Review by plasmabeam

"Shades of Ocarina of Time"

One could glance at Nier's gameplay and hastily discard it as a Kingdom Hearts clone or “just another Action RPG,” but it's worth a more probing look. In fact, with its rapid pacing, engaging combat, mystifying storyline, and unique New Game + offering, Nier might warrant as many as three playthroughs. One of the most compelling games of the generation, Nier distinguishes itself from other RPGs in terms of storyline and combat while bearing an ominous atmosphere that echoes ruined Hyrule from Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

- Story and Characters -

Set in the future, Nier chronicles one father's struggle in a desolate world near the end of time. However, rather than incorporating blaster pistols and jetpacks into this apocalyptic setting, Square Enix opted for a medieval swords-and-armor feel. Futuristic concepts such as robots and research facilities exist within Nier's universe, but only as remnants from the past world. Square Enix's envisioning of the future is an intriguing one, and it lends to a brilliant atmosphere and a fresh story.

The main storyline follows the journey of a middle-aged man named The Father (you can name him whatever you want) as he seeks a cure for his daughter's mysterious illness. While this may not sound original, it's remarkably fresh within the realm of Japanese RPGs. Whereas gamers are usually treated to an epic world-saving quest involving a ragtag bunch of teens, Nier offers a more personal conflict. In a sense you are saving the world—everything dear to The Father—but the story eschews the cliche of kids with swords rescuing humanity.

The Father is particularly endearing and refreshing for a main character. Grey-haired and wise, yet brutal and uncompromising, The Father offers a welcome break from angst-ridden mercenaries and homegrown optimists. Team him up with a foul-mouthed, vindictive young woman, a reluctant mutant boy, and a wise-cracking book voiced to perfection by Liam O'Brien, and you've got a quirky, hilarious main cast.

- Graphics, Sound, and Presentation -

While Square Enix provides a solid bunch of characters and an engrossing plot, the atmosphere of the story truly shines. Despite having pedestrian graphics for a PS3 game, Nier presents a world where imagination makes up for middle-of-the-road visuals. Gamers will gawk at some of the locations that the minds at Square Enix have conjured. Take the Aerie, a desolate town situated dramatically along cavern walls, hanging above smoky abyss. Or consider Facade, a true desert city with a sea of buildings, dozens of eccentric residents, and a river of sand flowing throughout. Although Nier doesn't offer a large quantity of locales, the ones you'll visit hold a striking identity that many RPG towns can only lust over.

In my introduction I referenced to Nintendo's masterpiece The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and while Nier may not deliver the same overall quality, it does nail down the atmosphere set forth by the N64 classic. Nier bears the same grim feel that chokes Hyrule after adult Link exits the Temple of Time. Faceless enemies called Shades tyrannize every dark corner of Nier's world. Disease spreads without warning or explanation. Cynicism afflicts village inhabitants, entombing them within their homes. This dark existence occurs to the tune of one of the best videogame soundtracks recorded to date. Imagine a soundtrack where Final Fantasy's epic pieces swirl with Castlevania's eerie tunes, then layer everything off with chilling vocal choruses. Then consider a town like the Aerie, set to a pulsing, gloomy score and ominous chanting. Granted, Nier offers more than tracks of gloom and doom. Upbeat pieces appear throughout, and with an exception of one case (a haunted mansion theme that would better suit a holy chapel) Nier's tracks fit the game exceptionally.

- Gameplay -

Enough with the game's brilliant atmosphere and story. Let's talk combat and gameplay, both of which fail to innovate but manage to impress. Nier's battle system is reminiscent of Kingdom Hearts. The game overflows with real-time, seamless battles, and once you've recruited your two comrades, it's hard not to reminisce over Sora, Donald, and Goofy. That being said, Nier is not as button-mashy as Kingdom Hearts. To truly mark your path with carnage, you must utilize three type of weapons, a slick magic system, and various nuances such as guard breaks, charge attacks, and defensive maneuvers.

Nier boasts a comprehensive magic system with eight different spells, all of which can be charged and customized. Some even serve multiple purposes. For instance, the spell Dark Blast fires red bullets that can riddle enemies or destroy enemy projectiles. Dark Blast is also the most flexible magic, as it can be charged to fire homing energy balls or rapid fired to deliver deadlier bullets. The other seven spells are all unique, yet not as versatile. One allows you to fire devastating lances, while others allow you to summon doppelgangers or encircle The Father with lethal spikes. Although the magic system offers stylish possibilities, the spells—save for Dark Blast—are admittedly optional. You can finish the entire game without even sampling the majority of them, and they serve no purpose in solving Nier's token puzzles (crate pushing, collecting keys, etc.).

To assert that Nier offers Zelda-style dungeons would be absurd. There are about three or four locations that act as proving grounds, but the game's biggest brain-buster is a block puzzle. That's not necessarily a bad thing, however, considering that Nier has smooth, vicious pacing. The Father rushes from his home village to abandoned towers and sealed temples in search of everything from medicine ingredients to new spells. The spoils may not sound exhilarating, but throw in an endless onslaught of enemies, customizable weapons, loot sprinkled throughout the land, and a compelling main storyline, and you'll find yourself unable to shake Nier.

All that being said, Nier is not perfect; in fact, lazy creativity is evident every time you accept a sidequest. Rather than ushering you into coliseums or worthwhile combat sessions, Nier's quests require you to scavenge silly materials to satisfy villagers. Almost every sidequest in the game is a fetch quest, and it's typically better to ignore them unless you really need to make a virtual buck.

Thankfully, the game's inane quests are optional. However, one area of the main storyline called the Forest of Myth is not. In a lethargic attempt to keep the gameplay from going stale, Square Enix created a task in which The Father must help villagers who have plunged into infinite sleep. It sounds intriguing enough, but the execution is an embarrassment: the player is forced to read lengthy text stories, then answer questions, solve riddles, and even—brace yourself—direct characters, by text, through an unseen labyrinth. So after blitzing though hoards of enemies and glimpsing stunning locations, you're stuck with a black screen, white text, and the compulsion to tap X until it's all over.

- Conclusion -

In spite of Nier's filler sections, the game holds up as a phenomenal adventure with atmospheric locations and charming, often hilarious characters. It's beatable in roughly twenty hours, and the impressive storyline makes up for the silly text adventure segments. And once you've finished the journey, you can devote time to multiple endings, downloadable content, and of course trophies. If you enjoy Zelda games, Kingdom Hearts, or Action RPGs in general, do yourself a favor and drop ten or twenty bucks on this unfinished masterpiece.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/05/11, Updated 08/09/11

Game Release: NIER (US, 04/27/10)

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