Become as gods.
It’s no secret nowadays that the Switch version of any multiplatform game will typically be the worst performing version. Alongside this fact comes the fear that the game will run so poorly that it’s hardly functional or that it will need to substantially compromise its art style in order to run. This state of things is what makes NieR Automata on Switch so impressive; so little has been compromised to make this game work on a handheld that you might not even know what’s different if you’ve never played it before, creating a golden opportunity for Switch players to experience what I believe is one of the best games ever made.
In NieR Automata, you play as members of YoRHa, a team of elite androids created to defend humanity from machine lifeforms created by alien invaders. Humanity has long since retreated to a stronghold on the moon, leaving the androids and machines as the only intelligent life on Earth fighting a proxy war on behalf of creators that neither side has ever met. As to be expected from a game written and directed by Yoko Taro, things aren’t as simple as they seem.
It’s difficult to talk specifics without going into spoilers, but in a way the specifics aren’t what’s important here. The important part of NieR’s narrative is its focus on more emotional and philosophical themes that left a lasting impact on me when I first played it half a decade ago. It’s not preachy or pretentious; the ideas on display are fairly straightforward such as “what does it mean to be alive” or “does death have any meaning,” but the focus on robots in the game’s story means that it isn’t as concerned with asking the questions as it is with showing characters struggling with the answers. The journey gets deeply personal at times, and few games have ever hit me quite as hard with its emotional gut punches as NieR manages to do five years later.
Although the game’s story is the reason it’s so beloved, NieR Automata is no slouch in the gameplay department either. Automata was developed by Platinum Games, and it should feel familiar to anyone who’s played their high octane action games before. Combat is built around big combos where you alternate between light and heavy attacks to rack up damage on opponents. In the middle of a combo you can also tap a button to swap to a secondary weapon loadout, completely changing your moveset based on which weapons you have equipped. Your light and heavy attacks each have a dedicated weapon attached to them, so you have plenty of versatility in how you want to approach fights or change up your strategy.
Speaking of versatility, the equipment system in NieR Automata also gives you a lot of room to get creative with its Plug-In Chips system. Plug-In Chips offer a wide range of buffs and abilities; some are straight upgrades to stats like your damage or speed, and some give entirely new effects like an auto-heal when you avoid taking damage or enabling the ability to counter attack. Each Plug-In Chip takes up a certain amount of memory, meaning you’ll need to think carefully about which chips to include in your build to optimize both your combat and your memory use. If you want a bit of extra risk vs. reward you can even turn off basic parts of the HUD in order to free up some extra memory for more powerful chips.
So, just how well does it run on Switch? The biggest obvious change is that the game has been locked to a 30fps cap, cutting the framerate in half. The good news is that it actually manages to keep up that 30fps the majority of the time. Some of the bigger open areas cause the framerate to dip occasionally—the field across the canyon from the abandoned mall in particular seemed to be the worst offender for whatever reason—but substantial, noticeable dips are rare. Resolution is much the same story; Automata targets the maximum resolutions of 1080p in docked and 720p in handheld, and it does a pretty good job of hitting those resolutions pretty often. The dynamic resolution does kick in to keep performance smooth every now and then, but this never gets bad enough to sacrifice visual clarity very much.
The closest thing I can find to a genuine problem with the port is that some animations weirdly take longer than they did on other platforms. The most noticeable examples are the intentional slowdown effect when you take critical damage, the appearance of text on the pause menus, and the transition into the hacking minigame. I don’t know for sure what’s going on here, but I suspect that these animations are tied to the framerate, and the decrease from 60fps to 30fps causes them to run slower. The bright side is that these animations were so short to begin with that I honestly think that if you’ve never played the game on another platform you won’t even notice that anything is wrong.
NieR Automata is one of my favorite games ever made. I was nervous about how it would hold up on Switch, especially given how troublesome its PC port was at launch, and I am incredibly happy to have been wrong to worry. This might be the best third-party Switch port I’ve ever played, which makes it incredibly easy to recommend this game to anyone who has never played it before. There are simply no two ways about it: NieR Automata was a triumph of design in 2017, and it is a triumph of porting big games to Switch in 2022.