Nier is a strange beast. Developed by Cavia and published by Square Enix, it is an open-world third-person action role-playing game set in a distant future where mankind finds itself yet again on the verge of extinction. The remaining pockets of humanity are under constant threat from shades, vicious creatures that appear out of the darkness, and the deadly Black Scrawl virus. Nier, the game’s namesake, is the father of a young girl who has come down with the deadly disease, Yonah. During his search for a cure, he will be pitted against the Shadowlord and his shades, as well as unravel the mystery of man’s dark past, near future, and the melancholic world that remains. An excellent cast, fantastic writing, and novel storytelling devices buoys an adventure that would otherwise be ruined by archaic mechanics, unfortunate design choices, and, of all things, blandness.
For what Nier delivers, Cavia did themselves no favors by creating one of the worst beginnings of any game I have ever played. The opener, set in modern times, initially reminded me of The Road: a father searches for food in a world brought down by an unknown cataclysm, with the only sight being rubble blanketed by a constantly falling snow. Soon, however, the initial intrigue wears off as you’re tasked with fighting wave after wave of shades, without pause and with little instruction. Combat is fast, the magic lock-on system is stiff, and the endless hordes make it all seem disparagingly unwieldy. After dispatching dozens of waves, an equally frustrating boss battle finally occurred that required fighting an uncooperative camera and control scheme in addition to attacking a particular spot before time runs. If you don’t beat the countdown, it recuperates a significant amount of health and renews its attack. I had actually began to think that I had encountered a glitch, as I couldn’t imagine a developer actually putting a player through that; twenty minutes is a long time to flail wildly with so little purpose or direction. And to add a little salt to the wound, this bit looks notably poorer than the rest of the game with blurry and drab(er) textures. Just as I was losing heart, the sequence ended and I began my adventure again … 1,300 years in the future. “Ah, here we go.”
I’m glad I stuck it out. Very glad, actually. Few titles have as interesting a cast and as good of writing as Nier. This is a one of those rare examples where the writing manages to elevate a game beyond its components. Very little else of the game stands out: the graphics are so-so, the combat system slightly above average, and the areas limited. Some of it, namely the strained repetition and numerous lackluster side missions, is downright damaging. But the reveals, banter, and development are not only compelling enough to warrant your continued attention, but they also elevate many of the game’s weaker elements.
Awakening in the future, you find that the world has returned to a sort of medieval period, with small villages built around the ruins of our near-future world. There is mystery all around: what happened 1,300 years ago? What happened before that? What were those creatures? How are the characters still alive? And that’s Nier’s true hook: there’s always a question. Answers don’t come easy, and when they do, they are often confused. The ultimate payoff isn’t completely satisfying, but the build-up and multiple endings more than make up for it. Beyond just making for a good yarn, what is more impressive is what the writing is able to overcome.
For as enjoyable as Nier is, its problems are many. For starters, I’m baffled as to why a third-person action title doesn’t have a lock-on system. Swinging wildly is fine whenever you’re hitting something, but it makes cleaning up needlessly tedious. Combat is made more hectic by the ridiculous blowback, with nearly every hit sending you flying back several feet; this can be mitigated by blocking before landing, but you still end up sliding the same distance. This might demonstrate the enemy’s power but it also plays hell on maintaining control. The one instance when you actually can aim is still troublesome. Engaging the dark lance spell will cause a targeting reticule to appear so that you can pinpoint where the spears should go, which works well with the slowdown effect spells cause, but only when the reticule doesn’t get stuck on an invisible barrier and cause a misfire. Other than that, you’re on your own, swinging at the wrong enemies and spiking thin air. The camera can also cause problems, especially when the game gets fancy and tries for cinematic views that are either too far zoomed out to be helpful or Resident Evil– style and paired with the annoying (and abandoned) control scheme of direction determined by angle.
Combat is fast, though, and once you get the hang of dodging and attacking, it does become more enjoyable. Of course, it only gets better when you find and upgrade weapons and add special words to your weapons, magic, and combat arts to increase their potency. Fortunately, you can reuse the same word multiple times, which is handy when you eventually unlock all spells and weapon types – single- and double-handed swords, axes, and spears. The system is actually quite interesting as it fits in with the theme of knowledge being power: words, representing rediscovered knowledge, added to an item’s name boost everything from experience gained to damage.
The written word itself is what is most important throughout the world. As humans struggle to rebuild, or at least maintain, what they have, they often search out ancient knowledge in the remaining library. The idea of knowledge being power is personified by Grimoire Weiss, a stuffy and ancient magical book that joins the party early on. Weiss is Nier’s magical conduit, unleashing the dark lances, walls of spikes, powerful blasts, and giant pounding fists. As enemies are killed and quests completed, the experience and levels gained increases not only Nier’s health and magical abilities but also as empowers Weiss, making the spells even more damaging.
But Weiss’ real selling point is his personality. In constant argument with the warrior Kainé, a hermaphrodite that doesn’t seem the least bit male, the two engage in some pretty humorous ribbing. He refers to her as “hussy” and doesn’t miss a chance to poke fun at her genre traditional scanty outfit while she – identified as “she” in her backstory epilogue - threatens to burn him. The game’s main menu is actually Kainé insulting him in her trademarked cussword-laden delivery. Aside from the comical aspect, what’s really interesting is how Weiss becomes a voice for the player. At times, his own words made me wonder just what Cavia was doing. The side quests that fill the world are … well, I don’t want to say awful, but they are very boring. The little bits of character interaction help to keep them from being truly bad, but the reliance on the ‘fetch’ approach makes them very, very tedious. You might have heard this elsewhere, but know that there can be no exaggerating: there are a lot of fetch quests. A lot.
Thinking back, I can only recall three, maybe four, tasks that didn’t involve a villager wanting me to gather something. From getting 10 pink moonflower seeds to a machine needing 10 titanium alloys, 3 broken lenses, and 8 silver ores to be fixed, I was constantly running around for other people. The items requiring multiple stops and trips into the dungeons were just a pain. You eventually get a bore to ride – yep – and access to a boat for fast travel, but the bore is tough to control and the boat can leave you a ways away from the village, so you’re still running around, gathering and gathering and gathering. Even the battling becomes tedious as you’re fighting only a few robot or shade types; even the Dalek-esque robots lost their appeal after the hundredth or so had been cut down. But as you’re doing this, Weiss is pointing out how ridiculous it is. Not only does he question your involvement in the lives of others – ‘why are you butting in?’ – but also notes how silly it is that you’re breaking from a grand adventure to gather wool. And he’s right, but him saying that makes me wonder: if Cavia knew this was tedious, why in the world did they leave it in? Mentioning it might be funny and truthful, but it doesn’t make me want the busy work any more enjoyable. Thankfully, you can actually skip most, if not all, of the tasks and just farm loot for cash. If you opt out of the quests, though, the game becomes very, very short, especially for a role-playing game. You can fill some of the time by fishing and gardening, but fishing is a bit of a pain and neither amount to very much.
In stark contrast to the side missions are the uniformly fantastic main quests. Not only does Cavia experiment with the medium, but they also tinker with the genre itself. Sprinkled throughout are enemies and turrets that fire wave after wave of projectiles, often in elaborate patterns that actually fill the screen, much like a traditional shooter. It’s both confusing and surreal, with literally hundreds of orbs being shot out in swirling patterns that made me feel like I somehow stumbled into a session of Ikaruga. Their best efforts had to be the fantastic narrative quests, which resemble the old PC text adventures that have dungeons to escape from and riddles to answer. Again, the writing really sells this, with escape story being a Lovecratfian tale of torture and insanity while another is a lovely tale like something out of a Bradbury collection.
Here again, Cavia both shines and fumbles. Answer a riddle incorrectly or choose the wrong path and you will find yourself starting over from the beginning, complete with Nier commenting on how annoying that is. (He’s right!) There are apparently mechanisms in place to keep people from speeding through the text, such as key items changing, but I often found my correct answer being labeled as incorrect regardless. But then they go and do something clever, like break the fourth wall a bit, sorta, by having Weiss and Nier read what you’re reading and disagreeing with how they’re being portrayed; I think I had a smile on my face the entire time that happened. Neir is really at its best when Cavia is tinkering with convention.
It’s tough to know whether the repetitive bits of Nier are intentional or not. The game has four different endings, the second of which requires replaying half the game again. The added bits are definitely worth it if you’re a fan of the characters, but they become absolute chores if you played through many of the side quests, as revisiting the same dungeon for the fifth time is just not terribly exciting. Although the fact that the enemies don’t seem to level up with you after the first playthrough speeds things along; I slaughtered everything mercilessly with my supped-up spear. Cavia either intended the quests to be spread out over multiple games, lacked the resources to come up with new content for each, or focused on the story and approach to the detriment of the side quests. Regardless, the fact remains that a tedious fetch quest is a tedious fetch quest, and all of the achievements and extra gold in the game world isn’t enough to make tracking down another 10 logs fun.
I would also like to point out the music and voice acting. While the graphics are serviceable, the voice acting is solid and the music is outstanding. Aside from a few cliché characters being a little too ‘Oh noooooo!’ at times, which is more the script than the actor, the deliver is spot-on and clean. More than that though is the phenomenally eclectic score that mixes soft Japanese pop, Gregorian chants, and acoustic folk in such a way that it all seems natural. The music sells a lot of the ambience and is one of the better soundtracks I’ve heard in recent years.
Nier is destined to be a cult classic. Its flaws aren’t game-breakers but will be enough to put some off, though easy to minimize in the eyes of its fans. Whether or not you should play it is largely dependant on how strongly you favor a game’s character interaction and story, as Nier is both literally and figuratively a testament to the power of the written word. If you like your role-playing games with turn-based, deep tactical combat or fast-paced with an expanded skill tree, then Nier won’t hit your sweet spot; its combat is decent on its own but wanting when compared to most other titles. And again, I don’t want to sugarcoat this: the game has problems. Several of which involve some pretty fundamental elements, such as the poor side quests. In many ways, the game is its own worst enemy. However, it offers an intriguing story, a genuinely memorable cast of characters, and a novel experience, all of which I suspect will be fondly remembered by those who see it through to the end. It certainly grew on me.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)