As a sequel to the mostly overlooked 2010 action-RPG, Nier, its sequel had a lot to live up to while leaving room for great improvement. Yoko Taro’s Nier: Automata builds upon the great aspects of its predecessor while introducing a handful of new ideas, themes and mechanics that not only surpass the original, but practically reinvent the game as a whole while remaining true to its roots. With 2017 kicking into high gear for game releases, Nier: Automata arrives in a whirlwind of great experiences yet manages to shape its own unique narrative and style to set it apart from its competitors, and in some instances, stand above them.

Nier: Automata’s unconventional story sets its characters in a kind of post-apocalyptic world mostly inhabited by the creation of machines by other-worldly invaders. A proxy war between the last remaining humans and the machines sparks social and political tension on the planet. The game wisely chooses to follow three battle androids conflicted by the war; 2B, a female android with a composed demeanor and strict ideals; her companion, 9S, a male android that feeds off human emotion and tends to tackle the deus ex machina questions; and A2, a lone wolf female android that’s short on communication but allows her impressive combat abilities to speak for her.

Being set in a world torn apart by the insecurities of humanity and progressive, incomprehensible technology, the characters are multi-layered and diverse, each posing interesting philosophical questions about their own existence while battling the machines that are equally as idealistic and deep. Nier: Automata uses its setting and themes to pose several thought-provoking questions, using its three protagonists as the means. Because of this, Automata becomes less about the generic cliche’s of good triumphing over evil and more about the grey morally ambiguous spaces in-between.

Nier: Automata’s gameplay improves upon the original in many exciting ways, featuring a more robust RPG system and streamlined, fast-paced combat. Each character plays differently, complementing their strengths and weaknesses in the heat of battle. For example, 9S is able to hack into machines and, through a clever mini-game that harkens back to old-school arcade space shooters, can cause massive damage internally. A2 places emphasis on her relentless combat skills and agility, often being able to juggle many enemies at once and deal a sufficient amount of damage. 2B, as the initial character players will start off with, is the more balanced combatant of the three, serving as a great way to introduce players to the gameplay. Characters are also aided by a tiny flying robot that lays continuous suppressing fire against enemies, giving ample amounts of time and space to deal melee damage.

Automata’s gameplay shifts between several styles, from the third-person action-heavy combat sections to top-down shooting segments that put the characters in a flying mech. In between combat on foot, the camera will often switch its perspective to accommodate the characters’ fighting abilities in relation to the scenery, though at first it’s quite jarring and annoying before it begins to feel more natural as the game progresses. Boss encounters are a spectacle to behold in Automata too. They range in size from smaller machines to towering behemoths that require patience and careful planning before engaging in battle. While most of the time, the key to their defeat may be the all-too-convenient secret weapon or last-minute aid from another character, it’s never detrimental to the sheer scale of the battle, and does well to reward players with feeling empowered.

RPG elements in the game expand upon the foundation work set in the original, with an abundance of assorted swords, hammers, and lances to pick, all featuring upgradable components and abilities. A leveling system is also implemented, and initially it’s quite easy to progress levels, almost to a fault, but quickly balances itself out once the story finds its footing. The open world is purposefully empty and gorgeous, with sprawling desert sections and collapsed buildings to explore at your leisure. The terrain is also littered with NPC’s to obtain side quests from, though they’re never as interesting or emotionally engaging as they could’ve potentially been, taking a backseat to the heft of the main quests instead. While the world is grand in scale, it doesn’t surpass the sheer size or density of more notable RPG’s, and can often feel cold and hollow despite being stunningly artful. A few graphical hiccups are noticeable too. Texture pop-ins and odd irregularities are common, but thankfully they don’t take away from the experience much.

Nier: Automata boasts one of the best soundtracks to come out of a game in a long time. Composed by Keiichi Okabe, the soundtrack combines sweeping orchestras with tribal vocal chants and electronic pieces that all meld together seamlessly. There are a great number of standout tracks, but cohesively the soundtrack is a character in and of itself, and is masterfully woven into the intensity of battles, making every high moment in the game feel epic and exhilarating.

Verdict: Nier: Automata is an astonishing success and what every sequel should aspire to be. The second outing in the Nier series is an ambitious, intelligent, and unforgettable experience, raising thought-provoking questions that add several unexpected philosophical layers to its already intricate story of morality. With only a few minor flaws holding it back from achieving a masterpiece status, Automata is still every bit as satisfying and intellectually challenging as one might expect from the mind of Yoko Taro.