HIGH Seeing a group of friends actually behaving like a honest-to-goodness group of friends for maybe the first time ever in a video game.
LOW The extra cut-scenes in the second playthrough were uncharacteristically melodramatic.
WTF Watching big, manly Nier land on his butt like a clumsy five year old after a big fall.
Recently gamers have been debating whether or not video games are art. While this has been an ongoing discussion, the intensity was recently ratcheted up a few notches by the incendiary comments of a certain well-known film critic. Amidst this cacophony, Square-Enix quietly released the Cavia-developed Nier, and it couldn't have come at a better time. While gamers and critics attempt to build fences to delineate what games are, Nier exemplifies and celebrates everything games can be.
The true nature of Nier isn't obvious from the start. Aside from an interesting tutorial sequence set in the near-future, the game quickly settles into a familiar formula. 1300 years in a disease-stricken future, the titular hero stumbles across a floating, sentient tome named Grimoire Weiss. Weiss informs the hero that if they can locate its sealed verses—each in the grip of a powerful foe, natch—it would be possible to heal Nier's sick daughter and all others who are similarly afflicted.
For the most part, this is a formula Nier adheres to. Players freely travel the overworld, hacking and slashing sheep and shade alike, in search of the sealed verses. Verses are typically preceded by a dungeon of some kind, and impart Nier with a new magical ability upon acquisition. There are also a significant number of optional quests of the grocery-list variety that can be taken on at (mostly) any time during the game.
At first blush, Nier is practically indistinguishable from the action/adventure games that have come before. There are few setups more familiar to gaming than plumbing the depths of themed dungeons, sword in hand, for the ancient MacGuffins that will save the world. However, these similarities turn out to be something of a red herring since Nier abruptly departs from this template with confident regularity.
For example, in one early dungeon, the camera rotates into an overhead position, and the game transforms from a hack-and-slash into a top-down twin-stick shooter. In another, Nier explores a creepy mansion filled with mysterious keys and fixed camera angles in a clear nod to the survival-horror genre.
No sooner has Nier donned one hat than removed it for the next, but the game never feels disjointed as a result. On the contrary, its mercurial weaving from genre to genre imparts the game with a paradoxically cohesive identity. This is, at least in part, due to Nier's self-aware nature. One character refers to a giant foe as "the boss," and Nier describes himself as a guy who just kills things. Grimoire Weiss in particular seems to delight in acting out within the confines of the game. At one point he argues specifics with an unseen narrator, and at another he shamelessly spoils one of the game's (admittedly predictable) twists.
Even more important to Nier's identity are the controls. The controls never change, despite the many incarnations the game assumes over the course of its 25-hour length. Cavia seems to have gone to some length to ensure that Nier himself controls consistently no matter where the camera is sitting or what challenges are offered to the player. In most games, departures from primary game mechanics are sectioned off in discrete modes or mini-games. In Nier, the small aspect of universal control legitimizes every genre-bending moment as an integral part of the main game.
The vacillating nature of Nier reaches beyond mechanics and into the actual narrative. Like the gameplay, the story is initially presented as something stock-standard, eventually manifesting into a crusade against the unimaginatively-monikered Shadowlord. Rather than crossing genres, however, the narrative instead traverses a broad emotional spectrum.
The principle characters of a brute, a beauty, a boy, and a snob could easily have spent the entire game confined to those one-dimensional characterizations. Luckily, Nier makes it a point to see these four mature considerably—both as individuals and as friends—over the course of their adventures. An early cut-scene sees Nier awkwardly (though not fruitlessly) attempt to convince a doubtful Kaine of why she should continue living. A much later scene sees an emotionally wiser Nier offer similar counseling to his young friend Emil, though this time a simple embrace accomplishes in moments what took many aimless reassurances in the earlier encounter. Each character experiences growth like this in multiple directions as the game progresses, in scenes that run an emotional gamut from endearing to gut-wrenching.
Nier occasionally makes oblique references to an unexplained Project Gestalt. Gestalt refers to a unified whole that cannot be described simply through listing its components. Given the game's self-aware nature, Project Gestalt could easily be the game itself. None of the individual elements of Nier surpass the games and genres that originated them, but the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts that to even dwell on it misses the point entirely. With Nier, Cavia has done the seemingly impossible, and created something entirely unique from nothing but borrowed components.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 30 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes, violence. No clever commentary here folks, keep the kids away.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All important information is clearly visible onscreen, and subtitles can be turned on for all spoken dialogue. Certain enemies have audio cues for particular attacks, but these are usually accompanied by fairly obvious visual cues as well.