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Saturday, February 24, 2018

NieR: Automata really is the greatest game ever made

Opinion by Matt S.

One year ago today Yoko Taro's NieR: Automata was unleashed on the world. I was a huge fan of the original, because despite its rough edges, the story it told was so deep, and so compelling, that nothing else really mattered to me. Moreso than even giants like Shadow of the Colossus or Persona 4, the original NieR was the ultimate example of a game made as art first, entertainment second, and that's why, before NieR: Automata was released, I twisted the arm of the entire DDNet team to have us give the original game the accolade of best game ever made.

NieR: Automata took everything that was so good about the original NieR, and then put PlatinumGames over the top. PlatinumGames is one of the most talented developers of action games out there; indeed its Bayonetta titles are brilliant, intelligent games in their own right. Working with Yoko Taro produced an unbeatable team, and NieR: Automata was the result; a game with no weaknesses, and where not a second across its 50 or so hours (for the main of multiple endings, anyway) is wasted.

As a critic, it can sometimes be difficult to step back from a game and look at the genuine and long term impact that the game will have. Enjoying a game while I'm playing it is one thing. Taking into account the historical value of it - how it will be seen years, decades, or even centuries down the track - is something entirely different. Over the generations of video games there have been plenty of hugely entertaining titles that are effectively forgotten now. There are plenty of "cult classics" that have steadily grown in esteem over the years despite the critical reception they initially received. Discussing a game soberly when you've just finished playing it is a difficult skill.

So, it was a big call when I put, right there in the title of my review, that NieR: Automata was the greatest game of all time. But, one year later and looking back at the game now, I'm still more than comfortable standing by that assessment.

It's such a memorable game on every level. I haven't had the chance to play it again since completing it for review (I will look at replaying it this year and I can easily see this being a game I play through each year). I remember almost every moment of it, though. From the locations and the spectacular set pieces (the theme park "level" and the SHMUP section being my favourite), to the various characters I met along the way - Adam and Eve through to the cultishly religions robots, and even Jean Paul - everything about NieR: Automata is so distinctive that it's been burned into my brain. I suspect when I replay it I'll simply flow my way through the game, having forgotten nothing about what I need to do and when.

It's also memorable for being so damn smart. NieR: Automata effortlessly juggles some incredibly challenging themes - existentialism, identity, gender, AI - and does so in a way that treats those topics with the density they require, while not losing the game's sense of fun. The presentational side of the game is particularly memorable, too. I actually have two copies of the limited edition soundtrack - I bought two just in case one was damaged in transit from Japan to Australia. It's the music I generally play while working, because it does an amazing job of getting me in a reflective and focused mood.

One thing I didn't try with my first play through of the game, but am keen to test out on a replay, is the game's most difficult mode. That ultra-hardcore mode has a "one hit = death" rule, and while I would find that an enormous challenge (there are some bosses I recall to mind now that I just can't comprehend beating without taking some hits), I'm also keen to see how that rebalancing of the JRPG structure to something far more twitchy does to the underlying themes of the game. I believe NieR: Automata is a game that's better when it's played on higher challenge settings, because the sense of struggle reinforces the game's other themes, and in that sense, the one hit death mode would be the most pure execution on the game's ideas.

So, yes. Happy birthday NieR: Automata, and thank you for, in many ways, reinvigorating my interest in video games. Like with anything that a person has a passion for, the level of interest in that thing isn't consistent, and my interest in games ebbs and flows. As I write about games on a daily basis, sometimes getting out of bed to actually do that can be a challenge, but every so often something like NieR: Automata comes along to remind me that not only do I love video games, but they have real value, too.

- Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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NieR: Automata really is the greatest game ever made
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