Nier is a new IP from Square-Enix that was surrounded in confusion for a while. You see, the game released in two different forms in Japan, one on the PlayStation 3 – which featured a more typical, leaner Japanese-style hero – and one for the Xbox 360, which included a more “Westernized”, macho, uglier hero. In the West, the same game was released on both consoles and unfortunately included the beefy Nier in all his fugly glory.
We’ll go more into the character design later, but first, one of the high points of the game – it’s story. It revolves around Nier and his daughter, Yonah. His daughter has what is called the “Black Scrawl” virus, which causes her to be continually weak and sickly. Everything Nier does revolves around protecting Yonah and finding a cure to her illness. You start off in the game knowing little about Nier’s background and what brought him to the village in which he and Yonah now reside. Naturally, more is revealed as time goes on. Something else that is important to know is that these shade beings are constantly on the prowl, attacking travelers and villages. You’ll be introduced to these guys pretty early on and they’ll maintain a constant presence throughout the entire game, although they won’t be your sole adversary. Eventually you’ll learn what they are (to some extent) and where they come from.
There are a few companions Nier befriends along the way, as well, including the book Grimoire Weiss. Yes, he’s a book, and he talks a lot of trash. However, he does provide some needed comic relief at times, especially in his conversations with Kainé, the second companion you acquire. Kainé is a woman with a questionable past who begrudgingly joins Nier on his journey fairly early in the game. It is implied that she is a hermaphrodite, however the game never really comes out and says such. That idea is pretty interesting in and of itself in a Japanese RPG, and originally sparked some controversy that ended up not going anywhere. There is also Emil, who is a boy that was cursed and turned into a skeleton-type creature. With all these characters, nothing is quite what it seems on the surface, from the beginning of the game, and that is where some of the game’s intrigue comes into play.
Now, some of the visuals in Nier are rather stunning, but others leave a lot to be desired. In some places the textures and landscape are so boring, but others, like one seaside village you travel to fairly early on, are pretty nice looking, and peaceful. That village also reminded me a lot of design concepts I’ve seen before in other Square-Enix titles, even though I know they didn’t develop this particular game. I suppose the best word to describe the visual appeal of Nier is “average”, as things never really “pop” out at you, and there needs to be something that does, especially in this day and age. Dare I say it, but certain parts of the game seemed to contain PS2-like textures and I had trouble believing I was playing on a current generation system. Granted, the entire game isn’t like that, but, like I mentioned, the visuals never really become outstanding.
The world itself seems a bit empty, as well. Sure, there are NPCs milling about, there are people to talk to and a lot of quests to pick up. But everything seems muted, as if nothing is inviting you to experience the environment around you. There are plenty of things to explore and places to go, but there is just a fog of inadequacy that hovers over the entire game and it feels like trying to talk to someone who really doesn’t want to talk to you.
On top of all that, I find it hard to care about a character that I dislike, and to be honest, I couldn’t really latch on to Nier himself, for a couple reasons. First, I really find his character model unappealing. I pray to the RPG gods at Square-Enix that, if there ever is a sequel and they create two protagonists for two different versions of the game, that they allow them both to be released in North America so I can pick. I hate the Western “macho man” style character, I don’t know why. It probably has something to do with the dislike I have for the mindset of a lot of Western gamers who think it’s cool to play with an unnaturally muscled, ugly hero. Secondly, aside from his relationship with his daughter, there was nothing about Nier or his personality that stood out to me. He is a pretty generic RPG hero.
Speaking of his relationship with Yonah, this was one of my favorite parts of the game. As I just pointed out, Nier is a gruff individual, who will do anything to protect the ones he cares about. The gruffness turned me off, but there are some very tender moments in the scenes where he interacts with his daughter. They made me want to let out a huge “Awwww” every single time.
To me, his two companions were more likable overall – both Weiss and Kainé – because their personalities lit up the game so much more brightly than Nier’s stoic self. Weiss is a wise-cracking smartass and Kainé is a trash-talking girl that is a bit too full of herself. Kainé especially has some rather poignant story moments that rival those of Nier and his daughter.
The game seemed a little scatter-brained during the first half, with random story elements intermixed between annoying mandatory side-quest-like missions (I’ll talk about this in more detail later). I don’t care if the story build-up is slow, but at least focus on the story, which I feel this game doesn’t do. When the story is there, it’s great, unique, non-cliché and touching at times. It also surprises you on more than one occasion, because the way you perceive the characters – especially Nier – changes throughout the story based on various plot devices and what you learn about him.
One aspect of the game I really enjoyed was the musical score. It was different from other RPGs and not always completely instrumental. There were voice tracks scattered among the flutes and strings of the various musical arrangements. Those stood out to me as something different. The music really enhanced the events taking place and was a bright spot for me. The rest of the audio and voice work was done adequately enough, as well. I enjoyed the voice of Weiss the most, with his snarky, slightly condescending attitude toward both Nier and Kainé. Yet, at the same time, you always got the sense that he cared about Nier and his daughter through the entire narrative.
Moving on from the technical and story aspects of the game, we come to the battle system. I have one hyphenated word for you: button-masher. To be fair, it is rather difficult to create an action RPG and not have it feel like you can get through the entire game by only repeatedly pressing the attack button. I have played so many action RPGs that felt like you could just plow through things with a button or two that I can only assume it is difficult to design anything in the sub-genre that proves otherwise. However, this is how Nier felt to me, especially during standard battles.
Now, he does have magic that he gains around the time he meets Weiss, and the abilities that magic gives him are varied, but it rarely felt like you needed to use it. I tried my best to find situations that certain abilities would be more handy, but quickly realized that I could accomplish the same thing, and quicker, by just jumping into the fray and swinging away with my sword.
I will give the game this, though – the boss fights are pretty darn fun. This is also where, a few times, using ranged attacks with magic really can help you out. There is one boss fight early on that uses an entire town as the battlefield. At various points you’re fighting the boss together with Kainé, but once you get its health down so far, it takes off. She goes after it and you’re left to deal with its minions, as you work your way over to where the boss moved to. At one point he picks a hut up off the ground and starts using it as a weapon. That battle really excited me. There were several like that, and that was great. Other boss fights – and, really, the majority of standard battles – just seemed rather tedious to me. When I constantly think “when will this thing end?” during a fight, it is way too tedious and drawn out.
Another thing that can help you in battle is upgrading your weapons. By gathering materials, which are clearly indicated on the field in the form of sparklies, you can take them to a shop and have your weapon upgraded. You can also upgrade your spells by acquiring “words”. These “words” weave their way into the story, but they can also be “equipped” on spells, weapons and armor to improve various stats, or change the way the ability works. This is a pretty cool idea, but it has been done before using different terminology. Not that a mechanic that has been done before isn’t any good here, of course, it just felt like they changed the terminology of the mechanic to almost force you to think it is something new, when it really isn’t.
This may come as a surprise to those who know me, but the story is way too slow for my liking, especially early on when it is most important to get to the story as you progress from trigger point to trigger point. While many RPGs that I enjoy have slow build-up time for the story, they all stick to the story and focus almost exclusively on that early on. With Nier, it feels like the first six to eight hours of the game was going on side-quest after side-quest. For the most part, things either connected very loosely to the story – to the point of me scratching my head trying to figure out the connection – or didn’t connect at all. Granted, some points that I didn’t think were connected came back later in the story to some degree, but it didn’t catch my interest early on because of the initial detachment.
For example, you spend two hours on a (side-)quest that is supposed to teach you how to upgrade your weapons. You’re sent somewhere, talk to these two boys at the “upgrade shop”, figure out a problem they’re having, spend an hour in a dungeon for no particular reason other than to help these boys and to gather materials for your first upgrade, return to them after defeating a very tedious boss fight, perform the upgrade, then…what? Back to the main story? This whole thing seemed like one big, mandatory side-quest to me.
There was another quest that is connected to something Nier wants to do for his daughter, and you have to learn to fish. In what should be some sort of side-quest, you’re forced to catch a fish. Fishing in this game is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done in any game, ever. Why? The controls just don’t work the way they should and the brief fishing tutorial in the game tells you to do stuff in a manner that makes fishing itself very, very tedious and annoying. At this point, I had to go to a forum on the game and ask a question about how to catch this one particular fish. Someone told me what to do and where to go, and I caught it no problem – this was after spending nearly an hour trying to figure it out because the game was almost working against me. If I ever have to go online to figure out anything related to the main story progression in an RPG, something is wrong.
As side-quests go, there is plenty to do. You’ll definitely never find yourself bored, that’s for sure. I like that, I like a lot to do, but some mandatory questing should have been relegated to side-quests, and the story should have been more front-and-center, especially in the first half of the game.
I’m a huge fan of supporting new IPs, I’ve done it more times than I can remember, and I really wanted to do it with Nier, as well. However there are a lot of flaws in an otherwise unique title that I feel could have drawn me in so much more had the story come into a sharper focus earlier in the game. The main character also leaves me wanting more – I was turning to the side characters for the enjoyment I receive from watching them develop over time and bicker between themselves. I appreciate what Cavia and Square-Enix attempted to do here, and the individual building blocks are solid enough. However it just didn’t come together in a cohesive manner the way it should have. If you’re a hardcore action RPG fan, give it a shot, most definitely. For everyone else, I can’t particularly recommend it. Although, I do hope it gets a sequel, so they can build upon what they have here and refine things further, perhaps making a more interesting title.
- Game: Nier
- Release Date: 4/27/2010
- MSRP: $59.99
- Developer: Cavia
- Publisher: Square-Enix
- Platform Reviewed: PS3
- Also available on: Xbox 360
- Review copy info: A copy of this title was provided to DualShockers Inc. by the publisher for purposes of this review.