Nier’s a funny little blip in Square Enix’s pre-E3 line-up for 2010, standing next to the behemoth of Final Fantasy XIII and heavily promoted Western offerings like Just Cause 2 and Supreme Commander 2 as a less publicised, smaller-budget release – in fact, it almost might’ve slipped right many people’s radar, even if they’re RPG fans.
For those of you who haven’t spotted it before, Nier is a genre-bending Action RPG coming from Cavia, the team behind Resident Evil’s Darkside Chronicles spinoff as well as the PS2’s Drakengard series of RPGs.
Nier’s genre bending in a similar way to THQ’s Darksiders, combining several traditional RPG elements like experience points, levelling up, equipment upgrades, item forging, party members and a ton of other RPG clichés with adventure game elements that seem to be ripped right out of The Legend of Zelda.
The game tells the story of the titular character Nier, who is fighting to find a cure to save his daughter from a deadly disease. There’s some interesting stuff in the opening, with the opening of the game taking part in the near future – 2049 – and then skipping forward 1300 years to a world on the brink of apocalypse.
There’s a touch of sci-fi to everything that goes on here, with the futre world where the lion’s share of the game takes place basically already a nuclear wasteland. I’m starting to get tired of those open, rolling, brown fields, and Nier doesn’t help that feeling by sporting flat, boring areas with muddy textures. You’ll be running through areas that all look the same and it’s disappointing that a game with such a cool twist on the traditional JRPG and Adventure game formula fails to make its world distinct at all.
Being an adventure game, the combat isn’t the sole focus of the game, with the third-person hacking and slashing feeling a tiny bit like a Dynasty Warriors style button-masher. The melee action is broken up by magic, enabled by the Grimoire Weiss, a floating, talking magical book. Weiss serves as your ‘Navi’ in the Zelda-style segments, but also grants Nier a bunch of magic powers.
The magic powers vary and level up as the game progresses, but Weiss will shoot magical energy at enemies, summon up gigantic deadly blades to swarm around you and other typical magic attacks – projectile, area of effect and so on. This combined with the ability to dodge and roll adds a bit of depth to the combat, making it solid but still rather limited.
Nier’s a rather disjointed experience, with that combat fairly satisfying at one moment for those with a blood thirst, but the next moment having you pottering about a quiet town helping out an old lady for a sidequest. Ten minutes later you’ll be stuck scratching your head at a puzzle in a Zelda-like dungeon, and then as the dungeon progresses you’ll be back in combat mode.
Cavia seem keen to nod to almost every part of gaming history – there’s a rail shooter segment and plenty of areas where the camera gets locked into a specific angle and follows you around in a manner which is half Resident Evil and half how the camera used to move in the NES and SNES Zelda titles – it’s an interesting setup.
Many of the sidequests are mundane and boring, forcing you to trot across the game’s massive but bland-looking overworld, killing animals and shades (Nier’s main enemy), even calling at some points for you to indulge in a spot of fishing or gardening, the former of which is rather frustrating to actually do.
Most of Nier’s sidequests and distractions are, like other aspects of the game, solid but wholly unimpressive. What is impressive is the sheer amount of things that you can do – this is definitely more than a linear adventure game or action RPG, providing the player with a veritable deluge of optional tasks - In that respect Nier is the opposite of the ‘story or bust’ Final Fantasy XIII.
All those side quests can be ignored and skipped over if you so desire, and that leaves you with a more manageable Action RPG of around 20 hours in length. Here you’ll be focused on combat and getting through dungeons and ensuring you’re ready for harder combat challenges by powering up Nier.
The main method of powering up is through the ‘word’ system. Defeated enemies sometimes drop words, which can then be equipped to weapons and magic to change their properties or buff their powers. The word system is vital to get through the game comfortably, and can do everything from light an enemy on fire to make battles reward Nier with more experience – it’s all classic RPG stuff.
The dungeons are far better designed than the overworld, with some mind-bending puzzles that’ll leave you confused for a while but slapping yourself when you finally make the connection. The end of every dungeon is almost always a highlight with impressive looking and challenging boss encounters.
I was also really impressed by the way the game seamlessly segways between 2D and 3D segments. It’s probably the best and most cool stylistic choice Nier makes, though in certain places it’s questionable, like areas of a dungeon early on that has you fighting enemies from a top-down view like a 16 bit Action RPG. The controls suddenly felt very hokey at that moment, while for the rest of the game they were relatively tight and responsive.
Despite many elements that show a ton of potential and an equally large number that make me cringe, the star of the show in Nier is the story. It’s quirky, over the top and aware of the medium in a way which I haven’t seen in a Japanese RPG for some time. Grimoire Weiss is quite the character for a book, constantly wisecracking at the expense of Nier and at the game’s design.
He’ll comment on character designs, the layout of levels and dungeons (because seriously, who would build a place as complex as half these dungeons?) and he even has a fair amount to say about Kaine, the game’s much publicised foul-mouthed, sparsely dressed hermaphrodite character.
I’m not sure if this self-aware and referential script is down to the localization team or the original developers, but it’s an impressive piece of work, managing to turn a game that was mostly mediocre and add something truly special to it. Even if the gameplay largely bores you many players might find that the story continues to drive them through it.
It’s not just for the bizarre stuff, Kaine’s swearing or Weiss’ rants – the story of Nier also goes beyond the story of Nier trying to save his daughter and head into the traditional world-saving territory, and even that narrative is rather compelling.
Something RPG fans always love is a good soundtrack, and if we scored individual bits of a game differently here on RPG Site the score for the soundtrack would undoubtedly be a ten. It’s a greatly varied, unique soundtrack that is diverse and crazy as the game it’s for.
Diverse is a good word to describe Nier in general – or perhaps eclectic. On the surface from the opening sequences or perhaps if you merely watched somebody else play the game might seem mediocre and boring – and it is in places – but the interesting mixture of multiple gameplay styles, bizarre but delightful story and superb soundtrack more than make up for the issues and, yes – pushes Nier to be above average.