Why I love struggling to define Nier: Automata

Unpredictably entertaining.

WHY I LOVE

In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. This week Joe revels in Nier: Automata's unpredictability  

After just under one week with Nier: Automata I've come to a realisation: I have no idea what it is. 

That may sound like hyperbole, but Nier is honestly like no other game I've ever played. I've loved it, hated it, fell out with it, made up with it, and have been interminably puzzled by it in what's become a relatively steady cycle over the past six days. Every time I think I've sussed it out, it's thrown something new at me and while I've only finished it a couple of times myself—this is a game designed to be played and enjoyed several times after the first run—I've also realised it's exactly the type of game I've been, unwittingly, searching for recently. 

I wouldn't go as far to say I've become burnt out on specific genres, but when I look back at some of the games I've played over the past year or so, the ones I've spent the most time with have demanded vast amounts of my time and concentration. XCOM 2, for example, Total War: Warhammer, Cities: Skylines and Football Manager 2017—a mix of strategy and simulation games with relatively open outcomes that require distinct levels of dedication and perseverance. 

Further afield, Dishonored 2 is a game whose all-stealth playthroughs beg absolute focus, while switching off for a split second in Dark Souls 3 is equivocal to signing your own death warrant. Even the resolutely formulaic Resident Evil 7 requires a systematic, methodical approach to its puzzles and battles should you wish to make it out of the Baker estate intact. 

Nier: Automata's sense of surprise is perhaps its most endearing and important feature, and while I'll avoid specifics here (look out for Andy's in the not too distant future for something more focussed), the game's ability to chop and change at the drop of the hat creates a level of mindless, uninterrupted enjoyment that I've not had from a game in a long time. It's also worth noting that I've never played 2010's loosely-tied Nier, but I understand it too to be a bit weird. 

Anyway, developed by Platinum Games, there are moments where Nier: Automata feels like a game beneath this banner—particularly during its industrially-scarred 45-minute opening, where you guide protagonist android 2B around a sea-built rig hacking and slashing her way through hordes of robots and towering blade-armed bosses. Here, the influence of Vanquish, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Bayonetta is worn on its sleeve, with players leveraging a mess of light and strong attacks, air-dodging, ground-pounding, and lock-on laser-like bullets from accompanying aerial drone Pod. 

But in a flash, you'll break from an overbearing enclosed combat arena and find yourself powering down a catwalk, platforming back and forth, to and from ledges and up and down stairwells. You'll collect powerups and materials but, at this stage, will have little idea what to do with them. In the next zone, the camera will shoot skyward, presenting you with a birds-eye-view bullet hell effort—and at times you'll be faced with Neo Geo-styled aerial shooting, and a smidgen of Space Harrier-like boss fights

I made an arse of my first run and fell to the end-of-stage boss only to discover I had to start again entirely in the absence of an auto save feature (NB—the game does warn you of this at the start, however you're also unable to save at all until after this particular boss; my bad, I guess). 

And that's just the opening hour. After that, Nier transforms its framework entirely as it becomes, in essence, an open-world RPG. A sophisticated limited-slot chip loadout system dictates 2B's stats and combat style, which can in turn boost your melee and ranged attacks, speed, the chance of acquiring loot from fallen enemies—all told, experimenting is key. Again, I'm on my third playthrough now and have hardly scratched the surface as far as possible combinations go. 

Nier is far from perfect—while many of its maps are beautifully designed and aesthetically gorgeous, they're often frustratingly littered with invisible walls and/or confusing camera angles. Frame rates aren't something which bother me too much, but my GTX 980 has on occasion coughed and spluttered on medium settings.

So what is Nier: Automata? It's something I've loved and have been ticked off with in equal measure. It's an engaging open-world RPG, hack-and-slashing, action platformer that's also a bullet hell sidescroller and aerial shmup. It boasts a stat customisation system which I'd love to see furthered in future games, and at times boasts cinematic sequences that're as epic as animated action movies. Determining what Nier is complicated, but I've savoured its mindless enjoyment and will continue to do so for more playthroughs to come.  

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