Review: Nier (Xbox 360)

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Nier will mess with your head, make you laugh, introduce some of the most bizarre characters you will ever see in a game, and share the unflinching love of a father for his dying daughter.

And that’s only during the first time through it before inviting you to to try for the second ending that makes you feel bad about everything that you’ve done.

The developer, Cavia, is no stranger to plotting twisted fables that are parts dark loathing and heroic intention thanks to their work on the Drakengard series on the PS2. If you haven’t experienced their work yet, nothing will quite prepare you for what Nier has to offer when it comes to exploring the pitiless world they’ve put together.

Nier is already unusual in that it exists as two different games in Japan: Replicant and Gestalt. It’s basically the same game, but with the choice of one or the other protagonist in a starring role. Replicant features a younger character in the lead role who fights for his sister exclusively on the PS3. Gestalt showboats a large, burly, Conan-esque warrior who fights to save his daughter and it is that version that made it over here on both platforms.

The first thing that it does to mess with your expectations is in how it starts. Without spoiling it, I’ll say that it lays out the gameplay through a sense of deja vu and uses a series of lessons that go from how to wield a lead pipe to firing off bolts of searing magic against an unending flood of horrors. Making this easy are the seamlessly organized controls which help to simplify the combat turning it into a hack ‘n slash game with optional extras that come in particularly handy against the bosses.

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Nier takes place 1300 years after the collapse of our world, though don’t expect for it to be as large as Crea-Tech’s Metal Saga. It’s not clear what caused the end, only that the few survivors live a semi-idyllic medieval existence while fending off the monstrous creatures that they call Shades. These amorphous, humanoid shadows take many forms: from hulking giants to small, scampering martial artists, but they all share an abiding hate for humanity.

The main protagonist is the barbarian-looking Nier, though you can name him anything you want when the game starts. He’s a likeable kind of guy who just happens to be able to kill Shades as a hobby. It also helps that he’s fond of doing the odd job now and then to buy the medicines needed to keep his daughter, Yonah, from feeling too much pain even though he doesn’t know how long he can keep the Black Scrawl at bay. The disease appears as flowing streams of symbols that cover more and more of the victim’s body in wracking pain until they die and no one knows the cure. But her father is determined to do all that he can to stop it.

He won’t be alone, either, and an odd bunch of these will soon join him as AI controlled companions that he can order around with simple instructions. They’re some of the strangest characters that anyone might ever run across in a game backed by a superb degree of sharp-witted interplay during battle or while exploring. If there’s nothing that this game lacks, it’s in the quality of the localization in making it feel as if it were written exclusively for English audiences as opposed to having come from Japan. It also helps that the voice acting had risen just as high to the occasion.

There’s Grimoire Weiss, a floating, talking, smarter-than-thou, book smugly voiced by the ever versatile, Liam O’Brien. Weiss is the consummate know-it-all who tends to butt covers with Kaine whom he calls a hussy because she likes fighting in her underwear. She’s also possessed in part by a Shade, has a mouth like a pirate, would come across as one of the guys if it weren’t for her obvious assets. It also helps that she’s a dual wielding devil with a penchant for magic. Did I mention that she can turn the air black with profanity? Most everyone in the game can and will whenever they feel like it. Especially Kaine.

Emil is the last to join the party. It’s also not much of a spoiler to let you know that he’s also a floating skeleton with a powerful affinity for magic and whose cheery optimism contrasts against his, ah, ‘condition’. In fact, most everyone in the game apparently has little issue in seeing a floating, talking corpse. A lot must have happened in those 1300 years.

A tight, clean set of controls ties everything else together making combat a snap to jump in and out of. It’s entirely possible to play the game without having to read the manual and simply button mash your way through a majority of the fights until you reach the freakish bosses that Cavia has lined up who do require a little thought on how to survive their brutal attacks. Some of these can even turn the area you’re fighting in into a third-person bullet hell.

Saves are handled via post boxes that also heal, though the game will let you continue from the start of a boss battle or the beginning of an area if you happen to die there. Players worried about the kind of hardcore difficulty that made From Software’s Demon’s Souls infamous won’t have to worry about that here making it a decent jumping off point for newcomers who can stomach a little strangeness.

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Weiss’ magic is eventually strengthened over time with the discovery of “Sealed Verses” which are unlocked as the game progresses. There are a variety of these and thanks to absorbing the blood of enemies in helping to speed along the regeneration of magic power, are often used especially in fighting the bosses and in attacking their weak points when they are discovered. “Words” are also discovered as drops by monsters that can be shuffled as mods onto weapons, spells, and abilities for a variety of effects such as increased damage or bonus experience.

Other RPG elements such as levels earned with experience, collectable weapons, and even a garden that you can grow add bits to the gameplay though not all of them are worthwhile pursuits. The garden is a nice touch, but unless you’re a completionist that absolutely has to do everything, can be completely ignored. I grew a few fruits and vegetables, but there was nothing particularly compelling about learning to have a green thumb in this game.

There’s also an upgrade system in place for improving your weapons as long as you have the ingredients dropped by monsters or in the wild as twinkling spots that return with every visit. This would have been a lot more fun to experiment with, such as what was found with Demon’s Souls, but gathering the goods breaks down into plenty of mind numbing combat or revisits to a certain area until you get them all. Grinding in this game can reach epic levels for certain materials. The good news is that most of that isn’t necessary in finishing the game making it easy to ignore for those that just want to get on with it.

Nier’s world is also pretty small, and none-too-pretty, considering the scope of the story. About a third to half the game is spent in backtracking through areas that you’ve been through before multiple times giving you the impression that everything is in everyone’s backyard. The worst offender is the Lost Shrine whose multiple floors, staircases, and rooms revisited during certain side quests and the main story make it the poster dungeon for poor planning, especially when you consider that the game has multiple endings that require you to go through this torture test several more times.

It’s also not the prettiest post-apocalypse seen onscreen, and that’s not because of any scarring that might have been left behind by the cataclysm that nearly killed everyone 1300 years ago. The lackluster landscapes and visual effects do a decent enough job in creating their environments, though that’s all they really do for the eyes. Character animations also look a little wonky, especially Nier’s flailing jump ability, and having your AI controlled team members teleport in front of you while playing catch-up was just annoying.

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But it’s the music that more than made up for Nier’s lack of good looks with an amazingly strong soundtrack mixing together choral work, festive guitars, organs, percussion work, and an invented language in one package. It’s an exotic mix that reminded me in some ways of the soundtrack for Sega’s Panzer Dragoon Saga, or Panzer Dragoon Orta’s end credits sung over with Panzerese lyrics. At one end, Nier’s ear candy comes off as forlorn and distant as a world slowly dies in one scene. On the other, it can rise up, piece by piece, with every revelation made in a side-story. As a whole, it layers the entire game with a sense of forboding before pushing hope back in with a triumphant crescendo at just the right moments.

Having something this good to listen to takes the edge off of its less remarkable collection of side quests. A majority of these basically boil down to “I need X number of Y ” turning Nier and his party into Fedex ambassadors if not ingredient farmers. There are a few exceptions, but most of the time, NPCs will have you deliver or find something for them by having you run like a madman everywhere else.

It helps that you can pick up multiple quests so as to nail several at once when you happen to be in the right area, but most of the jobs – especially the ones that have you deliver multiple goods – too often feel like a waste of time if it weren’t for the hefty cash rewards that might be waiting. Not every side-quests awards Nier with cash, though, and instead act as small, encapsulated pieces of storytelling that sometimes ask him to make a decision on what to do next. Players hoping for a bit more will occasionally have to live with expecting nothing.

The story itself is also kind of a mess despite how I felt about the characters. For one thing, it doesn’t explain much of what is actually going on except in fragmented pieces that leave it up to the player to decide what to believe. In a way, it can come off as a pretty bold move to make, but given that there is also a sense in how it’s really supposed to tie in together and then left as it is, it also feels incomplete and strangely convoluted despite the clues left behind.

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At the same time, it also defies expectations over its own gameplay by rendering an entire quest as text with the protagonists breaking their own fourth wall within that text by wondering what was going on. Another part actually plays off as a piece of interactive fiction complete with room descriptions and directions on where you should go next. Words are power within the world of Nier and nowhere else did that ever come across as clearly as there. If you don’t like reading a lot of text in your games, these will be the hardest parts to bear, but they’re also playful attempts at giving the player something new to deal with outside the usual block puzzle.

There are also four endings to the game. Finishing it the first time can take anywhere from twenty to twenty five hours depending on how dedicated you are to side questing. After seeing the first ending, the game will prompt you to load up the cleared data and pick up the quest at a certain point to reveal even more of the story in surprising ways.

It’s not as bad as that sounds since everything you earned from the last game will be available to you making it a cakewalk, combat-wise, that should take only a few hours to plow through. On the other hand, it also feels like a weak attempt to draw the story out since what is revealed could have just as easily been fit into the first playthrough.

The other two endings have specific conditions that have to be met in order to get to them and one of them will even wipe out your Nier saves as the requested price for admission giving hardcore players a chance to live even more dangerously. Depending on what you decide in that particular ending, your saves will vaporize ‘though you will keep the achievements for making it that far.

Nier’s isn’t bad. It has some ideas that make it worth getting into, not the least of which are its characters and its simple action that make it a breeze to play. That said, its heavy reliance on fetch quests, material grinding, and in slicing chosen bits from the narrative in order to split the ending four ways for an even greater degree of repetition feel like cheap tricks designed to extend its shelf life.

Along with its outstanding soundtrack, however, it does have a few redeeming qualities that make the experience a compelling action packed adventure for those that stick with it and its bizarre tale of woe, deception, vengeance, and fatherly love. Add to that some daring twists on the usual storytelling technique as well as a few of the sharpest potty mouths in gaming, and spending time in the post-apocalyptic world of Nier might be the most peculiar vacation anyone can have from the mainstream.

Nier
Square-Enix / Cavia
PS3, Xbox 360
Rated M for Mature