'Nier: Automata' is Brilliant, Absurd and Totally Meta

'Nier: Automata' is Brilliant, Absurd and Totally Meta

'Nier: Automata' blends open-world exploration with finely-tuned action set-pieces Square Enix

Platinum's Windows and PS4 action-RPG improves on the original in every way

Platinum's Windows and PS4 action-RPG improves on the original in every way

It's not every game that makes you feel like you're starring in a Transformers reboot written by Jean-Paul Sartre. But then, it's not every game that, shortly after sending you out to destroy all the machines you can find, gives you the chance to meet the robot Jean-Paul himself in a treetop village, and then encourages you deconstruct his wordy posing by completing a simple fetch-and-carry sidequest. Who knew philosophy was as easy as following a quest marker?

But even after only a couple of hours, it's clear that existential melancholy delivered with all the sugar rush of a Saturday morning cartoon marathon is nowhere near the strangest thing Nier: Automata can effortlessly turn into a new kind of normality. In short, if you're expecting the game's open world, action RPG, sci-fi dystopia to feel like Westworld meets Horizon Zero Dawn, you're in for more than a bit of a shock: this is Sakaguchi's Lost Odyssey meets Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell by way of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, and it's a far deeper and more unsettling experience as a result.

Fittingly, only the previous instalment in the same series can truly boast a similar mix of melancholy, playfulness and abject peculiarity as Nier: Automata. Released in 2010 for PS3 and Xbox 360, Nier sold next to nothing but quietly and deservedly grew into something of a cult classic – a uniquely brooding and awkward experience that seemed almost as determined to drive its players away as suck them in. Automata isn't a sequel so much as a spiritual successor, retaining every ounce of Nier's self-aware, meta-weirdness, not to mention every intentionally jarring register change. Eccentric returning director Taro Yoko – known for sometimes wearing a creepy balloon-like mask when doing interviews – remains just as happy to send up his JRPG influences as he is to put you through the most off-puttingly old-school elements of them when it suits him. Along with another incredible, wordless, atmospheric score by Keiichi Okabe, Osaka-based Platinum Games have delivered something that explores Nier's strange preoccupations in an entirely new world, improving on the original in every way.

The backstory is both by-the-numbers sci-fi hokum and something utterly irresistible with a controller in your hands. It's the year 11945, and the earth is in ruins following an alien invasion that unleashed an army of machines on the planet. What's left of humanity is in hiding on the moon and you are one of an android army – our ultimate weapon – driving the resistance's battle to take back the Earth… because Glory to Mankind, etc.

The by-turns breathless and baffling opening had me hooked, even as things began to get stranger

If that sounds like a load of nonsense, that's because it is. But it's also the kind of nonsense whose fourth wall is very much in the same ruinous state as the city you'll spend hours exploring, a synopsis that's as much something to be knocked down as taken as read. More honestly, and like Lost Odyssey, Mistwaker's ten-year old Xbox 360 classic, Nier: Automata makes the quest to save mankind feel more like an elegy for the culture it claims to want to restore, all the while building layers of stories that make you question everything about your role in them. For all the genre fluff, at its heart the game is an extended – and frequently deeply moving – riff on what it means to be alive set in the ruins of our increasingly questionable civilization.

The by-turns breathless and baffling opening had me hooked, even as things began to get stranger. Moving from disembodied monologue to Ikaruga-lite shooter in seconds, the prologue was as happy asking me when we get to kill the gods who created this puzzle as it was killing my companions before my mission briefing had even ended. With no let-up in pace – or concession to coherence – I landed in a ruined factory where exploring revealed a constantly shifting set of perspectives that turned the minimap into another kind of puzzle. One minute, I'm playing a platformer, the next a twin-stick shooter, then an out-and-out action RPG again. But just one goliath-sized, set-piece battle later, and here I am for some unfathomable reason being told that the game is recording me adjusting the settings, that there's no autosave, and then being sent in-game emails about server capacity and housekeeping.

After all that, being dumped out into its open-world city felt, inevitably, more than a little dull. I ran around haplessly, feeling disconnected – because, if I want to piss about collecting glowing dots like some kind of dreary, automated harvesting-engine, it's not like I'm short of other games with more dazzling environments to explore. "Maybe I've seen it all now," I thought, trudging off into the desert following the main quest, before 30 short minutes of unsettling plotting told me I'd never again escape the feeling that I had absolutely no idea what was coming next.

It's a mark of how brilliant, heartbreaking and plain absurd Nier: Automata is that I still feel exactly the same way several playthroughs later – and that I can't begin to tell you why without spoiling the rush of discovery that opens up far more than the world itself. It's also a mark of how willing the game is to mess with you that it gives you a fighting style that oozes every ounce of Platinum's trademark zip, sparkle and depth – right down to a dodge-and-counter move that never stops giving you a giddy, dopamine rush of relief and satisfaction – and then suddenly makes you feel mortified at the thought of killing anything at all.

The game's multiple endings are just as smart and unpredictable, too. There's nothing as simplistic as a "good" or "bad" ending that reflects the developer's view of how you should have played back at you. Sure, some are little more than throwaway moments, an excuse to tip you a "and he was never seen again" wink, roll some speeded-up credits and dump you back to the last time you remembered to save. But others change the way you see every moment you played before, each new playthrough so profoundly different that it almost feels like a new story.

The result is a game that's exactly as deep as you choose it to be, its characters as straight on the surface as kid's cartoons, the depth entirely optional. If the sidequests drive you to distraction as you amble back and forth following dots on a map, maybe that's the point. After all, no one made you fill your time with busywork except yourself; just stick to the set-pieces if your definition of what it is to be alive here doesn't include a bit of healthy boredom. But even the weapons you acquire and upgrade have stories buried away quietly in a menu, should you want to look – it's just that no one will tap you on the shoulder and tell you, let alone try and force you to care. Only those who'll be interested in the game's peculiar rewards are in any danger of seeing them.

Quirky, self-aware to a fault and full of familiar tricks in new clothes, Nier: Automata isn't perfect, but it's never in danger of losing itself despite all the new ways it gives you to discover what lies beneath. Both its gameplay and plot are a dazzling set of perspective shifts that don't so much answer any of its questions as make you feel progressively weirder – and often sadder – about the meaning of what you're being asked. And each ending is really a new beginning, inviting you back to spend a little longer dwelling in its remarkably humane apocalypse; no matter how long you explore, you'll never be led to something you expect to find.