NieR: Automata is an action role-playing game in which players take the role of combat androids from the YoRHa units across an open world environment. In addition to standard navigation on foot, using a special item allows the player to summon a wild animal to ride, and in some scenarios pilot a flying mech to fight enemies. As with the previous game, during navigation in some environments, the camera shifts from its standard third-person view to an overhead or side-scrolling perspective. Some areas also include platforming elements, requiring the player to navigate via jumping between platforms or over obstacles. The player can complete side quests for non-playable characters found throughout the world. Shops available in hub locations allow the player to purchase items, including consumables which recover health.
Combat is action-based, with the player fighting enemies in real-time in a variety of in-game environments. During battle, the player can use light attacks—which are fast but weak—and heavy attacks—slow and more powerful. The player can evade enemy attacks, and with successfully timed button presses, can gain temporary invulnerability and launch a counterattack which deals heavy damage. The player is also assisted by a Pod, a flying robot assistant which launches customizable ranged attacks varying from simple gunfire to heavy-hitting hammer attacks. Players can access four different weapon types in battle: short swords, long swords, bracers, and spears. While attacking, the player can alternate between both weapon types and attacks to create combination attacks. Attacks with different weapon types can also be charged and launched for increased damage. Weapon Stories, a recurring element in both NieR and the Drakengard series, where weapons found throughout the world have unique stories attached to them, are also featured.
As the players progress, they gain experience levels, increasing their health, defense, and attack power. Character progression is handled through chips, items installed onto the player characters that modify their attributes; these chips provide benefits ranging from altering the HUD, to granting status buffs. The number of chips that can be installed at once are limited by how many slots are available. Chips can either be purchased from shops, or picked up from defeated enemies. If the player dies, they will respawn at their previous save point. The player can then find their original body, and either retrieve items and experience left with it to gain a bonus, or attempt to repair it. Depending on the player’s success, the body is either resurrected as a temporary ally, or as an enemy the player can defeat for an extra bonus. With online features enabled, the bodies of other players can also be retrieved or resurrected at the location in which they died.