I haven't finished Nier, but I've played enough to know that I still truly don't know what to think about it. It's a game that evokes wildly differing emotions, depending on what you're doing at the time. Sometimes, it's the most generic, run-of-the-mill title you've ever popped into the console of your choice. But with the acceptance of a single mission Nier can flip and turn into the most bafflingly interesting experience, if only in short bursts.
There are a lot of other games where you can noodle about and do mini-quests that have nothing to do with the main story; these menial tasks are usually the thing you do to fill in time between bouts of playing the "real" game. In the earlier stages of Nier, however, I had the realisation the opposite was true. It felt like I was only occasionally dipping into the main game and casually killing a boss when I felt like taking a break from all the questing.
It's not like the quests are anything special, mind. In fact, most of them are downright dull. They're usually very uninspired rinky-dink activities such as fishing or retrieving an item from a location (and there's no fast travel at first). And some of these fetch quests require you put in a lot of work to find the multitude of items required. So why am I so invested in them? Well, like Mr Vinny Caravella, I've got that weird need to do every-fucking-thing.
There are aspects of Nier that I genuinely enjoy, though, and the first I'll mention is going to sound like the faintest praise: it's like a PlayStation 2 game. It looks like one, and it plays like one. It reminds me of early PS2 titles like Summoner or Smuggler's Run (bear with me) that felt a bit sparse, and you could tell people were still getting to grips with the technology, but you could also still see what the developer was trying to do and you went with it. Some of this PS2 feeling is obvious just from looking at it – the graphics aren't sock-knock-offingly good by any stretch – but for me a fair bit of it is just that intangible feeling some games give.
The other reason it reminds me of a PlayStation 2 title is that a lot of the game's trappings flat out remind me of Ico. The languid pacing in places, the rolling green hills peppered with ramshackle architecture from a future past, the black shadowy enemies that attack you en masse... hell, you even have a female companion with elfin features and silver hair. Granted, this one is slightly different (read: totally the opposite) because she constantly curses in a jarring and forced way, but the comparison's there to be made nonetheless.
I also like the music in Nier. It's all pretty much the same theme presented in different ways, and some of the loops aren't as long as others, but I find it really pleasant and perfectly suited to adventuring your way through a fantasy setting. The female vocals are quite nice, too, and I'll probably investigate getting hold of the soundtrack in some format or another at some point in the near (dammit) future.
Okay, so far all of that doesn't make Nier sound as strange as I'd made out. Well, I'm about to change that. I'll begin gently, with more of a "huh" revelation.
Nier occasionally strays into bullet hell territory. Bosses and even lesser enemies can start hurling dozens upon dozens of large crimson spheres that form interesting, almost hypnotic matrices as they fly towards you. And here's where Nier gives you the first inkling that, for better or worse, it doesn't know what to do with itself: sometimes the bullet hell action takes the form of a top-down twin stick shooter. Yup, that's right. And it's useless trying to expand upon that point because I can neither refine it to a simpler explanation nor adequately inform you, dear reader, of the context that it exists in.
Now, I'm really about to enter spoiler territory here, so don your best Peril Sensitive Glasses if you're thinking of playing Nier. Or maybe just close this window/tab. Y'know, if you don't have your Peril Sensitive Glasses handy.
The first moment I really couldn't come to grips with what I was playing comes when you take on a mission that your character's daughter asks you to embark on. A boy she is pen pals with sounds like he needs help, and you've got to travel to his mansion to see if you can offer any assistance. When you enter the mansion, NIER TURNS INTO A RESIDENT EVIL CLONE. I don't mean it feels like a Resident Evil game with a different coat of paint. Nope, I mean you enter a main entrance area with stairs that looks just like the first game in the Resident Evil franchise. And you go into a long dining room with a fireplace at the end and a doorway in the far right corner. And you collect keys with moons and stars on them to open doors with moons and stars on them. And you fight giant spiders in hallways with incredibly familiar wallpaper. And you find a room where a piano is being played. And... well, you get the idea.
For the next half hour or so, I don't doubt my girlfriend (who was playing the wonderful Super Scribblenauts on the couch beside me) couldn't understand the mystified and confused noises I was making while playing through this section. I just couldn't grasp why I had suddenly been thrown into a lampoon of video games, a la Eat Lead, where everything leading up to this had been relatively serious. I mean, Nier has actually has a nice, gentle sense of humour running throughout, but nothing that would foreshadow this sudden and blatant spoof of the survival horror genre.
This Resident Evil "tribute" continues when you go into the complex hidden beneath the mansion where (you guessed it) scientific bio-experiments have been conducted in the past. But wait! Nier's got this mission's second curveball, because you and your companion will now travel through the multitude of steely subterranean rooms in... a long-shot-not-quite-top-down dungeon crawler! Only without all the cool loot!
So through this and other shifts in gameplay style ( text adventure, anyone?) Neir officially has me intrigued, even hooked. But the thing is that although these bits are great, they ultimately only serve to fracture the focus of the game. Basically, Nier feels less than the sum of its parts; that some of those parts can be bloody fascinating only serves to make the emotional schism I feel towards this game even deeper and wider.