Developer – Cavia
Publisher – Square Enix
Platforms – PS3, X360
Nier is an enigma. It has all of the framework necessary for an engaging story, an interesting world and entertaining gameplay, yet falls short in each of those aspects to end up being average overall. The whole time I was playing it seemed like I was experiencing the alpha or beta phase of a game that was going to be truly amazing. However, even though it doesn’t quite reach the level that it could have given more funding or perhaps more production time, I found it to be enjoyable overall and worth recommending, if only for a glimpse of what could have been.
Nier has an obscure connection to an older PS2 game called Drakengard. There’s an alternate ending where the villain escapes into the future before being killed and spreads its corruption over the land (or something like that – I’m going from memory on this one). As far as I can tell Nier occurs a very long while after that, in a time where humanity has regressed into living in stand-alone villages scattered across the world. Remnants of the civilization that failed dot the landscape in the form of towering bridges of iron and decrepit ruins. Mysterious monsters known as shades terrorize anyone brave enough to leave their homes, though where they came from is unknown.
Named after the game itself, the main character is something of a jack of all trades, making a living by doing odd jobs given to him by the others living nearby. He’s also a loving father of a very sick young girl. The Scrawl is a mysterious illness in which black patterns engulf its victims; there have never been any survivors. In his search for a cure, Nier finds himself getting ever closer to the secret of the shades, the lost civilization and even the world itself. Despite the potential weight of his actions the health of his daughter and the wellbeing of others are all that he cares about.
Unfortunately I can’t go into any more detail without giving anything away. There’s an incredibly interesting story hidden away in the time between Drakengard and Nier, but to my extreme disappointment its depths are never explored. Even though the concepts behind the tale that is told are probably above average, the delivery of the story is very poorly done. The game flows between major events without anything to connect them or allow you to get to know the characters better. Unfortunately this means that on a number of occasions the game expects you to give a damn about characters that have only been with you for a short time and haven’t really done anything to boot. Having said all that, the dialogue exchanged between the two main characters can be very entertaining even though it doesn’t add anything to the plot itself.
Despite having a fairly generic hack-n-slash-type combat system, Nier’s gameplay is really quite fun. What it lacks in complexity it makes up for in the fluidity of Nier’s movements and the visceral joy you can glean from felling each enemy. There’s a unique selection of magic spells you can learn to cast as the game progresses, though while they were a lot of fun to use you are only given two buttons to bind them to, meaning you have to miss out on the other ten or so spells that won’t fit on your controller. They’re also incredibly overpowered and will probably be the main attack you rely on until the second half of the game (at which point you get spears and can button-mash your special attack to victory). There are also some companions that will join you during the game and help you in combat but they do very little damage and are really just there for show.
While the minor shades you will find yourself fighting most of the time are all very same-y (as you can only see their outlines), the boss fights are where Nier really shines. Every boss is entertaining and requires a unique strategy, making them one of the highlights of the game. Even if you can’t use them to their fullest yourself, Nier’s magic abilities come to the fore during the boss cutscenes and do a wonderful job of showing off the extreme power that Nier holds. My one complaint is that many of the fights utilise “bullet-hell” mechanics in which the arena is filled with miniature magic balls of death for you to avoid. They’re not hard to survive or anything but it seems a little lazy when the majority of the enemies use a similar attack (albeit with different miniature magic ball of death patterns).
If the combat is fun and the plot is merely average, Nier’s side quests and gathering aspects fall flat on their face. While some of the extra quests you can take on have their own little story to them and are quite pleasant, the vast majority of them amount to little more than grinding for materials in exchange for a very small reward. The items you can gather are pretty much only useful for the quests, meaning that both of these features can only be considered time sinks. Nier’s tutorials are given to you randomly when you defeat enemies. It’s an interesting and unique idea but the random nature of the tutorial drops meant that I was only learning how to recover from being knocked back over half way through the game. Enemies also drop “words” that you can use to improve your weapons and spells but I never felt that they made a huge difference to how much damage I was doing and some of the effects are practically imperceptible. As a final gameplay note Nier runs really fast, and that’s awesome.
In some games returning to dungeons you’ve already completed can be really rewarding, as you will have learned new skills that allow you to explore new areas and discover new treasures. In Nier’s case, however, returning to dungeons you’ve already completed makes up the entire second half of the game, with each dungeon having nothing new to offer as if the developers ran out of level-design budget part way through production. On top of that there are four endings to Nier that require you to play through the second half of the game again in order to obtain them. In all honesty I only obtained two of the endings because the second one added practically nothing to the story and ended up being a waste of my time. Even the first ending revealed very little of the background behind everything that had happened throughout the game and was rather unsatisfactory overall.
The one aspect of Nier that I have no complaints about is the soundtrack. While many games avoid including vocal background music, Nier has a number of voiced tracks that sound amazing. You may not realise it while you’re playing but the songs are sung in 8 different languages, of which one is entirely fictional. Nier’s soundtrack is so well done that it has spawned four separate soundtrack CDs and has its own Wikipedia page. Interestingly enough, rather than modifying the music to suit the game, the game was modified to suit the music, which isn’t something you hear often. It’s easy to tell that a lot of work went into the BGM, and that work definitely paid off.
Summary – The entire time I was playing Nier it felt like it was a framework for a greater game, something truly awesome. If the story was developed further (with links between the major events) and the game itself was polished just a little bit more, I don’t think it would have any trouble making it onto my favourite games list. As it was, however, Nier just didn’t have any aspects other than the soundtrack that were done really well, with some of the game design being downright lazy. It’s worth a go if you’re bored and it’s on sale, but I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise.
Overall Score – 6.5/10 – Average