NieR:Automata is perhaps a story of the power of word of mouth. A sequel in an IP with a devoted but modest following by Square Enix standards, it became a notable sales success over time as initial fans convinced neutrals that something special had arrived. Director Yoko Taro was also clever in his approach to storytelling - playing its predecessor(s) or the recently released remaster, NieR Replicant, gives you extra context and lore, but this entry is also self-contained and gives players all of the information they need. What we have, then, is a wonderful slice of sci-fi storytelling wrapped in an accomplished action adventure RPG. It's quite unlike anything else, and now we get to enjoy it on Switch with the content- complete The End of YoRHa Edition.
A topic that often comes up in gaming, particularly in the retail / triple-A space, is the challenge of blending creative vision with slick, attractive experiences. Publisher Square Enix made a savvy decision, as it partnered the incredibly creative Taro-san with PlatinumGames, the latter being fans of the original NieR and very much on board to apply a flair for action and combat gaming. The blend is intoxicating, and also helped to establish the reputation of Platinum's Takahisa Taura, who worked on design here before making his directing debut with Astral Chain; it's fascinating playing Automata now, as there are whispers of ideas here that are played out more fully in 2019's Switch exclusive.
Like its predecessors, NieR:Automata continually upends your expectations as you play. For the most part a 3D action title, with a generous dose of RPG ideas, it nevertheless continually surprises you and introduces new twists. Sometimes that's in the storytelling, but also in gameplay; we won't spoil anything beyond the opening section, but you have elements of shoot 'em up, puzzle-solving, and more. Camera direction is also dynamic at times, shifting to side-on or top-down views. It adds to the sense that you're driving a story forward, which is a particularly more-ish feeling.
In terms of the setting, you're on a desolate Earth in the future and mostly following the story of 2B and 9S, Androids that are part of a defensive force stationed on the Moon (it sounds crazy, and it is, but trust us when we say you'll be drawn into the tale). Your foes are machines, and your overriding role is to fight for surviving humans that are also stationed on the moon; yet the story goes in various fascinating directions, and you'll find yourself emoting and relating to Android and machine alike.
It's a narrative that, like most good sci-fi, is packed with analogies to the real world and history. It's brilliant stuff, and it's interesting in structure, too. This is a game you're supposed to play multiple times — it tells you this — and we want you to discover the detail for yourself. Just know that additional runs aren't as repetitive as you might expect, and the surprises and shifts keep coming over the course of tens of hours. The first experience of this is at times breathtaking and is still a standout of modern game storytelling.
Importantly, it's also fantastic to actually play, which we've come to expect when PlatinumGames treats a project with care. You blend melee with guns in fast-paced, at times puzzle-led combat - the legacy of the Bayonetta series and other PlatinumGames staples is all over this. Pleasingly, the gameplay design melds perfectly with the often creative, demanding scenarios that the story creates. You have intense one-on-one fights in addition to on-rails battles against enormous 'behemoth' foes, and more besides. It's cinematic gaming that's actually just bloody good fun, not a combination many major developers and publishers have achieved.
That said, it'd be remiss of us to not mention that there are some gimmicks and quirks in the design that don't fully work. Occasionally there are mechanics or movement that are a little stilted or uneven; it's rare, but it is there. Your AI companion can often get in your way in 2D sections, and some perspective shifts and on-rails sections can be awkward. They're often brief moments and it's worth brushing past them, just don't be surprised when they pop up in a playthrough.
There'll be plenty of occasions when you simply explore, and it's an intriguing world that blends desolate cityscapes with forests, a desert, and more besides. There's also an interesting approach to quests; details given for side stories are often limited, or sometimes a point of interest will show on the map with a simple '?'. This isn't a game to rush, so it's worth taking the time to explore and discover those smaller stories, some of which add a great deal to the overall worldbuilding. It's also a title where keeping notes is a good idea — it doesn't give you indications of levels for quests, so on discovering one that's too advanced it's worthwhile returning later once you're more capable.
And yes, the RPG elements go a little further, with Taro-san engaging in some fourth-wall-breaking in saying that there are 'automatic' options as they 'don't want you rage quitting'. You are constantly collecting currency and materials, which can be used to level up various weapons (which have unique playstyles), your 'Pod' that accompanies you and operates as a gunner, and you can use 'Chips' to enhance your abilities. There are a lot of these, and you can either go all in creating your build piece-by-piece, or simply ask the game to give you an automated setup.
It all comes together beautifully, but we know what matters most when a game this good comes to Switch: How does it perform? Well, thankfully, the news is positive. We have a solid 30fps throughout, and the team at Virtuos has done an excellent job; though the world is often sparsely populated, it is handsome and extravagant, and it's reproduced very well here. You can see where the sacrifices have been made — some textures are particularly basic, occasionally asset streaming lags behind, and the resolution compensates when the action is busy. Yet it's impressive, and rather than a port that seems like a struggle on Switch it feels like a truly native title.
Playing docked, the image will perhaps appear relatively soft if you're accustomed to more powerful hardware, but it still looks rather good. It's in portable mode where we feel it shines, with the smaller screen real estate emphasising its qualities over the sacrifices. It looks as NieR:Automata should, not like a fuzzy pretend version of the game like various other ports on the market. Similar to Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, it's also very clever in the transition from cutscene to gameplay, helping with the immersion. Sound quality is solid as well, which can't always be taken for granted in Switch third-party efforts. There are even motion control options; they remind us of the Wii-waggle days, to be honest, but are a fun wrinkle that can easily be turned off.
The majority of the time, performance is pleasing, sometimes surprisingly so in particularly bombastic encounters. There was one fight, though, where we could sense its struggles, as the screen-filling boss was also firing off millions of particle effects. Occasionally, too, transitions from one fight style to another (which we won't spoil) occasionally come with a half-second pause. This is very minor stuff, though, and there were many more times where we were frankly shocked at how well the port held up; in fact, for our money it's one of the best-looking portable games on the system.
NieR:Automata is a modern classic. Most importantly for Switch owners, this is a top-notch port that has clearly been produced with respect and focus, often surpassing our expectations in both visuals and performance. Finding a comfortable seat and a pair of headphones makes the Switch version a wonderful way to experience the game, and it is an unforgettable journey. Nothing is as it seems, either in the story or gameplay, and it's one of the finest gaming achievements of the last decade. If you haven't played NieR:Automata yet, now is a great time.