Where do I even begin with an experience like Nier: Automata? When broken down, most of my favorite games are surprisingly simple. This game, however, is an exercise in the overwhelming. Every detail, from its complex Action-RPG combat system to its philosophy-drenched narrative, is seemingly designed to mystify. Even having played through the full central narrative, I’m still not sure I ever fully grasped proper combat techniques. Yet everything from the thematic content to the visual design to the wonderful soundtrack to the epic encounters had me hooked, dragging me precariously forward as I helplessly tried getting to my feet.
Like Resident Evil 4, this is a game which immediately drops the player into the deep end. The opening line states “Everything that lives is designed to end.” This statement is central to the entire narrative, but it feels like a warning in retrospect. The opening sequence is long and features no checkpoints. The game begins as a vertical shooter, quickly transitions to a twin-stick shooter, then goes through a brief sequence as a forward rail shooter before returning to a simple horizontal shooter, again to a twin-stick shooter, all before finally transitioning to the stylish action gameplay for which Platinum is known. When I say that this game is overwhelming, it’s not that it mismanages its core system. This is a stylistic choice leading to a dense atmosphere. This sequence is not particularly hard (unless you’re playing on one of the harder difficulties), but its punishment is extreme. And while the game will largely stick to the action gameplay, it’s a fair warning that several sequences will blur these genres together, with even the action combat sometimes feeling like a bullet hell game.
And then there’s the art direction. Protagonist 2B has one of the more striking designs of recent video game protagonists. She’s an android dressed like a gothic maid in high heels, but the most compelling aspect is the blindfold both she and 9S wear. Like Platinum’s other leading lady, Bayonetta, there’s this strange appeal that transcends other overly sexualized designs. This feels like a bizarre power statement. Meanwhile, the blindfolds carry an obvious symbolism, that these characters are blind to some truth – finding out what that missing truth might be drives the heart of this game.
The stellar art direction goes far beyond the characters. This small but open world features a city in ruins, with plenty of room to explore. The forest kingdom has this majestic sense of a decayed world being reclaimed by the wild. A massive factory stands ominously on the edge of the city. My personal favorite location is the amusement park, swarming with playful machines which have until this point been hostile enemies. The central castle has constant fireworks going off, adding an eerie sense of life to this seemingly abandoned world. Late game areas effectively push into the realm of surrealism, helping this game feel larger than life and even reality itself.
Nier: Automata is about as existentialist as video games come. Even the name of the protagonist is a direct allusion, 2B or not 2B. What does it mean to exist? The game opens with some clearly defined goals, but as more is revealed of this world, the purpose of these characters becomes increasingly murky. Does anything we do really have purpose? Is it better to pretend there’s some greater meaning or directly confront a sense of nothingness? Every twist and turn builds upon this; despite being about androids and machines, the heart of this experience is what it means to be human.
The game is loaded with references to real-life philosophers. Many NPCs and bosses are direct references, with most of their stories having an ironic twist on their namesake’s beliefs. Even if you’re not well-versed in who these people are, these little takes add relevant perspectives on the central theme.
Altogether, Nier: Automata is an experience like no other. This is one of the densest narratives video games have to offer, but its themes resonate in surprising ways. Existentialism can be a difficult subject to tackle, but Nier: Automata finds a perfect balance between atmospheric dread and a persistent sense of hope. Despite the intentionally stylized design and distant narrative elements, this game has a lot to say about coping with the mundanity of everyday life. With some excellent gameplay on the part of Platinum and one of the best soundtracks in recent years, the final product hits from every angle.