What begins as a robot-smashing action game with gargantuan bosses soon becomes an open world RPG, then a bullet hell circus nightmare with confetti and corpses, and then something else entirely. To describe all of the things that Automata encompasses, even in vague terms, would be to spoil its greatest asset: surprise. For that reason, I've avoiding the specifics of almost any of the wonderful and horrible things that happen. This is important.
Let's stick with the basics then. Automata, at its best, fuses Platinum's mastery of stylish action to a framework that works as both a tour and deconstruction of various genres, and a story both stranger and more interesting than it first appears. It's awesome.
Nier: Automata's story concerns special forces androids who are sent to the surface of a ruined Earth to try and reclaim it from robots, built by aliens, who are waddling around the place like the mutant offspring of Dusty Bin, R2-D2 and Catchphrase's Mr Chips. Your task, as YoRHa No.2 Type B (2B) is to follow orders beamed down from an orbital satellite, The Bunker, where the plan to regain control of Earth so that the remnants of humanity, now living on the moon, can go home.
Before you even have time to figure out the why and the what, you're plunged straight in at the deep end though, hacking, slashing and shooting your way through a grim industrial ruin, and getting to grips with the control system. Combat is simple to execute but tricky to master, with light attacks, strong attacks, and lock-on, fire and dodge buttons. 2B doesn't have a gun but she does have a Pod, a drone thing hovering around her, and it can pew-pew away at enemies from afar. Later, it's possible to upgrade it with melee attacks, shields and other abilities, but for the opening hour, it's your ranged option.
I'd recommend a controller (PS4 Dualshock for me) for comfort and to avoid the trickiness of twinstick shooting with a mouse and keyboard. It can work well, and I've seen it work well elsewhere, but here it's cumbersome. I haven't had many issues with the port other than that, though those trying to play in super resolutions might be in for a rough time. On the whole, the PC version is passable rather than powerful.
But with a game this fascinating, it'd be a shame for any platform to miss out, particularly our own home ground. Even in its first hour, which is a little like an extended pre-credits sequence during which the game shows very little of its hand, Automata is a slick if unambitious action game. It's one of the few games that has made me notice the camera for positive reasons – usually, a game's camera only draws attention to itself when it's getting stuck on a character's arse or elbow, or crashing into a wall, but here the camera is a tool that makes the game malleable. Control of its position is taken away at certain points to reimagine a room as a side-scrolling shooter, a bullet hell arena or an Afterburning arcade flight sim. But with robots.
Always with robots. Nier wants to explore every possible angle of automated function and form, and it doesn't take long for the robots to reveal their secrets. Nothing is quite as it seems and as soon as you've figured out one twist in the tale, another clicks into place and it's not long before you realise that this tale is prehensile and its not just capable of getting a grip on you, it's rearranging all the pieces of the puzzle as you go.
This goes back to my opening line: Automata is unpredictable. It's one of the most surprising games I've ever played, and I don't mean that in the sense that monsters spawn in your face when you'd least expect them to. It's the way that both the story and the action shift from one mood and genre to another as you move along. Much has been written of director Yoko Taro's eccentricities as a creator, but I'm struck more by a sense of curiosity. If the game does reflect his sensibilities, it speaks more of a mind flitting from one idea to the next, discarding each one as soon as it's been examined. Despite the grand cohesive plot that runs through multiple playthroughs (Automata doesn't have New Game +, it has what are effectively entire new chapters to play following your first completion), Nier feels a bit like an anthology of stories, knitted together into something larger.
Because most of the game takes place in an open world RPG structure, you're not harnessed to Taro's imagination, rushing from one revelation to the next. Instead, you can take your time if you so choose, enjoying what remains of life on Earth by riding moose and boar around the ruins of the world, or collecting crafting materials and doing sidequests. I'm not particularly interested in collecting every glowing piece of kit that appears in the streets, deserts and forests, but I never felt I was being punished for ignoring that side of the game. And sidequests are rewarding both for the character- and world-building they reveal, and because the combat that is a large part of them is excellent.
It doesn't quite show Platinum at their absolute best, but it's rare to find an RPG with action so enjoyable. The boss fights show the systems at their best, requiring air-dodges, smashing combos and smart use of your Pod's powers. Behind all of that is a levelling system that's both startlingly strange and perfectly fitting. Your android has a set of chips that run everything from elements of the HUD, which you can unplug and disable to make more space for other chips should you wish, to buffs and abilities. Brilliantly, should you want to play through the game as a storytelling exploration piece with minimum swordplay, Easy mode allows you to use chips that automate different aspects of combat. You can attach and remove each of them as you go.
You can even remove your character's OS, but you shouldn't. Seriously. Don't do that.
The system essentially makes your character into a modifiable weapon, wielding other weapons that can also be levelled up, revealing their own backstories as they become more powerful. That concept, of the player character as a device for making war, is an integral part of the story, and that's how Automata works. For all of its genre-hopping and about-turns from tragedy to farce, and sincerity to flippant asides, it rarely fails to tie your actions to its story and themes.
I went into Automata expecting weird and came out the other side impressed by how sad, beautiful and strange a game that stars a sexy android can be. I don't have anything against sexy androids, but I'd been expecting something much sillier, at the zany end of the 'weird' spectrum. Instead, Automata surprised me yet again. It's very sad, very beautiful and very strange. The one major complaint I have is that it can be very brown and dull for extended periods, which suits the sense of a washed-out world, but also makes some locations ultra-bland. If you're scampering around in them for ages, that's your choice though. Unless it's doing something spectacular and dramatic, Automata very rarely forces you to stay in one place for any length of time.
Having unlocked just a few of the endings (some are more like chapter breaks than endings, many are punchlines or small oddities), I feel like I've feasted on a ten-course meal. Some of the food turned to ashes in my mouth, but only when that was by design. From its always-magnificent but alternately triumphant and mournful score to its massive intricate bosses and moments of bleak horror, Automata is a superbly controlled game. It gives you freedom to explore, to collect, to fight and to much about, but it always has one hand on the tiller and the other on that camera, directing the action and observing your every move.
It's rare to see such ambitious storytelling and open world roleplaying tied to such a stylish combat system, not to mention the (optional) Souls-like multiplayer elements, shooter tangents, mini-games that punctuate rather than interrupting, and that big ol' world to explore. You don't need to have played any of Yoko Taro's previous games to appreciate Automata, even though it has links to both Drakengard and (of course) the original Nier, but it'll probably make you keen to seek them out. Me? I'm hoping Platinum get a chance to work with these worlds and words again. A thousand ideas, delivered in rapid succession, backed by action that is the thread that stitches everything together rather than an interruption between one story beat and the next.
Nier: Automata is out now for Windows, via Steam, for £39.99. There are some promo shots in this feature because my capture software failed me.