NYR companion: Nier review

Nier 02

A few years ago I wrote a series that engaged with Metacritic’s score aggregates by playing games at various score tiers. As part of this series I actually got through quite a few of the selected games: I almost completed Saw and I finished Plants versus Zombies (I even hand-wrote a glowing review but never typed it up). I also played and beat Nier and wrote this review which has sat on my old site for two years.

As part of this week’s Mirror’s Edge piece I decided to finally get this review out before it disappears entirely.

So, this is a Square Enix game.

It was with this fact in mind that I resigned myself to playing the game and as I sat through the splash-screens I was already mentally writing my review.

Then the first cutscene before the Initial Interactive State occurred and I did a double take.

Did she just swear profusely?

Nier is not your usual RPG: that early swearing is actually a little misleading as to the tone but it definitely serves as a good way to wash away fears of this being another random-encounter-ridden emo snore fest, and the game definitely tries to deliver on that early promise. It almost comes through too… almost.

The game begins in a dystopian future world with you taking control of a middle-aged man trying to protect his invalid daughter from Shades; strange demon creatures that are made of warping energy fields. The action is pure hack’n’slash at this point. You go through the motions of dodging and diving whilst destroying hordes of enemies with a pipe and the assistance of a mysterious book that allows you to conjure glowing spears, giant red hands and thorny spikes from the ground.

GiantBomb coined the word ‘Abilitease’ and it describes Nier‘s opening perfectly as you are given a taste of the crazy arsenal that will, eventually, be at your disposal, but as soon as you have it all it is taken away.

Thematically this makes sense as, once the introduction/tutorial is over, you  jump hundreds of years into the future. What doesn’t make sense, and having played the game to completion I am still not sure I get it, is that you seem to be playing the same character looking after the same sickly daughter except there appears to be no acknowledgement of the opening being canonical.

Regardless of this strange disconnect (maybe it was meant to be a dig at the illogical nature of most stories in games) I feel that Nier and its developers, Cavia, deserve praise on multiple levels in regards to what they managed to accomplish.

Even though it feels a little heavy-handed it was nice to be playing as a genuinely, gauche-in-nature, ugly protagonist and for the team he assembles around him to be so very odd. Admittedly Kaine, the sweary female sidekick, feels too much like a conscious decision to buck the trend without deviating too far from eye candy. However Grimoire Weiss the talking magic book is a genuinely different character to what we are used to seeing. His utter disdain for most of the game’s adherence to JRPG staples is amusing and truly funny. The constant breaking of the fourth wall may be jarring for some but for me it was nice to have someone else complain about endless fetch quests. Emil, the third team member, is also very interesting: when you meet him he is unable to look at anything without turning it to stone. His character progression is possibly the most interesting as well as tragic but I don’t want to go into that as it would involve substantial spoilers.

Shame that she has to be another JRPG female character that makes me cringe in terms of the way she is dressed

Shame that she has to be another JRPG female character who makes me cringe in terms of the way she is dressed

My second piece of praise goes to the music direction. A colleague recently wrote a small piece about the little personal touches in games that shine through in the strangest places and make you understand that passion can be found in the oddest spots. The person(s) at Cavia who worked on the music and the melding of these compositions between areas of the game have done it masterfully. I have never spent so long voluntarily listening to a game soundtrack (with the exception of Phantom Dust) just to see what would happen next. The fading in and out of different instruments in the main two hubs is subtle but when you realise it is happening it feels like someone loved Monkey Island and its similar use of interweaving themes. As for individual compositions, I urge everyone to check out the Junk Heap track as it exposes how bad the elevator Muzak bullshit some of the game’s peers pass off as acceptable really is.

The game also has a wonderfully eclectic attitude towards its presentation. It is never content to stay in one playstyle. One minute you will find yourself running through a slightly generic Legend of Zelda dungeon before finding yourself embroiled in a Portal puzzle, followed by a 2D platforming section and finally a bullet-hell inspired boss fight. Cavia really tries to throw every style of game design at the wall and just see what sticks.

They even have a gardening mini-game where you can cultivate random items. Why? Who knows.

This sense of ‘why the fuck not?’ makes Nier feel dangerously ambitious. Even when certain features don’t work (mandatory fishing sections that made me almost break my controller) it is delightful to see a game daring to be different. Like Deadly Premonition you don’t know what is going to happen next from one area to the next. Text adventure dream sequence? Sure. Gauntlet-esque dungeon crawler? You are more than welcome.

The final part of the puzzle that pushes Nier up as a contender: its story. I would like to call the developer’s approach refreshing but to say that doesn’t really convey what I mean.

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In short, Nier is depressing. Not in an ‘Aerith just died’ sort of way. No, instead of a couple of unhappy moments the entire game is littered with snapshots of depression, decay, illness and misery. You can’t help but play this game and feel like shit if you pay the slightest attention to any side-quest, mission or even casual banter. More specifically you’ll feel like the shit that clings to a sheep’s arse, dries, and causes the animal irritation.

The main story is glum enough as it is; one man’s attempt to prevent his daughter from succumbing to illness with no clear plan on how to actually do that while the daughter remains resolutely positive despite all evidence indicating that she is going to die.

The game’s casual nihilism is what struck a chord with me, particularly as it is content to go for the long con in its attempts to punch you in the emotional gut. The example I am going to use starts at around the five hour play-through mark.

You come across two brothers and you need their help to forge a weapon, so you agree to go search for their mother who disappeared some days previously. Grimoire Weiss immediately points out that she is probably dead. You go through a nearby dungeon and fight a boss to find her dead next to another man. She has a note that she planned to mail to her sons to tell them that she was leaving them behind to start a new life, to be ‘free and happy’.

You go back and lie to the offspring about their mother, pretending to never have found her. The younger sibling thinks that you are incompetent. He runs off crying, only for the elder son to confide in you that he knows the truth and that he is glad that she died happy and with someone she loved.

Skip to about the ten hour mark: the two boys end up having to leave their home in search of supplies. The elder brother is killed and the younger brother goes insane with his thirst for revenge (he still charges me for weapon upgrades, though).

Skip to around the fifteen hour mark: you are given the rather innocuous task of trying to track down a woman’s fiancée. You wander through each area of the game and as you do so you encounter tales of the man’s infidelity and attempts to woo as many women as possible. Eventually you come across the insane kid, only to piece together that the dead body next to his mother’s was the Casanova you have been searching for. Chances are she didn’t die next to some one that loved her back.

Now if that doesn’t get you down there are also stories about suicide, failed marriages, unrequited love that ends with one of the pairing dead and the other an ageing curmudgeon (who dies before finding out the truth), dead dogs; you name it the game has it.

With all of the above in mind some of you might have already looked at the score at the bottom and are scratching your heads at how I came to that grade. But for all the things that Nier does right – the superb sound direction and the dovetailing around character stereotypes – and all of the things that it attempts – eclectic game design and downbeat story – Nier still suffers from being a repetitive hack and slash RPG.

It might gently mock the traditional side quests but it can’t hide the fact that 50% of what it has you doing are fetch quests. Furthermore the world is just too small; this works in the game’s favour most of the time as many of the quests are not sign-posted on your map and require familiarity with each locale. The problem is that after twenty hours of trudging back and forth between the six areas you really want to see something new.

Nier‘s combat is also lacking in diversity. The are only a smattering of new moves handed out after the first five hours and none of them are necessary for your advancement. The same can be said of the magic powers; almost all of the bosses can be defeated by using the first ability you are given in the game, leaving little necessity for a second power.

As a dressed-down and compact eight hour experience Nier would have been something to recommend and I would definitely have given it a higher score. Sadly the amount of filler and the empty promise of progression leaves this game a curiosity and not a necessity.