Yoko Taro is definitely an outlier in the world of video game directors. He is mysterious and often wacky--he wears a giant mask over his head when he does press conferences and interviews and sometimes speaks in riddles. This strangeness also transfers over to the games he makes. He is most famous for the Drakengard games he made in the early 2000s as well as a spin-off game called NieR in 2010. All of these games are known for their complex storylines and off-kilter genre-straddling gameplay. Though they were received with mixed reviews from critics, these games have a fierce cult following. These fans were ecstatic when they learned of the pending release of NieR:Automata for PS4.
NieR: Automata takes place thousands of years after the events of the original game in a post-apocalyptic future. Robots have taken over the earth which has forced the remaining humans to take residence on the moon. They then build humanoid androids known as YoRHa to fight the mechanical invaders in their stead. The player takes the role of one such android known as 2B, who is specialized for combat. She teams up with a male support YoRHa unit called 9S who helps her with his technical knowledge. In the usual Yoko Taro fashion, the narrative takes many twists and turns and presents some intriguing moral quandaries for the player to digest.
While the graphics for this game aren't necessarily pushing the limits of the PS4, they make up for it with style oozing from every pore. The character designs for 2B and 9S are beautiful and elegant thanks to the work of SquareEnix artist Akihiko Yoshida (known for his work on Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story). 2B especially is lovely to look at, taking inspiration from Gothic Lolita fashion with a huge dose of sexual appeal. Everything in the game has a melancholy feel thanks in part to the subdued gunmetal grey and brown color palette used. That is not to say it isn't gorgeous though ,and certain vistas in the game are breathtaking to behold. I particularly dug the minimalist menu design utilized in the game. One negative is that the map in the game is a bit hard to read, which is explained in the actual story, but still frustrating occasionally. The game runs mostly at 60fps, though it can take a dip if things get too crazy. I played this game on a launch PS4 and didn't find any technical issues to be egregious.
The first NieR had a pretty rough combat system, so this time around Yoko went with PlatinumGames for the battle system. These guys definitely know what they are doing in this arena, having produced fantastic games such as Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising Revengeance previously. This is an action-RPG though it's heavy on the action and light on the RPG elements. The battle system revolves heavily around evading and hit-and-run tactics, but the controls are incredibly responsive and silky smooth. One of the more interesting aspects is how NieR switches between different genres of games effortlessly. One minute you are third-person hacking-and-slashing and the next minute the game thrusts you into a twin-stick shooter. It also has elements of bullet-hell shmups and 2D side-scrolling fighters. All of these are done equally well which is quite impressive. The androids have little robot helpers with guns called Pods that you can independently control and shoot enemies with. The auto lock-on with these Pods is a bit finicky, so I usually ended up just aiming manually.
One of the strongest elements in this game is the music. Composer Keiichi Okabe, who worked on the previous games, has crafted one of the best video game soundtracks I have heard in years. It combines classical, ambient and vocal elements to produce a haunting arrangement that sticks in the mind well after turning the game off. I have noticed this more in next-gen gaming where the soundtrack can subtly shift in real-time to reflect what the character is doing and this score does that often. There are segments of the game where 9S can hack into robots (via a pixelated twin-stick shooter mini-game)and the music will change to a chiptune rendition of whatever track is playing at the time and then seamlessly shift back when regular play resumes. This kind of stuff is subtle, but I love attention to detail.
The story in NieR: Automata is gripping and unfolds in unexpected ways. This game has twenty-six (!) different endings but only six or so of them are considered "true" endings. NieR has a lot to say about the human condition and what it means to care about another sentient being, mechanical or not. There is a New Game + mode but unlike most other games each play-through is distinctly different. It takes three full trips through the game to experience the full story. While it sounds tedious, the game constantly introduces new gameplay elements each time which keeps it fresh. Yoko included some fourth-wall breaking meta elements to the narrative as well, which are always fun when they pop up. Some of the story is a little cheesy, but if you are into anime at all you will feel right at home with some of the more outlandish plot developments.
Overall, this game is a fantastic addition to the PS4 library. There are a few quibbles--mostly with the sometimes tedious side-quests and large amounts of backtracking. Other than that, this sleeper hit should definitely be on any action-RPG fan's radar. As a side note: you do not have to play any of the previous games in this series to understand the story. I did watch a summary video on YouTube to fill in the gaps which made the experience more enjoyable though.