spears, which proved a personal favourite of mine).

You can carry two weapons at once in a set – so you may have a heavy sword and a light sword, which will alter combos depending on the order in which they are placed. For example, a typical set-up would be to have a light sword as your first weapon (bound to square) and a heavy sword as your second (bound to triangle), so using these together you can perform various combinations, but also if you switch their positions a new set of attacks will be available. It really is quite a varied and customisable combat experience. Even more so when you realise you can have multiple sets of weapons and switch between them on the fly.

In addition to this, our androids also make use of ‘pods’, which are effectively flying robot buddies that provide a mixture of abilities – predominantly various long range attacks. Our first pod, for example, fires a steady stream of bullets as its main attack, and a more powerful laser beam as its secondary. The secondary attack needs to recharge before further use, but its great for really denting large foes, or even taking out groups (if you’re able to get a few bots in a line, then you’re laughing). You can purchase new abilities and change them up as you would weapons for your main character, so depending on your playstyle, you may have a pod that produces a shield around you, fires rockets, and even one that reveals secret items. You can acquire a few pods in the game, so can switch between them easily when you require a different set up.

It’s an interesting dynamic that I think works really well. Having long range weaponry to use alongside close combat stuff, as opposed to instead of, opens up some creative options for both offence and defence. Long range is useful for dealing with flying enemies, as well as intercepting incoming fire (certain types of projectile can be destroyed before they reach you). You can kite enemies, gradually witling down their health from afar, you can bombard powerful foes with missiles, and if you want to maximise damage output, you can just continue firing as you engage in close combat (if you’re feeling dextrous enough). Once you get used to the chaos, you can enjoy it for what it really is – a highly entertaining, stylish and creative combat system. It also pairs wonderfully with the variety of enemies on display. I already mentioned flying enemies, but there’s also small melee focussed bots, bots with turrets, giant lumbering bots that hammer away at the ground – and this isn’t even getting into the multiple variations of standard enemies, or the boss encounters.

New areas bring new foes and environments to contend with, and as you progress in the story you will also face increasingly challenging enemies. The scaling of enemies I felt was a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, I managed to beat the game on Normal difficulty with very little overall challenge – even with the increased levels of enemies – but then occasionally I’d run across a side quest or an area that contained foes that massively out-levelled me. The balance in this respect is off, partially due, I think, to the short length of a single playthrough – by the time I reached the end of the game, I was a fair few levels higher than the final boss, but at the same time, there were a couple of side quests that I had left unfinished because they were simply too difficult (not enough genuine content for you to grind your way up before finishing the game, and not really an end game for you to finish off side quests), but I’ll get more into that later.

For now, let’s talk about the game’s RPG elements and world. The combat was expected to be at least good due to Platinum’s involvement, however the RPG and open world factors were a little less certain. So there was a sigh of relief when these turned out fine. Nier: Automata has an open world of sorts, however it’s not quite what you would expect. Less about vastness and more about intricacy and levelled environments. You see, on its surface Nier: Automata’s map isn’t actually that big – a handful of different areas that can individually be traversed in a matter of minutes – but when you discover the layers that exist throughout various areas, the zones and exploration become much more sufficient.

I’m talking cave systems, hidden areas, unlockable areas, cut-off zones and buildings, and even just the verticality of the ruins in the main area – more or less every building in the first explorable area is scalable, if only from the outside. Not only does this mean there’s more map than it initially seems, but also things to discover, whether that’s via optional exploration or story progression. Take a castle in the forest zone – but a mere dot on the map, but upon entering you discover the various rooms inhabited by enemies, and the stairs that lead to higher and lower levels. It really is quite a detailed map.

But a detailed map is rendered less impressive if there’s nothing to do within it, so you should be happy to know that there’s content to enjoy in every area. There’s hidden items and locations, useful pickups and chests, quests, and plenty of hostiles to pulverise. Finding items is important for upgrading your weapons, and of course killing foes gains you experience that levels your character. Quests are the main driving force, however, and these can be found throughout the map, but mainly begin in the populated friendly areas.

Perhaps the least unique aspect of the game, questing generally consists of finding items and killing enemies (gathering drops from fallen robots to give to a friendly character), though there are a few more creatively designed and interesting side missions. Facing off against a wannabe martial artist robot, for example, or guiding a lost friendly robot child out of the desert and home to its parent. These side quests present a real character and allow the title’s quirkiness to shine. Unfortunately I also found them to be a tad barebones, and ultimately side quests are few and far between. It’s an issue that also extend to the main storyline, and I was disappointed to find how short the game actually is. Replayability is a genuine part of the game, but inclusive of completing about 70% of the side quests, my finish time was barely over 16 hours.

Though, as I have already said, there is new content to enjoy on continuing after your first playthrough, so perhaps this will be less of an issue for some if you intend to go for all those endings. And at least the main story and gameplay is quite exhilarating as it is. The main quest line takes you on a pretty fantastic ride, and Platinum switches up the experience in some very interesting ways. In this respect there’s a few important things I’ve neglected to mention about the gameplay so far. See, it’s not a straight up action RPG, or even third person open world; Nier: Automata liberally employs influences from bullet hell shooters and side scrollers.

There are sections of the game that go full on Gundam, having you inhabit a mech suit to take on giant bosses. These missions will switch between straight on shooting and dodging enemy projectiles, to top-down sections where you can employ melee attacks in your mech, and then it switches back and forth, and so on. The first boss battle (which you’ll have experienced if you played the demo) even sees you finishing off a Goliath robot by beating it with its own decapitated arm…it’s crazy. It seems like such a contrast to the rest of the game, but if you look closer you can see its influence on the ground as well – many enemies utilise long range weapons, forcing you to intercept and dodge as you fight, and of course your own attacks encourage laying down constant fire. It’s a brilliant amalgamation of genres, and those boss fights are some of the most exciting I’ve experienced for a while.

What’re also very unique are the levels’ perspective shifts. Much of the game is in a freely controlled third person perspective, but some areas switch to a side scrolling perspective, others top-down, and so on. These are particularly interesting when implemented in the more scripted sections of the game, and one instance that stands out to me is a short rollercoaster ride in the fair-ground area that has you battling side-on on a moving coaster. Unfortunately, it also has its downfalls, and switching up on the perspective makes combat and exploration difficult in some places, especially if you play on harder difficulties and forfeit things like the ability to lock on to enemies.

The gameplay can be peculiar, and very occasionally clunky, but as a whole this is a solid and inventive title. Even simple things like gliding down the sand dunes in the desert bring delight, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get tired of the combat. But there’s one thing that I find less intuitive and exciting – the reason I’ve left it till last – and that’s the bizarre skills and levelling system.

Completing quests and killing enemies earns you experience, which will accumulate till you level up. However, this is merely a passive affair, and the actual improvements to your character come from upgrades and finding or purchasing skills. Now, the upgrading of weapons and Pod abilities is standard fair, and actually quite enjoyable – requiring you to hunt for ingredients to increase your gear’s power – however, the skills system is a little more complicated. Playing on the notion that our character is an android, skills can be learned by installing chips (not the potato based variety). These cover a wide range of things such as increasing attack power, defense bonuses, passive abilities such as auto-heal when health drops below a certain level, and more interesting things like adding a shock wave to all of your attacks (meaning every time you strike, a damage dealing pulse will emit in the direction you are facing – this is super effective when dealing with groups of enemies).

There are a massive amount of chips available, and the variety is impressive. But the main problem lies in the fact that there is a limit on what you can use, and that limit isn’t exactly generous. Even when you’ve fully unlocked all the space in your skills menu, you will find yourself being very picky about what to implement. Each chip takes up a different amount of space, so more powerful ones take up the most space, and it’s essentially a balancing act trying to figure out the most efficient build for your playstyle. I’ll give credit where credit is due, the system creates a certain strategy to improving your character – it’s not as simple as ‘become more powerful’, rinse and repeat – but I found it to be far too restrictive in the long run. You can combine chips to create more powerful ones, but even then I found myself amassing new chips that I would ultimately never use. It seems like a bit of a blundered opportunity to create a more interesting levelling system.

It doesn’t help that the way levelling works isn’t brilliantly explained to the player, either – it is explained, but the whole introduction to the game is staggered, making it feel a little confused (some things are implemented fairly late in the game, such as the ability to fast travel between areas). There are a few quality of life issues that hamper the overall enjoyment. While the world is pleasantly intricate, the map used to navigate your way around it is next to useless, which is especially an issue when some of the missions forgo ‘handholding’, so to speak – not having an objective marker or a suggested direction to go in. You also have to be very careful to save frequently, as the whole design is manual. There is a Dark Souls-esque mechanic whereby you can find your body to reclaim anything you lost, however if you fail at this and end up reloading, you could be repeating a significant amount (I reloaded and had to re-do about 40 minutes of gameplay).

It’s a shame, because while these aren’t game breaking issues, they do cause frustration in what is actually on the whole an intriguingly designed game, and incredibly compelling once you get into it. I can’t speak highly enough of the soundtrack, with composer Keiichi Okabe, who worked on the original Nier, returning to create such a beautiful and eccentric score. And of course the visual design, while not stunning in terms of graphical fidelity, is awe-inspiring nonetheless (the image above was one I took personally, when I found myself compelled to stop and view the background for a bit). The aesthetic is fantastic, and the few areas vary greatly in style – from the windy desert to the loud and colourful fairground.

Platinum have done a stellar job, not just in taking on the task of continuing a series of cult-status, but in creating a phenomenal, stylish action game and a decent RPG. It’s not without its problems, but I think new players and old will be highly entertained by what’s on offer (though I can’t speak to how Nier: Automata truly compares to its predecessor, having little experience with that game myself). It’s a well-polished title with some exhilarating moments, unique gameplay dynamics and a delightfully quirky aesthetic, and is sure to impress if you like your high-velocity action and strange Japanese story telling.