A Nier Miss
RPGamers, I apologize in advance for what you’re about to read. There’s a conflict within me right now, between my gamer and game reviewer halves, and all because of Square Enix and Cavia’s latest title, Nier. The game reviewer in me is screaming at me to recognize Nier‘s numerous flaws, and they are numerous. The environments are bland and poorly rendered, the gameplay is derivative, there’s a lot of repetition in the quests and dungeons, and little about the game really stands out as being truly inspired. And yet, Nier is, quite simply, the most fun I’ve had with a video game all year, and that’s counting both Mass Effect 2 and Final Fantasy XIII. As a game reviewer, it’s important to be able to weigh a game’s merits against its faults, and doing that, as the game reviewer in me wants to do, Nier couldn’t really be called much more than a decent game. But I can’t bring myself to do that. Nier transcends its less than stellar individual elements and becomes something much grander. The gamer in me has won this battle, and he’s the one writing this review.
Nier‘s riddle-drenched story begins in 2049, where a haggard and run-down man is battling strange, shimmering monsters in a post-apocalyptic city, all to protect his sickly daughter, Yonah. Outnumbered and outmatched, he calls on the help of a mysterious book that grants him dark, magical powers, and helps him defeat the horde of foes threatening his child. With the enemies dispatched, the game fast-forwards thirteen-hundred years to a quaint, medieval-styled village, where the same man and child are living, seemingly ignorant to everything that the player has just witnessed. The player takes control of this nameless man (although no default name is given, one can assume he is the titular Nier), and begins a quest to find a cure for his daughter’s illness.
Accompanying him on this journey is Grimoire Weiss, a cynical British hardcover who aids Nier by allowing him to use dark magic. Nier is also joined by Kainé, a foul-mouthed, scantily clad warrior woman, and Emil, a boy with cursed eyes that turn anything he looks at to stone. Nier‘s storyline is actually one of the few aspects of the game that truly stands out as impressive. Although the game is slow to reveal the secrets of the world, the interactions between the characters are among the most entertaining aspects of the game. More importantly, they’re not limited to the main storyline, either. The game has dozens of side quests that can be undertaken, and the majority of them feature their own self-contained stories, some even extending into new quests later in the game. As you progress through these quests, conversations between the characters occur in real-time as you travel, providing each with its own sense of importance and plenty of motivation to complete it.
The characters themselves are all likable, as well, particularly Nier himself, who is surprisingly not the dim-witted barbarian his appearance would suggest. In fact, he’s a surprisingly caring parent with a lot of hard-earned wisdom at his disposal. His blunt but non-aggressive personality meshes wonderfully with Weiss’s cynical charm, and the conversations the two have throughout the game feel truly authentic. When Emil and Kainé join the party, their personalities resonate equally well, creating a group of diverse characters that feel like real people.
Finally, the game’s story doesn’t even end when you beat the game. After the credits roll, a new game plus option becomes available that lets you replay the second half of the game in order to acquire new endings. The new game plus includes new story elements, and they begin immediately with a series of short stories about Kainé as soon as you load the clear data. There are four endings in total, and one must complete the game multiple times in order to see them all, as each one only becomes available on subsequent playthroughs.
The gameplay is where Nier gets a bit unusual. On the surface, it appears to be a fairly straight-forward God of War-style action game. However, the world is expansive and open-ended like a Zelda game. Then there’s the side quest structure that resembles online games like World of Warcraft. Then there are enemies that fire bursts of magical, patterned attacks that resemble SHMUP games. Oh, there are also areas where the camera is fixed to the side to allow for side-scrolling platforming. I should also mention the Harvest Moon-style farming fields. Oh, and the haunted mansion where everything becomes gray-scale and the camera is fixed like a Resident Evil game. Then there’s the top-down, wide-angle dungeon that resembles Diablo, and even an entire area dedicated to text-based short stories with occasional player input like an old-timey adventure game.
In other words, Nier is all over the place, and this is where the contention between my gamer and reviewer selves arises. None of the individual bits of gameplay are particularly imaginative, and although each is produced well, none of them stand out as amazing. While this would normally work out to a fairly mediocre game, I would prefer to liken it to a buffet table. Sure, the food you get isn’t going to be as good as a single, focused meal, but there’s just so many options and so much there that it really doesn’t matter if it’s only good, not great. Nier gives you a little bit of everything, and because of that, it’s a blast to play.
For the most part, Nier is focused on its combat, and of all the elements at play here, it does stand out as the most polished. Although not particularly innovative, the game controls splendidly and it’s fast, engaging, and even a bit tactical, particularly during boss fights. To start, Nier is able to make use of three types of weapons: one-handed swords, two-handed swords, and spears (though for the first half of the game, he’s limited to only one-handed swords). Each of these weapons has its strengths and weaknesses. Two-handed swords are powerful weapons that deal enormous amounts of damage and strike a wide area. Unfortunately, they’re also very slow and cumbersome, leaving you open to attack. Spears are able to deal similar damage to two-handed swords, and strike much faster, but can only attack the area directly in front of you, leaving your back open and making them a poor choice when surrounded. One-handed swords are by far the most versatile, providing fast strikes and a wide range of attack, but they do much less damage than the other two weapon types.
Weiss’s dark magic forms Nier’s second line of offense. One of the nice aspects of the game is that Nier learns all of his spells in the first half of the game, and has access to all of them throughout the second, ensuring that none of them become relegated to end-game content only. The spells are all unique and have different functions, and choosing which ones to have at your disposal allows you to customize your character to a degree. Different situations call for different spells, but the Dark Lance spell, the second one you learn, is almost universally important as the primary method of dealing ranged damage. Each spell also has a secondary function. While you can quickly cast it by pressing the button it’s assigned to, holding it down will allow most to charge up, improving their effects. During some charge-ups, time actually slows down, allowing you to adjust your aim if needed.
With these two fighting styles at your disposal, combat plays out much like God of War. Nier is able to block and dodge, and combat moves quickly and involves a lot of dodging and fast attacking. In the latter half of the game, enemies with armor begin to appear, and defeating these foes requires more than just spamming attacks. Armor is easily broken by magical attacks, which makes combining magic and physical assaults the most important aspect of the game. Boss fights also stand out as particularly impressive. They are all grand, large-scale conflicts, and require a bit of thinking as well as typical action-game tactics. A few bosses even take place across massive areas and involve a lot of moving from place to place in order to defeat. In one memorable encounter, Emil keeps a boss busy while Nier rushes across the dungeon in order to get above and behind the foe. Between fight phases, an impressive battle cutscene occurs, providing a smooth and exciting transition, and each battle is concluded with incredible displays of magic that range from spectacular to downright brutal.
Nier also features two customization tools that allow players to improve Nier’s capabilities. The first is a simple weapon-upgrading system. By collecting components and taking them to the proper NPC, weapons can be improved to deal more damage and boost magical power. The second and more interesting tool is the “word edit” system. Words are randomly dropped by defeated shades, and provide a wide variety of effects. Each weapon and spell in the game, and even the simple “block” and “dodge” commands, can be modified with two words each. These words can apply status effects like paralysis or poison to attacks, improve damage or defense, or even increase the rate of item drops or experience gain. Although there are dozens of different words in the game, each belongs to a different subset that provides varying levels of improvement in one area, making the actual number of effects fairly limited. Even so, it provides a bit of welcome customization.
Where Nier disappoints the most is with its visuals. Although not completely awful, the environments in particular are lacking in detail. The grass textures are boring and ugly, and most of the buildings and structures are bland, flat, and overly simplistic. Despite this, the game’s world manages to capture a certain beauty that defies its dull design, especially when viewed from a distance. The draw distance for environmental details is quite impressive, and the sense of scale some of the areas provide is terrific. The rusted, half-collapsed bridges that can be seen in the Northern Plains and in Seafront are impressive landmarks, and some of the areas deep within the Junk Heap are remarkably huge. And love it or hate it, the character design is certainly unique. The shades in particular are a terrifically cohesive design that covers a broad spectrum of different enemies. They all have the same shimmering, yellow-black appearance, but come in many different varieties.
The audio, on the other hand, is absolutely fantastic, and this is the one area that Nier truly sets itself apart in. The soundtrack is beautiful, focusing heavily on strings and foreign vocals. Each piece is not only memorable, but perfectly sets the tone of each area, and the songs change at certain points to reflect the evolving story. I can say without hesitation that Nier has the single best soundtrack I have heard this year. The voice acting is also excellent. Although it falters at times when the dialogue slips into JRPG territory, for the most part it is fantastic. In particular, Grimoire Weiss’s cynical British drawl matches his character perfectly.
When all we knew about Nier was from screenshots and strange reports from Japan about hermaphroditic characters, I had originally written it off as one I could safely skip. Indeed, had I not been sent a copy, I would have skipped it, and as a result I would have missed out on what has become my favorite game of the year so far. This is a game that I simply could not put down, and in fact actively put off beating it, even going so far as to complete some of the more tedious side quests because I did not want it to end. If ever there were proof of the old adage, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” Nier is a shining example. While I cannot say for certain whether or not everyone will enjoy it, I can say that everyone should at least give it a try. Rent it. Borrow it. Just find some way to try it. If you’re like me, this is a game that you’ll regret missing out on.
Terrific characters and story
Much better than the sum of its parts
No single element of gameplay stands out as impressive