Nier is Weird Even by Japan’s Standards

Review

Originally posted at: http://www.criticalgamer.co.uk/2010/07/12/nier-catchup-review/

Nier is a strange, flawed, and fascinating game. It’s an action-RPG that could only come from Japan – with strange characters (a talking book and a girl whose bare ass is almost always in sight), some heavy melodrama, and the kind of slow burn that’s becoming ubiquitous with games from Square Enix.

Though the pacing isn’t nearly as offensive as it was in Final Fantasy XIII, Nier’s plot doesn’t coalesce until about halfway through the game. Until then, it’s riding on the promise of a twist, with a curious intro that places the hero and his sick daughter in a present-day apocalypse. Fast-forward 1300 hundred years later and the hero is seemingly still alive, still trying to save his sick daughter, and carving out a meager existence in a small farm town.

The town is constantly threatened by shades, creatures of darkness that lurk at the boundaries of the village and serve as something for you to beat up. As the game proper begins, you’re tasked with a few simple quests and fights. You’re encouraged to take odd jobs around town, and if you don’t catch on to their triviality, you may find yourself grinding out dozens of fetch-quests MMO-style.

It’s hard not to feel like some lunatic errand boy. As your daughter slowly dies, you’re out hunting sheep, gathering seeds, or fishing. While completing dumb quests can be satisfying for some, you’re best off skipping as much of Nier’s optional content as possible. If not, you may find yourself burning out before the game even gets started.

Following the main plot, Nier takes you through dungeons, open fields, and towns that wouldn’t be out of place in a Zelda game. But it’s more than an action-RPG, going out of its way to bend genres at every turn. As the story and cast of characters get rolling, and that opening twist is left on the table, it’s the wild turns in the moment-to-moment gameplay that keep Nier enjoyable.

When you aren’t running around killing monsters from a third-person perspective, you’re 2D platforming, twin-stick shooting, text-adventuring, and more. Each diversion is a loving nod to the genre it tackles, often including cute references to classic games. While these moments aren’t as good as the games they reference, they’re still elegantly implemented. The control scheme never changes in service of these moments, so they feel like a bit of variety rather than a cheap gimmick.

Nier’s story features what may be gaming’s ultimate rag-tag bunch. The best of them is Grimoire Weiss, a floating, talking book who seems to be channelling a cartoonish Alan Rickman. When a character or situation seems a bit dumb, Weiss is there to make fun of it with his pompous, nasally hilarious accent. Along with him is Kainé, a pissy, trucker-mouthed, lingerie-wearing bit of Japanese fan-service that Weiss is all too happy to call a “hussy” at every turn. Then there’s you, the hero (technically his name is Nier, but you can name him whatever you want) – he’s a big dumb oaf, endearing to the core, and he always has the simplest solution to any situation.

Their journey is filled with drama, heartbreak, weirdness, and heroism. When it’s all said and done, and you get your answers (with a dash of cliché, but satisfying where it counts), the credits will roll, but Nier isn’t quite over. In one of the more brilliant bits of game storytelling, Nier allows players to start a new game from just about where the story really starts to pick up. With the player now aware of how it all ends, the game fills in the blanks, giving some shocking insight into the characters and their motivations.

If it were just a proclivity toward pointless fetch quests keeping Nier down, it’d be an instant classic. The creativity shown in the gameplay and storyline are undeniable, but bad design decisions and a clearly limited budget stifle its greatness. The presentation can be a mess at times, with the voice-acting cutting out in favor of text dialogue at seemingly random intervals. This is especially bad since the characters just stand there when they talk, so there’s nothing to get their emotions across. And it’s even more disappointing when you consider that, aside from a few awkward lines here and there, the voice-acting is fantastic.

Nier’s graphics are a tough call. They’re a bit plain with flat textures covering the land, simplistic enemy designs, and very little in the way of modern effects. Still the look is clean, and the blown-out sunlight gives the world a unique charm that may still leave you immersed. Not to mention the soundtrack which, while repetitive at times, is often beautiful enough to fill in the blanks your eyes are seeing.

Lastly, for all the cool attempts at variety Nier makes, its base combat is extremely shallow. So shallow, in fact, that it gives up on challenging you towards the end. Some of the later boss enemies can be dispatched in a handful of strikes. It feels a bit disingenuous considering the hardcore pedigree Nier consistently references, but it also might be for the better. While Nier plays like Zelda, it’s not nearly as polished. The fact that the block button is nearly useless, or that it’s too easy to miss your enemies could have been disastrously frustrating if the game was too difficult.

For the most part, it seems the developers were aware of the game’s flaws. They didn’t exactly fix them, but they made them as inoffensive as possible. Nier is always enjoyable, even when it isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. Propelled by a unique, absurd, and heartfelt story, great characters, and clever gameplay nods, it’s a game that a lot of people are going to fall in love with.

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