For the curious: I believe the game’s title refers to the main character’s name. There is no direct evidence of this in the game (in fact you name the character yourself, and he is referred to in the manual as “Father”), but I think the official website calls him Nier. As for it’s roots, in Dutch Nier translates to “kidney”, and in French it is a verb meaning “to deny.” Considering the personality of the main character, the French translation works pretty well. In that case, I believe you would pronounce it Nee-eh (silent r), but feel free to correct me, it’s been a very long time since French 101. Of course, this is assuming the creators didn’t just pick the name because it sounded cool.
Regardless, Nier is an action/rpg hybrid that was released this year for the PS3 and the Xbox 360. For those of you wondering, there isn’t any significant difference in the game on either console. However, there were two versions released in Japan, Nier Gestalt for the 360 and Nier Replicant for the PS3. Replicant features a young spiky haired protagonist trying to save his sister, while Gestalt is an older muscle bound man on an identical quest to save his daughter. North America is just getting the Nier Gestalt version, simply abbreviated Nier. More on that later.
As I mentioned before, in Nier you assume control of a grim, heavily muscled and somewhat pug-ugly middle aged man who finds himself alone with his dying daughter in a post-apocalyptic city. Yes, once more we journey into the post apocalypse. I’d have to say that by now I’ve accepted it’s part of human nature to be fascinated by it’s own total destruction.
Suddenly, a floating, talking book appears! Zing!
“Hey, buddy, wanna save your daughter? I’m not evil or anything. No horrible consequences, I swear.”
Faustian bargains are made, monsters appear, a brief tutorial on combat controls, and a sad little cookie is split between you and your kid. Fade to white.
About a thousand years pass!?!?
And you are now the same man, inexplicably relocated to medieval village and dressed in fantasy-game style leather armor. Your kid is still at death’s door, and the world looks like it going to be devoured by monsters. Here’s where the game really begins.
The first thing that struck me about this game was the incredible atmosphere, which is due for the most part to the music. It’s an incredible mix of instrumental and vocal tracks that really sets the tone for the game. For example, when you start the game in the village, a soft, waltz-like melody is heard in the background. As you approach the town square, you see a woman playing a guitar, and as you get nearer to her, the guitar and haunting vocal parts of the track fade their way into the music. I just had to stand there for a minute or two to drink it all in. Here’s the track I’m talking about:
I also enjoyed the imaginative enemy designs for both the common cannon fodder and the bosses. All of the enemies in Nier are beings called “Shades” , which as the name implies are shadow like creatures who seem to be framed by a writhing gold mesh of symbols and shapes. Boss design ranges from a creature made of spinning cubes that spits Touhou-esque bullet hell fields of magic to an enormous lizard with a shark’s head, hand for a tail, and rows of glowing breasts that shoot beams and disgorge smaller enemies.
For the most part the controls work well and there should be no surprises for those familiar with 3rd person action games such as Devil May Cry. One button is a simple weapon swing, which can either be a one handed sword, two handed great sword, or spear (the two handed sword and spear are unlocked mid-game). Another button is a special attack, which varies depending on what weapon is equipped. Two of the shoulder buttons are assigned to blocking and a roll/evade move, and the other two are magic attacks, which can be assigned via the main menu. The d-pad is for short cuts to the weapon and recovery/buff item menus. Camera control is handled by the right stick, and clicking on it will quickly swing the camera in front of the character.
It all comes together pretty smoothly. Any awkwardness is balanced out by the fairly forgiving difficulty of the game (I played on Normal). My main complaint would have to be the magic control. There is no lock-on, so aiming some of the long range spells depends on rotating your character and hoping it they will hit. To compensate for this, a few of the spells like Dark Hand and Dark Lance slow down time as you are aiming, but even that doesn’t help because I think they tried to program some kind of auto lock system which actually locks on to empty space half the time.
Speaking of the combat, I loved it’s visceral feel. Gallons of blood will spurt from enemies (shadows have blood? I guess so), bodies will fly all over the place, bouncing off floors and walls, and connecting with a weapon really feels like a solid connection, especially with a bigger weapon like the two handed sword. The magic spells are bombastic and awesome, like Dark Hand, which generates enormous hands of shadows and blood which slam into the enemies, either reducing them to bloody mush or sending them flying across the screen.
The tale of a story
I have to say I really enjoyed the story of Nier, both the tale itself and the unique process in which the game relates the story. It’s hard to describe what I’m talking about without giving away key parts of the story though. I’ll just say that the plot involves a man who will do absolutely anything to save his daughter, and what anyone would do to survive or keep the people they love alive.
The main characters are also a key part of this equation; there was obviously an attempt here to break from the jrpg norm a bit. I was pleasantly surprised to find a protagonist who was not an effeminate teenager who discovers a hidden power that will save the world. But this was somewhat tempered by the discovery of the two different versions and the obvious attempt to cater to western tastes, which I guess is for huge ugly dudes with wrestler bodies. The time can not come soon enough for Japanese developers to figure out that trying to make a game for “western tastes” is NOT a recipe for a better game. In fact, often the opposite.
Nevertheless, I found myself liking all the main characters of Nier, especially the talking book Grimoire Weiss, who serves as your sidekick and general source of derisive comic relief. Like wondering aloud why the hell the protagonist spends so much time doing pointless sidequests when his daughter is at death’s door. I even grew found of Kaine, probably the most annoying and stereotypical of your crew. How many damn times can someone be super dramatically critically wounded then come back to life unscathed in a jrpg? I think Kaine might be the record holder.
The sidequests are definitely the low point of Nier. At their worst, they are infuriating and pointless. At their best, they are actually kind of cool and are a nice little distraction from the main story. An example of a “good” sidequest would be trying to get two characters to sing together at a local tavern. One of them needs to be drunk on a brew made of rat and lizard tails before she will sing, and after a short collect a thon they sing a cool duet variation of that village theme I was talking about earlier.
For the most part they are “collecting” missions, which I found to be about the opposite of fun because of the insane rarity of drops on some of the required items. How much time did I spend slaughtering goats because for some reason getting a GOAT HIDE from them is almost impossible? Answer: WAY too long. You can often purchase some of stuff required, but often you’ll find yourself spending more to complete the quest than the reward for doing so.
Then there’s the fishing, which isn’t so bad once you get the hang of it but still tedious because once again it often relies on trying to get that “rare drop”. Actually, I found the worst part of fishing to be having to watch the pixel thin tip of the rod, which will be almost invisible at the right angle. If you miss it bobbing (and not just bobbing, bobbing at the right level), you miss catching the fish and have to start over, losing your bait.
There’s also a farming subgame, which is marred by the curious game design decision to have the plants grow in real time. That is, the time on the playstation internal clock. If you don’t choose to “cheat”, or change the clock settings on your PS3 to make time “pass”, completing those farming subquests will take an insane amount of time and effort.
Upgrading your weapons is unfortunately also dependent on finding those rare items. More time fighting the same enemies over and over again, trying to figure out who drops what, where to gather what, reloading screens again and again, etc. After a while I just gave up on upgrading, it didn’t really make a huge difference in the game anyway. Leveling up my character or just buying new weapons made me far more powerful than going through the laborious upgrade process.
The silver lining is, all this stuff is completely optional. But the game is pretty damn short if you choose to avoid all this, and you will miss out on the occasional cool quest.
Not enough game
Besides the sidequests my biggest criticism would be that there is simply not enough game in Nier to tell it’s elaborate story. There is a distinct point in the game where you can tell the developers must have run out of time or money and the gameplay gets more than a little abrupt and you will find yourself traveling through the same areas again and again. The actual game world that Nier creates is actually quite small, and it shows after extended play. There are a lot of good, original ideas going here, but just not enough game around them to engross the player.
A good example of this is the Forest of Myth. It’s supposed to be this town where stories and words have become reality and the people have become lost in their own dreams. To reflect this, most of the game in this part is actually an old school text adventure. Sounds like a really cool idea, but in reality the whole Forest of Myth is a tiny area about as big as a room with three poorly rendered people sitting on tree stumps. Besides three “text adventures”, which are decent and kind of fun, there is absolutely nothing else to it.
New game plus
One last thing I’d like to mention is that Nier has the best use of New Game + I’ve seen in a very long time. On completion of the game, you given the chance to replay from a climatic mid point with all your weapons, money, items, and experience. The difference is that now there are additional cutscenes during the boss battles and you can now understand what the shades are saying, which reflect certain important facts revealed to the player at the end of the game. It puts a whole new light one everything and makes you feel almost like you are playing a different game. And there is no other way they could have revealed the stuff you find out in new game + without spoiling the game in the first place, so putting it in this kind of context makes perfect sense. After beating it a second time and getting a different ending, you now have to collect all the weapons and reach the end to see ending c. And once you reach the end, you are given a very dramatic choice which results in ending c or d. Choosing ending d results in the craziest, boldest ending I’ve ever experienced in a game. A younger me would be probably have been a bit pissed off, but the older me was delighted. Just a word of warning. Do ending d last.
In summary, Nier is a game with incredible atmosphere and story which benefits from bold, original design choices. Unfortunately, it also has a quite a few flaws and there simply is not quite enough game to support the story.
The internet is saying I'm a WHAT?!?!?!
Nier (Xbox 360, PS3) : Recommended ***
***I would definitely recommend giving this a try, either as a rental or a purchase at $35 or less.
[I bought Nier at Kmart for $45. Have gotten around 73% of the trophies and seen endings a, b, c, and d. Total playtime was around 40 hours, this includes 2 new game + sessions. After playing the hell out of this game I can honestly say there is only one casual and indirect reference to Kaine possibly being a hermaphrodite]