Game Description: Nothing is as it seems in Square Enix's latest action adventure game, set in a crumbling world plagued by disease and dark, unrecognizable creatures. Players assume the role of the unyielding protagonist, NIER, resolute in his quest to discover a cure for his daughter, who is infected with the Black Scrawl virus. With powerful allies and a mysterious book, NIER encounters things that will confound even the mightiest of warriors. With NIER, experience seamless in-battle cinematics and explore hauntingly familiar lands, intense action-packed battles, and storytelling like only Square Enix can do.
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.
HIGH Walking from third-person combat into a text adventure game.
LOW Some overly-melodramatic cutscenes in the... Oh, who am I kidding, it's the fishing.
WTF Walking from third-person combat into a text adventure game.
Nier is a strange beast: a seemingly disjointed patchwork of play motifs built onto a "Japanese" role-playing game backbone. Nier, its protagonist, is also a strange beast: a beefy, ugly fellow less interested in saving the world than taking care of his daughter Yonah. Both Nier and Nier violate the conventions of JRPGs in many ways, which is precisely why the game is such a success.
Most obviously, Nier adopts a different scale than the typical JRPG. Its world is very small, composed of less than a dozen unique areas and only four dungeons. While this design doesn't provide much in the way of variety, it allows the player to quickly master almost every environment so that the whole world becomes a familiar place. Nier also keeps its party small and focused by contemporary standards, growing it slowly from two to four characters over the course of the first half of the game. The game takes full advantage of this approach, developing a natural relationship between its principals.
Finally, Nier scales down the stakes. Although the game depicts an incredibly grim world, The protagonist is not really interested in saving it. All he wants to do is to save his daughter, first from disease and then from the creatures that have captured her.
A typical JRPG would support this quest with an enormously talky flashback cut-scene or ten showing awkward and unintentionally alienating interactions between Nier and Yonah. Instead of bogging itself down like this, Nier constantly keeps Yonah in the player's mind by putting her personality on display. The game's loading screens almost always show the player entries from Yonah's diary. While these snippets are generally short and simple, they expose a charming and loving personality. They convince the player to like Yonah and want to save her, even as they serve as a consistent reminder of Nier's ultimate goal. Her presence through these screens helps keep the quest focused, and the player's desires aligned with the main character's.
The protagonist himself is an uncomplicated, brutish fellow. Although he generally has good intentions, the scope of his abilities runs little further than killing monsters. Primarily, Nier uses a simple, but effective, third-person real-time combat scheme to let him do this. The efficient setup, however, allows for surprisingly diverse play, as Trent emphasized in his review of the game.
The number of reinterpretations Nier layers onto its core mechanics is genuinely impressive, and includes styles familiar from Legend of Zelda (on which point you should read Chris Green's excellent commentary), Resident Evil, and Diablo, along with some unique ideas of its own. Notably, these never feel out of place or like pure gimmicks—they represent a ludic language intended to evoke a particular atmosphere in a particular place, just as certain kinds of angles and lighting constitute a cinematic language for film.
Nier uses this diversity of game styles to keep your interest while it's introducing the characters. Instead of weighing itself down with interminable expository cut-scenes, it lets the gameplay keep your focus while Nier's (and the player's) relationship with the secondary characters grows. It helps that they subvert stereotypes themselves. There's both a delicate female, and a magic-user with an amazingly sunny and loving disposition. Ordinarily these would be the same person, but in Nier the former is an impossibly foul-mouthed, aggressive fighter and the latter is a ghastly skeleton creature. Only when these characters have been properly introduced does Nier let their stories start taking over.As a result, about 2/3 of the way through, the nature of the game changes. While it revisits some of its unique takes on the possibilities inherent in its engine, Nier doesn't introduce any new permutations. Instead, this last part of the game is character-driven. Each member of the supporting cast is put through the wringer against the steady backdrop of Nier's unwavering, bloody-minded quest for his daughter. Even when a party member accidentally destroys a town, the man shrugs it off. "You saved us," he explains, knowing that only the quest for his daughter matters.
In showing us this side of Nier, a man who "only know[s] how to kill things", the game chooses to make its protagonist relatable rather than admirable. Nier's new game+ mode, which only covers this last third of the game, plays this angle up by presenting Nier's enemies in a more sympathetic light. Unfortunately, the replay hews too closely to the classic JRPG format, using its cut-scenes to tell us a backstory rather than showing characters' evolution as it happens. These cinematics also take such a sympathetic view of the antagonists that they seemed almost disingenuous. Nonetheless, they make the point that Nier isn't necessarily a good guy. Yet, almost every aspect of the game serves to bind the player and the character closer together.
The small scale of the world makes it as familiar to the player as it is to Nier himself. The diary entries keep Yonah as present and lovable for the player as she is for her father. The stellar writing and sparkling voice work give the small cast lively personalities and interactions that seem as natural as those of your own friends. And, for all the permutations the game makes to its systems, all the player can really do with those tools is kill.
If the core of the Western RPG is letting the player shape a character to his liking, the core of the JRPG is to convince the player to see himself in the immutable protagonist. Of necessity Nier is not revolutionary in the means by which it accomplishes this, but it is notable for the skill and verve with which it helps the player become the character. In that regard, it represents the best of what its genre can be.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to single-player modes (completed 2.5 times). This included a lot of subquests and upgrading, not to mention the time I spent trying to be a gardener.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes, and violence. One character always wears a skimpy negligee and swears like a sailor. Blood goes flying during many of the fights, and at least one brutal murder happens onscreen. This one is not for the kids.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Subtitles are available and audio cues are always supplemented with video information.
I've got to say, that was one of the most original and exciting titles I've played in a while, mostly thanks to the wide variety of ideas and approaches the developers managed to cram onto one disc. I especially appreciated the time and effort put into fleshing out each of the characters, and I have no doubt that I will be able to clearly remember them years from now. Nier, especially… it's not often that games star a late-middle-aged father who is basically an ugly bastard doing odd jobs to support his family, but that's exactly what's going on here—and I loved it.
I suppose that I was probably a little more inclined to like the story since I am approaching middle age myself, as well as being a father of two. Many of the themes within the game resonated quite strongly, and it was incredibly refreshing to play something that I felt spoke to something other than the spiky-haired-emo-teen-saves-the-world demographic. If developers branched out like this more often, the entire industry would be in a better place.
I've been discussing the game with a few other critics who've finished it, and it seems that at least one more playthrough will be required before fully grasping the depth of the developers' vision. As a result, I started a second run last night. This re-start lets players keep their levels and equipment and begins halfway through the game, so I imagine that it will be a pretty rapid completion… ripping through bosses with my upped Axe of Decapitation is like running a hot knife through butter. I'm glad that the developers didn't ask players to start from scratch, though. As interested and as willing as I am to see what else they have to say about the characters, I don't think I would be up for multiple twenty-hour playthroughs.
As much as I enjoyed the game (and really, I did enjoy it—Nier is absolutely going to be on my year-end Top 10) I didn't feel that the second half was quite as strong as the first half. Without trying to spoil anything, the game is clearly split into two parts—the first part is full of homages and references to other games, and is certainly the more "experimental" section. The second section is still good, but relaxes into a more recognizable JRPG format. I still enjoyed it, but it didn't have the same intense level of creativity and originality that the first half did.
The ending was especially disappointing… it felt very traditional in terms of what I would expect from a "concept" JRPG, and wasn't nearly up to the same standard as some of the other parts. I'm hoping that will change after I see the other three endings, but at this point it seems as though Nier is one of those games that's all about the journey rather than the destination.
FYI: there is no such thing as "hurrying up" to finish a game like Etrian Odyssey III. The review is due in another day or so, and I haven't finished it yet. I've certainly played more than enough to give it a very fair evaluation (over 30 hours so far) but as much as I want to get it wrapped up, this game moves at its own pace and there is simply no changing that. Any shortcuts taken by the player are guaranteed to end in a Game Over, and progress comes in small, hard-won increments. In this particular case, patience is a virtue.