Nier
Developer: Cavia
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1
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Nier tells the story of an extremely ugly man named Nier trying to save his daughter from a strange plague known as the Black Scrawl. The story kicks off in a contemporary city with a man and his daughter starving to death in an abandoned building while a snowstorm rages outside. After a brief battle against some mysterious creatures and a strangely foreboding cookie-sharing incident involving a sinister book, the story leaps hundreds of years into the future, where the Black Scrawl has apparently reduced humanity to a scattered tribe with a medieval level of technology. Once again, you play an identical hideously ugly man named Nier who is also trying to save his daughter from the Black Scrawl, while fighting the same mysterious creatures, apparently known as Shades, which are besieging your village. The game has been released as Nier Gestalt on the 360 and Nier Replicant on PS3, the only difference between them being that on PS3 you play a freakishly ugly young Nier trying to save his sister, rather than a grotesquely ugly adult Nier saving his daughter.

Nier is assisted in his struggle by an uppity, talking, flying, magical (obviously) book named Grimoire Weiss, a mysterious boy named Emil, and Kainé, an extremely foul-mouthed girl (who may actually be a hermaphrodite; much was made of this in the press leading up to the game’s release, but it’s never more than hinted at in the game) who is possessed by a Shade and who spends the entire game dressed in lingerie. Grimoire Weiss acts as your notebook and allows Nier to use magical attacks as well as providing you with helpful and extremely sarcastic advice along the way; Emil provides magical support for your party and Kainé provides a mixture of melee and magical attacks. Although you can’t control your party members directly, you can issue them extremely simple commands, telling them to attack, hang back or come to your aid. However, the main benefit they provide is comic relief with their constant arguing, especially between Weiss and Kainé. He generally addresses her as ‘Hussy’ and constantly criticises her for wearing nothing but underwear all day, while she delights in annoying and disrespecting him with some incredibly foul-mouthed tirades, the likes of which haven’t been heard in a game since House of the Dead: Overkill. Unfortunately, this banter, in common with all the dialogue in Nier, is often delivered with some of the worst yet examples of stop-start videogame voiceovers, clearly recorded by each actor separately.

Despite the main characters offering some light relief with their banter, the game is almost unrelentingly bleak and melancholy, even when you’re doing well. It’s not at all unusual for you to complete a side quest or mission only for the person you were doing it for to drop dead before you get back with the good news. Everyone in the game has some kind of personal tragedy in their life, from Nier himself with his dying daughter, to the old lady who maintains the lighthouse while waiting for her long lost love. Although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it certainly sets it apart from your average JRPG which invariably ends with everyone living happily ever after in a land filled with rainbows (except FFVII’s Aeris, obviously.)

It has to be said that Nier is not a good looking game; while some real imagination has obviously gone into the conceptual design of the various areas and there are moments that will please the eye, the actual game world looks extremely bland. Textures are uniformly low-res, character models for everyone but the main characters are extremely basic, and there are no fancy lighting or particle effects. No attempt has been made to simulate the passage of time and everyone just stands in the same spot spouting the same lines over and over until the story advances to the next stage and there’s an almost total lack of any kind of set dressing to make the world believable. The actual game world in Nier is very limited, consisting of only around a dozen locations (including a lot of open space, such as two huge empty field areas and an enormous desert and only three towns), each of which is visited many, many times over. You’ll spend an awful lot of time just running through them too, as you don’t unlock any kind of quick travel option until about three quarters of the way through the story. Except for the generally high frame rate (which does drop significantly at some points) and high resolution (which only makes the textures and models look worse), Nier looks like something from the PS2 era, although that might be a little unfair to some of the better-looking PS2 games.

Something has also gone really wrong in terms of making these environments enjoyable to play. The canyon village of Aerie is a prime example. It’s a really cool idea and is pretty atmospheric, but travelling through it is just a chore; apart from a couple of dead ends, it’s basically a long, featureless path, albeit one that’s suspended above a bottomless valley. Navigating around towns is also a real pain as individual shops and locations are not labelled on your map, so you have to find them yourself and memorise their whereabouts for your many return visits. Revisiting the same dungeons over and over from the beginning to the end of the game also wears on your patience. The Lost Shrine is another location that seems cool at first, but soon becomes annoying. You revisit it probably half a dozen times in the game and each time you are forced to go through the same block-moving puzzles (which reset every visit) and fight waves of identical enemies while opening what seem like an endless series of similar looking doors into empty rooms on your way to the top (or back down), which again just feels like it was done to pad the total amount of ‘gameplay’ time.

Many areas and significant moments in the plot do have their own theme tunes which do add to their individual atmospheres, ranging from Gregorian chanting in temples to some great orchestral scores in other areas. Some of these are quite outstanding and actually fade in and out brilliantly when you move from one area to the next, but the vast majority of your time is spent around Nier’s village, where you’re subjected to a constantly looping, God-awful, pseudo-gaelic New-Agey dirge over and over and over until you want to stab yourself in the ears to make it stop.

The game has some good ideas, but they're mostly nicked from other games; although it mostly plays as a JRPG with generic hack & slash combat, it frequently switches to other genres, from text adventure, via Bullet Hell shooter, side-scrolling platformer and isometric Diablo-style dungeon crawler, to Resident Evil mansion exploration (complete with awful camera angles.) With the obvious exception of the text-based bit, these are done by changing the camera angle, which happens very smoothly and is actually a great idea, going some way to break up the dreary monotony of constantly running around the same few areas. The problem is that Nier does all of these genres worse than the originals (and let's face it, text adventures were a bit crap in the first place.) Even the plot won’t be all that unfamiliar or surprising to anyone who watches enough anime, although this might be the first time a hermaphrodite character has appeared outside of the more, umm, ‘specialist’ offerings from Japan…

The JRPG part is probably the least enjoyable, despite being the main body of the game. As is standard for any RPG, there are numerous sidequests available. In the best games, these are used to flesh out the locations and characters and make you feel like you’re part of a living, breathing world. In Nier, they solely exist to artificially extend the gameplay and make you feel like you’re working for Help the Aged, running an astounding number of ‘fetch & carry’ quests, most of which involve nothing more than doing someone’s shopping for them. This is no exaggeration; they literally give you a shopping list and send you off to another town to buy stuff! Even quests to collect simple ingredients can take hours in real time. Rather than being found at any specific collection point, even the most common ingredients only have a chance of appearing in certain areas, which you have to keep revisiting until the ones you need appear. Harvesting items from animals is even worse and even the most basic are rare spawns. Seriously, how can ‘Goat Skin’ be a rare drop from killing goats? It’s par for the course for JRPGs to make you spend hours searching for ultra-rare ingredients to make the most powerful weapons (which Nier also takes to a ridiculous extreme, with collecting all the ingredients for the ‘Upgrade all weapons’ Achievement easily adding 20-30 hours to the game), but to make you spend hours farming the simplest items for the lowliest of sidequests is too much. Some people might argue that ‘Hey, Nier’s a handyman who lives in a small village; it’s cool that you get to help your neighbours out for a few pennies’, but if you think that’s a fun way to spend hours of your life, go and do it in the real world; not only will someone appreciate it, it’ll be more enjoyable and rewarding—and have better graphics.

Seriously, games are meant to provide entertainment; it’s a real game-making fail if you include countless hours of mundane tasks that are actually less entertaining than their real-world equivalent. Several of the characters in the game actually mock Nier (and by extension, you) for doing any job under the Sun, no matter how boring. One guy even laughs about how he’ll get you to clean his toilet later. Although this is obviously meant as a post-modern self-referential poke at JRPGs in general, it’d be a lot funnier if the game backed it up by offering some decent alternatives, but no, Nier is guiltier of padding play time with crappy and pointless fetch & carry quests than any other JRPG in history. Thinking about it, maybe the entire JRPG section is one big in-joke; maybe you’re not meant to actually do the sidequests at all… Adding extra credence to this theory is the fact that the in-game map is terrible for finding your way to any of the sidequests; it only ever shows the location of the next plot-advancing mission, with no option to set your own markers or anything useful like that. Also, none of the towns or other locations are actually named on the map, which makes finding where to go for anything other than the main story a real pain. There’s also an Achievement for completing the story in less than 15 hours and if you ignore the sidequests, that should be easily possible; there’s only around 5-8 hours of actual story-advancing gameplay to be had in a single playthrough, most of which will be spent running between locations.

Unusually for an RPG (and adding more fuel to the ‘You’re not meant to even try and play it properly as a traditional JRPG’ theory), skipping the sidequests entirely actually makes the game much more enjoyable. The story, which is admittedly good, if a little confused (and at times, seemingly missing important parts), unfolds at a much better pace without the side missions and a lot of the frustration and tedium is removed. By far the best bits of the game (and practically the only times the plot actually advances) are the multi-part boss battles. These are proper old-school boss battles too, requiring you to learn attack patterns while dodging huge waves of incoming fire before getting in your strikes as quickly and accurately as possible, with the boss changing its form and attack patterns as you get closer to victory. The bosses are the only enemies in the game that really show any imagination and include a giant lizard, a giant robot piloted by a tiny Shade, a weird rotating block monster, and a huge eyeball. Every other enemy in the game is a variant on the same basic Shade model you fought in the introduction, although they do get bigger and start to wear armour later in the game. Big wow. Again, maybe you’re meant to rush through the other sections to get to the bosses, minimising your exposure to all those identical enemies; maybe the hack & slash sections are deliberately repetitive and crap and aimed as a dig at that genre. Hmm… Anyway, these boss battles are the only times the game actually becomes exciting or fun, even verging on spectacular at times, and skipping the sidequests means they come much closer together, improving the experience immensely.

There’s a large chunk of extra background story that can only be unlocked by playing through again from a New Game+, which allows you to start from the halfway point of the story with all your weapons and items carried over. If the game was interesting enough on the first playthrough for you to want to play it again, this would be fine, but without the mighty power of the internet to alert you to it, there’s not much likelihood of you noticing the extra stuff even exists. Disappointingly, a huge chunk of the extra background is actually revealed via about a hundred pages of text, rather than any cutscenes or even a comic strip. There are extra lines of dialogue and cutscenes before all the boss battles though, showing them from a new point of view, and really putting a whole new spin on the entire story, which actually makes subsequent playthroughs a lot more satisfying and involving than the first (and, almost unbelievably, even more melancholy). Although the final scene changes (for a total of four different endings), all the actual quests along the way are identical each time, so playing through to the final, true ending (which takes a minimum of three playthroughs) becomes a chore again, even without doing any sidequests.

It’s a real shame Nier isn’t a better game; it has genuine ambition and sounds great on paper, but it never quite works out. Although there are some really good character ideas, many of them aren’t fleshed out enough and the occasional moment of scriptwriting genius is more often than not let down by stilted delivery. The game’s most significant moments have some truly great musical accompaniment, but most of the time you’re forced to listen to Enya-esque warbling. Although it pokes fun at JRPG conventions, it never offers any alternatives and while it includes sections inspired by almost every genre you can think of, it really defines ‘Jack of all trades, Master of none’ by being no better than competent at any of them. For a game set in a very small area, following such a personal struggle, it doesn’t include enough detail to make the world believable and moments of inspired design almost invariably turn out to be hugely missed opportunities. The game doesn’t really hit its stride until the second and third playthroughs, by which time you’ve seen everything it has to offer and may well have lost the will to play/live any longer, especially after the sidequests. Above all, and most unforgivably, Nier lets itself down by not being much fun.


Best Bits

- Interesting and unusual characters
- Kainé and Weiss are awesome
- Boss battles are actually pretty exciting
Worst Bits

- If it’s all a weird ‘crap on purpose’ in-joke, it’s not that funny
- Everything else

by: Smurfzursky

Copyright © Gamecell 2010