Nier: Automata Review/Summary.
At the time of writing, I have completed Endings A, B, C, D, and E; plus several of the ‘joke endings.’ This review contains SPOILERS for all of them, and for 2010’s NieR. If you haven’t played both games yet, please close this page before it’s too late.
Nier: Automata is the latest instalment in the long-running Drakengard series of games, directed by Yoko Taro. Drakengard games have always occupied a space between ‘hit’ and ‘miss’ – panned for clunky gameplay, but praised for their artistic approach to storytelling. The story comes before the gameplay, which has both elevated Yoko Taro as an artist while dooming his games to poor sales.
At the same time, Drakengard can only exist as a game series: exploring its themes through alternate endings, fourth-wall breaking, and subversion of video game tropes.
Therefore, these games exist in a tricky space: though artistic, they are not commercial; though engaging, they are not ‘fun’.
Which brings us to Nier: Automata. In a piece of directing genius, Platinum Games was brought onto the project, to contribute their own flavour of fast-paced, fluid gameplay. This decision was evidently made to heal the most glaring flaw of previous Drakengard titles, by involving a company whose portfolio of great, combat-focused games includes Madworld, Bayonetta, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Indeed, Automata is a spiritual successor to Revengeance, with smooth and stylish combos, impactful attacks, and a focus on dodging and parrying – all running at 60fps.
In short, the combat feels good in Automata; a refreshing departure from Drakengard’s gameplay sinkhole. Players seeking a visceral action experience will find a lot to like in Automata. Platinum achieves this without compromising the systems of the original NieR: there are many weapons to find and upgrade, you have a projectile-firing companion with multiple special abilities, and the perspective shifts at certain key points in the action, turning the game into a 2D side-scroller or Diablo-esque, top-down shooter. This variety gives each mission a unique feel, while allowing the player to admire the gorgeous environments constructed by Yoko Taro’s team.
At this point, I should confirm that Nier: Automata’s story is still the focus; but this time around, story and gameplay blend to create a (mostly) smooth, fun experience that becomes synonymous with the game’s philosophy.
The story begins rather simply. Thousands of years ago, Earth was attacked by aliens, whose army of machines swiftly dominated the planet. Mankind fled to the Moon, constructed its own army of androids – a taskforce named YorHa – and began a counter-attack.
The player controls 2B, an android soldier crusading against the machines. During a mission in a run-down factory, she meets 9S, a scout-model, and they proceed toward their target. This first mission establishes the ‘rules’ of Automata’s setting: both androids and machines possess emotions, both are disposable (many androids are shot down on approach, and the factory is creating new machines en masse), and death is not necessarily the end, as 9S and 2B sacrifice their bodies in a massive explosion, only to wake up in the orbital Bunker.
This opening is particularly skilful at introducing the game’s themes: sacrifice and self-worth, free agency and the tragedy of war. It also brings together gameplay and story in a deeply visceral way. ‘Saving the game’ is incorporated as uploading 2B’s mind to a server, creating a digital backup of herself in case her body is destroyed. The pause menu is what an android actually sees while performing maintenance: following the first mission, 9S guides 2B through adjusting her brightness and volume settings.
From this point, the story unravels at a fast pace. We learn that some machines have disconnected from the ‘Network’, read philosophy, and live in peace with the android Resistance. There seems to be hope for a happy future, if only the Network is defeated. We learn the aliens are extinct, destroyed by their machine creations, and that two messiah-figures have taken charge, fittingly named Adam and Eve. This gears the story toward Ending A, a classically ‘video-gamey’ ending: Adam and Eve are defeated, 2B thinks 9S is dead (but, of course, he comes back), all seems set for the victory of androids and the return of humanity.
This first time through the game, players might be satisfied with the story. The ‘villains’ have been destroyed, the ‘heroes’ have survived, and now the world can be rebuilt.
After the credits, the player is informed that restarting will result in extra content. Rather than a classical New Game Plus, the second play-through warps the game itself. This time through, you play as 9S; beginning as he watches a machine grieve over its dead brother. By this stage, the player already knows the machines have thoughts and emotions, but they can still be viewed as mad, destructive things simply imitating mankind.
Throughout 9S’ story, vignettes reveal the world from the machines’ point of view. The machines, we learn, are built with a ‘treasure’ in mind – some concept that they prize above all else. This could be a sibling, an object, or something more abstract, like ‘beauty’ (in the case of the ballerina machine) or ‘hatred’ (Adam’s obsession). The machines also form communities based off of human governments and religions, but are programmed to fail in the end, repeating their mistakes. In 2B’s story, we saw a forest kingdom full of violent, screaming zealots; but in 9S’ story, we learn they were simply being protective of their infant king, who held a figment of the late, great peacemaker who forged the kingdom and protected his people from harm. We see machines that form family units, practise martial arts, or participate in a cult.
In essence, the machines are humanized – because they replicate humanity, unable to break the cycle due to their programming. Through 9S’ eyes, we see that each major enemy has a tragic backstory, and we gain deeper insight into Adam and Eve’s motivations.
Finally, the mystery of YorHa begins to unravel, and the ‘happy ending’ of 2B’s story is turned on its head. There will be no future for humanity, because humanity has been extinct for thousands of years. The concept of humans living on the moon was invented to raise morale, and keep the engine of YorHa petering along.
This revelation triggers a downward spiral into despair. The game is no longer about machine life learning from mankind’s mistakes, but about meaninglessness: YorHa and the machines are fighting an endless war for no clear purpose, stuck in a cruel limbo where nothing lasts. The gameplay reflects this relentless tragedy: machines beg for mercy as 2B and 9S slay them, and our heroes’ motives are thrown into question. With no mankind to fight for, who are the ‘rightful’ heirs to Earth? The machines, who have built civilisations and families upon the planet; or the androids, humanity’s children? Both sides deserve a chance at survival, yet both are deeply flawed, and unable to coexist.
Once the credits have rolled for a second time, we unlock the final third of Nier: Automata. Finally moving beyond the events of 2B and 9S’ stories, we enter a narrative that shifts between our protagonists’ viewpoints.
With Adam and Eve defeated, YorHa is launching a supposedly ‘final’ assault against the machine occupation. Here, the game ramps up its difficulty to match player progression, a fact that isn’t lost on the story: the machines have become stronger since Adam and Eve’s deaths, adapting new tactics to face the androids. In fact, the YorHa squadrons sent into battle are woefully underequipped to face these advanced machines, and it is up to 2B and 9S to provide vital support. During this first mission, the player must face loss: it is impossible to save all the squads, and as their dying screams echo through the radio, the tone is set for this final portion of the game. Even worse – a virus is attacking YorHa’s network, taking control of the androids and forcing them to attack their comrades. Only 9S’ intervention stops this from happening to himself and 2B. They transport back to the Bunker, which has also come under assault; and though they try to save what they can, the onslaught is too much, and the Bunker self-destructs, killing all the corrupted androids within.
On the way back to Earth, 2B and 9S are split up. In a long, agonising sequence, we learn that 2B has become infected with the virus. Rather than spread it any further, she chooses to find a quiet place where she can’t harm anyone else. The player is ‘treated’ to every excruciating second of the virus’ progress: 2B slows, loses her ability to fight and shoot, or even self-destruct. Just inches from her destination, she simply cannot go any further.
Which is when she encounters A2, a YorHa defector. The two share a past, and in very few words, 2B asks A2 to kill her.
A2 complies, stabbing 2B through the heart just as 9S arrives.
Welcome to Drakengard, by the way.
This twist causes an enormous shift in tone – even bleaker than before. From here, 9S descends into hopelessness and sadism, killing machines without consideration for the moral consequences. In one particularly horrifying scene, he impales a machine begging for its mother. Darth Nines essentially becomes an analogy to real-life war criminals: driven by absolute grief, he no longer distinguishes between machines, blaming them all equally for 2B’s death. He rejects any and all evidence that the machines are thinking, feeling beings, worthy of life.
A Tower has erupted from the ground – a machine construct resembling a mishmash of human architecture. 9S, in his crusade against the machines, seeks access to the Tower – but first, he must destroy three Resource Recovery Units: security systems barring entrance to the Tower. Destroying each unit involves climbing up several layers of enemy arenas, killing hundreds of machines in the process – and as 9S climbs, it becomes clear he is being drawn into the enemy’s trap. The machine Network taunts him with awful truths, calls him out for his mindless slaughter, and goads him to continue. He learns that YorHa (and by extension, himself) were created to be eventually disposed of: everything from the Bunker’s destruction to the deaths of 9S’ comrades was planned from the beginning. Though shaken, 9S continues on, and eventually enters the Tower. A2, who promised 2B she would protect 9S, pursues.
They fight their way up the Tower, each taking different routes. A2 learns that the Tower contains all data on humans, aliens, and machines. 9S, meanwhile, sinks into the lowest pits of despair. He is forced to kill clones of 2B, loses an arm, and becomes infected with the virus.
At last, the two androids meet at the top of the Tower. A2 pleads with 9S, asking him to cease his meaningless crusade – but 9S refuses on the basis that, if everything is meaningless, then only his emotions matter; and he really wants to kill A2.
Here, the player may take control of either A2 or 9S. Depending on their choice, they will receive a different ending: either way, one or both of them die.
That was Nier: Automata – a depressing guilt-trip into the darkest depths of grief and atrocity, a study in the cyclic nature of violence. Awful things happen to good people, heroes are turned into monsters by pure circumstance, and perhaps the only morally pure beings are the mooses (meese?) that now inhabit Earth’s ruins.
But maybe this doesn’t have to be the end. After viewing both ‘endings’, the player witnesses an unexpected development. The Pods, tiny robots that have assisted the protagonists’ throughout the game – and the only surviving members of the main cast – have a conversation about the outcome. The Pods reveal that 2B, 9S, and A2’s data is still intact, though in fragmented, unrecoverable form. According to protocol, Pod 153 requests they simply delete the ‘corrupted’ data.
And Pod 042 refuses. It speaks directly to the player, asking if they wish to save the protagonists’ data – the word ‘save’ taking on an entirely new meaning in this context. If the player accepts, they will access Ending E, and the final boss of the game:
In this sequence, scored by Emi Evans’ haunting ‘The Weight of the World’, all pretence is wiped away. As the player, you reject the ending assigned to you, fighting for a happy ending on your own terms. You literally fight the game’s credits, in a near-20-minute sequence of raw, insanely difficult bullet hell action. Each time you fall – and you will fall – the game taunts you, goading you to quit, to ‘ADMIT THAT LIFE IS MEANINGLESS’, asking if you ‘THINK THAT GAMES ARE SILLY LITTLE THINGS?’ But at the same time, messages from other players fill the screen: words of encouragement, cheering you on. Fighting tooth-and-nail, forced to make frame-perfect inputs against the onslaught of bullets, it seems ever more hopeless – but the music swells, and more encouragement pours in, and at last, when it seems you can go no further:
‘RESCUE OFFER RECEIVED.’
Other players join you, armouring you against attack and empowering you. At last, you can sweep through to victory – and finish your rebellion against the gloom.
And then you find out the sacrifice your rescuers made. The game gives you the chance to rescue another player in the same situation as you – a faceless stranger. You will receive no thanks, no gratification, nothing in return. But you must sacrifice everything: all your save data, all your levels and weapons, all to help someone you will never meet.
Here lies the key message of the game, as outlined by Pod 042 in the final cutscene: “A future is not given to you. It is something you must take for yourself.” In order to create a better world, we all must work towards it – we must be self-sacrificing, and we must reject the evils heaped upon us by others.
In conclusion, I think Nier: Automata is one of the most important games ever made. Placing philosophy first, but balancing it with fun gameplay and complex characters, it is a definite argument – and perhaps proof – for video-games’ potential as a form of high art. Everything is focused toward the overarching message, resulting in an experience that will stick with you.