Major spoilers for Nier: Automata and Nier Replicant.
Nier Replicant fashions itself as a subversion of RPGs, but is just as much a meditation on the human condition — on what it means to be alive, to find purpose, to carry on. Set right on the cusp of mankind’s extinction, every character in Nier is trying to find some form of meaning at the end of the world. Nier dedicates himself to taking care of his sister. Kainé devotes her life to Nier himself, eventually referring to herself as his “sword.” Replicant’s remake goes so far as to add a new ending that closes out with Kainé and Emil outright acknowledging their need for purpose:
“Our journey may have been meaningless. / Our past may have been a mistake. / But we’re not going back. / Even if this world comes to an end. / Because this is the world with the people we cherish.”
It is in humanity’s nature to create meaning where there might be none. Life might not be inherently meaningful, but we can give it meaning. Whatever impact we may or may not leave on planet Earth, humanity is ultimately defined by our ability to find purpose and direct our lives — even if it does not matter. At the same time, Nier Replicant never shies away from dwelling on mankind’s penchant for conflict. This is mainly framed through a video game lens, commenting on the medium’s tendency to morally justify the player’s violence, but always speaking to real human behavior.
Nier’s heroes have little regard for any life other than human and doom humanity to certain extinction through their actions. Shades are blatantly sentient creatures who develop culture over the course of the game, but the core cast brushes them off as monsters all the way to the very end. Even after learning that Shades are the true humans, Nier still kills the Shadowlord. Nothing they do to ensure mankind’s survival matters in the end, so Kainé and Emil find meaning in what little time they have left with each other. We can find justification for our actions and meaning anywhere, but we hurt the world around us. It’s the tragedy of being human.
Expanding on the original Nier’s game design and themes, Nier: Automata only pushes the idea that conflict is the core of humanity. Thousands of years after the events of Replicant, what few remaining humans left have been seemingly whisked away to the moon while YoRHa, a military organization composed entirely of androids, clears out the Earth of any remaining threats to beckon humanity’s return. When mankind can no longer fight their own wars, we create soldiers in our image. Conflict is something that surges through every part of being human — love, family, religion, war — which is recognized in YoRHa’s foundation.
Androids created in man’s image, YoRHa’a soldiers are locked in a forever war against machine lifeforms. These machines are sentient robots who have made Earth their home in the absence of any humans, but the Council of Humanity demands that YoRHa take back a land that has not been touched by man for over 5,000 years. YoRHa maintains a pious devotion to humanity, something echoed in their credo: “For the Glory of Mankind.” This is as much YoRHa’s central philosophy as it is a religious reminder. Man becomes God and demands violence as worship, offering servitude as the sole reward (which might be why protagonists 2B and 9S wear a maid’s outfit and page boy uniform respectively).
Found family and forbidden love are two concepts touched upon periodically in regards to YoRHa. The organization’s soldiers and operators form a deep solidarity with one another, which is inherently vexing since YoRHa prohibits emotion. Ironically, this just has the very human effect of androids bottling up their emotions, unable to express themselves healthily, and then causing all hell when things inevitably fall apart. Some androids are better at hiding their emotions than others, but all of them do feel and have individuality. Androids look like humans and act like humans, but the mere concept of mankind means they can never express their humanity freely or without shame.
Conversely, machines who have disconnected themselves from their central Network (essentially a hive mind for robots) have developed culture, their own closed communities, and try to recognize individuality as best they can. Automata’s Desert Machines even go so far as to model their culture after Facade’s from the original Nier. Robots wear masks, cloaks, and even body paint. They fight with proper swords and shields instead of the weapons they were built with. There are even traditional gender roles in “New Facade.” Male robots are warriors who patrol the desert while female robots are wives who hold down the fort back at the Housing Complex. The fact Desert Machines acknowledge marriage at all as a concept shows how much closer robots are to humans than androids.
The Amusement Park community embodies a hedonistic “live for fun” mentality where local machines only concern themselves with pleasure through play and artistic expression. They study what remnants of human history they can, reading up on Shakespeare and adapting their own interpretation of Romeo & Juliet titled Romeos and Juliets — an action-tragedy where several Romeos and Juliets kill each other in a passionate display of love. Almost all the key details are off, but the play is proof that the Amusement Park Machines understand the literary definition of “tragedy” on some level. If nothing else, they have a talent for avant-garde theatre.
The Forest Machines embrace feudalism, wear medieval armor and outright refer to themselves as a kingdom. They maintain an organized army of “Royal Knights,” conduct physical drills throughout the kingdom and encourage soldier morale through regular speeches. Animal machines blur the line between robot and nature even further, with the Forest Machines actually riding the animal machines in some instances. An offhand line early on mentions that machine cores are similar to plant cells, suggesting that robots have managed to emulate “life” on a fundamental level. This is eventually twisted with the Factory Machines, religious cultists who kill themselves in an act of mass sacrifice to bring themselves closer to God: man. Machines cannot die naturally, preventing them from experiencing the one inevitably of being human. To fully emulate the life of their Gods, the Factory Machines commit suicide.
Pascal’s Village is a commune of pacifist machines who want nothing to do with YoRHa’s war. They make an active effort to build a healthy relationship with the Android Resistance to show their goodwill, engage in trade, and show nothing but hospitality towards 2B & 9S. The Village Machines are antithetical to YoRHa by design. Pascal wants machines to embrace emotion and tries to discourage violence with every fiber of his being. Villagers break themselves down into their own family units with no repercussions, free to love openly. YoRHa Androids look human but are designed to suppress humanity. Machines are alien in appearance, but free to express themselves however they see fit. Unlike YoRHa, Pascal’s Villagers want to represent nothing but the best of humanity.
“Everything that lives is designed to end.”
The machines have made Earth their home in lieu of humans. The old world has been retaken by nature and the planet’s flora & fauna are once again thriving. Humanity’s impact (or lack thereof) can be felt all throughout the game world. Unlike Replicant, which split itself up among several different zones, townships, and dungeons with their own separately loaded areas, Automata takes place in a mostly open-world environment. With the exception of the YoRHa Bunker in outer space, every major setting connects without the need for load times. This naturally does result in quite a lot of empty space (especially in the Desert and City Ruins), but the levels are generally designed around this to play upscale.
Most empty patches of land usually have a few enemies to contend with or unique ways to keep navigation engaging. In the case of the Desert, sand slopes make it so you can quickly slide around the terrain and zip through an otherwise massive setting. Having to constantly cut through the City Ruins before fast travel unlocks can wear thin, but the area itself is steeped in a melancholy atmosphere and incredibly fun to sit down & explore. This is in large part due to the number of options players have in approaching the City Ruins.
Staying ground level puts 2B right amongst the machines and animals while highlighting the City Ruins’ marriage between nature and human architecture. Virtually every standing building has been overtaken with greenery, whether that be moss or fully grown trees splintering out of windows and rooftops. Massive tree trunks serve as bridges to the upper level, where a barely put together highway leads to the Abandoned Factory and the remaining buildings function as platforms to get around quickly. A few buildings are even fully explorable and hide their own little secrets for players to find. Shortly into the story, a massive cave-in occurs which reveals a cavern system beneath the City Ruins and adds another layer of verticality to the setting.
It should be noted that it takes a while for machines to aggro on site. Early on, City Machines keep to themselves. 9S even comments on their lack of hostility. Machines only start becoming aggressive as the story progresses and YoRHa’s war starts claiming more lives. The more robots 2B kills, the more they need to adapt. Machines eventually attack on sight, augment their bodies with new weaponry & armor, and actually level scale through their shared Network — preventing common overworld enemies from turning into fodder like in Replicant. Taking advantage of its nature as a sequel, Automata features subtle references to Replicant’s world throughout its level design. The original Facade is actually buried beneath the Desert with only the higher-level buildings and palace peeking through the sands. The Abandoned Factory is also the Junk Heap from Replicant, a detail revealed in the side quest Data Analysis Freak.
One of the most dynamic aspects of Automata’s level design is how it changes between its routes. The original Nier’s relationship with New Game Plus was one of its most endearing aspects. Completing the game once and reloading starts Route B — essentially a repeat of the last act with new cutscenes and context provided for character motivations. The route splits in Nier Replicant exist to subvert JRPG norms by highlighting the discrepancies in perspective between the protagonists and antagonists. The route splits in Nier: Automata is ultimately a continuation of the story. Only Routes A and B run congruent with one another, while Route C functions as an internal sequel.
Playing through Routes A and B back to back only to have the overworld radically changed in Route C creates a deep sense of whiplash that hits the same notes as Replicant’s time skip. The world has fundamentally changed and there is no going back. It all makes for incredibly rich storytelling where each route pulls back a new layer on the narrative. The splits keep the audience actively thinking about the plot and themes in different ways depending on which character is being controlled. More importantly, the routes highlight different philosophical perspectives through its three main characters: 2B, 9S, and A2.
[A]natomy of an Android
While all three protagonists are YoRHa Androids, 2B is the most stereotypically robotic of the bunch and what the audience might expect an inorganic lifeform to act like. She is cold towards allies at a glance and mostly indifferent towards her enemies. 2B dismisses sentimentality and tends to show only the most clinical levels of appreciation. This is only 2B at the surface level, though. Try as she might to prohibit her emotions, 2B’s stoicism is really just a means to bottle up her feelings. She is introspective, but chooses not to engage most of the time. When she actually lets her guard down, 2B can be surprisingly philosophical, especially in regards to her role as a soldier — albeit always maintaining some degree of distance.
2B’s muted perspective is important in letting audiences draw their own conclusions in regards to androids and all the different machine communities on a first playthrough. If Replicant’s twist is that Shades are the true humans, Automata’s is that machines are the new humans. Machines have developed cultures that touch upon all of human history, picking up where mankind left off. But YoRHa demands that all machine life be exterminated so humanity can return home. Either you buy into YoRHa’s propaganda that 2B never questions or you see machines for what they are.
2B herself makes a compelling foil to the original Nier. Nier hates Shades with a burning passion whereas she shows indifference. 2B kills indiscriminately, but only because machines are her designated enemy as a soldier. Which is not to say that she does not hold loyalty towards her mission, but that she approaches violence with little attachment. Automata’s action takes great advantage of the fact that 2B is both an android and one of YoRHa’s top combatants.
Automata’s greatest strength as an action RPG is the sheer variety present. 2B can equip two weapons at once across two sets that can be interchanged, offering easy access to four weapons at once. There are four distinct weapon types, all of which sport unique play styles. Where players equip a weapon matters too, since each one has a set amount of hits for their Light or Heavy combos depending on their level. Weapons also have special buffs, making just the act of setting up your kit fairly customizable. The actual swordplay is fast-paced and encourages constant movement. 2B can quickly dodge in and out of combos, weaving to different enemies on a dime.
Although 2B is more than capable of killing everything with melee attacks, she does have several abilities inherent to being an android. Like Nier was by Grimoire Weiss, 2B is accompanied by a Pod that gives her access to long-range attacks. Most Pod Programs are based on Sealed Verses from Nier Replicant, but a few play into the appropriately more science fiction setting. The only key difference between Pod Programs and Sealed Verses is that Programs keep skills on a cooldown instead of draining MP. Clicking and holding down both analogs triggers a self-destruct sequence which drops 2B to critical health and kills any surrounding foes. You can also lock-on to enemies through your Pod, automatically aiming any Programs for you and keeping the camera focused during combat.
Automata’s analogue of the Word Edit system from Replicant, Plug-in Chips allow players to augment their abilities with an assortment of different buffs. Unlike the Word Edit which was reasonably balanced and only let you equip two buffs per weapon, spell, or ability, Plug-in Chips are very easy to abuse. Each chip has its Cost which takes up physical space in your Storage. While 2B’s Storage is limited early on, it takes little time to raise the max to 128 units. Chips can also be fused into each other to create better variants with potentially less Storage Cost. You can mix and match several chips that have the potential to utterly break combat if paired together with enough foresight.
Offensive Heal recovers health as you deal damage, with Deadly-Heal recovering even more upon enemy death. Continuous Combo keeps combos active while you dodge, turning you into a non-stop killing machine if you equip Resilience or Evade Range to prevent attack stage and increase your dodge range respectively. Plug-in Chips really are just the Word Edit system with no balancing, but it is fun to abuse. Chips are also lost on death and need to be recovered in-game, so there is some risk to keeping your best set equipped.
“May hardship and conflict be forever banished from this world.”
Automata does not hide that machines are sentient like Replicant does with Shades, and unlike with Nier, 2B eventually recognizes that there are no fundamental differences between herself and her enemies. All the same, her mission demands that she continue fighting them. This makes 2B an even deeper foil to Nier. Where Nier never showed any empathy towards Shades, 2B sees machine sentience for what it is: life. Ultimately, this does little to redirect 2B. She has a purpose and her life’s meaning is served For the Glory of Mankind.
Route A introduces Automata’s core themes and conflicts, but really only scratches the surface of the game’s narrative. Key players like Adam and Eve are introduced, but little is offered about them contextually. 2B’s behavior at the end of her route implies much more to her relationship with 9S than is let on, but the game cuts to credits soon after. The conflict with the machines is also never resolved, but that at least ties in thematically with YoRHa as a concept. At the end of the day, Route A is only the tip of the iceberg and foreshadows as much as it misleads.
The fact players spend so much time as 2B suggests her status as the story’s true protagonist, but this ends up far from the case when all is said and done. This does not stop 2B’s presence from being felt throughout the whole game, however. While her role diminishes gradually, she remains the driving force for all the character drama in the last act and is eventually recontextualized into one of the most human androids in Automata. 2B is a YoRHa soldier through and through, for better or worse. This all comes back in a major way in Route C, influencing the rest of 9S and A2’s arcs. 2B has deep loyalty to her ideals and does what needs to be done. Whether that be killing 9S or herself.
Route B frames itself as the other side of 2B’s story. The second playthrough is a repeat of the first wholesale, just this time from 9S’ perspective. Nier Replicant did something similar by framing its second route around Kainé’s arc, but Automata takes things one step further by swapping control from 2B to 9S. Route B is also Automata’s way of lulling audiences who played the original Nier into a false sense of security. In Replicant, Route B is essentially the back half with Route C filling in a few narrative gaps at the very end. Automata’s Route B is only the second-third of the story and Route C directly builds off of narrative threads only 9S was privy to. Anyone who played Nier will expect revelations when the game is still asking questions to be answered.
That said, Route B does offer more context into both YoRHa as an organization and machines as lifeforms, along with radically shaking up gameplay. Combat is not 9S’ forte and it shows in his physical abilities. 9S is a scanner model whose strengths lie specifically in hacking. There are multiple points in Route A where 9S makes off-hand comments about hacking into enemies, but Route B actually lets you play out these sequences. Instead of a heavy attack for his combo, 9S fires out a gold orb that hacks into any machines it makes contact with. This does mean that 9S fights with one weapon at a time instead of two, but hacking makes up for the drawback.
Hacking into an enemy switches combat to an overhead hacking space where control seamlessly transitions from fast-paced swordplay to an overhead shoot ‘em up. While hacking, you take control of a white ship and fire at obstacles to override the machine’s systems. These segments take place in tight arenas, are on a timer, and specifically challenge your reflexes and observational skills in a classically arcade manner. Hacking requires a different set of abilities from traditional battling, but mastering the mechanic trivializes gameplay. Hacking into an enemy almost feels like cheating at times due to how quickly 9S can rip through enemy health with minimal effort. It puts into perspective just how much heavy lifting he was doing in Route A’s background.
Hacking is also just fun to play around with and gets incentivized rather creatively during Route B. Successfully hacking into a machine allows you to either Detonate their body for AoE damage, Subjugate them into a temporary ally, or outright Remote Control them. Different machines have their own playstyles, go ignored by other enemies, and can even hack into restricted machines 9S is otherwise locked out of. Most hacking-related side content requires 9S to hack into doors or chests (often with their own timed mazes), but there are instances where he can dive into the minds of others.
The Wise Machine is an unmarked side quest with no reward and one of the most profound in the game. The quest involves hacking into a suicidal robot’s thoughts who cannot help but contemplate their own existence. Unable to come to terms with all the violence around them, the Wise Machine eventually throws himself to his death in order to free himself from this mortal coil. By this point, Automata is making it painfully clear that machines are experiencing the same spectrum of emotions humans did when they walked the Earth. The Wise Machine also clearly unsettles 9S and starts making him second guess himself, which ties into his development throughout Route B.
9S is an openly emotional character who blatantly ignores the fact that YoRHa prohibits feelings. He actively engages with the world around him unlike 2B and has a deep curiosity that keeps him connected. 9S is also extremely dismissive of robots. He, against all reason, believes machines are emitting words at random. He ignores clear instances of sentience and emotion until it happens enough times where his perception of the “truth” falls apart. Curiosity breaks down his bigotry with time, getting shaken up by Simone’s death and maintaining an amicable enough relationship with Pascal to help him study the old world for the Village’s sake. 9S never feels full empathy for machines, but Route B breaks down his misconceptions for both himself and the audience.
9S’ Route shows that machines have mythology and history, often cutting away to new scenes when revisiting key areas from Route A. The Desert Machines worship a Volcano God who gave them life while the Forest Machines preserve records of their old King and maintain a guarded graveyard to actively memorialize him. Machines have tried all forms of government from monarchies to democracies, delved into academics, and strive to understand the nuances of humanity. But they do not create culture. Machines only imitate human history, miming evolution through their Network and resigning themselves to the same failures.
“A God worth dying for.”
In both routes, machines almost immediately manage to create a more advanced form of life that places them on a higher level of evolution than androids. About to be slaughtered by 2B and 9S, Desert Machines form together to create a makeshift womb, birthing a lifeform in the image of man/androids: Adam. Adam’s conception is not quite birth as we know it, but machines have developed their own form of sustainable reproduction. This is further shown in Adam asexually reproducing his own “brother,” Eve.
Adam is deeply compelled by humanity’s ability to express deep love and inhumane levels of violence, which he considers to be the “riddle of humanity.” Added scenes in Route B show Adam studying the Bible in order to better understand humanity, taking symbolism literally and approaching life from a purely outsider’s perspective. Adam analyzes humanity instead of experiencing it and ends up alien as a result. Compare his behavior with his brother Eve. Where Adam takes life at face value, Eve is defined by his child-like curiosity. Eve has no interest in Adam’s research and openly questions what he comes across (like why Adam named him “Eve” instead of a male biblical name like “Cain” or “Abel” — to which Adam has no reasonable answer for).
Eve wears his emotions on his sleeve and proves that machines are not only capable of relatable human emotion, but are allowed to indulge their feelings on a deeper level than YoRHa’s androids. For how much Eve clearly annoys Adam with his questions, Adam never denies his brother’s time together (so long as he gets his reading done). Adam’s death ends up having a deeply negative effect on Eve, who vows to kill every living being to match his newfound emptiness. Eve loses all meaning without the most important person in his life, a moment that gets bitterly echoed in 9S’ arc come Route C.
As the war between androids and machines only worsens after Adam’s death, Route B starts to sow the seeds for YoRHa’s dissolution — a breakdown only 9S understands the full scope of. Mankind no longer exists and has not existed since shortly after the events of Replicant (something anyone who played the original Nier likely would have suspected by this point). 9S even gains access to files detailing Project Gestalt, humanity’s last-ditch effort for survival that kicked off the events of Replicant. YoRHa’s entire mission is meaningless. There is no end goal. Life needs a purpose to matter so YoRHa inherits mankind’s greatest pastime: war.
Despite this revelation, 9S makes peace with the fact that YoRHa is fighting a pointless battle so long as he has 2B. She strangles him with her bare hands, but 9S never wavers in his devotion to 2B. Their bond only strengthens as she gradually defrosts over the course of the story, letting herself be vulnerable around him — if only for a moment. Route B reinforces that 2B has had genuine affection for 9S the entire time, she just struggles to show it. They form deep solidarity that sits firmly as love. Perhaps not an entirely healthy love, but love nonetheless. Just like Eve, 9S puts all of life’s meaning into a loved one. And just like Eve, the consequences are damning.
[C]onsequences of Humanity
With Routes A and B functioning as a mostly cohesive narrative, Route C presents itself as a quick epilogue setting up a sequel before continuing the story proper (complete with an ending credits that transitions into a new opening sequence for the route). Considering how much Automata changes after Route C, it is fitting that the game acknowledges the shift by creating a clear divide between Routes A/B and what is about to come. Route C is about consequence in every sense — what happens to the main characters after the story is over?
Routes A and B paint Eve’s death as a decisive victory, but it gives YoRHa a clear advantage in a war that was never meant to go beyond perpetual conflict. The Machine Network responds to this imbalance in full force by releasing a “Logic Virus” on the world that specifically targets YoRHa’s forces. Any infected androids go berserk, losing all sense of individuality. 9S is able to stave off his and 2B’s infection by delaying their network syncs to the Bunker earlier in his route, but the rest of YoRHa is systematically wiped out and taken over roughly an hour into Route C.
Machines similarly go haywire, suffering a similar “Red Eye Disease” that borders on zombification. Enemy robots not only become more hostile, they gain new abilities that make them more dangerous in combat. With access to EMP blasts, players can suffer side effects that actually disable your actions and mess with the HUD. Enemies can cloak themselves in visual camouflage or even glitch your audio. These effects are only used by a few key enemies, but they force you to pay closer attention to enemy attacks.
While 9S learns the truth about YoRHa, he fails to tell 2B in time. The next chance he has the opportunity, both are fighting for their lives in a war torpedoing south. Not long after, they get separated and 2B ends up succumbing to the Logic Virus. 9S just found meaning in life by being with 2B and loses her almost immediately. His self-actualization at the end of Route B is bitterly warped into a deconstruction of placing your life’s meaning in a single person. Like Eve, 9S dedicates himself to destruction and vowing to commit machine genocide.
2B’s death itself might be Automata’s standout moment from a game design perspective. Following the Bunker’s destruction, 2B separates herself from 9S as the Logic Virus claws its way back. So as not to further spread infection, 2B accepts her death and searches for an empty place to die. From here, you need to play through 2B’s death march as her body gradually succumbs to corruption. Defenseless and locked out of her weapons, you need to guide a stumbling 2B as enemies chase after her. The screen starts shaking, audio muffles out, and eventually, all the color fades out as the music cuts entirely. Your last act as 2B is silently walking up to two infected YoRHa androids ready to cut you down.
A2 steps in to save 2B and perform a mercy kill so she can at least die with some dignity, but the weight of the death is tied to player control. You guide 2B through her final moments, losing everything that defined her gameplay in the process. 2B is permanently dead. You do not get to control her again for the remainder of the story. This is one of the best instances of player control in the medium and Automata only feeds into the importance of interactivity for the rest of Route C.
Following 2B’s death, players are prompted to choose between playing as A2 or 9S. Character swapping, in general, is a staple of Route C, with gameplay beginning as 2B, briefly jumping to 9S before 2B’s death, and then shuffling between 9S, A2, and even Pascal. The story will actually prompt you to swap between A2 and 9S at multiple points — which is fantastic for replay value and lets the last act play out in a nonlinear fashion — but the narrative flows better by playing A2’s half of the route in its entirety first (especially since it is the longer of the two).
While a bit player in Routes A/B, A2’s sudden spotlight is essential in appreciating the full scope of Automata’s themes. A2 forgoes the allegiance to YoRHa that 2B and 9S share, living & dying by her own agency. She is closed off, but not from her own feelings. A2 lets others influence her and has agency the other protagonists lack, but her life is spent aimlessly killing machines: just like YoRHa. Losing her entire squadron in a false flag operation and being left for dead by Command jaded A2. She still fights on behalf of mankind, but because of her sincere hope for a better world instead of zealous ideology — to preserve humanity as best she can.
A2 subsequently hates machines after fighting them for so long, blaming the deaths of her comrades as much on robots as she does YoRHa. Prior to Route C, A2 hunts both indiscriminately. She only reconsiders her robotic racism after meeting Pascal, and puts aside her pure hatred of YoRHa in 2B’ honor. A2 has the deepest seeded hatred of the three protagonists, but she is also the only character who consistently opens herself to different perspectives. 2B’s death especially gives her life a new direction.
The mercy kill she performs transitions the role of protagonist from 2B to A2. A jaded android who until recently committed themselves to machine genocide and hunting down YoRHa awakens a real humanity after watching 2B suffer the same fate as her squad — left to die in a hopeless situation. Narratively, A2 wields 2B’s sword for the rest of the game, symbolizing just how much of an impact 2B had on her. This is recognized in how A2 reconnects with the Resistance Androids and helps out Pascal’s Village. 2B’s death pushes A2 to confront and overcome her prejudices.
“I’ll be with you before long.”
A2 is a prototype YoRHa model, which is reflected in every facet of her design. A2 wears no clothing and serves no one or nothing but her own beliefs. Without access to the Bunker, Game Over means actual death for A2 (which ends up being the case for 9S later in the route as well). A2 is slightly weaker than 2B, but fast enough where she can chain far more damaging combos in the long run. Her light charge attack is replaced with a dedicated taunt, she briefly turns invisible while dodging, and holding down both analog sticks triggers a Berserker mode that was eventually programmed out of units like 2B and 9S.
A2’s Berserker Mode is a super form that buffs her offense, but nerfs defense and drains health at a rapid pace. B-Mode is meant to be a last-ditch method and it makes sense why later models would lack this ability. All the same, intelligent Plug-in Chip set-ups can more or less negate all of B-Mode’s side effects. A combination of Deadly Heal, Offensive Heal, and Damage Absorb turns A2 into a certified killing machine that replenishes health just as fast as she loses it.
Route C introduces significant overworld changes that notably shift the atmosphere. A gated white Tower of biblical proportions looms in the center of the City Ruins, a testament to the machines’ growing presence. All lights at the Amusement Park go out while the attractions themselves lie decaying. Morbidly, Zombie Machines overrun the park, with a similar phenomenon occurring with the Forest Machines who now mindlessly vow revenge for their king while their bodies and minds clearly glitch out. Route C pushes machines through their own extinction event just like the plague that wiped out humans in Nier Replicant’s backstory.
The end of the world hits Pascal especially hard, who gets his first playable segment mere moments before his villagers succumb to robotic infection. Playing as Pascal puts him on the same footing as the YoRHa androids. After all, there are no fundamental differences between them as lifeforms. They both model their behaviors after humans and represent a new normal long after mankind has left the Earth. The timing just adds to the tragedy. By the time A2 makes it to the village to help, you have no choice but to put down friendly NPCs that have been around all game.
Pascal’s heartbreak is so intense that he renounces his pacifism to protect the village’s surviving children — a meaningless gesture since all the children end up committing suicide out of pure fear. What follows is one of the heaviest sequences in the game and a profound use of player interactivity. Unable to deal with the guilt and trauma, Pascal asks you to end his life. You can either erase his memories, kill him where he stands, or walk away and leave Pascal to his memories (with his character bio and the credits sequence suggesting he kills himself soon after).
Pascal is one of the most developed characters in the story and his fate is entirely dependent on your values as a person. Is wiping his mind so he can still be alive a mercy? Is Pascal’s life really not worth living after this? Who are you to be judge, jury, and executioner? All three choices are valid, with their own tragic outcomes. Whether it be a physical or personality death, Pascal’s demise signals the end of machine life here on Earth and the consequence of teaching humanity without understanding it. The mere concept of fear is what drives the children to suicide, something Pascal taught without contextualizing.
“I’d best go see the world for myself instead of burying my head in books.”
As A2 deals with the collapse of society, 9S opens the way to the final dungeon. Gameplay-wise, 9S’ half of the route involves tracking down three Keys to unlock the Tower — each one locked behind a mix of hacking and combat gauntlets with light platforming. Narratively, the focus is on his deteriorating psyche. 9S’ side of Route C is considerably darker than A2’s thematically. Where A2 goes through character development, 9S goes through character regression in a raw depiction of depression. The side quest Gathering Keepsakes ends with 9S making a grave for 2B in a field of Lunar Tears and suggesting an inherently suicidal motivation.
9S is actually present when A2 kills 2B, but he lacks the full context to understand that this is a mercy kill. All he sees is A2 murdering the one person keeping him going. The Logic Virus makes him turn his back on all the empathy he learned for machines throughout the story. His bigotry rises back up with a vengeance, blinding him to a point where he will never understand that what A2 was doing to 2B was nothing but an act of mercy. That machines are just as much victims as androids.
Pursuing the Tower is the final nail in the coffin for 9S as he ends up learning too much for his heart to handle. Androids and machines actually are the same on a foundational level. YoRHa Black Boxes are structurally similar to Machine Cores. This is a sign that they are both equal lifeforms, but 9S cannot reconcile that he is fundamentally a machine as it goes against his firmest held beliefs. He discovers that all traces of YoRHa will be erased from existence once enough combat data has been collected. 9S was already questioning his existence and now he finds out his life is so meaningless that the future will treat him like he never existed at all.
Route C is punch after punch for 9S, from 2B’s death all the way to A2 telling him the truth about 2B before the final battle. 2B is actually an execution-type model designated specifically to kill 9S should he learn too much about YoRHa (something the script suggests has happened a number of times, which ancillary material confirms). While this twist seems very sudden, E-type models are first brought up in the Route B side quest, Amnesia, where an E unit forgets that they killed their own friend per their duties. More importantly, the twist recontextualizes 2B and 9S’ relationship.
Playing through the game makes it painfully clear that 2B genuinely cares about 9S, but this understandably casts doubt on their dynamic. A2’s revelation is a twist of the knife that adds a layer of abuse to the only meaningful relationship in 9S’ life. They loved each other, but 2B has murdered him countless times and routinely wiped his memory of this fact so never to lose him. 9S already has a toxic view of 2B following her death — desperately missing her but also wishing he could have killed her himself, suggesting a possessive attitude towards her personhood (especially considering how passionately she strangles him at the end of Routes A/B) — but this pushes him over the edge.
Although nowhere as emotionally heavy as 9S’ side, A2 is privy to her fair share of revelations once she enters the Tower as well. Along with getting extra information on Project Gestalt as a nod to Replicant, A2 learns that the machines are planning to fire a direct attack on the moon. While humans may not exist anymore, humanity’s history and records are being preserved as data on the moon. It may never see use, but it proves that mankind existed and did something with their lives. Maybe even meaningful.
Both A2 and 9S meet the personification of the Machine Network in the Tower, but the Terminals — presenting themselves as young girls in red dresses with deep masculine voices — torment A2 specifically. The Terminals believe machines to be wholly superior to androids because they share a hivemind and individuality, which naturally brings them closer to humanity in their eyes.
More than a hivemind, the Terminals are the arbiter of machine evolution and influence the Machine Network with full authority. The Terminals appear in several Route B cutscenes during “blink and you’ll miss it” moments, showing that they were watching the story unfold. The Terminals believe hardship leads to progress so they instigate conflict between androids and machines throughout the game. Through this forever-war, the Machine Network learns from its enemies and strengthens itself in response. Where machines disconnected from the network adopt culture, the Terminals simply take in information. The machines are Eve and the Terminals are Adam, neither one truly human, but only one remotely close.
Flying in the face of the Terminals’ manufactured conflict, the only way to defeat the boss is to stop fighting back. Without any combat to analyze, the Terminals’ consciousness saturates and the individuality within the hivemind starts arguing amongst itself. Almost immediately, the Terminals devolve into factions and wipe themselves out. Ironically, the Terminals are at their most human when the individuality inside their consciousness is given freedom to act outside the hivemind — leading to nothing but conflict.
The [D]eath of Everyone(?)
Gameplay in the Tower swaps between A2 and 9S simultaneously, peaking during the Ko-Shi & Ro-Shi fight where control jumps after enough damage has been done to each character’s respective boss. They ultimately end up working alongside each other for the penultimate battle, the game seamlessly swapping control between A2 and 9S mid-combat — sometimes even mid-combo. A fun gameplay gimmick as is, the swapping places both characters on equal footing for the final battle while building tension thanks to their conflicting goals.
When the dust clears, players need to choose between stopping the machines’ launch as A2 or letting the rocket fire at the moon as 9S, ensuring humanity’s total erasure. Picking A2 leads to Ending C. A2 preserves what little is left of humanity on the off chance that there might be some hope for humanity’s future, even if just to be referenced by whoever comes next, dying fulfilled. In order to honor 2B’s last wishes, A2 sacrifices herself to give 9S a second chance at life — the last scene closing in on 9S’ sword and bag, a sign that A2’s actions were not in vain.
While Ending C is a thematically appropriate conclusion — 2B’s humanity inspiring 9S to put down his sword through A2 — Ending D feels like the story’s natural conclusion. Thinking back on 2B in a moment of weakness, A2’s humanity gets her killed while 9S commits suicide on 2B’s sword. As he dies, 9S realizes that the machines do not want to destroy humanity’s data, but instead send their own ark into outer space with their own records, following in mankind’s footsteps one final time. He sees Adam asking him to join them on their journey with no malice, helping him see in clear terms that he never had a reason to hate machines. Even after everything 9S did, Adam holds no contempt for his “enemy.”
“Not everything has to have an answer.”
Looking to human history for guidance will lead to suffering without active studying. Pascal researches the old world as much as he can to adopt the best aspects for Village. Other machine communities just imitate what mankind did before, right down to the very same failures. The Terminals are a self-contained representation of this phenomenon with hubris to spare. In the end, machines are so far gone that they have no choice but to send their recorded history into outer space like humanity did thousands of years ago, all to preserve the fact they existed.
The only difference between humans, machines, and androids is who created them. The wars machine lifeforms fought — both robots and androids — may not have had meaning, but their lives did. That much is clear by all the tragedy rooted in Route C. 2B, 9S, and A2 are all victims of their own humanity even if they might not recognize it as such. Automata is a sequel to a game that was deeply subversive, tragic, and mindful of what it means to be human. Its core themes expand ideas that were introduced or touched upon in Replicant and tread more ground as a result. YoRHa Androids are not prohibited to express their emotions, but that cannot stop them from feeling, empathizing, or suffering.
Humans are not meant to suppress their emotions. We need to communicate to prevent conflict. We are inherently violent creatures, but we can overcome our nature and add to the world’s beauty. The meaning of life is something we need to find and come to terms with ourselves. Even if coming to terms means accepting that your life’s meaning cannot be found. 9S is still looking for meaning if you choose to have him leave with Adam in Ending D, but the pursuit of meaning is in itself purpose.
Endings C and D wrap up A2 and 9S’ arcs satisfyingly, but one key player is still left unaccounted for: you. Nier: Automata utilizes player control and agency better than most games, but Ending E is a bonafide victory lap of interconnectivity. After gaining free will in a show of their own developed humanity, 2B’s Pod refuses to delete YoRHa’s data and breaks down the fourth wall to ask for your help during the credits. Realizing that this is the world with the people they cherish, Pod-042’s plan would bring the three androids back to life and give them all an opportunity to live free. Nothing has changed and things might wind up exactly the same way, but at least they have a chance at their own future now.
If you agree to help, you take control of a white hacking ship and need to defeat the whole credits sequence. This is a long process that feels almost impossible alone and will result in multiple deaths, but this is expected. While it is possible to beat the credits sequence in one go, dying shows words of encouragement from real players. Dying enough times summons these players to rescue you, shooting in-sync and taking any hits that would otherwise kill you. All these players chose to give up their save data to help other players struggling through Ending E’s credits and, when all is said and done, the Pods ask you to make the same sacrifice.
You can renege on erasing your data and still get Ending E, but committing to deletion gives the conclusion so much more weight. Destroying your data to save YoRHa’s data, history, and life is a powerful gesture that ties into the story’s themes. It’s easy to dismiss the act as a meaningless expression of solidarity and sacrifice since this is just a video game, but what is a video game but one of the most intimate forms of art? This is a medium that demands hours of your time, engagement, and attention. It asks for physical skill and mental dexterity in a way movies and books cannot. Giving up something precious that you dedicated hours to makes the sacrifice meaningful and it has a tangible outcome: you help someone else complete their game.
Being human means finding your own meaning and living through life’s hardships. Being human is suffering conflict after conflict while holding onto the hope for a better tomorrow. Being human is being cruel, kind, and incomprehensible. Being human is helping others even if it ultimately does not matter — because the gesture itself is what gives the act meaning. Nier: Automata is a masterpiece of game design and artistic expression. Addicting gameplay plays on interconnectivity to the point of becoming heartbreaking. Characters who begin the game bluntly artificial wind up painfully human. Automata is a story about finding meaning, being human, and using everything inherent to gaming as a medium to make you rethink your own humanity. The best video games leave us thinking for days on end, but Nier: Automata will stay with you for a lifetime.