I’ve been playing Nier for a week or so and logged over 20 hours in the game. Through all of that time, I never once was fully engaged in the game. Nier is not one of those games where you look at the clock and wonder where 12 hours went. I was hungry playing Nier, not only for food, but for some meaty sustenance to feed my gaming soul. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game. It isn’t. It is just … average.
As a third person action RPG, developed by Cavia and published by Square-Enix, it delivers on all of the right levels. You gain levels, collect items, and get more abilities as you progress. The scenery is generally pretty, the character design is top-notch and it uses disease, corruption, and disfiguration as recurrent themes. The game is set 1300 years after the world was destroyed by some sort of apocalypse; I love games that use the end of the world. Despite the fact that all of the elements are there, Nier just doesn’t do enough to set it apart as a “great” game.
The one part of the game that might push through the average barrier into greatness is the cinematics and the voice-acting. The language and content of Nier is what some would refer to as “mature.” It’s not sexy, other than the weirdly provocative costumes, but it can be creepy. Not scary, just … off.
The main character, supposedly named Nier, is an older man. In a nice departure, Nier is father to Yonah, who is infected with a disease called the Black Scrawl. It’s nice to see the drama of a game be emotionally tied to fatherhood and caring for your daughter. Their scenes verge on saccharine without ever going full-tilt Lifetime Channel.
Early on, you meet a sentient book, Grimoire Weiss, and he is kind of a snobbish jerk. He’s lost his memory, but remembers enough to saucily task you with collecting Dark Verses, ostensibly to stop the aptly named Grimoire Noir. (Get it? Black Book and White Book? Genius!)
The scantily-clad half-breed woman named Kaine is abrasive and drops F-bombs all over the place. Her spats with Grimoire Weiss are pretty funny; it’s not often that you hear a woman say, “Fuck you, book,” even in a videogame. Kaine’s vitriolic monologue plays when you boot up Nier, which I think was intentional. Her attitude and choice of language feels like the developer’s attempt to say, “Hey Americans, we can fucking swear too!”
That’s the problem. While the story is interesting enough, it feels terribly calculated. It’s sculpted by executives and focus-groups. Perhaps that’s why another version was released in Japan, NieR RepliCant, wherein Nier is a lithe young dude caring for his sister, Yonah. The Western version is based on NieR Gestalt, the same game but with the older Nier, and I imagine that all of the mature language was written into the script to specifically appeal to us heathen Americans. The recent announcement to release the younger Nier to the Western market as DLC also feels like an attempt to cash in on assets that were cut out of the game.
The game elements of Nier work well enough on the surface. You start out swinging a one handed sword and learn magic spells to blast the bad guys, known as Shades. The first act feels very one note. The leader of the village you reside in, Popola the female librarian, will send you out on quests, and then you go back and check on how Yonah is doing. Rinse, repeat.
The locations that Popola and Grimoire Weiss send you to track down the Dark Verses are analogous to levels or temples in a game like Zelda. The Dark Verses empower you with different magical spells, such as Dark Lance or Dark Hand, which you can swap out and equip with different “words” to give power ups or add effects like confuse or paralyze. Each dungeon offers a different play-style, from side-scrolling platforming to top down puzzle solving to isomeric dungeon-crawling. One location sucks you into a nightmare of text and you must choose the correct series of directions to go or you perish. Consumed by a grue, I assume.
Keeping with the Zelda theme, there is usually a big boss at the end of these dungeons. They are generally fun, and keep you jumping to avoid their big strikes or fist pounds. But after you face the third or fourth one, I realized that I was successfully using the same technique for most of them: evade their attacks and save up a big Dark Lance to finish them off. It starts to feel very samey.
Nier‘s major fault is that, despite delivering all of the right pedals for me to push in order to receive the reward, I never felt totally engaged. The caustic dialogue might have done it, but it felt too calculated. The different dungeons ruined my immersion by forcing me to realize that the designers were paying homage to certain styles. Combat was enjoyable, until I realized that I was doing the same thing over and over again.
I had fun playing Nier, and I was happy that its script and voice acting were both better than your average JRPG. It hit all of the right RPG chords; I found myself getting swept up in finding lost dogs and collecting materials for merchants. It pulled beats and samples from all kinds of games; it’s even got a strangely addictive farming sim. To continue the musical metaphor, Nier is the catchy pop song that doesn’t force you to change the radio, but it’s not exactly the anthem for our generation.
Bottom Line: Nier delivers all of the facets that make up a successful action role-playing game: fun combat, diverse characters, good voice-acting, and addictive quest mechanics. It just doesn’t do any of them excellently.
Recommendation: Fan of Square-Enix, action RPGs or chicks swearing while wearing underwear? Buy Nier and be amazed. Otherwise, pick it up on a down week or from the bargain bin.[rating=3]
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Greg Tito is glad that at least there wasn’t an airship in Nier.