Nier could have been easily dismissed. Developed under the inelegant hands of Cavia, announced to mild intrigue at E3, shown to the media under the guise of a 3rd rate Devil May Cry, and ultimately ignored by the Square-Enix faithful, Nier’s hype began and ended with a resounding thud. It didn’t look great, it didn’t look awful, it didn’t look like anything. Utterly unremarkable, it’s most distinguishing asset, or at least the one the press ran away with, was an allegedly hermaphroditic party member. Casually dismissed as another dizzy attempt to crack the Western market, Nier couldn’t escape expectations of being another arcane Japanese title from the game design school of old.
Except Nier isn’t really any of those things. Though it might have been the result of my lowered (or complete lack of) expectations, Cavia’s Action/RPG actually tuned out to be one hell of an experience. Though it does swear allegiance to a handful of dated or groan-inducing Japanese RPG tropes, it also takes an equal, if not greater, number of high concept risks. Mind you, said risks aren’t really perceptible until one has invested a significant amount of time in Nier; five minutes will tell you its garbage, while five hours might convince the JRPG faithful that Nier contains all pieces that went missing from Final Fantasy XIII. Nier’s kind of janky, but it’s damn good in spite of its flaws.
Stay in the Light
It opens something awful. A father (Nier) in the blizzard of 2049 leaves his sick daughter (Yonah) in a convenience store before going outside to hack ‘n slash an infinite army of supernatural humanoids. The stage is bland and disorienting, and it gets even weirder with an onslaught of abilities and bizarre dialogue choices, none of which seem to have any end in sight. At first blush the combat seems clunky, the magic seems tacked on, and the enemy design appears totally copy and paste. Thankfully, the game soon advances 1000+ years and puts you in the shoes of Nier and Yonah, post-apocalypse, with scant explanation of exactly what the hell is or was going on. What’s clear is that Yonah is afflicted with Black Scrawl, an incurable disease, and it’s up to Nier to find a cure.
Nier only grants control over its titular character, but other cast members are frequently called in to assist. Grimoire Weiss is a talking book (honest!) responsible for wisecracks and magic attacks, while Kainé savagely attempts to claim the title of baddest bitch to ever grace an RPG. At first Kainé’s foul mouth seems like a forced attempt at shock value or an easy way to earn the M rating, but eventually the “hussy” started to cultivate legitimate sympathy. The reveal of her vulnerability is inevitable, but her zero tolerance attitude before and after that point was quite a refreshment from standard RPG archetypes. A character named Emil also works his way into the cast, but his somber story is best left behind the curtain.
Overall, Nier handles its narrative quite well, mostly thanks to a stellar localization. Much like the gameplay, Nier’s plot defies your expectations. It’s almost manic; for every tired trope it obeys, it spins a dozen more off their axis. Weiss, in perfect British droll, often mocks Nier for the ridiculous tasks he has to complete, and occasionally Nier manages to get a few shots in regarding the absurdity of engaging in dialogue with a flying book. Whether or not these tidbits were part of the original design or backdoor’d through the localization is a mystery, but it was definitely for the better.
Third person combat is at the forefront. Along the way you’ll be slaughtering debatably hostile animals for loot as well as nefarious Shades, the otherworldly beings poisoning the planet. Armed with a host of blades and augmented by rather overpowered magic skills, combat is straightforward and barely impressive. Nier’s strikes are lumbering and without much flow, and the lack of a lock on ability, especially in the face of numerous foes, is also a disappointment. Charging both magic and physical attacks makes for a bit of strategy, as does constant abuse of the dodge button, but it’s all unabashedly simple. Standard droves of cloned enemies are offset by surprisingly excellent boss encounters, but basic combat is about as straightforward as it gets for an Action-RPG. If Nier relied entirely on its combat for a hook, that would have been a problem.
It’s then Nier begins its fairly impressive rope-a-dope. You’re dispatched on a few meaningless quests that follow the fairly standard and incredibly bland “go here and kill this, then come back and talk to me” model. You’re then beset be a few optional missions that offer more of the same obscure item hunting, town traversing, and fetch quests. Nier appears to be in a freefall toward game design from decades past, but after a few hours in abrupt does an about-face and, rather than continue down it’s heavily treaded path, goes way the hell off the grid.
Cavia hasn’t exactly been known for much other than serviceable, if not graceless, game design, but with Nier it’s almost as if they had a bunch of “wouldn’t it be awesome if…” design scenarios and then actually had the testicular fortitude to jam them all in the game. Some of their choices are frivolous and inconsequential; the 2D point of view when Nier enters a house or the isometric camera that occasionally takes over in dungeons comes to mind. They’re not bad, but the change in perspective serves no purpose other than “for the hell of it.” Thankfully, a few other curve balls hit their mark when Nier changes its genre hat throughout the course of the adventure. Nier dabbles in shoot ’em up territory, mocks Gauntlet, dumps you in a haunted mansion and channels Resident Evil’s camera angles, and even filters you through am old school text-based adventure with actual (and chilling) consequences. And it does all of this with via a simple change in perspective, and little or no alteration to its mechanics. Few of these gambles are as good as what they attempt to emulate, but they’re not terrible either. Though blunt in its form, when Nier pulls a fast one it’s usually for the better.
Nier also has quite a way with words. Experience is acquired via the endless slaughter of your aggressors, but the weapon/magic boosting system is a unique entity. Felling foes occasionally earns you “words,” which can then be used to augment your weapons. Words can both boost stat percentages or status effects, and does well to add a bit of personality to Nier’s combat. The “words” theme is also omnipresent throughout the game, with everything from backwards voices audible when Nier inhales magic to Devola’s soothing (yet incomprehensible) vocals gracing the musical arrangement. Nier broadcasts and uncommon relationship between language and atmosphere, feeling rather distinctive and special in the process.
Vaseline-Smeared Rose Tinted Glasses
Nier doesn’t look great. I’d like to articulate that better, or come up with a way to rationalize its lack of technical proficiency, but sometimes a simple explanation is all that’s needed. There is some nice lighting here and there (despite being static) and sometimes the draw distance is pretty good (not that it’s concealing anything worth seeing), but honestly Nier could almost pass an up-res’d gem from the last generation. Nier’s organic, stone-and-grass architecture is highly reminiscent of games like Panzer Dragoon Saga or Ico, and it’s more stylized areas like Facade and Aerie help offset Nier’s incredibly bland hometown, but ultimately its style can’t support its concept. The ambiguous post-apocalypse fiction backing Nier is highly intriguing (no doubt in part by its lack of complete explanation), but few assets exist to support its potential. A knocked down bridge here or a dilapidated factory there are exceptions rather than rules. Nier’s visual package lacks definition and character, making it feels like all the set pieces rolled off an assembly line of classic environments. It had to exist within its likely small budget, and Cavia chose function over form.
The music, on the other hand, is fantastic. The bloodlust present in the prerelease screens lead me to believe I was in for a crunchy guitar butt rock affair, not unlike the crap jammed into Sonic games, but the mellow vibrations of acoustic strings layered against voices fading in an out of earshot blew me away as much as it took me by surprise. It’s memorable, and with hooks ranging from the delightfully incomprehensible vocals to naturally shifting and merging melodies, quite diverse. So much of Nier’s presentation could be interpreted as mediocre, but the music is an ace. It’s nearly enough to nourish the void left by the inept visuals.
Nier has other glaring flaws as well. You’ll find yourself pushing crates around all too frequently, which is nearly as mundane as a majority of the fetch-quest side missions. The few attempts at 2D platforming are flat out terrible, mostly thanks to Nier’s awkward jump animation. The in-game map is worthless, the lack of save points in dungeons is absurd, the tutorial structure is cumbersome, the cinematic faux-letterboxing is stupid, and some of the minigames are frustrating (fishing, I’m looking at you). It’s in this way Nier reminds me a lot of Folklore, a not terribly unlikeable gem that offered a ton of new ideas and then wrapped them around an unwieldy interface; its obtuse structure unfortunately creates a high barrier of entry. There isn’t anything quite like it, in part because of its failings, but also because developers usually aren’t allowed to take so many crazy risks. A niche group will fall completely in love with Nier, but it’s not esoteric enough to render it completely impenetrable.