Nier Automata for Switch is a miracle port

My Switch port hype cycle has become painfully repetitious in the years since the hybrid handheld-console was first released. A game I’m interested in gets announced for it. I become excited to finally have it in a portable form, kicking off months of anticipation and build-up. And then, when I play it, I’m left underwhelmed. There have been exceptions, of course, but this disappointment has largely been the norm. Thankfully, Nier Automata is one such exception.

It’s honestly remarkable that Nier Automata’s Switch version achieves this. As time has gone on, I’ve found myself less and less likely to make Switch my platform of choice for games that ship on several. The release of Valve’s Steam Deck, which is home to a slew of great RPGs, hasn’t helped this. As a result, when Automata was announced, I raised an eyebrow. It seemed a port destined to disappoint. And yet, here I am, as RPG Site’s unofficial Switch Port Nerd, able to say five wonderful little words:

This is a miracle port.

The developers of this port bothered to use all of the system’s features, even if they didn’t need to. They went above and beyond.

I don’t get how Square Enix got a game like Nier Automata looking and running this well on what is undeniably outdated hardware - it feels like there is magic at play. PlatinumGames has struggled to get less ambitious games running this well, the best example coming being its Nintendo-published action-adventure Astral Chain. That game was designed for Switch too, so to see Automata outclass it was something I’d never expect in a million years. 

This piece is going to talk about the Switch version of Nier Automata on a mechanical level. The techy stuff. If you want to read about the game in full, as a game and as a work of art, I’d suggest you read Josh’s glowing 10/10 review from way back in 2017. For what it’s worth, I mostly agree with Josh’s verdict - this is a truly special game. And if you haven’t played it before, and don’t have any other platforms to play it on, this port mostly gets a glowing recommendation.

I don’t know what the target resolution is, but as James said in his preview piece earlier this month, it’s not too far off what the PS4 could achieve. It puts out a crisp image, especially during cutscenes. Textures have taken a downgrade if you really look out for them, but on my OLED model Switch I found it to be a high quality visual experience. The pop-in that typically mars open world Switch games is far less of an issue here thanks to an impressive draw distance. Grass load in is mostly unnoticeable, same with textures. The few loading times that exist are also reasonable in my experience. There’s a long load upon booting the game up, but that’s really it. 

I played most of the game undocked, because this is likely the reason many people are looking to check this version of the game out. Switch fans are used to the concessions that need to be made to get games running on the machine. If you’re looking for the highest resolution possible running at a perfect 60 FPS, you were probably never going to bother with the switch port anyway. 30 FPS is something I’m willing to deal with if it means I can play a game like this on the go (or let’s be honest here, in bed). Automata hits this easily most of the time, with occasional dips when things get hectic. While I have no way to calculate the actual performance, those dips don't seem go go less that 20 fps at their worst, and that was only during special finisher attacks. What I was most worried about was how it would perform in the open world, but that worry was unfounded. In both ways to play, performance is quite good.

Despite being a Platinum Action game with rather flashy combat, Automata’s main draw for me has always been the open world and story. I’m glad combat holds up well, and the game is a lot of fun, but this port goes to show you can afford to cut the framerate in half without ruining the Automata experience. Despite not running as well as its main console counterpart, the feeling of speed has been kept mostly intact. 

Outside of the new costumes (which were not available during the review period), there are some unique new gimmick features exclusive to this version. I was quite surprised to find out that this version had motion controls via the joycons - something which feels like a generally under-utilized feature of the platform. When playing with both Joycons the left one can be used to dash or flip, and the right can be used to swing either of your weapons depending on the direction. Most people probably won’t use this, and it's entirely optional, but I’m glad they bothered including it. If playing Undocked they also recreated rubbing the touchpad on a dualshock to pet your Pod with the Switch touch screen. The developers of this port bothered to use all of the system’s features, even if they didn’t need to. They went above and beyond.

This port might be a miracle, but it isn’t perfect. I noticed one extreme visual bug in the Ruined City when switching from Docked to Undocked. The lighting system began to freak out, rapidly changing every single second. It’s the sort of flashing that could be of medical concern to certain users, and so seems like a pretty big deal that’ll need to be patched. All water stopped rendering as well, causing the tiny bodies of water to empty. The only way I was able to return it to normal was by restarting the game. I’ve only been able to find this bug once, but considering the game has no autosave this could lead to problems losing progress if you can’t afford to make your way back to a save point. If you suffer from Epilepsy, it might be worth waiting for Square to address this in a patch.

Outside of that (possibly glaring) issue, this port might be one of the best PS4 to Switch conversions I’ve played. In the short time I’ve had to revisit Nier Automata on Switch, I’ve realized I could easily replay the whole thing like this in my spare time. Even if you've played it before, this could be the ideal version to kick back and re-experience the story, or mop up any of the multiple endings you missed first time out. For newcomers, it's a perfect entrypoint to the series. It’s a comfy experience that I’d recommend to newcomers and fans alike who aren’t too picky about needing their games running on a handheld at 1080p 60 FPS.

There are certainly better ways to play this game, and for cheaper, but if Switch is your console of choice this is worth your time. I don’t know how the porting team pulled it off, but if the Switch really is here to stay I’d like to see them take on more ambitious projects.