In many ways, Nier is an odd game. This is to be expected, coming from Cavia Inc., developers of games such as Drakengard, but it's an unusual game even for them. It's an experiment in adapting a Japanese game for a more American audience. In Japan, there are actually two versions of Nier: Nier Gestalt and Nier Replicant. Nier Gestalt is the one we got in North America, although it is only available for the Xbox 360 in Japan. Nier Replicant, however, changed the main character for a Japanese audience. While we get a beefy 40-year-old single father, Japan's version gets a waifish teenage boy who's looking out for his sister. Otherwise, the games are identical. This may seem like a marketing gimmick designed to cover up a weakness in the script with a more "appealing" main character, but nothing could be further from the truth. After playing Nier, it's exceedingly difficult to see it as anything but the story of a father trying to protect his daughter. North American gamers shouldn't worry that they're getting an inferior version of the game with a slapdash replacement. While the main character is undeniably fitting for the role, Nier isn't without its flaws.
Nier's plot is oddly structured. It opens up in the near future, where the world covered by a strange endless snow. The only survivors are an old man and his daughter, who are struggling to stay alive in the abandoned ruins of a city. The only other life is a mysterious race of shadow creatures, Shades, who seem hell-bent on killing the only survivors. The old man makes a pact with a mysterious book to gain magic powers to save his daughter.
Then the game skips forward a thousand years.
The remains of the old world are all but lost, and humanity is back in the medieval age. The Shades are still attacking, and life is still tough, especially as a strange illness called the Black Scrawl threatens to wipe out the dwindling human population. Players take control of Nier, an old man who looks identical to the man from a thousand years ago, as he tries to find a way to save his daughter from the Black Scrawl. The only cure lies in the mysterious Grimoire Weiss, a sentient magic book that is said to oppose Grimoire Noir, the cause of the Scrawl. Along the way, he'll encounter a variety of eccentric characters, including the foulmouthed swordsman Kaine and Emir, a boy cursed to petrify anything he sees. Nier and his unlikely allies will try to find the Sealed Verses that will restore Weiss' power and allow the destruction of Noir.
The story plays out in such a way that you can't play Nier just once. After finishing the plot, you unlock the ability to see alternate endings, which reveal new things about the story and characters. These endings are nearly impossible to discuss without spoiling things, but suffice it to say that they involve very different elements of the overall story. Be warned that there are consequences to certain endings, so players should remain very cautious. While Nier's plot is interesting, what makes it really stand out are the cast of characters. Nier has abnormally good localization, and that really pays off to make the player care about the cast. The interplay between the characters is honestly amusing, and the cast is as memorable and likeable as any in recent memory. Nier is a big, dumb lunkhead, but one with a good heart, and it's easy to enjoy playing as him. He's a bit dim but extremely likeable. He's also a rare video game protagonist who is over the age of 40 and a devoted father, but that only makes him more interesting.
The real stars of the show, however, are Grimoire Weiss and Kaine, two of Nier's sidekicks. Weiss' snobby, dry wit is a perfect counterpoint to Nier's good-hearted bullheadedness, and the two of them have some wonderful interplay that turns even the dreariest parts of the game into something enjoyable. In particular, Weiss seems to enjoy calling out the RPG tropes that litter the game, expressing tired disbelief at Nier's insistence on doing side-quests, and cheerfully mocking enemies for having predictable attack patterns or obvious weaknesses. Kaine, on the other hand, is so foulmouthed and crude that it is almost charming. Her profanity-ridden tirades are some of the most unusually funny moments in the game, and she somehow manages to be one of the most sane and likeable characters, despite running around in her underwear for the majority of the game. Nier has tons of humor, subtle and not-so-subtle, and it really turns what would otherwise be a dreary world into one that is fun to explore.
On the surface, Nier looks like a traditional action-RPG. For the first portion of the game, it resembles nothing so much as an extremely bland and average brawler/RPG hybrid. Once you get Grimoire Weiss, things spice up a bit — but only a bit. Admittedly, the basic gameplay in Nier is rather dull. By default, Nier comes equipped with a sword, which you can swing by pressing the attack button. You can hold down the attack button to do a charge attack, but the benefit is usually not worth the time spent. Most combat involves pounding the attack button over and over again until the enemy falls over. You can switch between one-handed swords, two-handed swords and spears, but there's not much of a benefit to choosing anything besides spears, which have obscene attack power and great speed. There are a few other techniques you can use, such as performing a jumping attack or stabbing enemies who've been knocked over, but there isn't a benefit to doing anything other than repeatedly pounding the attack button.
After you get Weiss, you gain the ability to use magic, while is slightly more interesting than your sword. You get a variety of magic spells that allow you to do anything from firing magical spears to creating a doppleganger to attack all enemies within a radius. These spells drain Nier's magic bar, which refills naturally over time. You can refill it faster by spilling enemy blood, which Weiss absorbs as MP. Unfortunately, the magic is so weirdly balanced that there are only a small number of worthwhile spells; the rest are only useful in rare situations. Generally, magic tends to be pretty overpowered, which makes it a nice deviation from the repetitive smashing of the attack button, but even with magic at your disposable, combat is a hopelessly repetitive affair.
One of the more interesting systems in Nier is how you power up your character. There are a huge number of weapons in the game, each of which has its own unique stats. These weapons can be upgraded at a junk merchant, but this is too time-consuming to be worth your while. Instead, a better way to power up your weapons and magic is by using words, which are lost pieces of Grimoire Weiss that can be applied to your weapons, magic, or physical "martial arts" abilities, like dodge and block. There are many, many different words, and each one has unique attributes. Some words can increase the damage you deal with attacks, while others can increase the drop rate of items, cause your attacks to deal status effects, or improve Nier's defensive abilities. You can alter words at will, so it's fairly easy to customize your weapons and magic for certain attributes, but it's a neat idea that doesn't come into play very much. Most of the time, it's most effective to equip a solid boost to stats and an increase to EXP or item drop rate. In fact, that's what the game's auto-equip feature does for you. There are all sorts of neat words, but almost no reason to use them.
Nier's dungeon exploration is pretty much by the book. Nier can double jump, move crates, dodge roll, climb ladders, and most of the basic skills you'd expect a dungeon crawler to have. Most dungeon exploration in Nier involves wandering through a linear dungeon with a gimmick. You may perform unusual tasks, but with the exception of a few dungeons, nothing varies too much from the basic skill set of "move crates" or "climb ladders." This may sound dull, and honestly, it is. However, the dungeons stand out because of their unusual design, as opposed to the actual gameplay. Nier, when it is working, is a master of illusion. It manages to disguise average mechanics in such a way that you don't really notice how bland they are because you're entranced by the ideas behind them. Of course, when it doesn't, the player is stuck with dull and absolutely average gameplay, brightened only by solid dialogue.
Nier never dwells on one kind of gameplay for too long. With each successive dungeon, you'll be doing something different. One dungeon, for example, is a lengthy black-and-white parody of the Resident Evil games, right down to finding improbable keys and a fixed camera angle. Another is a series of control-based puzzles where you are limited to certain rules that you must stick to in order to pass. Yet another is a lengthy, isometric dungeon that reminds gamers of titles like Gauntlet. Perhaps the best "dungeon" is a bizarre sequence where the game becomes a text adventure. Each dungeon tends to try something different, although it should be noted that different isn't the same as good. Some of these dungeons are surprisingly fun, but others are tedious. The aforementioned Resident Evil mansion is rather bland; you walk around a series of rooms and occasionally find a key or beat up a Shade. Nier's worst dungeons are prime examples of great ideas and lackluster execution. It's difficult to not like the great ideas, but a little more polish and thought would have gone a long way. When Nier shines, though, it really shines. There are few games as schizophrenic as this one, and in some cases, it veers between surprising genius and complete mediocrity within minutes.
This problem continues with Nier's rather mindless, and numerous, side-quests. It seems like every person in the world has a problem (or two or three) that requires your help. The majority of these side-quests are pretty boring, and they involve things like grinding certain enemies until they drop rare items, walking slowly from town to town so you don't break a fragile item, or doing someone's shopping. Even the more exciting ones, like defeating a deadly Shade that is terrorizing the village, feel rather pointless. There's little reason to do most of these side-quests, as the rewards aren't usually worth the time or effort. You can spend 20 minutes or more on a side-quest only to get a mere 500 or 1,000 gold in reward — a sum you could earn in a couple of minutes by fishing. Of course, you have to perform a few side-quests to see every ending, and there's no way to know which ones without consulting a guide. The only fun part about doing optional missions is the dialogue that you get for doing so. Since most of the dialogue involves Weiss making fun of Nier for doing pointless and tedious side-quests, it reminds you of how these missions are not fun. When the game characters recognize that the side-quests are bland and a waste of time, something is wrong.
Nier is not a good-looking game, especially for a Square Enix-published title. The character models are extremely dated, and some look almost PS2 quality. The world is poorly textured and filled with the dullest grays and browns. It certainly fits some of the dungeon locations, but it doesn't make them any less unpleasant. It's even worse when the game has something that is clearly expected to be impressive, and it comes off as mediocre instead. Nier performs violent finishing moves on his enemies that are virtually indistinguishable from those seen in Bayonetta, except many, many times uglier. His basic movement animations are quite bad, and Nier's jumping animation is so ridiculous as to be laughable. There's nice variety to the weapons and neat visual flair in some of the dungeons, but that is about the kindest thing to say about the game. On the plus side, there is very nice art design in some locations, even if the visuals can't live up to the idea.
When Nier really shines is its soundtrack and voice acting. The background music is surprisingly atmospheric, lending a creepy, otherworldly feel to many areas, and most of it is bizarrely catchy. Perhaps the only real complaint is that some songs loop far too often, and despite being catchy, they will get tiresome long before you have to stop hearing them. The voice acting, on the other hand, is top-notch. It's hard to say if the real star of the show is Laura Bailey's foulmouthed Kaine or Liam O'Brien's snobby Weiss, but both are a delight. Most of the characters pull off their roles amazingly well, and in many ways, Nier's dub is superior even to higher-quality productions like Final Fantasy XIII or Tales of Vesperia. A big part of this is that the localized script is extremely well done, and all the voice actors sound very natural in their parts.
Nier is a strange game, and it's not one that can be easily recommended. When you take its parts separately, it isn't a very good game. The gameplay mechanics are simplistic and unpolished, the graphics are bland, and the only real standout element is the audio. Yet there is something intriguing about the entire package. The solid cast of characters makes it easier to overlook the bland gameplay, and the game switches gears often enough that you're almost always doing something new, if not always something good. When Nier is good, it's surprisingly innovative and exciting, and there are moments when it far outshines the rest of the game. This doesn't really apply to the game's numerous side-quests, most of which are only worth doing to hear the amusing back-and-forth between the characters. Nier doesn't do enough right for most people to overlook its flaws, even with the amusing cast of characters and amazing soundtrack. If you can overlook these flaws, Nier is a charming game, and despite its numerous missteps, it has an engrossing quality that makes you want to see it through to the end at least once, if not multiple times. Nier is a solid rental, but even with extra replay value and multiple endings, gamers should hold off on buying until the price drops.
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