Perhaps Nier is the epitome of “greater than the sum of its parts.” Perhaps it strikes a chord with me, simply because I’ve been looking for a role-playing game that feels familiar; that I recognize and enjoy. Perhaps the genre-blending going on in this game is oddly fascinating. Or maybe, just maybe, I should admit that my expectations were way off base, as they were with inFamous. Granted, the latter turned out to be a better overall game with better production values and a higher level of professional polish, but Nier still falls into the “pleasantly surprised” category. That being said, I can’t in good conscience give the game a very high score, primarily because as a critic, I’m simply not allowed to ignore the drawbacks and shortcomings. I am, however, allowed to let my enjoyment of the experience influence the score just a tad; let’s consider it “reviewer tilt.” We all have our own personal preferences and I can see how this title might receive a 6 from somewhere. But for me…well, you’ll see.
We start with what is arguably the biggest crutch for Nier. The graphics are just plain mediocre from front to back; in fact, one might almost confuse it for a late-gen PS2 title rather than a PS3 production released in 2010. The lack of detail unfortunately combines with a flatness, drabness, and an overall unappealing palette of boring colors and hues. On the good side, some of the boss designs are decent and the basic construction of the world is great; the towns are distinct and fun to explore, the world map can be large and inviting, and the atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic world where only nature and a few hardy humans survive is consistent and fitting. I can only imagine what the world might have looked like with the vibrant brushstrokes we’ve seen in games with accomplished visuals. Thankfully, Nier survives on its charm, despite the obvious lack of refined graphics.
In stark contrast, most all aspects of the sound are great. The first example we have is Kaine’s profanity-laced tirade directed towards Weiss; it happens when the game first starts up and one just has to wince. It serves no purpose other than to vainly say, “see, it’s mature! See? See?” But after that, everything gets much, much better. The voice acting is really quite excellent – with an exception or two – as Nier’s deep, somber intonation is perfect for his character, and Weiss has a dry wit that is really refreshing. Yonah, Nier’s daughter, is perfectly voiced; she sounds every bit like a sick, dying girl and there’s nothing forced about her lines. The soundtrack is also very good, especially if you’re a fan of verbal hymn-like pieces when exploring; the music in general fits beautifully. The sound effects can be a bit on the dull side (much like the graphics), but special abilities and magic can resound nicely in your ears. In the end, hearing people talk is usually a pleasure and the tracks are original and prettily arranged.
It’s difficult to describe the gameplay because while the included elements are familiar, you’ve probably never seen them come together in this manner. Firstly, it’s a third-person action game where you simply maneuver about in real-time during battle, dodging, mashing Square to attack, or tossing out a variety of Dark magic attacks. Secondly, this standard view can actually switch to a top-down view (reminiscent of Gauntlet) when in the cramped rooms of a dungeon. Thirdly, when entering certain rooms or buildings in the world, you’ll move to something that is more 2D; remember how Valkyrie Profile 2 was set up? Kinda like that. Then there’s the traditional party and gaining experience for levels, and the mostly 3D adventuring that makes it feel a lot like Zelda. Now, you would think that a game like this would be a bizarre hodgepodge of the aforementioned elements but to their credit, Cavia blends them together very well and you sort of only notice them in passing.
The story centers on Nier, a dedicated father who is on a quest to cure his daughter, Yonah, of the Black Scrawl. It’s one of those nasty, incurable diseases that is somehow connected to the evil sweeping the land, an evil that is also responsible for the Shade invasion. Shades appear to be shadowy, wispy forms that seem to barely hold their structure, but can be quite vicious and aggressive. They come in various shapes and sizes and although they’re clearly a huge threat, Nier is more intent on saving Yonah at the start of the story. He also meets up with an eclectic cast of characters, including the bold and brash Kaine and the talking book known as Grimoire Weiss. He has it within him to heal Yonah but he has forgotten much of what made him the savior of the world at one point, so he must tag along while Nier helps to unlock the lost scripts. Weiss is a genuinely humorous companion and as noted above, the banter with Nier is actually a nice little highlight. The story is decent – not great – but it’s more about the gameplay, anyway.
Now, the control is definitely a little iffy. Nier’s movements are extra fast and a little uncoordinated, and this herky-jerky movement is on full display when you partake of the small amount of platforming in the game. For instance, the double-jump is all kinds of screwy and unreliable and for some reason; Nier climbs ladders like he’s half-dead. But here’s the really weird part: it doesn’t seem to hinder the combat too much. During battle, you can control the camera (and set the speed of said camera, if you wish), block, roll-dodge (ala God of War), hack away with your weapon, and cast two pre-set spells with the R1 and L1 buttons respectively. And despite those control issues, everything seems to gel when fighting. You never feel unfairly compromised by any control imbalance or unresponsiveness, the camera usually keeps up, and I suppose my only complaint is that the perspective is a bit too close. It should’ve been set further back for a better overview of the field.
But besides that, the fighting is really fun. The rest of the game is set up exactly like an old-school albeit open-ended RPG. The towns are large and nicely portrayed, the landscape is a bit bland but still sweeping and atmospheric, and it won’t take long before you’re given the freedom to go just about wherever you wish. Heck, it even has a dose of the MMORPG, in that you can wander far and wide early, meeting up with foes that you have no chance of vanquishing at the time. Then there are the missions. You can accept missions from people in the towns and for micromanagement buffs who tend to enjoy such things – even if they’re menial fetch-and-deliver tasks – this can get crazy addictive. The only problem is that too many of these missions really are silly and they only involve retrieving items and ingredients; you only rarely have a specific combat mark to take down. They also have nothing to do with the story, but on the plus side, you don’t need to do them. If you want to ignore the missions and simply push through with the main story, go for it. The game isn’t hard enough to halt you in your tracks.
Besides, sticking to missions for too long really causes you to lose track of the story and slows the pacing down to a crawl. If you’re an old-school RPG fan, though, you might not mind it… As a unique twist to the game, in addition to purchasing and upgrading items and weapons, there’s a very cool “Word Edit” upgrade function. Some enemies drop words or pieces of words that can be attached to your weapon, magic, or martial arts. For instance, a mini-word like “Bes” might add +2% to physical strength, or “Ashura” might add +4% to Item Drop. The best part is that you can equip any owned word on anything you’ve got; in other words, “Bes” could be equipped on everything from your weapon to your spells, and it will have different effects depending on the attachment. Casting magic in battle is as simple as pressing the R1 or L1 button (you can assign spells to each) and typically, holding the button down will allow it to be far more powerful. In fact, if you hold down the button with one of your first spells, it actually slows time down while you aim, and it flies through enemies to hit other enemies lurking behind. Awesome.
The bottom line is that Nier surprised the hell out of me. I always attempt to go into every review with a clean slate, but everything I saw up until playing didn’t instill me with a whole lot of confidence, and I’m really on this kick where I don’t like the new direction of RPGs this generation. But I’ve found something that reminds me of the old days with a definite twist, and despite the seriously lacking graphics and that odd, herky-jerky control, I love playing it. Things like fishing and having your own garden normally doesn’t do it for me, but it all sort of fits with the entire presentation. I really can’t ignore what’s wrong with the game – it’s painfully obvious – but even so, time slips away when I play, and that normally doesn’t happen unless I’m playing a game that is vastly superior in terms of technical elements. I guess that proves just how badly I’ve wanted something like Nier. I can overlook the bad and just have a blast. If they ever do a sequel, Cavia could really do something special.
I’ll leave it at this- if you’re not really into RPGs, you won’t be impressed. However, if you are like me (a role-playing veteran), and you’ve agreed with things I’ve said in the past about the genre this generation, get it. I can almost promise you won’t regret it.
P.S. The reason it gets a 8.5 in the Replay Value is because there are actually four endings, each of which sheds a bit more light on the entire story. It just seems silly that one would have to play through the game four times to see it all.
4/29/2010 Ben Dutka