Review by mrklarryd
One Game Going it Alone Against Impossible Odds
One Game Going it Alone Against Impossible Odds
Nier is a game created by now-defunct developer Cavia and published by Square Enix that is best-described as an action/adventure/platformer/bullet-hell/fishing/farming/text-adventure/RPG hybrid set in a medieval post-apocalyptic future. Confused? Don't be. Nier's also one of the most original titles I've ever played and well worth the money I spent on it.
Nier's story involves a hideous village odd-man doing whatever anyone pays him to do while searching for a way to cure his terminally-ill daughter's disease. He is accompanied (at various times) by a floating, talking book, a swords-woman in a neglige, an adolescent boy who turns everything he looks at to stone and a floating skeletal mage.
Old Man Nier
"I'm just a big guy who kills things"
Insofar as Nier received any mainstream attention, it was for two things, one of which I'll discuss later, the other was in the decision of Cavia/SE to have different protagonists in order to cater (or pander, depending on your perspective) to the differing cultural realities of East and West.
The US release (and the Japanese Xbox release) featured a hulking monstrosity of a man and the Japanese PlayStation 3 release saw a teenage male somewhat reminiscent of an albino Edward Scissorhands. Having played the US release and not the Japanese PS3 release, I can only speak to the Old Man.
Old Man Nier or, 'the father', is a very grim, kindhearted, hulkish merc who hit every branch on the ugly tree climbing in and falling out. A skilled swordsman who, nonetheless, spends most of his days asking the Mayor and villagers for fetch or collection quests, he takes a lot of goat-kicks to the face (which might explain his ugliness). If this sounds humiliating, it's supposed to be--and it's effective and humanizing. 'The Father' is indifferent to humiliation as long as money comes with it. He's not greedy, mind you; he's desperate. The object of his desperation is his young daughter named Yonah, who's afflicted with a painful, terminal disease that causes black writing to crawl over her skin.
Old Man Nier's relationships with Yonah and the party verge into territory not usually explored successfully by video-games: funny and touching. The Father is, at times, savage, simple, incurious and myopic, but his heart is three sizes too large. By the half-way point in the game it is impossible not to like this ugly puppy of a man.
Whether the Hideous Old Man or the Burtonesque Young Buck was the intended lead is unclear (with Cavia and SE giving contradictory interviews on the matter). I can't speak for the young guy, but after finishing the US release, this marketing angle has proven a red herring. Old Man Nier is perfect for this game. Many jRPGs awkwardly mash exotic, fashionable characters into worlds they don't belong to the point where you can spot a future party member the moment you walk into a town. 'The father' is as faded and worn as the world around him. He feels like a product of his world, not something parachuted in from a marketing meeting.
"With a single word, I, Grimoire Weiss, can shatter the very universe itself! Now, PREPARE TO...uh...prepare to...oh dear, it seems that the frantic bludgeoning you gave me earlier has caused my memory to, eh, escape me..."
All that needs to be said of Grimoire Weiss is that he talks like Alan Rickman's Severus Snape, doesn't like either fetch-quests or 'Hussies' who traipse around the countryside in neglige and isn't afraid of saying so.
"It's going to break down the ******* door"
The other bit of pre-release attention this game gathered was in that one of the characters was supposedly a hermaphrodite. This is that character, but her...uh...versatility is both unclear and just a plot device to provide a little bonus back-story to explain why she is the way she is.
And what way is she?
Brave. Funny. Hostile. Determined. Unfriendly. Inscrutable. Garish. Crude. Deadly.
For someone who's had a pretty tough road to travel, what I noticed most about Kaine (other than that she's dressed as a satire of female video-game characters) is her utter lack of self-pity.
"Do nothing and be annihilated"
I don't particularly care for the trend of needing a 12 year-old boy as a required party member in jRPGs, but Emil's the exception. He's has had a pretty rough time of it, like Kaine, but much worse. In fact, during this game's events, Emil is treated with such shocking sadism (bordering on hatred) by the writers that his perseverance through these situations completely redeems him as a character. His relationship to the Old Man eventually takes on a powerful father-son dynamic.
Still, Emil occasionally says something cringe-worthy.
Floating Skeletal Mage
Nothing can be said about this character without giving massive spoilers.
"What's my favorite food? Cookies!"
Yonah is more or less another plot device: more relevant as an idea than as a character, but that didn't stop Cavia from realizing her as a person. Loading screens as Yonah diary entries are a particularly nice touch. Later in the story, Yonah delivers one of the most powerful speeches I've ever heard in a video-game and she does it in about ten short sentences.
Nier's introduction takes place in the near-future with a homeless man clubbing specters from his sick daughter in an abandoned supermarket. It then fast-forwards more than a millennium where the same man is collecting herbs and skinning goats in a medieval village to provide for the same sick daughter. Confused again? Put that to the side. Depending on how perceptive the player is, this temporal shift might not make sense until the end of the second play-through.
Nier's proper story starts slowly, with the main character doing silly fetch quests and the like, going to various areas for what seem (at the time) to be fairly spurious reasons. For five hours or so, you might think there isn't really a story here, beyond a guy with a sick daughter collecting stuff and skinning goats. You couldn't be more wrong.
As the 50% mark roles around, you'll realize there's more going on than you thought there was, even if you don't know what that might be. In fact, you won't get any inkling of the overarching purpose of the game's events until about the 95% mark. Some time between the 95% mark and two hours into new game+ mode (which I'll get to in a minute) everything clicks. The banal early hours, stuff I can't mention that seems inexplicable or irrelevant at the time...it all clicks.
Why should a story get high marks if you don't understand any of it until the 95% mark? Well, what I didn't mention is that, from about the 35% mark on, the story is filled with genuinely emotional (and the occasional humorous) moments that stand on their own merits without needing context in terms of the overarching narrative. The story has multiple layers, each of which works well with the others, but also works without them. Also, the ending sequence is as strong as any game in recent memory. Then, unexpectedly, Cavia uses a particular trick of Akira Kurosawa for the second play-through that inverts the entire tone events take on. This subtle shift surrounds the same events with quite a bit of bitter-sweetness. But throughout all of this--all of these layers--Nier never forgets the moving idea of one simple man's single-minded quest to save his daughter.
Overall Narrative score 10/10
There are two ways of looking at visuals: graphics and art design. Nier does fairly well with one and not so well with the other.
Nier's graphics leave a lot to be desired. The character models are mostly okay (though some of the movement animations are bizarre, to say the least), but everything seems to be missing a final coat of textures. Graphics aren't the most important thing in the world, but much of Nier looks like an up-resolution early PS2 game. Dragon Age took some heat for graphics that didn't match the competition and Nier looks an entire console cycle older than that game.
There's not really more to say--technically they function (no clipping or getting stuck in a rock), but Nier's graphics feel like inexpensive afterthoughts.
However, Nier's artwork does tend to be imaginative, if not entirely original. The colorless, washed-out landscapes are (perhaps purposefully) reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus, and certainly compliment the bleakness of a dying world. Mossy, overgrown bridges and buildings dot the landscape as naturally as trees and hills.
Some truly spectacular bosses also recall the Colossi of the aforementioned title, though others are, uh, let's say 'very reminiscent' of Zelda. This doesn't make them any less spectacular (and 'spectacular' is the only appropriate word for some of them), but it does make them less original.
The Shades are compelling--ghostly creatures made of phasing text that, nonetheless, bleed like Hong Kong extras when cut (though there are only about four types that you'll fight repeatedly through the game's 25 or so hours, which gets old).
Weiss's powers are vivid and new: from spectral bullets to magical spears to spontaneous spike pits.
Perhaps the most interesting artwork occurs in boss fights. The Father will conjure one of Grimoire Weiss's powers in overdrive form and, where usually he might, for instance, summon a fist the size of an Escalade, he'll now summon four, which intertwine and coalesce into one more comparable to a Battleship and use that to smack and rip the enemy to shreds. It really is something to watch and an interesting, PG-13 alternative to the Kratos finishers in the God of War series.
Overall Visual score ~7/10
There's very little to say about Nier's music beyond that I consider it the best video-gamee OST I've heard since Xenogears, Crono Cross or Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire. It might very well be better than any of those. There may be a more moving video-game OST in the last decade, but, if there is, I didn't hear it.
The Father, Grimoire Weiss, Yonah and Kaine's respective voice actors and actresses all give standout performances (with Weiss's Alan Rickman impression getting the Gold Star), while Emil's voice actor does about as well as can possibly be expected in that oh-so-unenviable vocal role as 'that stupid 12 year-old that keeps showing up in every jRPG from the last 5 or 6 years'.
The only poor voice actor is that of Grimoire Noire, a minor character who shows up twice and whose delivery seems completely inappropriate the further one gets in the story.
Counterbalancing that, I should also note that not all conversations are voiced. Sometimes the Father will click the talk button next to a villager, who loudly exclaims "Yo" or "S'up" while the on-screen text says something about back-pain. Some conversations will begin with a line or two of spoken text, no spoken text for the next six, then the spoken text will kick back in. It can be kind of jarring and it's definitely a bit dated, though what was voiced was so strong that I personally didn't care.
Overall Sound score 10/10
The first three criteria (Narrative, Visuals, Sound) were very easy to score. The Narrative's strong enough to pit against any of the best contemporary video-game stories and look close, if not equal. Same with the Sound. The Visuals are a firm combination of bad graphics and good art.
Game-play's a bit harder to evaluate for this one. Variety is the name of the game in Nier. There are myriad elements and the quality varies wildly from excellent to serviceable to inspirational near-miss to abomination, but I'll do my best to sort it out, starting with the very bad.
An odd counterpoint to Nier's soundtrack being one of the best in a decade is that Nier's fishing game is, perhaps, the worst mini-game I can recall in anything. It couldn't even have made the cut in Fusion Frenzy. It's only required once in the storyline, but that one time could conceivably convince a player to return the game.
The basic mechanics are as follows: go to an ocean/lake/desert spot. Press a button to choose your lure and cast the line. When a fish (or...uh...old shoe) bites onto the line, the very tip of the rod will dip ever so slightly. When it's dipping, you press down and hold the directional stick the opposite way of whichever way the Old Man is leaning until the fish gets tired and you catch him (there are ways to do this faster, but this should be enough to get the gist). Catch enough fish and you will level up and be able to catch bigger fish. Simple?
The first problem is that these are not the instructions given to the player when he gets the fishing rod. The instructions that are given cannot result in a caught fish.
The second problem is that the tip of the rod is close to invisible against certain backdrops from the 'normal' camera angle, meaning the player will need to set the camera to a bizarre perspective that makes it difficult to see the protagonist's body position, so the player will need to become adept at quickly moving the camera back to a more fish-able position before the fish gets away.
The third problem is that starting the reel-in sequence doesn't always work for reasons unknown. Failure results in a protagonist animation that I (for some reason) find absolutely infuriating; he takes a single step away from the pond, leaning back with his hands up and ducking a bit as if to ward off a flock of incoming pigeons or a prankster who's found his eyeball with a laser pointer.
The fourth problem is the leveling system. More specifically, you're given the fishing rod in a fishing spot you are not skilled enough to fish, but not given any verbal indication of that. There's a map marker telling you a better place to fish, but, otherwise, no other indication that you shouldn't be fishing where you're fishing.
It took me an hour to figure out:
-the instructions were wrong
-how to actually fish
-I was fishing in the wrong place
Once I did sort all of this out, the fishing was easier. Once I got the hang of the camera switching, the fishing was much easier. However, it then became idiotically monotonous. You have to catch hundreds of fish before you see any tangible reward (the last fish type sells for lots of money).
At best, fishing is an unsuccessful afterthought, at worst it's a deliberate, sadistic, hathetic attempt by the developer to mock the player or publisher for wanting a mini-game in their RPG. I strongly suggest consulting an FAQ as soon as the player gets to the fishing mission and would not recommend fishing in Nier beyond the one plot event to anyone who wants to avoid corrective psychiatric surgery.
The other mini-game, farming, is almost as dumb. The Old Man has a garden at his house. He can plant seeds, fertilize them, watch them grow, harvest, even genetically splice a few fruits and vegetables together. How is this accomplished?
Plant seeds. Quit playing the game for 24-72 hours real-time. Continue playing the game again.
Seriously? Who wants to abandon a game they're enjoying and pick it up again within a specific window of time just to grow 12 pumpkins? That might be fine for certain flash farming games, but it's not like you're required to shut off your iPhone or Droid for two days for fear of otherwise 'completing' Al Gore's Internet before your wheat-field germinates.
Now, you can disconnect from the internet from your console and manipulate the system clock, but that's a fairly preposterous way of completing an unimportant mini-game
Riding Boars is a quicker way of going through Nier's environments. Boar riding is initially frustrating due to the boar's inability to turn quickly, but if he's 'dash'ing, he can do a sort of skid turn that's much more manageable. It's okay, but nothing special. My only real complaint is that I would expect a 600 pound boar barreling tusk-first into an unsuspecting midget shade at 60 mph to do quite a bit more damage than it actually does.
I've now come to the first part I just don't know how to score.
On the one hand, most of Nier's 100 or so side-quests are almost exclusively of the 'collect x things you find randomly through your travels and bring to person y' or 'go to place a, press the action button, go to place b, press the action button, go to place c, press the action button and go back to quest-giver'.
The first type of quest, if you're lucky, means you have to go to another city, buy a bunch of things from a shopkeeper and bring them back to the quest-giver. If you're unlucky, it means what you're looking for can only be at severely randomized white dots in one of about a dozen different area maps. What items might show up at which place in which area isn't always intuitive and the things people want are seldom sensible: 'I want to fix this door, bring me 11 chicken eggs, 5 thatches of grass and a salmon' or 'I want to get drunk. My favorite malt liquor is made of 6 rat tails and 6 lizard skins', but I'll get back to all of this in a minute.
The second type of quest is tedious, but not usually frustrating.
Inexplicable as these other quests may be, they do have some upside and do serve a few very important purposes and one very odd purpose, all of which have to do with the narrative.
The first upside is that most pay a good amount of money, which the player can use to buy fairly expensive weapons. The other alternatives in moneymaking are selling random items (won't usually make enough), farming (no thanks) and fishing (no way). Questing is much preferable to any of those.
The second upside is that some of the things the villagers want or say have a tendency to be pretty funny. Occasionally, undertaking one of these quests will lead to excellent, insightful banter among the party.
The third thing Nier does with these quests is flesh out the characters and setting. I know most RPGs use side-quests for that purpose, but Nier does something a little different. It actually successfully grapples with two questions other RPGs have trouble justifying: why is a hero wasting his time collecting tomatoes for some quest-giver? Why is the quest-giver so helpless he can't get them himself?
The answer to the first question is that the Old Man's heart is too big for his own good. At first, he just needs the money, and he'll suffer indignities in silence. Later on, he no longer needs the money, but keeps agreeing to help people anyway. At the very beginning of the game, the Old Man states outright that the world's problems are not his own and that he doesn't care about them, but there are many, many times where a towns-person will ask the protagonist for a favor, the protagonist will clearly not want to do whatever it is the towns-person is asking, but gets guilt-tripped into it anyway because he has trouble saying no to people in need--even when he clearly both wants to decline and knows he has more important things to do. This adds quite a bit of complexity to the lead character.
The answer to the second question is that, for once, it's intentional. The townspeople are meant to be helpless and stupid. They need to be for reasons I can't go into without spoilers. I will say only that their helplessness, stupidity and selfishness, other than a select, countable few, is important. That there are a few who are not (Fyra, Facade's King, Kaine, Emil, Nier, Yonah, Devola, Popola) is also important.
The fourth (and oddest) thing that Nier does with these quests is break the fourth wall. As the player wonders to himself why in God's name someone needs 26 logs to fix a fountain, Grimoire Weiss will ask the same question and subtly suggest the Old Man, and by extension, the player should have something better to do than collect a bunch of logs for some two-dimensional, idiotic villager. He does this frequently and consistently. It's very strange and I have no idea what to make of it.
Overall, the side-quests are not fun, but do serve some very important narrative functions, which cannot be ignored.
Overall Side Content 5/10
This is the second thing I don't know how to score. Combat in Nier fits somewhere between Action RPG and Action game.
There are three weapon types, sword, claymore, and spear. The swords are speedy and easy to aim, but do the least damage of the three types. The claymores have high damage output, break enemy armor and have wide AoE, but are slow, clumsy and leave the player wide open to attack. The spears have similar damage output to the claymores and similar speed to the swords but only attack in a direct line, so it can sometimes be difficult to aim at an enemy until the player has enough practice with the weapons.
In addition to weapons, the player has a number of magical attacks: one turns the game into a 3rd person shooter, one into a bullet-hell shooter, one creates clones, one causes gigantic spike pits to appear out of the ground and impale enemies, one repels threats, one summons a locomotive-like fist to pound opponents into submission. These attacks are pretty fun to use, but as the game goes on, the player is unlikely to use any but the first two, and, perhaps occasionally, the last.
There's also an item upgrade system that involves taking random crap to an upgrade shop and raising weapon levels, but it's not really needed to beat the game, since magic doesn't require upgrading. Depending on which weapons have been bought/found and which junk happens to be laying around in inventory when he or she visit the item upgrade shop, the player could, conceivably become a walking death machine capable of taking any boss out in a few hits at about the 55% mark.
Combat-wise, compared to other Action RPGs such as Jade Empire or the Kingdom Hearts series (the two aRPGs Nier's most similar to), Nier's a definite step up.
However, it might be that Nier's combat is action-y enough to launch clear over Action RPG and land at straight-up Action game. If looked at as an action game, Nier's combat is closest to the God of War series. To be blunt, this similarity does Nier no favors. Nier's combat feels significantly older, more basic, less fluid, less creative and less responsive than the GoW games.
So, if Jade Empire and Kingdom Hearts deserve, for instance, 7s for ARPG combat, Nier should get a 9. However, if God of War 3 deserves a 10 for Action combat, Nier should get a 6.
It's not God of War, and there are some balance issues, but it's quite fun, so I'll give it an 8.
Dungeons and Dungeon Crawling
If you're in a dungeon in Nier, you can be sure of four things
-The art design will be excellent
-The music will be inspired
-There will be a variety of game-play/camera mechanics that aren't seen elsewhere
-There will be an awesome boss at the end
and, more often than not, a fifth
-you've already cleared this exact dungeon before at least once
I've already talked about music and art design, what I haven't talked about it the camera and game-play mechanics. At various times, in various dungeons, Nier emulates everything from Gauntlet to Resident Evil to Asteroids to Contra to Zork. This accomplished via seamless perspective shifts. It's an effective, original trick. Now, Nier's Resident Evil section, for instance, isn't close to being as compelling as Resident Evil (neither are the other sections as compelling as what they're paying homage to), but Nier throws so many various looks at the player that boredom with these mechanics isn't possible since it doesn't stick with any one thing for long enough for it to get tiresome. Plus, at the end of these odd sequences, the player can always look forward to inspired boss sequences, which I've noted before.
The downside to Nier's dungeons is similar to the downside with Nier's graphics: this is a low-budget game. As such, Cavia developed six or seven dungeons, needed twenty to make the game long enough and made the decision to reuse these dungeons until they had the proper number of dungeon crawls. I understand why this was done, but it doesn't change the fact that clearing the Lost Shrine up to four times in a single play-through is lame.
Game-play scores average out to about a 7, but I'll give it a bonus point because it throws so many different looks at the player.
Overall Game-play 8/10
As each tidbit came out about this game, many in the gaming media snickered at Nier. I can understand why.
I do not envy Square Enix the job they had trying to market Nier. How are they supposed to sell a game with dated graphics, featuring a hideous, old simpleton bashing goats with a giant fist, then skinning them while engaging in witticisms with a talking book and a woman in lingerie? That the world is not what it seems? That's true, but it's also been so frequently, falsely overused, that when Square Enix tried that cliche, it was ignored.
I, myself, admitted: I can't tell if it's more reminiscent of an Action RPG or an Action game, so what genre do they pitch it as? How can they be expected to showcase sub-par graphics, when the same company's release from three weeks prior set a new standard for graphics? How are they expected to show off its combat on the heels of the reminiscent God of War 3, which also set a new precedent for this kind of fighting in a game?
Nier is also a game that was panned by critics. This is not an accident. It was inevitable due to timing, intentional design elements and time constraints of professional critics.
Taken individually, Nier's platforming or survival horror sections are not capable of carrying a game by themselves. Neither are the bullet-hell sequences. Or the platforming sections. Looked at dispassionately, without the other game-play elements, only the combat is on par with modern offerings and, even then, it is not on par with industry bests.
Even of Nier's strongest points, the story presents a problem for critics. While the strength of the music is obvious before the menu screen, the story doesn't start clicking until the 95% mark. There isn't even any indication that there might be a worthwhile story beyond 'man's daughter is sick' until the 50% mark, and it isn't complete until the 200% mark--something the game gives no hint could be the case until an hour or so into the second play-through The realities of professional video-game criticism are such that critics do not always have time to play to completion before submitting a review; they would have missed all of this or had large portions of their reviews finalized in ways they were not interested in correcting by the point they may have realized revisions were in order.
Even worse, reviewers are playing Nier as a job, not because it piqued their interest. How would they be expected to react when the game starts mocking them for doing an idiotic side-quest at the exact moment they're jotting down that the game has given them an idiotic side-quest on a notepad? Why should they know to finish it twice before reviewing, when there doesn't even appear to be any overarching purpose or pattern to the game's events until fairly late? What are they going to say about the combat when they've just finished reviewing God of War 3?
Nier was a catastrophe of timing and circumstance, but timing and circumstance do not a good game make.
From the player perspective, however, Nier is a game with a spectacular narrative, historic soundtrack (by video-game standards, anyway) and excellent art design and a game that throws as much game-play variety out there as, well, anything. Nier's best features can stand against any game that can be used as a point of comparison and the combat's more than sufficient. Nier's worst elements (which are really, really bad) tend to be tangential, optional or irrelevant. Simply-the whole exceeds the sum of its parts.
Digital distribution has changed the economics of so-called 'retro' titles. In times past, the combination of low sales, low reviews and good word of mouth would have used copies of Nier popping up on eBay for $60-$100 in 2015.
That's unlikely to happen these days, but that doesn't mean Nier won't still become what it's sure to become: a cult classic.
Overall Game ~9/10
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: NIER (US, 04/27/10)
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