Content Warning: existential/body horror
What’s it about? The androids of YoRHa exist to do battle with the machine lifeforms on Earth, so that humanity might one day return to the planet. 2B is one such android, who bears the weight of remembering the many times her body has been destroyed and replaced—and the times she has watched it happen to those she cares about.
NieR: Automata is not a work that should be adapted into a passive medium. It’s one thing to have spin-offs and side stories (I’m a big fan of YoRHa Boys, actually), but much of what made the original Automata special is directly tied to its interactivity. The weight of android disposability hits differently when you have to retrieve items from your own corpse after dying and see the bodies of other players littered across the battlefield.
Watching 30 seconds of a sad widdle animated robot try to revive its dead parent with a bucket of oil in the first five minutes of the premiere doesn’t have the same impact as being forced to control the tiny widdle robot with suddenly slow, rudimentary tank controls in contrast to the flowing action of the previous ten hours you spent carving up enemies just like it. Automata’s central themes about “what makes someone human, really” are far from new, and torn from their original context, I worry that they’ll simply come across as trite.
But it’s here, and so we must proceed.
After a brief prologue, the bulk of this episode is essentially a very pretty Let’s Play of the game’s opening mission, and its combat scenes have all the painful hallmarks of trying to adapt too literally. 2B’s scenes follow the beats of each combat encounter in a way that feels oddly disjointed rather than breaking away to reinterpret the events with a more streamlined linear crescendo. The machinery—not just the robots but the androids’ flight gear—feels poorly integrated with its surroundings rather than deliberately uncanny. While Masuyama Ryouji is no stranger to animating action sequences, I can’t help but feel his lack of expertise in the director’s chair. At least, I suppose, there’s only one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it panty shot while 2B is flipping acrobatically through the scenery.
There are a few neat flourishes, such as the visualization of 9S’s hacking and the monochrome scenes that open and close the episode, but the premiere overall can’t escape feeling a bit stiff. I’m too irrevocably poisoned by Yoko Taro brainworms to truly imagine it with fresh eyes—supporters of the site may recall me waxing at length about why Nier: Replicant is my favorite game—so I’m very curious as to whether it feels as checklist-faithful to a newcomer as it does to me. But I have trouble imagining the game’s entire narrative unfolding satisfyingly in 12 episodes at the current pace.
This, then, is where I must add in one caveat. Yoko Taro is credited as working alongside the director as series composer, which leaves some questions as to whether this will truly be a straightforward adaptation. If that’s the case? …Well, it won’t be much good for newbies, but videogame anime rarely manage to capture the appeal of their origins anyway. Yoko Taro is what we in the industry might call “a massive shitposter,” who loves experimenting with divergent plot threads and putting additional lore for his works in places like Final Fantasy XIV event raids. The origins of Nier itself stemmed from a joke ending in 2003’s Drakengard, after all, so half the appeal of following Yoko’s work is waiting for him to pull some weird shit.
There’s a hint of that possibility in the foregrounding of 2B’s speech about repetition, the “Ver. 1.1A” in the title, and the (adorable, completely worth the price of entry) puppet show at the end. It remains to be seen how well Masuyama could convey such a departure, but it’s an exciting possibility that I want to believe in. Because you’d better believe I’m going to keep watching this. Brainworms, remember?
My next big question will be whether Crunchyroll will be including a dub, seeing as 9S is voiced (wonderfully) by Kyle McCarley, the man that Crunchyroll recently screwed over for broaching the topic of negotiating for a voice actor union. That’s a fun thing to remember as we move into a brand new season.