Review by VdeBoule

"So much wasted potential."

NIER is very difficult to assign a numeric score to—a 5/10 might lead you to believe it's a mediocre game, but I assure you there's nothing mediocre about it. Everything about it is either great or terrible with very little in between, and I guess that averages out to about a 5/10. It's an ambitious game that had the potential to be a masterpiece yet ended up so far from it that it's absolutely maddening.

The main reason you'll want to play NIER is for its story. I don't think it's the best story ever told in a game as some other people have claimed, or really even in the top 10%, but it's nontraditional, quite dark, and ultimately GOOD. Really the less you know about this game's story going into it, the better, and I do not want to spoil anything, but I will say that very few games have managed to make me feel worse about killing a boss than NIER has, and it achieves this entirely through good characterization and some of the most convincing voice acting I've heard in a game. There are times when the dialogue is clumsy and the generally entertaining party banter feels wooden and forced, but it's generally very well-executed and exceeded my expectations. I was completely prepared to hate Kaine from the moment she showed up (she's extremely abrasive and looks like a ludicrously sexist stereotype pulled straight out of a Soul Calibur game), but she ended up being perhaps the most complex and compelling of the entire main cast, and in the end I felt that all of her questionable traits were completely justified and handled intelligently (as opposed to an "I can't help that I was made to appeal to the male gaze" Mass Effect 2 sort of way).

The other most interesting thing about NIER is its genre experiments—at different points in the game, NIER becomes a sidescrolling platformer, a top-down shooter ala Smash TV, and even a visual novel (well, without the visuals, but that exact sort of gameplay). One dungeon, without altering the core gameplay, takes place entirely in an isometric perspective on pre-rendered backgrounds—a bit reminiscent of both PS1-era RPGs and the Crusader series. I saw some reviewers criticize these genre shifts as gimmicky or disorienting, but I thought they all worked and helped keep things a little bit fresh—my only complaint is that I wish there had been more of them.

One of the few things about NIER I feel is entirely great is its boss design. ALL of the bosses are challenging, fun, and memorable—perhaps not of Zelda caliber, but not far from it. The best of the bunch is the transforming cube golem from the Barren Temple, who has multiple forms and requires almost pinpoint accuracy with your Dark Lance magic (which has a "bullet time" effect, so it's not THAT difficult) to beat. It also helps that NIER's controls are very fluid and responsive—NIER definitely had the potential to be a classic action-adventure title, and it's a shame it doesn't live up to it.

Now for all the bad stuff—NIER is a very small game padded out with a TON of sidequests, and almost all of them are so completely awful that their existence nearly ruins the game altogether. Most are fetch quests of the most uninspired sort, and the ones that aren't are generally even more tedious and annoying. Some of the Cavia sycophants defend these as a deliberately cruel joke on completionist players, but I honestly don't think this is anything more than poor game design—many of the side quests flesh out the story, and you'll need the extra cash for better weapons, so you'd honestly be missing out on a lot by skipping them. Regardless of whether you do them or not, you suffer. The fishing quests are better than most, except that the instructions are incredibly vague and perhaps outright WRONG, with the result that fishing seems far more difficult than it actually is. And ultimately, it's still not as good a fishing minigame as Breath of Fire III's.

NIER is structurally flawed in the exact same way that Silent Hill 4 was, maybe even to a greater extent—you run through all the main dungeons in the first half, and then do them again in the second half though very little has changed. The dungeon design is also really uneven. The Junk Heap is conceptually one of the best dungeons (it's the one that plays like Smash TV), but it's all a bit too samey. This wouldn't have been a huge problem except that you have to run through it twice, AND it's the best place in the game to grind for materials—so by the end I was completely sick of what I initially thought was one of the best parts of the game. The Lost Shrine is the dullest dungeon of them all, and you are required to go through it THREE TIMES in a single playthrough. And if you only play through once, you miss out on a lot of story and get an unsatisfying ending!

I feel that the ending structure is something that could have worked in a better game, but in NIER it just prolongs the tedium—while replaying the second half of the game with additional story for a second ending is somewhat excusable, there was no reason whatsoever to lock the third and fourth endings behind a third playthrough that is otherwise identical to the second. Ultimately, NIER is barely fun enough to be worth finishing once, and absolutely does not deserve a second playthrough, let alone a third—yet a single playthrough is ultimately unsatisfying as it leaves too many questions unanswered. It's a shame, really.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 06/18/12

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

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