As an action RPG being published by Square Enix, NieR: Automata immediately invites comparisons with the recently released Final Fantasy XV. Though obvious differences exist, they both inhabit a similar vein. While the rather brief demo tells us little about NieR: Automata's relevant narrative quality, it can show us the almost night and day contrast between how effectively the two games are able to fuse RPG elements with visceral combat. Final Fantasy XV felt like an RPG with combat tacked on and, while it was it was in no way terrible, it could often devolve into a massive pile-on that revolved around holding either one of two buttons. Automata on the other hand, feels like a sharp, complex hack and slasher with an enriching sprinkle of RPG elements to provide even further depth.
Even after four different runs through the demo, it seemed like there was plenty more to learn from the combat and new ways to go about tackling each enemy. A great deal of this can be attributed to Automata's developer, Platinum Games, and their established track record of excellence through similar games such as Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Vanquish. Much of the love these games have garnered stems from their high skill-ceiling, colourful brand of insanity, and incredible animations. From but a brief glimpse of the game, NieR: Automata seems set to deliver all of this once more.
Combat can initially feel a little hectic due to the rather unusual control scheme and less than clear-cut tutorial. However, once you've gotten adjusted it quickly becomes fluid and intense with an emphasis on combining lots of different styles of attack for maximum damage output. In the demo you have access to a lightweight katana which can hit quickly and a much larger sword designed to deliver slow, high damage attacks with greater range. You also have access to a Pod robot which fires a rapid-fire machine gun or supercharged Gatling gun directly where you camera is pointed. Interestingly, both the Pod and melee attacks can be used at the same time, meaning that you can constantly apply pressure with the machine gun while swiping away with your melee attacks. Perfectly timed dodges also unlock a deadly counterattack, bringing even more versatility into your arsenal. Throw in swappable weapon sets, weapon types, and fully customisable controls that allow you to remap any of the buttons, and you can see that versatility is the name of the game. Assuming you are the sort who loves to master a combat system, Automata's wealth of offensive and defensive options guarantee a very high skill-ceiling for players to chase.
Inside and outside of combat, animations are silky smooth and a delight to witness. 2B readies her weapons with such grace, only to bring them down upon the enemy with a tangible sense of momentum, flinging blades at enemies and summoning new ones to continue the onslaught. It's dignified yet calculated, intended to bring swift death, and does much to compliment 2B's detached character. The only area in which the demo's combat failed to impress from either a visual or mechanical perspective was the enemy variety. For the most part, the robot menace looks feeble and lacks a decent selection of attacks. Dispatching them is still fun because of how awesome your own attacks are, but the dinky arm-swinging bots do little to excite you as you reduce them to scrap.
The same cannot be said of the demo's final boss however – a towering behemoth with giant sawblades for arms and a laser cannon for a face. Between dodging constant crushing blows, waves of energy orbs, explosive attacks from beneath the ground and having to ascend the downed goliath to commandeer a deadly flight suit, there is plenty to keep you on your toes. As I ripped the lumbering machine's arm off and reprogrammed it to be a giant levitating club, I realised that none of this total badassery had been resolved with a quick-time event. In short, it's awesome.
Much like the original NieR, Automata embraces variety in its approach to gameplay. Though most of your fighting will be done in a typical 3D form, there are also multiple sections that use top-down or side-on camera angles to bring new twists to an encounter. The controls seamlessly blend from each perspective meaning that the differing angles won't be a hindrance to your effectiveness. Not only do these shifting perspectives bring variety to the game, they also bring a more cinematic vibe to Automata with each new camera angle seemingly chosen as a director would choose shots for a movie. Because of this, the disconnect between gameplay and story is less pronounced. As you move through the factory dealing out death, you feel as though you are actively pushing the story forwards rather than having to wait for a cutscene to do all the heavy-lifting.
Though the RPG elements don't really come into play throughout the demo, a lot can be gleamed by looking through the menus. Weapons are currently broken into four different categories: small swords, large swords, spears and combat bracers. Each weapon also has an unlockable Weapon Story much like the original NieR which, presumably, will expand the lore surrounding each weapon and the universe in general. Items can be found throughout the game world, including restoratives, items that provide temporary buffs, and miscellaneous things like springs and tubing which are likely to be used as materials for upgrading.
Of most interest is the Chip system which serves as your main source of customisation outside of equipment. Each chip can be altered by adding or removing lines of code that can bestow an ability on the character. For example, you can remove your mini-map in order to free up space for other abilities that you may consider useful. The system sees no real usage within in the demo but does suggest an intriguing framework for the main game and really hammers home the freedom of customisation that the rest of the game is striving for. You can even pointlessly remove the main OS system for your android, leading to a game over (yes, I tested this and had to start again).
Graphics and Sound
If there's one thing all of the above screenshots have in common, it's their brownness. The demo suffers from on overly washed out colour palette that consists mostly of greys, blacks and browns. It's all in keeping with the post-apocalyptic setting but it does little to dazzle the eyes. The rudimentary robot designs have the same effect, meaning that it's exclusively the main characters and animations (running at a smooth 60 FPS) that have any visual appeal.
The music is excellent throughout, however, with strong backing vocals that bring an emotional weight to the battling androids that easily could have been missed. The voice acting is also on point, delivering all of the drama you've come to expect from a Japanese game.
NieR: Automata's demo delivers a promising snapshot of what could be a fantastic game. There isn't much to chew on in regards to plot but if it's anything like the games it's spun off from, Drakengard and the original NieR, then you can expect a rollercoaster of sadness and complexity as well as branching endings. The depth of the RPG elements are equally hard to gauge at this point but what we can see looks to be a very interesting basis for the full title to explore. It's the combat that truly has me hyped for Automata though. With beautiful animations, intense boss fights, and a high skill-ceiling, I cannot wait to get into the (hopefully less brown) universe and get to disassembling robots in the thousands.