First impressions can be among the most important moments in any encounter. It’s a shame that in the case of Nier this means many people will get a bad idea of what the game has to offer. At a glance, you may feel like you’ve just started a budget title from 2005. Not that it looks bad, it just tends to stand out in an era where dazzling visuals are a given in most decent games.
It opens with a prologue set in a crumbling city, where a desperate father (Nier) is protecting his sick daughter (Yonah). After battling waves of shadowy monsters, the game jumps to approximately 1,300 years later — which is initially confusing, considering the characters haven‘t aged. Roughly 20 minutes into the story and we’d already taken a baffling turn into left field.
By this point in Earth’s future, civilization has been reduced to a few settlements and scientific knowledge has gone largely forgotten. Nier and Yonah are now living in a small town, where Nier helps the townsfolk by taking on small jobs and protecting them from monsters known as ‘Shades’. Seeing his daughter‘s illness getting worse by the day, Nier decides he has no option but to actively search for a cure.
While the combat is of the standard action-RPG sword and magic type, it’s not long before we get to see the game’s main asset. Visiting each new location in the search presents an encounter with new stylistic elements. The camera view will occasionally shift, transforming the game to isometric action, side-scrolling or even a top down twin-stick shooter. Some of the stronger Shades and Boss enemies have powers modeled after ‘bullet hell’ shooters, with swirling waves of deadly projectiles obscuring not only safety, but sometimes even the enemy itself. That’s only about half of the creative presentation on hand and telling more would surely spoil the surprises.
While it would be easy to say that the ever-changing style is merely dressing, it actually does work as a narrative device. From the start, the story is steeped in memory, tales, books, words — even the illness plaguing the land creates swirling symbols on the skin. So it feels natural to have the game world itself stretch through many stylistic permutations.
Along the way Nier crosses paths with a small, but interesting cast of companions. Grimoire Weiss is a talking book that supplies Nier with magic abilities, and whose biting sarcasm carries with it an amusing sophistication. For much of the early game, he steals many scenes.
Kaine is the kind of character who seems built to be the fan favorite. She’s a scantily clad sword fighter, with a vulgar mouth — and it never feels gratuitous or forced. Whether she’s dropping F-Bombs or stringing together lesser vulgarities, it sounds natural coming from her. For this, I applaud the translation team.
Rounding out the main three is Emil, a mysterious boy whose secrets I won’t reveal, as any details could really spoil the story. What is worth pointing out is that we’re offered a young character whose dialogue isn’t excruciating to listen to — once again thanks to the excellent translation.
The game world, though varied, is not very big. This creates a double edged sword. While it’s great that you’ll never get lost nor spend too long getting to your destination, it also means there aren’t a lot of different locations. Coupled with the fact that most of the enemies are one of a few standard Shades, some may find running through this handful of locations a bit repetitious.
Another potential problem is that the side quests are mostly pointless endeavors. Some of them are meaningful, entertaining, and even quite funny. More times than not, the reward doesn’t justify the time it takes to complete the task. So if you’re not enjoying the quest for it‘s story element, it’ll end up feeling like you’ve been taken advantage of by the quest giver. Which is a shame, considering Nier’s desire to help the people he meets.
Fortunately, it doesn’t get a chance to become too repetitive, as the game is on the shorter end by console RPG standards (20-30 hours). Upon completion, you’ll be able to experience an interesting version of ‘new game plus‘. Continuing from the endgame’s save offers the second half of the story with additional cut scenes, providing back story for other characters, and perspective from the Shades themselves.. If you like the story enough, don’t overlook this. Some of my favorite moments happened in the second time through, where certain scenes gained entirely new context.
Nier is a difficult game to pin down. What we end up with is a weird, melancholy story that might be a bit sloppy — but it’s full of surprises and will likely do good amount of things you’d never expect. I can’t predict if you’ll enjoy it, though I’m willing to bet you’ve never played anything like it.
Things We Liked: There’s an actual difficulty setting in this RPG! Subsequent playthroughs offer more depth to the story. Beautiful soundtrack that’s worth listening to outside the game. Great translation (by 8-4) makes the English dialogue sound more natural than most JRPGs. Astonishing surprises show up often.
Things We Disliked: Small game world means revisiting locations. Side quests are time consuming with little payoff. Fishing side quests are tedious. Overly simple puzzles expose a missed opportunity.
Target Audience: Fans of action RPGs looking for something unique. Those who think JRPGs have nothing new to offer.
(Nier – Developer: Cavia. Publisher: Square Enix. Available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – Xbox version reviewed. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)