"This is a bad game."Each time I booted Nier, a large booming voice inside of me screamed the following:
"Nier is not a good game!"
For those uninitiated to this game, take up a chair and get comfy.
For those that know Nier backwards and forwards: You're probably going to get a kick out of my feeble attempt to make sense of this game.
I've been dreading to write about Nier almost immediately after booting the game. Without any context or exposition, almost immediately after the logo's of both Square-Enix and developer Cavia expire from the screen, your ears are brought to full attention of a woman screaming the following:
"Weiss, you dumbass! Start making sense, you rotten book, or you're going to be sorry! Maybe I'll rip your pages out, one-by-one! Or maybe I'll put you in the goddamn furnace! How can someone with such a big, smart brain get hypnotized like a little bitch? Huh? Oh, Shadowlord! I love you Shadowlord! Come over here and give Weiss a big sloppy kiss Shadowlord! Now pull your head out of your goddamn ass and START FUCKING HELPING US!"
The black screen evaporates and we are shown a goofy fantasy language, coupled with a typical opening video montage anyone would normally see in the beginning of a JRPG. The tone though, has been completely altered. The opening screaming diatribe still rings in your ears. You try and make sense of the almost non-sequitur nature of what has transpired. Desperately you try and make sense of it. Sadly the more you think about it, the more your face begins to contort in mannerisms and spasms comparable to having nerve damage.
That's pretty much Nier in a nut-shell. It's not good...
...At the same time it's the most creative game to come out of Square in the last decade.
Did that previous statement make you exclaim some form of confused verbal regurgitation?
What if I told you, that after playing, and beating the game twice: That's probably my most expert explanation of what Nier is?.
One step forward, ten steps...No...Ten leaps, not forward, nor backward. Instead off to the side, into some nether-region that any concrete explanation becomes void. Every facet in Nier is subject to this bizarre truth: From it's core mechanics and design, to it's presentation that unravels into whirlwind of for better or worse: "What were they thinking?!". This storm of conflicting concepts creates hands-down: The strangest experience I have played in years.
I hope you get the impression by now why I've been dreading writing this.
Even though Final Fantasy XIII was the fastest selling game in the franchise's history, this has not been a good year for Square at all. Their online venture, Final Fantasy XIV was dead on arrival. According to interviews, there are concerns internally at Square that Final Fantasy has lost it's solid base of sales for future releases. (To be taken with a grain of salt for sure.) Future releases in the series have been delayed. It's western developed releases are not fairing any better: Kane and Lynch 2 was received kinda all over-the-place from everyone, and to top it off: Deus Ex: Human Revolution was delayed this year.
Out-side of their core franchises: New Sqaure IP's have been a joke for the most part. While MindJack is already being forgotten, by everyone, Nier shared a similar fate last year when it was a released very haphazardly.
My knowledge of the title prior to playing was that it, was that it was Square's half-baked attempt to appeal to the high combat hack-and-slash franchises, primarily God of War. This miss-conception was not primarily my own fault, Square's own pre-advertising was a mirage of just straight-up confusion. Early trailer's were laden with blood, and copious amounts of rock-epic music. The whole production looked like an over-the-top attempt to appeal to some demographic out-side of Japan that doesn't exist...Or did ten years ago.
When the game was released, there was an influx of internet discussion regarding the amount of cursing in the game.
Reading certain comments, and my knowledge of what I previously knew immediately turned off any interest I would have had. The cursing deal really slammed the coffin shut. Don't get me wrong, I love a good four letter-salute, but it has to be natural.
I hate cursing for the sake of cursing. I remember trying to find the mute button while playing Killzone 2 a year ago, unnatural cursing is absolutely grating. Nothing is more annoying when another country makes a videogame, and proceeds to inject it copious amounts of four-letter words.
Why another country? Because nine times out of ten, it's never natural. Playing Killzone 2 was a grating experience, listening to a space Marines cough up another forced four-letter exaggeration bomb every five minutes eroded my suspension of disbelief. The intent is on display: That's what those kinds in North America like! That's how Marines talk, all the time, right?!
The initial information about Nier for me, felt and followed this example.
The pre-buzz information about Nier game the general impression of something akin to a "B movie, out of touch" palpable mound of annoyance.
So when Nier promptly came out, received stellar score like this , I passed it up and never looked back.
I remember reading an article on Kotaku about something regarding fishing. Strange. The game left my memory.
My interest faintly returned when a friend of mine sent me a youtube link regarding Nier's soundtrack. I loved it.
When I was putting together my 2010 best soundtrack list, I felt bad once again, I wasn't giving Jesper Kyd a proper shout-out. My rule is that if I haven't played the game yet, the game doesn't get on the list. Assassins Creed 2 and Assassins Creed: Brotherhood were strangely both games I received for Christmas, not enough time to play and write about it.
So when I do those lists, I really want user participation because there are so many game soundtracks and composers that go under the radar. One that kept pooping up on that thread was Nier. I received a few more PM's regarding my lack of putting Nier on that list. Every new iota from the soundtrack was shared made my ears explode in interest.
Perhaps the most important point of chasing down this game was perhaps Bonbolapti. He kept talking about how great the game was, and even nominated it as his GOTY...Or something... :P The choice of something akin to a "personal game of the year" was something I felt an affinity for. I chose Yakuza 3 for such a category, a game that I will probably enter my mind whenever I reflect back on 2010.
I had to hunt-down a copy at an obscure GameStop that I seldom drive-by. They didn't have the game on the shelves, thus resulting in what was probably the strangest beginning of a conversation concerning the whereabouts of a game I've ever had:
"I'm looking for a terrible game called Nier."
How poorly did Nier sell? It came out this year, and I bought it new for $15.
So, what is Nier
Nier is an action adventure game that borrows design elements from a myriad of different genre's, but never seems to capitalizes on any of them.
It incorporates an open-world town and dungeon design comparable to Zelda...Yet, it only has a small percentage of towns and dungeons, and it's open-world flow feels strangely claustrophobic.
It incorporates what...seems...to be something akin to God of War combat mechanics, yet it never capitalizes on anything outside of hitting one button over and over again. Combo meters? What for? The "Y" button does another style of attack...But why do I need to use it, if I can beat everything by hitting "X"?
It incorporates RPG style leveling...Bah, you won't notice it.
Nier is filled to the brim with undercooked mechanics and design choices. None of which are bad, just barely fitting together. It's like the game's mechanics are wrapped in tape, barely holding together, ready to fall apart at the drop of a hat. Everything works, as in it functions, but anything more than that is wishful thinking.
It's essentially an RPG at heart, but outside of the roughly ten hour linear plot, is a cornucopia of fetch-quests. Now in theory, these can be fun if the game-world is lush interesting place...
Nier probably has one of the ugliest game worlds every made.
I am not someone who put's visuals over a functioning game. I loathe internet comments made by the immature, who proclaim that a titles graphics look: "LIKEZ A PS2 GAME!!!" Without any description why a game that runs on Unreal 3, somehow looks as if though it was made on hardware that couldn't technically run the fu%^@#* engine!
...We've all seen comments online akin to that, which is why Nier upsets me again. It's crazy, because if I were to describe what the visuals of Nier, a quick point to the previous generation would probably be the most effective way of describing them.
Let's put it this way: I could not look away as my eye's first noticed the main Library in the middle of the first village, with it's one texture.
Nier tries to....uh...hide, it's low production values by flooding the screen with some HDR lighting...
...Hah, no, I'm joking. It's a bloom effect you haven't seen since the first Fable. Shiny everything!
So to recap: Nier's graphical fidelity show's general inexperience and incompetence. It's core gameplay mechanics, and design, barely hold together.
So why is Nier the most creative game to come out of Square? More importantly, what does Nier show about current Japanese development?
My early negative impressions regarding Nier began to mutate and mature around roughly one-third into the game. Something that rarely happens with me. There was more going on here, that one simply could deduct within the first few minutes.
Let's stop and reiterate that this game was produced by Square: The same guys that made Final Fantasy XIII. The same guys that make some of the most visually stunning games this generation. While developer Cavia might not have a grasp on the technical side of things, I'm guessing Square's money more than makes up for the utter lack of visual polish, with what appears to be sweeping production values everywhere else:
Nier has the best original soundtrack of last year. Period.
Nier has one of the best localizations, and excellent voice acting.
Nier story is experimental, and reminds me of a time when Japan's core console games, all didn't seem to follow the same cookie-cutter plot arch.
If anything, Nier practically bastardizes the core: "Save the child! Save the world" story-thread, in a manner that will freak you out during the end-game.
Were getting ahead of ourselves, let's back-up and talk about the music.
Nier's soundtrack was composed by four people: Keiichi Okabe, Kakeru Ishihama, Keigo Hoashi and Takafumi Nishimura.
Out of these four composers, I know one: Keiichi Okabe, who's past work includes primarily the Tekken series.
This soundtrack sounds nothing like Tekken, and is primarily composed of strong vocals and haunting chants. The vocals used are primarily a fictitious language, similar to "Panzerese" from the Panzer Dragoon series.
Usually I get the impression that I can describe how an album sounds pretty well. In this case, I honestly feel that nothing written here will properly convey how fantastic this album is.
Here's a quick sample.
The brilliance...Yet still very...very strangeness.. Nier's story takes place in your traditional post-apocalyptic future, where humanity is on the brink of extinction from an army or unknown creatures called "Shades". You play as Nier, a middle-aged father roughly in his late 40's, tending to his daughter who has been inflicted by a strange disease.
In a wired twist that has to take some-type of localization award of "general strangeness", in Japan the game's titular lead protagonist is not a middle-aged man. Instead he's been changed into a young man in his early twenty's, trying to protect his sister.
While changing the age...and relations...of the two lead characters for an over-sea's market might sound weird, it's probably the least strangest aspect of Nier.
The game's supporting cast includes Kaine, a scantly clad woman who wears lingerie and hunts shades.
It's hinted throughout the game, so let's get the following out of the way: Kaine is a hermaphrodite. That's probably the least strangest thing about the character, as she's also possessed by a Shade who lives inside her. When you replay the game during it's robust New Game+ mode, you get to hear the Shade talking to her.
Kaine curses quite a bit in the game, and it's great stuff. My early rallying against excessive unnatural swearing in part one, can be tossed out the window. Kaine's script plays with four letter words like an artist.
Trying not to smile with her proclamation, during a very broken boss fight, that enemy was a "shit-hog!" will make you smile. It's a combination of excellent voice acting, and an equally excellent localization. It's never forced or awkward, it's pure unadulterated: Fantastic cursing.
Kaine, like all the voice actors, is uncredited. She is played by Laura Bailey.
You probably know her as Serah from Final Fantasy XIII, or Rise from Persona 4.
I'm not sure why all the main voice-actors seem uncredited. Perhaps they didn't enjoy the project? Perhaps it's some strange logistical thing regarding voice-acting that I'm ignorant about?
Regardless, Laura's performance is fantastic, and the character she plays is probably one of the most mentally fractured heroines ever to grace a medium. She does the job phenomenally though, and the combined efforts with a really great script (fully-loaded with four letter treats) really turns into something really special. Consider myself a fan.
Then there's the second character in the party, Weiss: A floating talking book with a high-class British accent, who spews magic attacks on your enemies.
Weird enough? Don't worry, he's also voiced by another uncredited actor: Liam O'Brien.
You probably best know him this past year in gaming, as War in Darksiders.
While you collect the remainders of your brain from that previous statement, like Laura, Liam seems to be having a load of fun regarding the confines of his character. The best moments of Nier come from the back-and-forth dialog between Nier, Kaine, and Weiss. There develops a real form of commrodery between the characters, something that is pretty difficult to convey in writing.
Then there's the main character Nier.
There is something continually bizarre playing a character, that one has the knowledge that the real version of said character is not the version you are playing as. As stated before, the character of Nier was aged for the North American market, at the same time the main story of Nier is unchanged.
When Nier himself goes off the deep-end, talking about the power of friendship and being the general "good guy" in the villiage, his mannerisms and dialog seem only slightly altered from the original context. What's crazy is that it works . What is originally the same tired-and-true character persona that you've seen in a typical JRPG, becomes something generally new. You empathize more with the main character, and there's a general sadness regarding his situation.
Finishing Nier for the second time, made me stop and think hard about the current state of Japanese game development.
I remember a time when developers and publishers took strange risks like this. Nier is clearly not at all some strange back-handed attempt to break into ground covered by others like I originally believed. Not all of Nier's plot and exposition are golden. There's a throw-away character named Emil who joins the party at a certain point.
Outside of a few hiccups, there is a part of me that want's to nominate, at least the general intent of Nier to something greater than a poor hack-and-slash with a killer soundtrack and a story that's going to be stuck in your head for years.
I get the feeling that a better allocation of production dollars in certain key-area's could have made up for Nier's shortcomings. At the same time, I am understanding of developer Cavia's plight. I feel that my favorite games from Japan last year, Resonance of Fate and even Yakuza 3 were held back in several key-area's due to a lack of stable production values.
There's...A part of me that wants more games like Nier.
Not games that have questionable mechanics, but games that push the envelope in aspects like plot with reckless abandon. I'm not suggesting that Japan at one point, had some golden age of "pushing the envelope regarding plot", but I feel these days that there is a general lack of trying to do something new or crazy like this. A lost mentality, perhaps due to the rising costs of game development. Something I see more in the indie-scene these days.
Sure, it's not commercially viable 100% of the time. Although, I get the feeling we forget that the staples of the industry, were at one time or another commercial risks. To see such genuine creativity, doing things like changing a 3rd-person hack-and-slash into a text adventure when you enter someone's dream, is something that should be applauded versus scorned.