Note: Some folks on Twitter asked me if I was going to write anything about Nier after finishing it. I obliged, as I did find the game very interesting, but I want to point out that the game was already reviewed by Chris back in December. The original review can be found here, and I recommend you read it first. It covers some of the same ground, and Chris has a much better handle on the genre than I do.
Nier is a bog standard action adventure game in which the lock and key puzzle system of modern Legend of Zelda releases is replaced with traditional jRPG time wasters (mainly sidequests and weapon upgrades). Its environments range wildly in style, but the over world sections tend to be empty, sweeping plains which don’t really tell you much when viewed as a screenshot. The story is largely straightforward until the final third of the plot, which a deadline laden reviewer may very well not have reached. In other words, it isn’t at all surprising that it failed to light the community on fire upon release.
It is also understandable why one might be skeptical of Nier’s ever growing fan base, who consider the game an absolute treasure. What exactly do they see in it? You won’t get an easy answer from them, since every explanation relies on revealing massive spoilers. Nier is the kind of game which is doomed to cult status. Everyone wants you to play it, but no one wants to tell you why. The only people who will take the plunge are those who feel they can trust the word of some of the Nier faithful. In my experience, that trust is harder and harder to give to any gamer in regards to any game.
I probably can’t convince you to play Nier, but I can at least give some idea as to what people see in it. First, we need a bit of context. Nier takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which scattered human villages live amongst the ruins of industrial society, defending themselves against monsters known as Shades, as well as an incurable disease known as the Black Scrawl. The protagonist is a grey-haired, muscle bound swordsman who also happens to be a caring father. His daughter is sick with the Scrawl, and it becomes his mission to find a cure. Doing so involves teaming up with a very odd cast of characters, including a talking magic tome and a foul mouthed pixie anime girl.
Right off the bat, Nier demonstrates subtly captivating art design. If we are to judge by the nitty gritty details — the textures, the models, etc. — it looks slightly better than a PS2 game in HD. What makes the art direction shine is its sense of place. The hero’s home village is small, but logically built. Every villager has a place to go home to, and those homes are all lined up, together, in a single shopping district. Large stone gates block out outside aggressors, and an old world brick library exists as a proverbial town hall. The town is designed not to look cool, but to look like something that might actually be built up in such a devastated world.
Equally interesting is the game’s portrayal of the relics of the old world. In contrast with the Fallout games, which litter their environments with tchotchkes and wreckage, Nier contains just a few crumbling remnants of the past. The library, for instance, looks like a real life building, though there are no signs or pens or computers or any other paraphernalia (there are books, though few villagers can read them). Outside, the library’s entrance is marked by two old, bent lampposts. Outside the village, a winding, elevated railroad platform snakes its way through each overworld section, and eventually across the ocean. One of the game’s dungeons is situated in an old hotel/apartment complex which is so burnt out that its identity isn’t revealed until the very end, when a block of rooms is encountered. The game uses a handful of noticeable landmarks to drive its setting home. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has been taken over, either by nature, or by the various cultures within each region. It is as effective as any game I know in selling the post-apocalypse, which is becoming an increasingly familiar backdrop.
The fishing minigame is deceptively difficult. But hey, there’s that bridge!
For many Nier fans, the soundtrack is even more important than the graphics in bringing this world to life. The music relies on lots of chanting, most of which manages to be genuinely effective in lending a sense of grandiosity to each location. Other areas are paired with a soothing melody and calmer singing. Personally, I enjoyed the content of the songs, but I found myself muting them as time went on. I feel like they’d work better as a standalone piece, with a beginning and an end, rather than as a snippet on constant loop. This wasn’t too much of a problem, as the game’s visual design made playing without background music oddly appealing.
Having an interesting world is all well and good, but what makes the game weird? There are the obvious features, like the ability to ride on (and powerslide with) a giant boar. There is also a “dungeon” in which the screen fades to black, forcing you to read walls of text, occasionally stopping for you to issue an answer or command, text-adventure style. I’d also be remiss in failing to mention that most of the bosses fire energy blasts in shmup’ style bullet curtains, or how a quick adjustment of the camera will turn some sections into a side scroller or a top down hack ‘n slash. On paper, these features make the game sound like a disjointed collection of references to other genres, but in execution that isn’t the case. Whether they exist as tribute or commentary, they mix things up without getting in the way.
It isn’t until the home stretch that Nier starts going off the rails. Without giving much away, suffice to say that it unveils the secrets of the game’s setting, secrets which put the entire story in a very different context. Its “New Game+” feature then allows you to replay the story from the midway point, with new narrative material to help emphasize this new context. More diligent players can press on to earn two more endings, one of which has the balls to do something Hideo Kojima mused about implementing in one of his games, but has yet to actually try. Nier uses replay to both warp and expand its story in ways which make the player question many of the trappings of typical video game storytelling.
Nier also has some fantastic boss battles.
I imagine part of what makes Nier feel so shocking is the fact that it’s the last game you might expect to see such unconventional (and thoughtful) storytelling. jRPGs the home to recycled settings, cliché conflicts, stilted voiceovers and wordy scripts. They’re bad anime with interactivity sprinkled in. Yet here is Nier, which has something interesting to say, and which somehow delivers it through solid dialogue, consistently stellar voice acting, and some of the best English text in a console game (those aforementioned text-adventure sections read like a decent fantasy book, practically a high water mark in the medium of gaming). For once, lofty ideas don’t get lost in subpar writing and direction.
What it does get lost in, unfortunately, is tedium. Nier wants you to play through it more than once, but its dungeons aren’t very fun to explore, nor is its combat ever too difficult. It may be true that you can burn through the main quest fairly quickly, but it is still asking you to wade through repetitive action in order for the story to properly unfold. Many players will find that this request asks too much of them, admirable as the story may be.
Just as painful are the sidequests, which are at least one instance in which the game is too clever for its own good. They entail all the usual busy work common to RPG sidequests, including delivering packages and killing monsters to collect rare item drops. The characters react to these missions with mixed amounts of loathing and frustration. In other words, the quests attempt to comment on a shitty element of gaming by being shitty, under the assumption that some self-aware dialogue will absolve it of wrongdoing. While these conversations between characters are a treat, they aren’t worth the trouble. The common rule among Nier fans is to only bother with quests you can finish enroute to more interesting objectives, and I agree with this approach.
That being said, I managed to complete all but one sidequest, despite loathing such busywork in any other game. I don’t think this vindicates them, but it does show how much I enjoyed being in Nier’s world and among its characters. It has genuine human emotion at its core, and a distinct feel to its proceedings which sets it apart from its contemporaries in ways which aren’t obvious when observing a screenshot or review. Not an all-time classic, but a hell of an experience nonetheless.